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Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): May I give a warm welcome to the proposals that have been outlined to the House? We need to take action to end the postcode lottery and make sure that there is proper provision across the board.
In terms of awareness, I suggest that when my right hon. Friend makes his forthcoming visit to north Staffordshire with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, he should discuss the statement in further detail with the local voluntary sector in order that it may be properly understood.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement and any measures that can be introduced to help the group of parents and children concerned, who evoke sympathy across the House.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in my experience most parents seem to feel that, in addition to the inherent problems of bringing up children with severe special educational needs, they seem to have to fight battles the whole time to get the help that in theory is available, and certainly should be available, to them? Will he respond a little more fully to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) about the sense that one is having to fight a battle to get a child statement, because behind it lie limited resources, which those who dish out the statements are effectively rationing? Is that a correct perception? Does the right hon. Gentleman propose to change the nature of the process or increase the resources available?
Mr. Clarke: I think that there is a great deal of substance in the right hon. Gentleman's perception. The truth is that, as medicine advances, parents, who are desperately keen to do right by their child, see what is being done elsewherein America or whereverand ask "Can we have that for our child?", and they look to the state to pay for it. There are substantial issues here, as the right hon. Gentleman, with his financial experience, will know. It is not an easy matter to resolve.
Nevertheless, I have two points to make on this matter. First, we must engage parents right at the outset with top-quality professional advice and the best possible experience, working as a team. I emphasise the teamwork aspect. Many of the feelings described by the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) come from people thinking that they have been messed about early on, with people taking Gradgrind decisions purely on grounds of money, without looking at the welfare of their child. That may or may not be true, but it is the perception. In my opinion, it can be dealt with only by honest and open discussion at the outset and good adviceand, to be quite honest, also by enabling people to make genuine assessments of the position of their child and the possibilities for the child in the real world. That is very hard.
The second way of addressing the problem that the right hon. Gentleman raises is early intervention. I come back to it again and again, for the simple reason that the earlier one can obtain clarity about this matter, the better one can resolve the problem. People understandably feel terribly upset about the situation that their child is in, quite apart from the genuine pressures. They feel that it is their obligation to fight for their child, and they do it as best they can. Our
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and the thrust of his proposals, and on his very prompt response to the Audit Commission's findings of roughly two years ago. But I wish to draw attention to the very complex needs of a very small handful of children for whom no proper planning mechanism exists to provide services. In that respect, I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the difficulties of Northern Counties school, an independent special school in my constituency, which has not a single fee-paid child attending, with 80 children drawn from Scotland, Wales and the south of England. They are children with very special and difficult needs, such as cerebral palsy and all its related conditions. Because of the lack of any kind of planning mechanism to guarantee provision of the services for those children, and finance for those services, the school is now faced with closure. In his statement my right hon. Friend mentioned strengthening regional planning mechanisms, but far more needs to be done in that direction.
First, I shall look into the school that my hon. Friend mentioned. Secondly, I agree with him about planning, at both the regional and the national level. The way to tackle the issue, as I said earlier, is through the joint work of the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the voluntary organisations concerned with the particular type of special need, to establish what needs to be done right across the country.
Will the Secretary of State consider training more specialist teachers, in addition to raising the skills of the very committed band in our special schools at present? May we have an assurance that this strategy will be applied to Northern Ireland as soon as possible? Has the right hon. Gentleman given any consideration to further provision for those children with special needs who are no longer in the group requiring compulsory education?
Mr. Clarke: We have thought about the last point. It is a very difficult problem, which is why we refer throughout the document to the need for proper transition planning. The fact is that many people of school age have a reasonable degree of support, which suddenly goes away when they exceed that age. I take that point completely, and we focus on it in the document.
Thirdly, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about training specialists, but I would make one point in qualification. I have seen much evidence that for many special needs a substantial way to attack the problem is to achieve a much wider range of understanding about how to deal with them, both in teachers and non-teaching staff in schools. That is a question not just of the specialist, important though it is; it is a question of getting some level of general understanding of the issue among everyone who works with children with special needs.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but does he agree that it will only have an effect if it not only involves parents but informs them about their children's rights, thereby empowering them? Many teachers throughout the country are coping with children with mild forms of educational disability, with few resources at their disposal. By directing resources to those areas, especially to early intervention, the bigger problems that can develop, which can be more costly and more time-consuming to deal with later on, can be alleviated or completely avoided. Not only should we put resources into the classroom to assist those teachers, but we should address the skills shortage. Many people with language and learning disability skills are much needed in those schools to help the teachers to address those problems at an early stage.
Mr. Clarke: I very much agree with my hon. Friend about three things: first, the parent relationship is crucialit requires more work all the time, which is what we have to establish; secondly, the partnership between the professions is crucialfor example, between speech therapists, teachers and so on; and, thirdly, a general higher level of skills across the whole work force is very important.
By the way, I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) in praising the work done by those who work in this area, but they would be the first to say that the more support they can have, the better they can fulfil their responsibilities.
Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): May I ask the Secretary of State to share with the House the views and experience of his Department about the appropriateness of caring for children with special educational needs in very small schools? I speak particularly of primary and lower schools. Is it his view or experience that there is sometimes a critical mass of numbers of children in a school whereby children with special educational needs receive more appropriate care?