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Mr. Clarke: I do not think that I do agree. I have seen some very small schools that have done very well for children with special educational needs, and one cannot generalise about this issue. I certainly accept that some needs might be so difficult for a school to deal with that one has to look at them differently. So I come back to my remarks to the hon. Member for Westmorland and

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Lonsdale in saying that there is a question of local judgment about what is available and how to deal with it, but I would not seek to be prescriptive in any way, by saying that certain types of school cannot handle it or that a certain type of school has to do things in a certain way. Local judgment, based on real professionalism, has to be used.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab): I welcome the statement and my right hon. Friend's determination to root out inconsistency in service provision between different local authorities. Will he confirm that one of the services that he will look at is the provision of safe transportation between home and school for children with special educational needs? I have drawn attention to such shortcomings in my area that may be widespread. Will he also ensure that effective remedial action will be taken where his own Department's guidelines or standards that he lays down are not being met, and that he will have powers to ensure that services improve, so that safe transportation can be provided in the future?

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend has worked very hard on that issue, and I pay respect to him. The fact is that a very high proportion—sometimes as high as two thirds—of a local authority school transport budget goes on transport for children with special educational needs, so very big issues need to be addressed. I agree that we need efficiency in that area. I hope that the draft Bill that we are talking about will enable people to consider more carefully how to get high-quality transport, but I take the point.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Secretary of State mentioned early intervention and involvement with voluntary organisations. Is he aware of West Norfolk Dyspraxia, which is doing an excellent job, especially with early intervention? However, because of recent cuts in Norfolk Children's Fund, it will either have to close completely or greatly reduce the help that it can give to those children. What advice can he give to West Norfolk Dyspraxia and the many other groups that are helping with autistic, dyspraxic and Aspergic children, who will be hit very hard by those cuts?

Mr. Clarke: I am familiar with that organisation; it has written to me directly as another Norfolk Member of Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and I are looking very closely at children's fund issues because we acknowledge that they are of a type that the hon. Gentleman describes, and I hope that we will be able shortly to say things that will be of assistance.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab): May I join in the general welcome for the statement and particularly in the congratulations given to all the teachers and assistants involved in that world? I have the good fortune to have a particularly fine school in my constituency: Northcote—a beacon school for training and teaching children. However, one of the things that has come out in all the exchanges is parents' sense that they are coming up against a brick wall. They feel that they are not told the truth by officials, who are curbed by

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financial constraints that they are not prepared to talk about and they therefore find excuses. Very often, parents arrange private consultations with psychiatrists and psychologists, putting them to a great deal of expense, but that affects only those who can afford to do so. A lot of people simply do not understand, and there is a real need for some sort of independent advice outside the administration of special educational needs, so that parents can feel that they are properly considered and that time is being given. Some parents see their children only getting an hour of speech therapy, when they feel that they need far more than that, as well as better training and so on.

Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right in the concerns that he expresses. He is also right that the people who have the resources to do so will pursue whatever avenue they can to get the advice that sets up what they feel is the right course of action. I also agree that an independent source of advice is needed, although the tribunal system offers that to an extent at the moment. That is perhaps a last resort, but I will consider how we might improve things. I come back to my earlier answers: the relationships with parents must involve candour at the beginning and early intervention as quickly as possible to deal with the issues. That is the best way forward in my view.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State's desire to raise expectations and achievement because, for far too long, we have been faced with the attitude of local education authorities saying "This will do", rather than "How can we do the best for our children?" Does he share my concern that the biggest barrier locally to pupils achieving is the lack of speech therapists and occupational therapists? What is he doing and what conversations is he having with his colleagues in the Department of Health to address that problem?

Mr. Clarke: As I said in my statement, the position across the country both on the professions, such as the therapists whom the hon. Lady describes, and on other things is very variable and patchy. So we are seeking, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, with whom we are talking about the issue, to analyse precisely where the shortages are, what needs to be done and how to develop programmes to move in that direction, and we will continue to do that jointly.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): I, too, warmly welcome today's statement. Does my right hon. Friend accept, however, that when a mother gives birth to a child with a handicap, it is crucial that the first professional person to advise that mother gives the correct advice? At the time of birth, the degree of the handicap is not known. There have been examples throughout the country where professional advice has been given to a mother when the degree of handicap is not known and the mother has been guided to send the child to mainstream education, although at the end of the day a special school is the only answer to meet that child's need.

Mr. Clarke: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the document that we published today

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focuses on the need to raise standards of professionalism at all levels. The quality of the advice that mothers and fathers get in such circumstances is critical. Of course, a lot is unknown at any given point, but what is needed is the best advice on the basis of what is known. We must work to improve the quality of that advice. Again, that is a question of the joined-up approach that I am describing between health and education. We need to ensure also that parents receive consistent advice from different sources that is genuinely high quality throughout. That is exactly what the document is designed to encourage.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I greatly welcome the Secretary of State's good intentions this afternoon, particularly his recognition of the importance of early intervention. Given that recognition, will he take steps to ensure that teacher-training colleges give at least basic minimum training in special needs to every teacher? Often, it is in the early years at primary school that problems are identified, and if a primary school teacher does not have that ability, the problem is left too late, whereas it could be dealt with much earlier. The Secretary of State recognises Baroness Warnock's criticism of the system that she helped to set up many years ago. Will he also undertake to come back and look at this matter in perhaps a year's time, when the system that he talks about today has bedded down, as he wants it to do?

Mr. Clarke: To respond to the hon. Lady's second point first, I will undertake to keep on looking at that matter as necessary, but I do not want to put a time scale on the process. I think that she will acknowledge that establishing the kind of ambitious system that we have outlined will take some time. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) earlier, parental confidence is critical in reviewing the matter to which the hon. Lady referred. We need to be sure that parents feel confident in the system as it is now, before we start to review people's entitlements.

On the hon. Lady's first point, I can confirm, as I said in my statement, that the Teacher Training Agency and teaching providers are considering initial teacher training and continuing professional development to see how we can improve the general quality of the professionalism that teachers have from the outset.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I welcome today's statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the role of special educational needs co-ordinators is vital in delivering special education provision in every school in this country? How will today's statement assist SENCOs in that key role?

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