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House of Commons

Thursday 16 June 2005

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Schools Building Programme

1. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What recent representations she has received on the schools building programme. [4740]

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): We receive many representations on the schools building programme. In recent months, for example, my officials have offered discussions to all authorities on their capital strategies. That will continue, as we fulfil our commitment to rebuild or refurbish every secondary school in the next 15 years, and half of all primary schools from 2008–09.

Mr. Amess: I welcome the Government's commitment to improving the quality of secondary school stock through their building schools for the future programme, but I understand that that will not have an impact in Southend before 2011. However, there is at present a limited supply of secondary school places, parents have limited choice and I understand that the allocations will benefit only one particular school. Is there any possibility that the right hon. Lady might consider bringing forward the programme for Southend, given the special circumstances there?

Ruth Kelly: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. It is really good to hear an Opposition Member welcoming the Government's significant capital investment programme. One thing is worth making clear: when the Government came to power in 1997, capital investment in school buildings was £700 million. That might be said to have been a lot of money, but capital investment this year amounted to £5.5 billion. I understand that Southend has already received significant capital investment, and that it is eligible under the targeted capital fund for additional investment to replace a whole school, or to receive two separate tranches of £6 million for two different schools. We will announce the results of the bidding process in the autumn.
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Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Everyone welcomes the massive expenditure and investment in our schools building programme, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the schools that we build in the future can be either awful or wonderfully well designed and sustainable? This morning's Financial Times contained a worrying article in which a member of her Department said that future schools—and even academies—could be built more cheaply and effectively using off-the-shelf designs. For me, off the shelf means that the buildings will be poorly designed and unsustainable.

Ruth Kelly: I can guarantee that school building designs will never be off the shelf, but that does not mean that there will not be a range of designs available to inform architects' design processes, and into which head teachers can have an input. However, it is important that we include an element of innovation in school design as we move forward.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): May I support the plea for additional educational resources for Southend? Around the border between my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), there is a problem arising from the lack of secondary school places. It would be very helpful if some additional resources could be made available so that extra secondary school places could be provided. The intensive house building that has gone on in both constituencies has made the problem worse.

Ruth Kelly: There is a danger that a consensus might develop across the House that capital investment in schools is a good thing. I welcome the support for the Government programme in Southend expressed by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). If they feel that this is a serious matter about which they would like to write to me, I will of course consider that representation.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Most secondary schools in my constituency are now over 50 years old and well past their useful life as quality buildings. Is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State aware that Tameside council, through the building schools for the future programme, is embarking on rebuilding seven high schools as part of the largest school building programme in the borough since the 1950s? Will she do all that she can to ensure that the    long-term investment put in by this Labour Government continues, so that excellent Labour councils such as Tameside can eventually meet their ambition to rebuild and refurbish not just seven high schools but all the secondary schools in their areas?

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Answer!

Ruth Kelly: I will answer, and I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. It is important that we begin in those areas where educational need and social disadvantage are most acute. As we roll forward this programme over the next 15 years, we will be able to rebuild, renew or refurbish to world-class standards every secondary school in the country.
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Special Educational Needs

2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): If she will make a statement on her policy on special needs in education. [4741]

8. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What plans she has to review her policy on special schools. [4749]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): The Government's special educational needs strategy entitled "Removing Barriers to Achievement" was published in February 2004 and sets out a clear vision for improving support and outcomes for children with special educational needs. It also sets out action to ensure that children with special educational needs receive the help that they need from schools and other services as quickly as possible. That strategy was informed by a review of special schools, and we believe that such schools have a crucial role to play in teaching children with severe and complex needs and sharing expertise with mainstream schools.

Miss McIntosh: I thank the Minister for that answer and congratulate her on her new appointment. Will she join me in praising the excellent work of Mowbray special school in Bedale in the Vale of York? Is she aware that there is a severe shortage of places for 16 to 19-year-olds, particularly those suffering from autistic spectrum disorder and severe learning difficulties? What does she propose to do to meet that lack of provision?

Beverley Hughes: I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. I am aware of the developments in Mowbray. They map out what many local authorities are trying to do in reorganising, reconfiguring and improving the quality of provision for young people with special educational needs. She has raised with me a particular shortage; I am sure that the local authority is taking that issue on board. If she writes to me I will look into the matter, but she knows that responsibility for meeting the needs of all children across the board, including those with special educational needs, rests with the local authority. Our strategy sets out how local authorities can best do that.

Mr. Swayne: Has the Minister experienced the frustration of parents who face almost insuperable barriers in securing a statement only to find that it is so unspecific as to be virtually unenforceable, and their frustration that very few schools provide the adequate resources and capabilities required? There has to be a moratorium on the closure of these schools. Does the Minister agree?

Beverley Hughes: On the hon. Gentleman's last point I do not agree. I think a moratorium on closures of special schools at the moment would create complete gridlock in the system. It would create chaos and great uncertainty for parents, and it would create difficulties for local authorities, which are trying to go through a process of reorganising and improving schools. Sometimes that does involve closure, but if the hon. Gentleman looks across the country he will see that where there have been closures, there have almost
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always been mergers, openings of new schools and extensions of existing schools, because local authorities are trying to provide an improved service and better provision.

On the particular point that the hon. Gentleman raises, I think that there are issues with the statementing process. We know that some parents find that bureaucratic and delayed. But the best practice that we are promoting among local authorities, and which some are achieving very well, is to in a sense set aside the statementing process to intervene very early, to identify children's needs early—which is what parents want— and then to give the resources to schools, so that children can be supported adequately. Where that is happening, parents are not seeking statementing; very often they are seeking it as a lever for resources, and if the resources go in early they do not need a statementing process.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): I hear what the Minister says but a situation is developing in north-west Leeds where parents' wishes are being totally ignored. The private company that a past Secretary of State put in to run education is closing the school, threatening governors and taking no notice of parents, and the children do not know where they will be going when they come back in September. We do not have a local authority to deal with education in Leeds, so I wonder whether the Minister would ask her officials to look at this, and would she care to meet a deputation of Members from Leeds to discuss this matter?

Beverley Hughes: Of course I am happy to meet Members of the House at any time to discuss local circumstances. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is talking about special schools here or talking more generally.

Mr. Mudie: Special schools.

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend will know that in any local authority area, whatever the arrangements, there is a robust process, which everyone must abide by, that allows local people and a local committee and, if necessary in relation to special schools, an independent adjudicator, to make decisions if there cannot be resolution at local level. I do feel that this has to be a local decision. I understand that sometimes that is very difficult for parents and that there is disagreement, but there is a robust process to ensure parental involvement and to resolve the issue in a fair way at the end of that process.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): In Crawley, we have a brand-new school for young people and children with special educational needs called Manor Green. It is proving to be one of the most wonderful innovations for parents and children in my area. But West Sussex county council has decided that because the school has moved slightly closer to many parents, they cannot now get travel arrangements for their children. Will my right hon. Friend look at that issue and find a way to compel West Sussex? Parents in my area who are trying to get three or four children to this fantastic new school, where they desperately want them to go, are finding that West Sussex has put enormous difficulties in their path.
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Beverley Hughes: I understand that my hon. Friend wants to support parents in the changes that have taken place in her constituency, but she will understand that it is for local authorities, with parents, to decide such issues. Ministers are often berated for involving themselves too closely and for wanting to take local decisions, yet sometimes when local authorities make decisions that are not fully supported, there are calls for Ministers to intervene. I am certainly happy to discuss the matter with her, but at the end of the day the decision has to be for the locality.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): My constituent, Julie Maynard, is one of many people who feel that the whole system of special needs statementing seems designed almost to hinder parents rather than to help them. Will the review, which the Secretary of State promised during the run-up to the general election, include the statementing process, and can the Minister give Mrs. Maynard and many other constituents of mine a genuine and categorical assurance that if any policy changes are proposed and implemented they will be matched pound for pound by central Government funding?

Beverley Hughes: As I said in my first answer, there was a full review of special school arrangements in the lead-up to the formulation of the strategy that was published in February 2004. The review was undertaken by an independent working group and published its report in March 2003; it is available if the hon. Gentleman wants to read it. There was a full review of the whole process and its recommendations were incorporated in the strategy we produced a year later. The audit that is going on at present comes from that strategy; it is a specific audit of provision nationally and in local authorities for the relatively small number of children who have high and complicated needs relating to specific conditions. The audit was called for because those are the children for whom it is most difficult for local authorities to find adequate placements. As there will be only a small number of such children in an individual local authority, the first stage is to map where the provision is so that local authorities can work together more closely and find suitable places, if necessary outside the local authority area, for the small number of children with high levels of need.

I have already commented on the statementing process, but I take the hon. Gentleman's point about it. Work is going on. I understand that some parents find the process bureaucratic, but the answer is to intervene early so that we do not need a statementing process for so many children, because parents feel that their needs are adequately met at their school.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a tendency for many local education authorities to ignore the expertise of teachers in both special needs and mainstream schools? Does she agree that the same freedom should be given to special needs teachers as is given to mainstream teachers in leading improvements and innovatory practices in the education of special needs children?

Beverley Hughes: I certainly agree, although I am not aware that teachers in special schools universally feel
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that way. What is happening, and I very much welcome it, is that there are links between special needs and mainstream schools. Sometimes, where there are new developments and reorganisations, special schools are being built on the same sites as mainstream schools so that there can be real reciprocity and partnership. When that is not possible, such partnerships take place none the less, drawing down the incredible expertise of dedicated teachers in special schools and infusing it more widely through the mainstream system, so that youngsters with a lower level of special need who are in mainstream schools can be taught more effectively. The expertise of special needs teachers helps teachers in mainstream schools better to meet the needs of their pupils.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): It has been very helpful to listen to the Minister's answers to the concerns expressed on both sides of the House. I am sure that she shares our concern that parents of children with very special needs should have a choice between mainstream and special schools. Will she explain why the audit, to which she has just referred, of special schools—91 of which have closed in the past eight years—will really consider only children with the most severe disabilities and learning difficulties? Given that schools for children with moderate learning difficulties have been threatened with closure, and some have been lost already, should not the audit go wider?

Beverley Hughes: As I set out, there has been a full review of special schools, leading up to the strategy that was published last year. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman must be aware of that. The strategy identified that a further and closer examination needed to be made of the provision for the children with very high level complex needs whom he identifies. Those children present the most challenges to local authorities.

Choice is absolutely paramount. Our changes to the Education Act 1981 made the choice for parents of children with special needs more effective. There has been a great deal of debate and some misunderstanding about the current position in the law and in Government guidance. When any parent of a child with special needs states a preference for a special school, there is no presumption of inclusion in a mainstream school and the local authority has to make the recommendation for the placement on the basis of the usual criteria: the needs of that child, the needs of other children and the issue of resources. The hon. Gentleman will also know that, in addition to that and at every step of the way, there is a robust system of appeal for parents—an appeal if they are refused an assessment, an appeal if they are refused a statement and an appeal if the statement does not include their preferred special school. Choice for parents is paramount, and I think that we have a system that gives parents choice and that supports that choice with a robust appeals system.

Mr. Speaker: May I ask in the nicest possible way for shorter answers?

Mr. Cameron: I hear what the Minister says, but she must accept that parents up and down the country feel that the law is biased. If they do not mention a preference for special schools, they are sometimes not
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even told that they exist. Should not the audit consider such issues? We are grateful for some extra detail but we want to know who is on the audit, who is running it, who will be consulted and what the precise remit is. No details have been given to the House. In the meantime, why will the Minister not take up our clear proposal that there should be, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) said, a moratorium on the closure of special schools until the audit is actually reported and discussed. She says it is gridlocked, but is it not the case—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I should have said that questions should also be brief.

Beverley Hughes: In the interests of brevity rather than avoiding the question, perhaps I can refer the hon. Gentleman to what I have already said to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) about a moratorium. It would create chaos and uncertainty for parents, and would take away from local authorities their responsibility for decision making. It is interesting that other parts of the hon. Gentleman's party are calling for more devolution of decision making but, on this issue, they want to pull back power.

I will be brief, Mr. Speaker, but it is important that the debate does not polarise the issue. It is an important, emotive and complex issue for every parent and child.   Some parents want their children included in mainstream schools, but others want a place in a special school. We need to ensure that the system can deliver as easily and accessibly as possible what individual parents want. I am with the hon. Gentleman on that. With consensus on those points at least, I hope that we can work towards that end. I think that statementing needs some improvement but, generally, that the system is working for most parents.

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