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Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Many of us acknowledge the increased investment in special needs, but according to the head teacher of a special school in my constituency—Penmaes school—because of the Tory Government's lack of investment in training special needs teachers and other specialists such as therapists, it is very difficult to secure the skills and deliver on statements.

Jacqui Smith: The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be pleased to learn that there has been an increase of nearly 35 per cent. in the number of speech and language therapists since 1997. Even more significant, the number of training places has increased by the same amount.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): I thank the Minister for finally giving way to me. Is she aware of a report by Committee D of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, on which I serve? The report, which was published this week, deals with special educational needs provision throughout the British Isles, including the Republic of Ireland. May I ask the Minister to study it in detail? It contains excellent recommendations, particularly on special educational needs provision for children with autism. I think that she would find it useful in the context of this debate.

Jacqui Smith: I assure my hon. Friend that I will look in detail at that matter and that we will respond to that report. From my preliminary reading of it, it contains some important points about how the health and education sectors work together to ensure provision for autistic children. I am sure that he will welcome the focus on autism in the national service framework for children as a particular example of how we can achieve more.

I promised to respond to hon. Members about how we are investing in schools themselves, including special schools. We have made it clear that special schools continue to have a vital role in catering for children with the most complex needs and in working more closely with mainstream schools to share their expertise. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who is not in her place at the moment, made an important point in that regard. Some in the debate want to characterise special schools and mainstream schools as being poles apart—as two ends of the spectrum. In fact, they should be two sides of the same coin, working in partnership. Beaumont Hill school and technology college in Darlington provides outreach services to mainstream schools for children with autistic spectrum disorders and severe learning difficulties, and has an advanced skills teacher working with other schools across the authority, making provision for children with behavioural, social and emotional difficulties, supporting children and providing a local alternative for mainstream schools.

Mr. Cameron: The right hon. Lady has repeated what is in the document "Removing Barriers to
 
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Achievement", which says that we only want to see special schools providing education for children with the most severe and complex needs. Is she saying that schools for children with moderate learning difficulties do not have a future?

Jacqui Smith: I was spelling out precisely what that future should be. Schools should work in partnership to ensure that children increasingly benefit from being in mainstream schools. There is an important role for special schools working in partnership, sharing expertise and making a base for good-quality provision. I was explaining not only how that is an aspiration but how, through our investment, we are ensuring that that happens.

We are ensuring, for example, that the benefits and contribution of the specialist school programme are extended to special schools. In December, we announced the setting up of 12 trailblazer special schools with specialist status to act as centres of excellence for just that purpose. We have also announced—this relates to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—that, under our building schools for the future programme to provide 21st century buildings and facilities for all secondary-age pupils, we will provide an additional £66 million this year for special schools alone. That is part of £284 million over the next three years. That is evidence of this Government's commitment—

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Jacqui Smith: No.

That is evidence of this Government's commitment to the continuing role of special schools. The fact is, as we have heard, that when the Opposition were in power, there were 234 closures between 1986 and 1997, an average of 27 a year. Since then, there have been 93 closures, an average of 13 a year. The percentage of children in special schools has increased over that time, which seems to suggest not only that we are supporting both mainstream and special schools, but that we are ensuring that parents are able to choose between them.

Gregory Barker: The Minister has just mentioned the sum of money that is set aside for building new special schools. How much of that money is for building special schools to deal with children with moderate learning difficulties?

Jacqui Smith: That money is set aside not simply for building new schools but to ensure that those schools that are in existence get the sort of resources that they need. That, of course, includes special schools for moderate learning difficulties where that is the priority—[Interruption.] I know that the theme of Conservative Members today is that Whitehall should decide all, but this is a decision for local education authorities, given the decisions that they are making within the building schools for the future programme.

The other theme of this debate and of the approach of the hon. Member for Witney is that we need a review. In recent years, there have been major reports on special educational needs from both the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission, which sought the
 
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views of parents. We have consulted widely on the development of our special educational needs strategy in the context of those reports. We carried out a separate review of the role of special schools, again with input from parents. The special schools working group made the specific recommendation for the audit.

The hon. Gentleman was slightly dismissive of the special schools working group. Perhaps he would have been less dismissive if he had understood that, out of the 15 members on that group, nine were special school representatives and parents. This Government listened to the recommendation that they made. The recommendation was for the audit and we are taking that forward.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the comments by Baroness Warnock in her report are a shock to the system to anyone looking at the matter from outside—I say that as someone who does not have great expertise in special educational needs? It is a shock to the system that someone of that esteem in this area, the author of an original report, has made such a change in her assessment.

Jacqui Smith: Baroness Warnock has made an important contribution to the debate in this area over the years, both in her original report and in the latest one. One of the crucial points that she makes is that, in order for us to meet the individual needs of pupils, in whatever setting they are in, we need to ensure that the resources, the staff and the individual flexible provision are there for them. That is what the Government have been focusing on and will continue to focus on.

The Opposition's call for a new review suggests that they are asking us to ignore all the work that has been done up until this point. What new evidence do they think that that would produce? I know that this is a period of navel gazing for the Conservative party, but surely the time is right to get on with making further improvements in what children and parents need, not to start another review.

What is happening in practice is that local authorities are reorganising their provision to meet changing patterns of need. While some special schools may be closing, others are opening. Specially resourced provision is being developed within and alongside mainstream schools. Through the excellent able autism unit in Kingsley college in my constituency, students get the opportunity both to join national curriculum lessons where that is appropriate and to have the particular resources that they need.

A moratorium on the closure of special schools would prevent local authorities from redeveloping their special educational needs provision to provide such win-win solutions. That is perhaps one of the reasons why local authorities such as Wandsworth, Essex and Dorset are not heeding the call by the hon. Member for Witney for a moratorium. He will need to ensure that his policy proposals are more influential in his own party if he is going to be anything like a convincing leader.

The Government want to move forward, not backwards and we have the right building blocks in place. Our removing barriers to achievement strategy
 
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sets out a long-term programme of action to improve early intervention for children with special educational needs, to build the capacity of our schools and staff who work in them, to meet the wide range of needs in today's classrooms, and to promote much closer working between education, health and social services, so that children and their families get the help that they need in a joined-up way, rather than having to tell their stories to a range of different people.


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