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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There may be another unannounced policyto create a chaotic system for the training and professional development of educational psychologists. In due course, that will result in there not being the requisite skilled professionals to do the job in the first place.
Ministers must tackle these problems. It is their duty to set the national policy framework, but I believe that they are undermining it. I am afraid that they must recognise the problems that LEAs are facing. Spending on special needs is rocketing and the type of spending that councils adopt is difficult to control because some special needs provision comes unexpectedly and cannot be planned for. A family moves to a particular local authority area and overnight there may be a huge increase in expenditure requirements. That is what creates the tension and that is where the hostility and frustration lie. Faced with budget pressure, we all know what LEAs will do: they will build in a culture of saying no, of creating delays and of trying to undermine parents' ability to get statements.
Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab):
Rhondda Cynon Taff LEA gave a presentation to the all-party group on autism. It runs an inclusion policy for children with autism spectrum disorders across the board and there is
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virtually no statement. Statements provide a lever for parents to try to secure provision. What the Government are trying to and will do, I believe, is to create the capacity and invest the resources so that provision is there. The Government are right to do it that way round and to meet the needs of parents in that way, rather than push desperate parents through a statementing process. I admit that it takes time, but it is happening in some parts of the country.
Mr. Davey: I acknowledge that it is happening, as the hon. Lady says, in some parts of the country, but in many other parts of the country it is not. In those circumstances, statementing is the only thing that parents have to look after their children now, here, today when they need special education. What the hon. Lady says is not an excuse for the Government failing to take action to improve the statementing system.
The articulate and determined parents know that the law is there and some of them have the cash to help their children get statements, but what about the parents who do not know about the law and who do not have the cash? What about their children? By putting our heads in the sand about the statementing process now, we are denying the rights to education of a generation of children, which is simply not good enough. Ministers cannot ignore those problems and sit around waiting for the 10-year strategy to workif, indeed, it does work.
So what is the solution? Let me be honest: I have been in this job for just over four weeks, as has the hon. Member for Witney. I have just a few gut instincts about where the solutions lie; I do not have a blueprint. We put forward our policies at the electionsmaller class sizes, more investment in teacher training, promoting special schools as centres of excellence. Those are all in place and I believe that they would all help. Nevertheless, as I read the Government strategy and talk to parents, I become convinced that more is needed. That is why we think that a comprehensive review is required. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not have a soundbite answer about a moratorium, but I shall put forward some of my first thoughts now and I hope that the Minister will respond to them in kind and with kindness as there may be quite a few flawsbut here they are.
First, should not the assessment process for a statement be managed by an independent organisationindependent of local government, independent of national Government and independent of any of the providers? Preferably, it would be managed by a multi-discipline assessment centre with health and education professionals sitting around the table, working together and conducting the necessary tests in one or just a few days. The independence would remove the conflict of interests for the LEA and restore parents' trust. The one-stop centre approach would cut the horrendous delays and facilitate the early intervention that, to be fair, is at the heart of removing barriers to achievement.
Parents will still want to challenge independent assessors through existing mechanisms, but there would surely be far fewer challenges, which would cut down on the bureaucracy of appeals and all the waste of time and money that goes with it. I would genuinely welcome the Minister's response to that idea and in a spirit of open debate I would be pleased to hear the downsides of the proposal.
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My second instinct on getting solutions is that we should look more carefully at the expensive side of special needs provision, as the Government are doing in the audit. We have heard a lot about that today and I welcome it. High costs are one of the key factors driving the hostility in the system, as local bureaucrats are worried that a statement may lead to an expensive provision. Ministers will doubtless say that the audit will look into best practice and seek ways of avoiding duplication and pooling resources. That is all well and good, but we must ensure that decisions reached by the audit can be questioned and not just taken by unaccountable quangos. The SEN partnerships want to ensure that any decisions coming from the audit are accountable.
My idea is that the audit could be broadened. Could it not consider the idea that the costs of the very needy and expensive cases be transferred from the local authority's budget to the Department's budget? That would be a small centralisation, I accept, but an acceptable one because it is potentially liberating for local authorities and would enable them to plan their budgets more effectively. I do not know whether that would work. We would need to ensure that it was not a recipe for the councils passing the buck, which is where my idea for an independent assessment would kick in. National funding would be triggered only by an independent assessment that judged a child's needs as being above a certain threshold. There would be a real prize in that local authorities could focus on the needs of the less severe special needs children, which they should then be able to manage because of their greater certainty about the budget. There would also be much less friction with, and distrust by, the parents. Again, I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
I mentioned a second systemic problem with statementing. To be fair, the 10-year strategy begins to address, but does not solve it. I am talking about the importance of multi-agency working. I accept that it is happening on the ground. In my own constituency, Kingston council set up with other partners a joint system for children with disabilities, but I have to say that it is slow, particularly in getting health providers around the table. One of the reasons for that lies in Whitehall, because Whitehall has not told the local health providers to make the joined-up approach a priority. I am not one for too many targetsI am not keen on the NHS target culturebut it seems that Health Ministers are developing targets for health providers without giving them a target for this particular aspect. I believe that Education Ministers should have a word with Health Ministers to join up the approach in Whitehall.
Ms Angela C. Smith : Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that "Every Child Matters" and the introduction of integrated children services is exactly the signal needed to help providers work in a joined-up way on special needs and all other children's services?
That is what I said, if the hon. Lady was listening, but my point was that the people working at the grass roots to make that happen are being prevented from doing so because the Government in Whitehall are not joining up their actions, targets and policies. That is what local agencies are telling me.
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There are many other issues in the SEN debate that could be mentionedthe need for more specialist teachers, the need for more teachers in mainstream schools to be trained on special needs and so forthbut I need to focus on the core issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, since it is his debate. Above all, I want to concentrate on his call for a moratorium on the closure of special schools. I confess that, initially, I was much attracted to that idea, which has the virtue of simplicity. It also has the good political virtue of promising much but delivering little. I do not know whether those are virtues that the hon. Gentleman prizesperhaps we shall seebut the debate has shown already that this non-policy is unwinding fast.
To start with, we have heard many examples of Tory authorities closing special schools, both now and in the recent past, despite that party's so-called national policy. My list includes some of the schools that have been mentioned, and it turns out that many Conservative councils do not agree with their national spokesman. We have heard about Worcestershire, but what about East Sussex? In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), the Tories are closing St. Anne's school. What about Tory-run Wandsworth, where Chartfield school in Putney and The Vines school in Battersea are being closed? What about Tory-run Hampshire, where the Hawthorns school in Basingstoke is being closed?
Does the hon. Gentleman have an answer to those questions? Before he gets up, I advise him that I will be looking at his answer to see whether he is able to ride those two horses successfully. At one stage in his speech he pointed to Gloucestershire, where the Tory authority has been able to keep schools open, or reopen them. On the other hand, however, he defended Conservative councils and said that the problem was all the fault of national Government. Which is it?
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