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Mr. Cameron: The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech, and I agree with much of what he has said about statementing. However, he said that it is worth considering taking statementing away from LEAs and that we need to widen the audit of special schools. I think that he accepts that some of the guidance that I have quoted is not right, so would not it be better to have a moratorium until we have sorted the matter out?
Mr. Davey: No, for a whole set of reasons. The hon. Gentleman demonstrated his inconsistency on this point when I challenged him earlier in the debate. I asked whether he agreed with Baroness Warnock that some special schools were failing and needed to be reorganised, and he said that he did. Is he saying that if he were a Minister he would impose a national moratorium from Westminster? That would stop sensible reorganisations that improve education, that have been widely consulted on and which have the support of parents. The hon. Gentleman's contention is absolute nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman poses as a moderniser and reformer. Those Conservative Members on the Back Benches who support him talk about decentralisation and a relaxation of the grip of national Government, but then he shoots off in the other direction and says that he wants Whitehall to interfere. That does not wash, and he has been found out.
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We must remember that the whole point of this debate is to raise standards. Ofsted has found that some special schools are failing. The figures show that special schools are three times more likely to require special measures. That should worry us. There are many brilliant special schools, and I have three in my constituencySt. Phillip's in Chessington, Dysart in Surbiton and Bedelsford in Kingstonbut other colleagues tell me that they have special schools in their constituencies that are not working so well. I think that the moratorium idea would get in the way of sensible local decision making, and that it would therefore be a mistake.
The hon. Gentleman has missed a huge opportunity by going for the soundbite policy. He could have joined me in criticising the Government about things for which they really are responsiblefor example, the "Department for Learning and Skills" itself. I and many others believe that the Department is not fulfilling its role in investigating complaints against LEAs about their conduct of their SEN duties, and that it is not enforcing the law.
Section 497 of the Education Act 1996 provides that people can make formal complaints to the Secretary of State when they believe that an LEA is acting illegally, and that the Secretary of State can intervene in such matters. However, the section of the Department that deals with such complaints is woefully understaffed, judging by the time taken for investigations and by the inability to enforce the law. That is why our amendment calls for a National Audit Office investigation, so that we can ask an independent body to look at what is really going on. Failing that, I hope that the Select Committee will address the matter.
The hon. Gentleman also failed to set out positive policies for special schools in his speech. We Liberal Democrats have shown our commitment to special schools, as our policy is to build them up as resource centres to support local schools in their specialist provision. We think that special schools could be linked to university research departments, so that they could benefit directly fromand be involved withthe latest research in special education. That model has been used in America very successfully.
Perhaps we should excuse the flaws in the policy espoused by the hon. Gentleman, partly because we all know that he is a man in a hurry. More charitably, we could say that he has helped catapult the issue of special needs up the agenda, and I pay tribute to him for that.
When the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), winds up the debate, I hope that she will not be complacent and make yet more attempts to claim that all the problems have been dealt with in the strategy. They have not, and it is time that the Government thought again.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The debate has been most interesting and informative. That is due in part to its subject, and in part to the fact that the general election is now in the past. Education debates are inevitably rather partisan and nasty in the run-up to an election, but today's debate has been good.
I welcome the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) to his post. I thought that his speech was very good, and my only slight resentment is that he gets three times as long as someone who has been chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills for quite some time and who aspires to do that job again. However, I have eight minutes and I will try to use them well.
I begin by confessing my relevant ignorance of this subject. In my time as Chairman, the Select Committee has not looked at special educational needs or special schools. Those matters were on our list but we have not got around to them, as other pressing topics demanded our attention. However, Baroness Warnock's speech and new paper lead me to believe that, if I have anything to do with it, the Select Committee must make this matter a very high priority.
Sometimes I wish that parliamentarians had more confidence in their own institutions. Select Committees provide a very good vehicle for cross-party investigation of matters such as this. The hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) called for independent reviews by the NAO and for Government intervention, and even Baroness Warnock said that there should be an independent element. One gets a little tired of that, as matters such as this are perfect for investigation by the Select Committee, which always provides high-quality reports.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on choosing this topic for today's debate, and I know that he has a great interest in it personally, as do I. However, if I were to be critical I would say that his speech was spoiled by his determination to find a gimmick. In this case, his gimmick was his call for a moratorium. The hon. Gentleman is quite a sensible man, and wants to lead that dreadful bunch over therea possible contradiction in terms.
Imposing a moratorium would stop what we are doing in Kirklees. Some of our special schools were housed in pretty awful buildings, with bad accessibility. I would not want any child to be educated in those circumstances. We are closing some of those schools and providing buildings that offer the same capacity but which are modern and pleasant and with a nice environment for being taught in. I would hate that process to be stopped. Many local authorities around the country are undertaking similar improvements.
Labour authorities have closed quite a few schools, although Conservative ones have closed more. However, authorities of all parties have closed schools for very good reasons. There has been a history of neglect in special school provision, and the ethos was that Victorian buildings were good enough for such schools. The priority was always to provide modern buildings for the other types of school. Although I think that the moratorium proposal is wrong, I applaud the fact that this matter has been drawn to the attention of the House and that it now has a higher profile.
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I have done a little bit of homework on this matter, mainly by reading Warnock, old and new. I also looked at what Ofsted said about special schools, and determined how much attention the Department paid to the matter in its most recent annual report. I remind the House of what Ofsted reported in respect of SEN provision and inclusive schools. It concluded that the proportion of SEN students in mainstream schools has not been affected by the inclusion framework, and that there were real difficulties in integrating pupils with social and behavioural problems. It added that there was a real conflict between meeting individual educational needs and "efficient education" for other children.
The Ofsted report also found that between 2001 and 2003 there had been a 25 per cent. increase in the number of pupils in referral unitsthat is, units to which children can be removed from mainstream classes. It reported a wide variation in the quality of teaching offered to pupils with SEN, and that mainstream and special schools remained far too isolated from one another. That seems to make a pretty good case for the Select Committee considering the issue forensically. The DFES's 2004 departmental report contained a section on SEN, but this year's report includes only two passing referencesso the Department needs our help, and I hope that we will be able to give it.
In the short time available, I want to put such things in context. We are all guiltyare we not?in education, as in any other policy area, of being victims of fashion. We get swayed by a fashion, and when a fashion is really pervasive and even pernicious, we do not even know that we are part of it. I remember naming our first daughter Lucy, without realising that the world and their wife were also choosing the same name at the same time. One year, the name "Lucy" did not figure at all in the "most favourite" list in The Times; the next year, the Perks in "The Archers" called their daughter Lucy. Hon. Members will notice that all my other children have very strange names.
When we are part of a fashion, we are pushed this way and that by it. Every party in the House was swayed by the fashion of inclusion, of which the original Warnock view was part, and it has continued to be a very strong fashion. It is partly based on the truth that many of the people who come to me as their Member of Parliament are terrified that their children will be designated as different in any way. They want their children to go to a regular school, in a regular class, and they do not want any statement or any label to be put on their children.
Another group of people come to see us as Members of Parliament, and they desperately want special attention, desperately want a statement and desperately want their children to go to special school if that is appropriate. That is the truth of the matter, and I do not know which sort of parent will turn up when I hold a constituency surgery; but, normally, one or other of them does.
We have got to get the balance right, and enough evidence can be found in the reports that have already been written to say that there is a real worry about special schools and a real concern about statementing. How many of us do not know that there is a long wait for statements? There is a long wait to see an educational psychologistand people do not even dream of seeing a clinical psychologist. If the problems are really deep,
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people can wait 14 months in Kirklees. I do not know how long the wait is in other areas. So there is a problem, but it is not one that should divide the parties or politicians. We should put our hand very quickly to holding a good Select Committee inquiry, to which all parties can give evidence.
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