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Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). I urge the Government Whips to set up the Select Committees as early as possible. I would certainly be very pleased if the Opposition Whips allowed me to serve on the Select Committee on Education and Skills, and I would have great pleasure in voting for the hon. Gentleman as its Chairman.
I share something with the hon. Gentleman: I was not very knowledgeable about the subject until I became a candidate in the Forest of Dean, where it was a prominent local issue. We had two special schoolsDean Hall and Oakdenethat were closed by the former administration in Gloucestershire. There was a consultation exercise, although it appeared to be consultation in name rather than reality, and during that process I met a huge number of parents who spoke eloquently at public meetings in arguing the case for proper provision for their children. One thing that struck me was being told that there were 16,000 children with some kind of special need in Gloucestershire, 15,000 of whom were already being educated in mainstream schools. That seemed a pretty good record of inclusion, with 1,000 pupils being educated in some kind of special school.
The administration wanted to go further by pretty much getting rid of moderate learning difficulty provision and moving all those children into mainstream education, whether or not that suited them. To an outside observer, that process appeared to be driven by ideology, rather than by looking at the evidence. The head teachers at both the special and mainstream schools opposed the policy, as did the teachers and parents. Even some children spoke up against the policy at those meetings. The former administration in Gloucestershire refused to listen.
The most shameful thing was that the then portfolio holder for education took the decision to close those schools without even having the courtesy to visit them while they were in operation or to meet the teachers and pupils to see them in action. That is a lesson for politicians. If we are taking such decisions, we have an obligation to visit institutions before doing so. The same decision might still have been taken, but at least it would have been done in full possession of the facts.
In the Forest of Dean, the two special schoolsOakdene and Dean Hallwill be closed in September. A new special schoolthe Heart of the Forest community special schoolis under construction and will start operating in September. It is specifically designed to cater for children with severe learning difficulties, profound multiple learning difficulties and complex needs. I am sure that it will provide an excellent education for those children, and it has my full support.
The problem is that there will be a gap in provision for those children who have moderate learning difficulties and who were previously supported at Dean Hall special
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school. They will have no option but to go into the mainstream. Many have tried the mainstream before, and they have been failed. A lot of the children at Dean Hall special schoolthis is one of the key points made by their parentshave tried mainstream education before and it has failed them, and their parents have therefore sought special school provision. I am concerned that, come the autumn, those children will have no other option.
The Minister for Schools said that Conservative Members were fixated on buildings and institutions. I do not think that that is right. I was struck very powerfully by the fact that, although both the schools to which I refer had relatively poor-quality accommodation, the essence of the school was shown by the head teacher's leadership, the quality of the staff and a lot of the voluntary work done by the parents. That is what makes the school. Clearly, it is much better if the quality of buildings and physical equipment is high; but that, in itself, cannot compensate for a lack of high-quality teaching or high-quality leadership by the head teacher.
Another thing that struck me was the fact that because most children with moderate learning difficulties are already in mainstream education, as evidenced by the figures that I gave earlier15,000 out of 16,000 children with special needsthose children with moderate learning difficulties who remain in special schools are likely to be at the more challenging end of the spectrum. They are likely to have needs that are more difficult to meet, and they are therefore unlikely to be successful in mainstream schools.
A further point worth mentioning is that we talk about inclusion, by which we often mean inclusion in mainstream schooling. It is also worth thinking about what happens to children after they finish their education and how well they are included in society. One advantage of special schools is that, because they are much smaller, they can give much more personal attention to children in their last few years at school and to how they get those children into higher education, further education or meaningful employment.
I was struck at Dean Hall by how children in their last couple of years of education received personal attention from the staff, who looked for a proper route out of that school for the children, whether into local further education provision or work with a local company, or by moving to Gloucester to attend GloscatGloucestershire College of Arts and Technologyor another education institute. Secondary schools may be much largerperhaps with 1,000 or 1,500 pupilsand my experience of mainstream schooling suggests that that type of inclusion in society will not be as successful as specialist provision.
I agree. She has proposed a system of special schools that can serve a wider variety of needs than just those of pupils with severe learning difficulties. She wants to include autistic children and to ensure that those schools
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would be small enough to provide a reassuring and personal environment for emotionally vulnerable pupils. I support her in that case, too.
Finally, it is important that we listen to parents. They have to care for their children 24 hours a daythat is especially true for the parents of children with severe learning difficultiesand they know their children best. During the consultation in my area, I realised that those parents have enough on their hands without having to fight a battle to get their child into a special school and then to keep that school open. We should fight that battle for them in the House, and that is why I commend the motion.
Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): The whole House welcomes the opportunity to debate this issue, and it is good that the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has raised it. We all know that he has a deep personal interest in the issue and commitment to it.
On the other hand, it is a pity that the House will divide on the motion. I suppose that as it is an Opposition day motion, there is not much option, but it seems irrational to divide on the point about a moratorium. A blanket decision imposed on local authorities by central Government would go against the spirit of greater local independence and decision making, to which everyone in the House aspires. It is also irrational because we have no reasonable grounds for saying that there should be a moratorium. Some school closures may have to proceed for good reasons. Nor is there any reason for thinking that the Government are intent on closure per se, so that is an unfortunate point on which to divide the House.
The hon. Gentleman seemed puzzled about the number of school closures. The figures for the 10 years before 1997 and the eight years since do not mean much in themselves, and they show no predisposition to closure. I think the figures are 27 a year during the last 10 years of Conservative Government and 13 during eight years of Labour Government. They show no particular trend.
I want to refer to the situation in Coventry, the city I represent. My fellow MP for the city, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) is in the Chamber today. There are local proposals for the wholesale reorganisation of SEN arrangements in the city. When the council introduced the proposals, it pointed out that by law the guidance in the code must not be ignored. It is only guidance, however, and the important thing is how it is interpreted in practice. The guidance refers to "a stronger right" for children with SEN to be educated in mainstream schools. I have difficulty with the use of the word "right" in that statement because it suggests an overriding inclination, irrespective of anything else, to increase inclusion in mainstream schools. As a general point of principle and guidance, I do not argue against that objective but the presumption of a right makes it an obligation for local authorities to achieve it, which could override other considerations. The same pressure, allied to another to which I shall refer later, led the council to propose reorganisation. It stated that the ambition over the next few years was to replace all existing special needs schools
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with brand new purpose-built schools collocated on the sites of neighbourhood schools. That may be a good idea, but the presumption that there is only one way to proceed implies that a blueprint will be imposed locally, irrespective of the existing organisation and provision of services.
The proposals are radical. They are out for consultationalthough as we all know, things are seldom if ever changed as a result. It is proposed that 11 schools will be reduced to seven and that the capacity for children with special needs will be reduced from 850 to 600. Those are radical shifts. When I spoke to the local director of education, he told me not to worry because there was nothing too dramatic about the proposals and that they would be introduced gradually. I replied that a 30 per cent. reduction in capacity and in the number of schools was considerable by any standards. He then said, "But three of those will go into one school". I said, "Have you any idea of the problems that will cause for head teachers, teachers, and specialist staff in the schools?". He said, "Don't worry, we're not going to get rid of any staff", to which I replied that that would make things even more complicated.
My appeal to the director of education is the same as my plea to the Government. Officials and the Government have become obsessed with structural reorganisation as an end in itself. That applies to foundation hospitals and primary care trusts. Every time we reorganise something we think it will be better but we never leave things in place long enough to judge the results before we move on to another reorganisation. I regret to say that that applied as much to the Conservative Government when they were in power, eons ago, as it does now. There is a continuum of obsession among the officials who administer our affairs.
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