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Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that in Coventry we seem to be in a state of perpetual reorganisation and that, given the special cases that he has just mentioned, we should be careful how we go about things?

Mr. Robinson: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who has great experience as he was a distinguished leader of Coventry council for many years before he joined us in this place.

My appeal is not that we start with a new blueprint but that we consider what exists already and build on it, consistent with the principles and good guidance that the Government have given us. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman; the guidance itself is not wrong.

Two things have occurred since we embarked on the reorganisation in Coventry. First, we have heard Baroness Warnock's new views, which cannot be ignored, although she seems to be going from one clear-cut set of principles, which led us too far in one direction, to another position where she almost seems to be saying that what we did then was no good. Clearly, however, much good came from her first report.

Secondly, a national audit is under way of the situation in local government. That will provide a wealth of information about what is good and what is working. We shall then be able to consider how to improve provision in future. We need to take stock. We
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need not a moratorium but a period to reflect on where we have done well—as we have done in many aspects. We need to see what is working and to examine the work of specialist teams and how—short of direct inclusion—the relationship between special needs schools and mainstream schools can be improved. All that work could be brought to bear on the reorganisation on which Coventry seems hell bent.

When I put that point to the director of education in Coventry, he again told me not to worry because the authority had anticipated Baroness Warnock's report and had already adjusted its plans. He said that their proposals were bang in line with the views of Lady Warnock. When I asked him, "What about the National Audit Office?" he said that there was not even an audit for what was happening in Coventry. I assured him that I would not criticise the council but that I wanted to ensure that what was done corresponded to what was needed.

Another thing that drives the obsession for reorganisation is the crock of gold made available by one of the Minister's predecessors, who told us that over the next 10 years there would be a complete rebuild of all secondary schools. Local authorities want to seize that crock of gold and build new schools, so the whole reorganisation process is about building. Building is important but it is not the only thing. We need a clear statement from the Government that refurbishment where necessary and appropriate will also qualify for the money. Like extensions and expansions, refurbishment should be part of the programme.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak, and I urge the Government to be clear in their guidance about the form in which the money will be made available and the purposes for which it is to be used, so that there will not be misconceived presumptions in local government that the money should be spent only on new buildings.

3.9 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am delighted to be able to participate in this important debate on special schools and special educational needs. We have had a high-quality debate. I enjoyed the comments made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), as I always did was when I was previously a Member of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) made an excellent speech. I am pleased to support the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who made a rational and moderate speech. I welcomed his analysis of the situation and his suggestions about how we should approach such an important aspect of education.

I am worried about the Government guidelines on inclusion and their consequences. I was also disappointed by the opening remarks of the Minister for Schools. Much of this Government gives good talk but not an awful lot of action on the ground, when it matters. It was especially telling that the Minister failed to acknowledge the worth of special schools that cater for pupils with moderate learning difficulties or to address their future. The main thing that came out of her speech was the fact that she would not acknowledge that those schools do a wonderful job and are relevant. Conservative Members wish to develop such schools further.
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Education was a major issue during the election. People in my constituency with children with special educational needs, statements or special school places were worried about where this aspect of education is going. Much of the debate on education is about aspects of education other than this one, so I welcome the fact that we are debating such an important subject today.

In my years out of the House, I worked as a lecturer in a further education college. That, together with the fact that I am a governor of both St. Paulinus Church of England primary school in Crayford and Townley grammar school for girls in Bexleyheath, has kept me in touch with statements and special needs in mainstream schools. I have subsequently learned quite a lot about the special schools in my borough: Woodside school, Shenstone school and Marlborough school. All do a fantastic job for their pupils, so the teachers, governors and parents must be congratulated on the hard work that they do. My borough is fortunate to have a wide cross-section of different schools offering different provision.

A fact that has not been emphasised enough today, except by my hon. Friend, is that it is pupils who matter most. We have had a lot of debate about buildings and finance, but we must never lose sight of the fact that we are talking about pupils with special needs who need to be developed so that they can have rich and fulfilling lives. We should put the needs of children first. Children are all different, which is why Conservative Members say that we cannot have one size for everyone because we believe in choice and diversity. Despite the good intentions of educationists, when they produce theories they sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are talking about the needs of children and what their parents want.

There has of course been a move towards inclusion for special needs children, which is right and welcome for children who can benefit from such mainstream education. If we can provide extra resources so that they can have a rich and fulfilling education in a mainstream school, that is really welcome because it is excellent news for both parents and children. However, if inclusion is just a politically motivated approach, it is not right. Including children in the mainstream when that is not in their interest is not good for parents, teachers, schools, other children in the establishments or, ultimately, the children themselves. If they do not get the advantages that they need, such as extra-curricular activities, extra provision or different provision, they will suffer.

Mr. Khan: If the hon. Gentleman's analysis that the Government are forcing children into mainstream schools is correct, how does he explain the fact that the number of children in special schools has remained roughly consistent over the past eight years and the percentage of children in special schools has risen in the past two years?

Mr. Evennett: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point, but I do not think that he is correct. If he looks at the figures, I think that he will find that there are now 6,000 fewer places in special schools. Special schools have been closed while others are threatened with closure.
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Mr. Khan: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evennett: No, we must give other hon. Members the opportunity to speak.

The Government exert pressure to encourage inclusion by trying to get more children into mainstream schools. That is good in some cases, but we must analyse the current situation. We must determine what we think is best, where the resources can be used best and, ultimately, what is best for children. I am worried that children with severe or complex learning difficulties are being gradually moved into mainstream schools that are not appropriate for their needs.

During the election campaign, parents told me that their interests were not being taken into account. They want a voice on what is going on with special educational needs, and they want a say in special schools. They raised with me on several occasions the process of statementing, which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) highlighted earlier in an interesting part of his speech. The statementing process often takes too long. It is often too bureaucratic, and it has not achieved what parents want, which is the best for their children. We thus want the process to be examined.

If inclusion is to be the theme of special needs provision, parents should be much more involved in the process. They deserve choice because they know what is best for their children. They should consult with the experts, rather than just being told what is happening. The Minister for Schools omitted to say that she wanted to involve parents in the process to a greater extent, look after children's interests and ensure that the best outcome is found for all, so I hope that the Under-Secretary will address that point.

I hope that the Government will take on board several of the ideas put forward in the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend. They should take parents' views into account and examine the law that currently restricts choice—I think that it is biased against special schools. The current audit should cover all special schools; not just schools dealing with severe learning difficulties, but those dealing with moderate learning difficulties. There has been some banter about the word "moratorium", but if we are going to conduct a serious study, it would be useful to stop where we are at the moment instead of carrying on and finding that the study's findings come too late. A moratorium would thus be a good thing.

I am worried about this aspect of education, but I am afraid that nothing that the Minister for Schools said gave me any confidence that the Government are considering it constructively and with an open mind. Parents and choice should be the top priority, but I am worried that there is a bias against special schools. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take on board some of the genuine concerns of Conservative Members and act accordingly.

3.19 pm

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