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Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): Any debate about children with special educational needs is bound to be emotive. We are talking about real children and real families and there are many parents in my constituency whom I admire enormously for their
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dedication to their children and for the support that they give to the school that their child attends—it does not matter whether it is a mainstream school or a special school.

It is important that we continue to provide special school education, but there has been a growing recognition among parents, teachers and society as a whole that mainstream education can deliver the same support as a special school, and that not only do the children with special needs benefit, but the mainstream school and the children who attend it also benefit, and all children learn that we are not all the same and that children with special needs should not be hidden away but are all part of an inclusive community where we can demonstrate that everyone makes a valuable contribution.

As more and more parents have seen the benefits of mainstream education, more and more of them are making that choice, and that is why we have seen falling rolls at special schools. Parents of special needs children are naturally very protective of them, but most of them want their children to be independent, both when they are at school and when they grow up. That is possible only in an inclusive society that recognises difference but values everyone. In my constituency, the local education authority has identified 26 different and diverse groups that have special needs, including learning difficulties, sensory impairments and physical disabilities. The LEA is striving to ensure that special educational needs provisions meet everyone's needs.

I want parents to be able to make informed decisions about their preferences. To make that decision, parents need to be reassured that the same level of specialist support is available in mainstream schools as in special schools. I am sure that the national audit of SEN specialist services, support and provision that is under way will be an enormous help in assessing needs and provision.

It is important that such decisions are made locally. LEAs, in partnerships with parents and schools, are closest to their communities and best placed to meet their educational needs. Although the number of parents opting for special schools in my constituency has declined, mainstream schools are not suitable for some children. That applies even to specialist units within mainstream schools, but with more parents opting for mainstream schooling, we have to consider the viability of smaller special schools with falling rolls.

My constituency falls within the Portsmouth LEA, and there are two particular special schools with falling rolls. One of the schools is in my constituency and the other is in Portsmouth, South. One is housed in a building that has difficulty in meeting the needs of access, mobility and health and safety. The other is on a limited site that is not suitable for expansion. Both schools have their own ethos and culture and both are fiercely proud of ownership. There is a fierce pride among parents, staff and pupils, who are prepared to defend their school to the hilt.

Portsmouth LEA received £5 million targeted capital fund allocation for special needs allocation, and it was decided that the best way to meet the difficulties of the two schools was to close them both and build a new school. Inevitably, when the proposal was first mooted there was fierce resistance. Parents saw only what was
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happening to their school and were worried about how their children would manage. We all know that children with special educational needs need stability. The parents were worried about the effect that the change would have on the education of their children, along with the disruption that would inevitably occur.

Parents want their special needs children to live as independent a life as possible. If the numbers in a school fall too far, there will be fewer teachers, so teachers have to hold responsibility for two or more subjects, as well as a similar number of whole-school aspects such as assessment. That means that they would be spending a great deal of time preparing schemes of work and moderating the work of their colleagues, which could mean little time left for out-of-school activities. Very small schools find it more difficult to offer the depth and breadth of subjects expected by Ofsted, which I think should be an entitlement of all pupils, whether in mainstream or special schools.

As the consultation process moved forward, people began to see the benefits that would accrue from a brand-new purpose-built building housing the full range of facilities best to serve the curriculum and learning needs of children with severe and complex learning difficulties and disabilities while meeting the highest specifications of access and mobility.

The ethos and culture of a school do not come from its buildings, but from the staff and leadership of the school. In Portsmouth, the staff and leadership will come together in the new school. From September 2006, out of the closure of two special schools will come a better facility in a purpose-built building delivering a curriculum and out-of-school activities that are designed to give these special needs pupils the tools and experiences that they will need so that, as adults, when they leave school, they can live as independent a life as possible. Surely, that is what special needs education is all about. I am concerned that, if the Opposition had their way and there were a moratorium on the closure of special schools, those children in my constituency would be denied their brand-new school and all the opportunities that go with it.

3.25 pm

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I do not wish to make them appear vulnerable, but a number of Members, mostly from the Government, have said that this debate should not be conducted in an atmosphere of acrimony and point scoring. I can assure the House that I do not intend to speak in that way today, although I hope to have an opportunity to do so another time. I do not have any party interest in the squabble between the Labour party, which does not stand in Northern Ireland, and the Conservative party, which does stand, even though it is hardly worth while to do so in some constituencies. This is an important issue, as many people with youngsters who have a difficult time in school because of a learning disability would like genuine improvement in the system rather than point scoring by the two parties.

I shall look at a number of issues that need to be addressed. However—and this is the only political point that I shall score today—it was incredible that the Minister should say that there was no policy of closure only to admit that nearly 100 schools had been closed
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during the period in which the Administration has been in charge of education. To me, that seems like a policy of closure. The first thing to do is look at changing the balance. There is an undoubted bias towards mainstreaming, and thus a bias against special schools. Indeed, Baroness Warnock accepted that when she was honest about the disastrous nature of the policy. In a damning indictment, she said that "a disastrous legacy" had created

For a number of years now, many families have come to realise that their youngsters have not received the education that they deserve. There is increasing awareness that social inclusion does not always mean educational inclusion. Sometimes, for youngsters' own protection, it is important to remove them from the rough and tumble of mainstream schools and give them the opportunity to be taught in a different environment. The policy that provides the right to mainstream schooling has sent out the wrong signal. The Minister cited the report by the chief inspector of schools and said that there had been an improvement in standards, but the Ofsted report said that there remains uncertainty about what constitutes adequate progress for pupils with SEN. If Ofsted finds it difficult to know what constitutes progress, it is incredible that the Minister should say that progress has taken place.

The Ofsted report was less than glowing about provision in mainstream schools. It said that a minority of mainstream schools meet special needs requirements very well but that admission to mainstream schools of pupils with social and behavioural difficulties—let us not forget, such difficulties constitute the biggest increase in SEN—has proved to be the hardest test of the inclusion framework. Inspectors have all pointed out that even the most committed headmasters have reservations when asked to admit pupils with high levels of need, especially when those children have previously attended mainstream schools without success. The chief inspector's report suggested that mainstreaming is not always the most preferable route.

A variety of provision is needed. The Minister announced this week an extra £3.5 million for special needs provision in education in Northern Ireland. That is very welcome, given the pressure that there was. I have spoken to a number of teachers in special needs schools in Northern Ireland. They feel devalued by the emphasis on mainstreaming. They see that as a slight on special needs schools which, as other speakers have acknowledged, often provide the expertise that mainstream schools draw on, and provide an opportunity for youngsters who are not suited to mainstream schools.

We have a number of mainstream schools in Northern Ireland where special units have been introduced, sometimes because it was an easy way when there was spare capacity. In some cases that has worked out well and in some cases not so well. It is ironic that, in my constituency, where I met the Minister last week, a school that has a special unit within it, where the youngsters have separate opportunities to be educated and join the mainstream youngsters for certain activities, is to be closed. It is a model that seems to have worked well.
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The Minister spoke of capacity building in mainstream schools. That could have an important effect on statementing. Members have spoken about the delay in obtaining statements. A third of educational psychologists' time is taken up drawing up statements, each of which costs about £2,500, and still many people have to wait a long time before they get a statement. There is also an equality issue. The situation in Northern Ireland is no different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom—middle-class parents seem to have more access to statements than parents from less well-off backgrounds. They have more skills and know the system better. That needs to be addressed.

We would need fewer statements, though not as few as Baroness Warnock imagined—2 per cent. of youngsters statemented—if there was provision and capacity building in mainstream schools, where youngsters with moderate learning difficulties could quickly be taken in and given some help, rather than parents feeling that they have to use statementing as the only way to get the extra provision. Capacity building has an important role to play in reducing the demand for statements.

There are many other issues, but time will beat me. The subject is important, given that, in Northern Ireland alone, there are 10,600 youngsters with statements and across the United Kingdom many hundreds of thousands—

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