Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Let me say to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) that there will be other days.

3.33 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): In Amber Valley, the proportion of pupils in maintained special schools is the same now as in 1997. I want to praise the skills and dedication of teachers and other staff in those schools and of those working with pupils with special needs in mainstream schools. Parents rightly want the choice of what is right for their child.

I have sat in the station buffet in Derby watching young people have an animated conversation through the glass doors. They had come from the Royal School for the Deaf. I have also been in a Committee Room in the House seeing staff from Aldercar infants school in my constituency receive a national training award for their work with deaf children who are integrated into their school. Even the taxi drivers get training in sign language and parents who got involved now have national vocational qualifications in social care and special needs.

National policies are carried out by local authorities. If Labour had an agenda to close special schools and to limit choice, we would see it in Labour Derbyshire. Labour does not have that agenda. I shall give some examples. Derbyshire county council has had excellent ratings three times running in the comprehensive performance assessments. Ofsted says it is a good LEA and it has above average performance on special needs. Derbyshire's principal educational psychologist has nearly finished an 18-month review of all special needs,
 
22 Jun 2005 : Column 857
 
including special schools. Derbyshire's cabinet member for education said to me yesterday, "This review is not to close special schools, but to provide a mixed pattern of education to meet the needs of children and parents." Do the Opposition really want to take away Derbyshire's right to assess local needs?

Let us examine the case of a special school that did close in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). Two schools amalgamated because the number of children with moderate disabilities seeking places fell, which left spare places. It made sense to close one school to ensure proper provision for those pupils who needed it, and parents were consulted and extra resources obtained. Some of the children at the school had severe physical disabilities, but their cognitive abilities required a fuller curriculum than that provided in that special school, so an enhanced resources provision unit was set up at Aldercar school.

I recently visited that unit, which has excellent facilities, and met Louise, who has cerebral palsy and uses an augmentative electronic communications system, which it was amazing to see her use. I met Robert, who has severe cerebral palsy. He used to go to a residential school out of the county, but his parents became concerned because he withdrew into himself and did not enjoy the residential experience, and they asked for him to come to Aldercar school. Those children spend time in the special unit when they need special help, but they also spend a lot of time in the mainstream school, which has to amend the curriculum accordingly. That allows Louise to do PE and Carl, who wants to study the performing arts, to work on his BTEC with other pupils.

Aldercar school takes pupils other than those in that unit, including the most severely autistic child in Derbyshire in mainstream education. Her parents asked for her to go to the school because they wanted her to experience mainstream education, and they are delighted by her progress. When she does funny things, such as quacking, the other children say, "Oh, that is Emily"—she is part of the school. In September, the school will take a child with multiple problems with muscular dystrophy, and, again, his parents want him to attend the school. Those parents had a choice and asked for their child to go to that school, which is the important point. We need provision that suits children's needs and that is right for individual children.

The children whom I have mentioned attend a mainstream school with special provision, but other children attend special schools. Last year, I visited a special school in Alfreton in my constituency, which was very concerned about staffing and resources. Derbyshire county council has generally been underfunded in comparison with southern counties, and although the gap has been closing, it still lags behind on special school provision, resources, funding and staffing. As well as putting money into mainstream schools, the county council has halved the gap between current special needs provision in Derbyshire and average special needs provision around the country, and it hopes to close that gap completely. Does that sound like Labour closing special schools?

Mr. Khan: My hon. Friend is discussing the experiences of parents in Labour-controlled Derbyshire. Will she
 
22 Jun 2005 : Column 858
 
comment on the experience of parents in Conservative-controlled Wandsworth? The parent of a child whose school closed has said:

Judy Mallaber: That is shameful, and it shows the contrast between what happens in some Conservative authorities and what happens in my Labour-controlled authority. The Opposition are plain wrong to suggest that closing special schools is Labour policy, when we are seeking to provide choice and to examine need.

In my constituency, the Holbrook autism centre, which has skilled staff and good resources, caters for severely autistic children. Derbyshire county council has allocated the centre an extra £1.3 million to allow it to take 12 extra students, but it has also developed enhanced resources provision for autistic children in three other mainstream schools in the north of the county and at a school near Aldercar school. Aldercar, incidentally, does not just cater for middle-class children—it is in the most deprived part of my constituency and does good things for children of all abilities.

Derbyshire is providing extra help and resources not only for a specialist autism centre in my constituency but for autistic children in mainstream schools. How on earth can one say that that sounds like Labour refusing to allow parents choice? That is simply not the case.

Such decisions are not easy. A woman came to see me with her child, who had Asperger's. She was completely torn. The experts were suggesting that he should go to mainstream school to make the most of his educational abilities, but she wondered whether he should go to a special residential school to help him with the problems that Asperger's children have with their social skills.

This morning, before the debate, when I was checking some of the facts with the head of special needs in Derbyshire, he told me: "We are more concerned with outcomes than with any dogma. We are concerned with pupils making progress and with meeting parents' and pupils' wishes and needs." That is what we are trying to do, with considerable difficulty, in Labour Derbyshire. Please do not let us put Derbyshire into a straitjacket based on dogma or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is the former, and possibly future, Chair of the Education and Skills Committee, said, on gimmicks. It is not helpful to lurch from one view to another. As Baroness Warnock rightly reminded us, some children need to go into special schools; we need to consider her report carefully. I am sorry to say that we should not engage in Tory leadership battles, no matter how sympathetic we are about the personal experience and family situation of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron).

These are difficult and complex decisions, and parents and LEAs agonise over them in the best interests of their children. Let us not allow them to become a political football—they deserve better.

3.41 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): This has been a very interesting debate, and I commend Members on both sides of the House for their contributions. I shall deal with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) in a moment.
 
22 Jun 2005 : Column 859
 

I want to talk about two schools in my constituency whose circumstances inform any debate on special schools or special educational needs. Mary Hare school for the deaf is a non-maintained special school with places funded by more than 100 local education authorities from around the country. It caters for some of the 20 per cent. of profoundly deaf children who cannot be educated in the mainstream. It is much appreciated and lauded by the Minister's Department in several ways. It has been invited to become a specialist trailblazer school; it tops the league under the Department's value-added table; and it has, in recent years, achieved training school status. Indeed, it has just had a £300,000 grant for a new performing arts centre. One can therefore tell that it is much appreciated by the Minister.

Members will be able to tell that there is a big "but" coming. That "but" relates to the way in which the school has to deal with special educational needs tribunals. Even hard-core advocates of inclusion have always accepted that extreme cases of deafness and visual impairment are exceptions to the inclusion agenda and benefit from specialist school education. But the head teacher of Mary Hare school, Tony Shaw, spends 40 per cent. of his time preparing for and fighting special educational needs tribunals on behalf of pupils and parents. Last year, he won 17 out of 18 of those cases; the remaining one is being appealed at the High Court. This year, he is assisting 15 families appealing these tribunals.

It is worth examining what is going on here. Unless schools take time to represent these families, in the vast majority of cases they do not have a prayer when they get to the tribunal. The tribunals follow a legal framework, which most parents cannot be qualified to fight. A tribunal requires copious details of a child's case, and the parents have to prove at length why the local education authority provision is inadequate. It requires an enormous amount of work and understanding of how the system operates.

There is a prejudice in the educational establishment against special schools and it means that children suffer. The decision by Mary Hare school, like many others, to put its head above the parapet and take on what some hon. Members have described in the past as the inclusion police, was hard to make because it has been trying to build relationships over the years with local education authorities. However, by taking on the tribunals, it has secured a good education and the best prospects for many children. It has done that not only for the children whom it represents at the tribunals but for the other children at the school. It has managed to keep the school roll up, thus securing its future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said earlier, the LEAs are working to an agenda of inclusion that has been pushed in recent years, and it causes great unhappiness when cases go to tribunal.

I shall briefly refer to another paradox for the Mary Hare school. The Under-Secretary cannot deal with it, but perhaps she can put some pressure on the Chancellor. In receiving the £300,000 grant for the new building—for which it is very grateful—the school will probably also face a VAT bill of more than £400,000 for the same project. A maintained special school would not
 
22 Jun 2005 : Column 860
 
receive such a bill; it could claw back the VAT. That anomaly must be resolved. What the Government appear to give with one hand, they take away with the other.

I want to consider another school in my constituency, the Castle school in Donnington. It is an LEA-maintained community special school, which encompasses the range of special needs. It is a uniquely wonderful place to visit. It has children with genuine problems and it faces an interesting challenge that enables me to be constructive about the future of inclusion. The school buildings are reaching the end of their natural life. It is on a site that is away from the centre of town and children have to be bussed to Newbury when they want to carry out other activities. It has successfully co-located its infants school with a mainstream school in the town. The decision that the school must make has to be sensitive to the passionate loyalty of parents, pupils, teachers and governors. However, it is moving towards deciding to co-locate the school with another secondary school in the LEA. I pay tribute to the way in which the school, the governors and the LEA have handled the matter. If it is done right, everybody wins.

The co-location would be based on the model of Springfield school in Witney, which my hon. Friend the Member for Witney described, where inclusion can work to everybody's gain. A properly co-located school can be appropriate for different children. Some can share certain classes, whereas for others, it is not appropriate to share any classes. However, they can share facilities such as catering and sports facilities.

Children in the mainstream school also benefit. My education was divorced entirely from that of those with special needs—I expect that that applies to many in my generation. I went into adult life practically never having met a child with special needs. I believe that inclusion, when done properly and limited, is right for children for whom it is appropriate. In those circumstances, co-location is a way forward. We cannot hermetically seal children with special needs away from those in the mainstream.

In short, I hope that the Government will hear the pleas of parents who know what is best for their children, and the pleas of special schools. I hope that they will also listen to the words of Baroness Warnock. This is an important debate, involving the most vulnerable people in our society. I commend the motion to the House.

3.50 pm


Next Section IndexHome Page