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Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab):
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate, which should have at its heart the experiences and needs of children, their parents and their carers. All too often, parents feel alienated from the very processes designed to support them. They frequently feel ignored or dismissed, or that their views are of the smallest importance when it comes to determining what support should be offered and how it should be organised. It is fair to say, however, that not every parent's experience is like that. Most children's needs are quickly identified, so that the appropriate support can be put in place. However, there are too many cases in which that just does not happen.
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When the delays start to occur, they are often accompanied by a feeling on the part of the parents that their views on their child's needs are being ignored. Indeed, it often seems as though the professionals respond to an assertive parent by digging in, by entrenching themselves in their position, and by weaving a web of dialogue around the parent. This makes things much worse for parents, who often have mixed feelings about the whole process anyway. Some parents feel uncertain about allowing their child to be labelled as different in any way. In that context, it is distressing for them to learn that the process itself is often complicated and fraught with tensions and disagreements. Time delays and cancelled appointments undermine confidence in the process, making parents feel that their child is just a name on numerous files, a faceless entity filed away somewhere for action at some future date.
Only last week, I went to meet the parents of an autistic child in my constituency. They want their son to enjoy an extra year at primary school because of the failure to diagnose his autism at an early stage. They have the support of professionals such as the educational psychologist and the consultant community paediatrician. However, the local education authority's response to their request has not been particularly positive, and the matter will go before a panel meeting tomorrow. As far as Mr. and Mrs. Houghton are concerned, the whole process is tense and difficult, and it follows what they have described as a distant and bureaucratic relationship with the special educational needs service. To give an example of what that relationship has been like, I shall tell the House about an event that took place last week. When Mr. and Mrs. Houghton rang the LEA to ask about the date of the panel hearing, they were told quite categorically that it had not yet been determined. I phoned the LEA the following day to inquire about the case, and was given the date immediately. It is appalling that an MP can be given such information when it has been denied to the parents involved.
I acknowledge, however, that there are no easy ways to improve the services provided to parents and children with special needs, but improve them we must. The key to improvement is surely to focus not on buildings, moratoriums and so on, but on the better co-ordination of services for children, and on putting parents at the heart of the process. The introduction of integrated children's services is one of the ways in which we can improve the work between professionals, their relationships with parents, and the service. I have already told professionals in Sheffield that, for me, the test of children's services will be how much SEN services improve, and how much less parents complain about it. That is the key for children's services.
What provision do we need? In Sheffield, we have a spectrum of provision. We have special schools, as well as integrated resources in the mainstream. Children with a low incidence of need are fully integrated into the mainstream, and we also have an opt-out provision for children who need to be taken out of their mainstream school for a few short weeks and given intensive support. That is the way forward. There is nothing in the Government's policy about either closure or total inclusion. A spectrum of provision is the recommended way forward, and it is based on four principles.
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The first is collaboration between special schools and the mainstream, to ensure that expertise is there at every point in provision for all children. The second is flexible provision, which allows children to transfer from special to mainstream schools if necessary, and vice versa, with no delay. Thirdly, the system must give parents choice. Fourthly, as I have said before, it must be led by professionals working in schools who know best how to improve the service and introduce innovations.
I consider the proposed moratorium totally inappropriate. We need flexibility. Some closures are necessary. In Sheffield two new schools are opening in September, after three old special schools have been rebuilt. Parents welcome that, and it has led to an expansion in the number of places available. More closures are in the pipeline, agreed to by parents because the schools are being rebuilt. I appeal to Members not to vote for a moratorium that would stop Sheffield getting its new schools.
A further programme of closure and rebuilding is not appropriate. What is appropriate is for decisions on how provision should be shaped to be made locally. A nationally imposed moratorium would be an example of centralised control that could damage SEN education rather than improving it. I suggest that if there are problems with provision across the country, local government reform is what is needed. We should not have a go at SEN provision when the problem lies with authoritiessometimes Tory-controlledthat do not know how to handle relationships with parents and SEN professionals.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The winding-up speeches must begin at 4.15 pm. Three Back Benchers are trying to catch my eye. Perhaps they will do the maths for themselves if they wish to be helpful to their colleagues.
This has been a fascinating afternoon. I find it interesting that there is a fair amount of agreement in the House. I am a new Member, but I would love it if someone set out his or her ideas and then said, "Hands up those who agree with this." I think we would turn out to be in agreement on many issues.
One thing on which we definitely agree is that inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools is a worthy ideal, and I think that for many it is the best option. Inclusion of all children, however, is not the right idea. It is generating a huge amount of fear and mistrust among teachers at the moment: they do not feel that they will be able to cope. I have seen teachers in tears because they are desperate. They say, "I went into mainstream education because that is what I feel I can do. I do not feel that I have the skills to meet the requirements of children with special needs."
I think that there is a problem with perception. Labour Members seem to believe that a moratorium will somehow stop everything, that we are going to go backwards, and that we think inclusion is a bad idea. That is not the case. We are saying what a Labour
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Member said earlier: we are saying, "Let us stop for a minute and take stock." This is a hugely complicated issue.
My constituency contains some brilliant schools for children with special needs. Gosden House school deals with children with moderate learning difficulties. We also have Pond Meadow, which is to co-locate with a secondary school, and Thornchace, which is a very special school for girls with emotional and behavioural disorders. Many of the girls are looked after, many have been excluded from mainstream schools, and many have already failed in pupil referral units. That school faces closure, which is devastating for staff, pupils and parents, because they know that they have something special to give to very special girls, which is to be taken away from them.
The local education authorities do not want prescriptive messages from Government. They think that they have to pursue inclusion with all their might, which is why we are seeing special schools close. Often, aspirational theory translates into poorly conceived practice and that is what we are seeing now.
We have heard lots of talk of joined-up thinking and partnership working. It makes me so angry, because it does not necessarily translate into something that works on the ground. Ministers can say all the words they want, but what parents and children want to know is: is it working on the ground? A moratorium is the right answer because we need to take stock. There is too much uncertainty out there about how to meet the needs of children with special needs for us to continue. We need to say, "Hang on a minute, what do we agree on, what is right?" and examine the whole sector.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am happy to support my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on this important subject, which I am delighted he has given us the opportunity to debate. It has been a very interesting debate. We nearly all agree that there is a problemI was a bit concerned that the Minister started off by saying that there is not a problem. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that there are problemseven Labour Members have highlighted them.
The Government cannot have it both ways. They say that there is not a problem and then, when people say that there is, they say that it is not their problem, but local authorities'. It would be worth while for the Government to acknowledge that there is a problem. I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the matter to the House's attention.
I may be able to be constructive for the Government in some respects. There are local authorities that want to improve their provision for special needs but they need the Government's help. Bradford council has some innovative and ambitious plans to improve special needs education and to increase the number of special schools in the district, but it needs the Government's help. I hope that the Minister will look favourably upon Bradford council when it requires some help to improve provision in its area.
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The council's plans involve opening three new secondary special schools. It also has ambitious plans to introduce three new primary special schools. That is being funded from the council's own resources because it sees it as a priority. It wants to improve the available provision. I hope that the Government will help it to deliver that.
All those schools will be co-located with other schools. My hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and for Witney pointed out that the model of co-locating a special school with a mainstream school can work. That is what Bradford council intends to do.
There are some areas where the Government could help local authorities. One is through the funding of therapies, including speech and language therapy and physiotherapy, which are grossly underfunded in the Bradford district. Demand is higher than supply and the council needs about £420,000 to meet that demand. I hope that the Government will help it with that provision, which is so needed in the Bradford district.
There is a gap between what is offered to people while they are at special schools and what is offered when they leave. Post-school life, little appears to be done; there is a dearth of provision and facilities both for the people leaving and for their carers or parents. Some capital and revenue funding to help with that would be worth while and meet a real need.
What I have in mind is co-located living and training accommodation. People could be accommodated and trained there both while they are at school and after they finish school. That would give them the independence that they crave but currently do not possess.
My concern is that the Government's agenda involves trying to force children into mainstream schools in cases where doing so is not appropriate. I do not know what led to that idea. My fear is that this agenda is based not on what is in the best interests of the childrenof the people who need these facilitiesbut on forcing people into mainstream schools as part of a politically correct process of social engineering. The idea seems to be that, so long as everybody gets the same education, that is fine. However, what people want is diversity in education. Children should go to the school that is right for them.
It is important that people understand that where co-location takes place, the children are not necessarily educated together. Although they might be integrated socially, they are not mixed with others in a mainstream education setting. They are not totally segregated, but they are not forced into participating in lessons that would be totally inappropriate for them. Such participation would be inappropriate not only for them, but for the other children in the mainstream school.
The Government can help by providing extra special needs places throughout the country and particularly in the Bradford district. We have heard today from Members in all parts of the House that there is a problem. I hope that the Government will acknowledge that fact, and that they do have a role to play in helping local authorities to develop the best possible strategies. Bradford councilConservative-ledhas some innovative and ambitious plans, and I hope that the Government will support its efforts to increase special needs provision.
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