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Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): I begin by congratulating those Members who have taken part in this excellent debate, with Members drawing on their constituency experience of special education. In particular, I want to congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), for Guildford (Anne Milton), and for Shipley (Philip Davies). My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has perhaps presented the Government with a challenge. If they are saying that there is no bias in favour of inclusionthat there is no bias against special schoolsthey should be prepared to look at Bradford council's plan to expand the number of places in special schools at both primary and secondary level. That will be a test of their special educational needs policy.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), the former Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, was right to suggest that the first topic for the re-formed Committee should be special educational needs. We also heard from the hon. Members for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), and for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who is my constituency neighbour, as well as from the hon. Members for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). They demonstrated that the problems that we face span all parts of our nation.
I want to tackle three fundamental propositions that are at the heart of this debate. First, children with special educational needs require a proper assessment to establish how much additional support and help is needed to enable them to realise their full potential. Secondly, although for many children such support can come in the form of a mainstream school place, it is not the answer for every child. Parents need choice, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said. Thirdly, if we are to give children the right support, it is vital that no options be closed to them.
Let us consider first the need for a proper assessment of children's needs, and in particular the statementing process. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough pointed out, the statementing process is far from perfect. Many parents do not consider it fair. A recent survey by the Down's Syndrome Association pointed out that many local education authorities
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) referred to the adversarial nature of the process. Parents are pitted against LEAs and expensive advisers are employed by both sides, so that parents can argue the case for the support that their children need.
Many parents believe that the level of provision is not just about meeting the child's needs, but about responding to the pressures on LEA budgets. A recent report by PACEParents Autism Campaign for Educationnoted:
Many parents expressed concerns about their LEA's competence and about the fact that LEAs were less concerned with the education of their children than with budgets. The conflict of interest within LEAsbetween their role as funder of special education and their role as assessor of needshas led many parents to doubt the reliability with which authorities go about the statementing process.
I was pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman agrees with us that we should look further into the possibility of having independent assessment of special educational needs. When parents look around the country, they see huge variations in the proportion of children statemented in different LEAs. In Nottinghamshire, only 1 per cent. of children are statemented, while in Halton it is 4.6 per cent. How can parents have confidence in a system that produces such variable outcomes across the country? Despite parents' frustration with statementing, they also see it as vital, for it establishes a guarantee of entitlement, without which they fear that their child's support could be taken away at a moment's notice. We need to increase parents' trust in the process.
It is not just parents who find statementing to be an unsatisfactory process. County councillors have also expressed their concern that the statementing process is too bureaucratic. It is time consuming and frustrating for them, as well as for parents. Until trust in the statementing process is established, parents will also see it as a battle to get the best resources for their childrenan adversarial system that is time consuming and wasteful, yet vital if they are to get the guarantee of help that they need.
If we are to ensure that children achieve their full potential, we must ensure that the support that they get is tailored to their needs. There is a consensus across the House about the importance of early intervention. I have seen for myself the excellent work that the Elizabeth Foundation does with young children born with a hearing impairment. It tries to support children at an early age so that they can continue in full-time mainstream schools rather than have to go to a school for the deaf or a unit for children with hearing impairment.
Earlier this year, I went to the Battledown early years centre, which was faced with closure by the Lib-Lab alliance on Gloucestershire county councilthe same people who proposed to close two moderate learning difficulties schools in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean. Battledown did everything that we ask from such a centre: it assessed the needs of children early and provided them with the support intervention that they needed so that, where possible, they could go to a mainstream school. Without that early assessment and intervention, those children were being set up to fail in mainstream schools. Thankfully, in that case, the centre was reprieved by the adjudicator. If we believe in early intervention, we cannot afford to lose centres such as Battledown, which help to tackle special needs when children are young.
Members on both sides of the House have argued that it is wrong to adopt a doctrinaire approach either that only mainstream is right or that only special schools are right. We need to get the provision right for all children.
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I fear that what we have seen over recent years is a dogmatic belief in the importance of inclusion. Yet the evidence tells us that mainstream does not always benefit all children. The Ofsted report "Special educational needs and disability: towards inclusive schools" found:
"Few schools evaluate their provision for pupils with SEN systematically so that they establish how effective the provision is . . . A minority of mainstream schools meet special educational needs very well . . . The teaching seen of pupils with SEN was of varying quality".
Whenever I visit special schools, I meet children who have been written off in mainstream schools, but who are flourishing, thanks to the expertise and care available in special schools. I visited the Mary Hare grammar school for the deaf in Newbury, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred, earlier this year. I met a young man there who had been written off as a failure by his mainstream school. He was stuck at the back of class and could not participate in lessons, but he is now heading off to university because of the expertise and skills of the Mary Hare school. Special schools are very important. Indeed, the Mary Hare school is also a training centre for teachers seeking a post-graduate qualification in teaching the deaf. If we lose those schools, we lose that expertise, and the opportunity to share it with other schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney used two statistics in his speech to illustrate how mainstream schools do not always work. He said that a child with a statement is far more likely to be excluded from school than one without, and that many more children with statements switch from mainstream education to special schools than the other way around.
I make those points not to argue that inclusion is invariably wrong, because it is not. Inclusion can be right and it can work, but not always. Alternative provision needs to be available, so that children can get the support that they need. We must be able to maintain choice. Parents should be able to decide, where appropriate, whether a child with special educational needs should attend a mainstream or a special school. Closing special schools removes that choice.
That choice is also constrained by the presumption in favour of mainstream in the Education Act 2001. I refer again to the Department's guidance on this matter. My hon. Friend mentioned it before, but the House needs to remember that it has an impact on what happens in LEAs and on how they respond to the needs of children with SEN.
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