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The Department published the document "Inclusive Schooling" in November 2001. It states that the starting point is always that children who have statements will
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receive mainstream education. That sets the direction of travel for LEAs, which make mainstream education the first choice for parents and often limit the information available to them about special schools. As a result, parental choice in the matter is restricted.
Why do parents want that choice? For some, the principle is important, but other parents' experiences of mainstream education have been unsatisfactory. In its brief for today's debate, the Special Educational Consortium pointed out that the mainstream does not offer a ready welcome to a child or understand a child's impairments and educational needs. It says that parents have difficulty in securing appropriate provision in mainstream schools, and that there are problems with getting appropriate support from other sources.
Parents choose special schools because they believe that they can meet their children's needs better than mainstream schools. Yet they are often under pressure to accept a place in a mainstream school because that is what the legislation and the guidance say that they should be offered.
Most under threat are the choices available for parents of children with moderate learning difficulties. The Government recognise that special schools have a role for children with a severe impairment, but there is a lot of concern about the fate of schools dealing with moderate learning difficulties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean pointed out, two MLD schools were closed in Gloucestershire. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney challenged the Minister for Schools at the start of the debate about the role and future of MLD schools. He asked her directly for her view of what the future held for such schools, but she ducked the question and hid in generalities.
The Minister's response made it clear that MLD schools have little future under this Government, as the terms of reference for the audit of special schools also indicate. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, when she responds to the debate, will correct that impression, and that she will give parents of children attending schools specialising in moderate learning difficulties an assurance that their future is safe under this Government.
We also need to understand what help is available, and what is effective. The Opposition believe that we need a review of special educational needs provision to ensure that children's needs are met. In the meantime, we must ensure that there is a moratorium on the closure of special schools. Those schools need to remain open while the review is conducted. Until we clear up the uncertainty and understand what is happening in the sector, we cannot move forward with the closure of special schools.
The debate presents us with a real choice. Do we listen to the concerns of parents, teachers and children in special schools that they are being denied the ability to choose between mainstream and special schools? I believe that supporting the motion will send out a clear message to parents, children and teachers that we care about the education available to children and believe that there is a proper role for special schools. In contrast, the Government are in danger of letting down children with special educational needs.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): It is a pleasure to respond to the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban). I am not sure how much else we will agree on, but I agree that this has been an excellent debate. I very much welcome the interest of all hon. Members who have participated today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on raising this important subject, which I should be happy to talk about as often as the House wishes.
The Government have a commitment to improve the life chances of disabled people and to ensure that the enormous extension of disability civil rights legislation that we have implemented during the past eight years results in real improvements in outcomes for disabled people. That commitment extends to educational opportunity and to disabled children, as well as to disabled adults, as it clearly should.
We all know that a good education is key to enhancing life chances, and the Government have recognised that by extending to education the operation of the right for disabled people not to be discriminated against on the grounds of their disabilitysomething that the original Disability Discrimination Act 1995 did not do. That is the purpose of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. It is not, and was not intended to be, some kind of lurch into political correctnessa phrase to which the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) unfortunately referred in his remarks.
The 2001 Act is intended to provide a way to deal with the fact that society is increasingly realising the importance of not writing people off, and ensuring that all our citizens have the opportunity to develop to their full potential and to participate in all aspects of life. For disabled children, society has come to realiseit did not always do so in the pastthat we must aspire for them as much as we do for any children, that we must nurture their potential and ambition and that we must remove the physical and attitudinal barriers that still too often get in the way of their being the best that they can be and participating fully in all aspects of life in our society.
That is the context in which we hold our debate today, and I hope that the hon. Member for Witney and I can agree about that. We are asking how, not whether, we can do the best that we can to support disabled children. I welcome this development; it is big a change in society's attitudes to disability over those displayed in previous decades. It is something that we as a nation should be proud of, and we should be trying to improve on it.
The hon. Gentleman raised some specific issues, particularly in relation to schools and inclusion. Before I deal with those points and do my best in the time available to deal with some points made by other hon. Members, I should reiterate the context in which we are taking such action. Progress has been made. According to Ofsted, between 2000 and 2003, the proportion of children with special educational needs judged to be making good progress grew from 54 to 73 per cent. in primary schools and from 43 to 71 per cent. in secondary
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schools. I doubt whether we could identify any other period when such rapid and significant improvements have been made by such children.
We should all welcome those improvements, which are the result of sustained focus, sustained action and increased resources being put into the sector in recognition of the importance of improving outcomes for those children. The Government have been responsible for some of that, but local education is organised locally, and many local education authorities and dedicated people in localities have also been responsible for making such progress.
The hon. Gentleman accepts that progress has been made. He said so in a debate in Westminster Hall last year. Although he was not concentrating on that aspect today, I am glad that he has acknowledged it. He is nodding now, which is good. He says that the Government's policy is one of inclusion at any cost and that, as a result, special schools are being closed. The Government's policy is one not of inclusion at any cost, but of choice for parents, so that they can choose either mainstream education where they want it and where it is appropriatemany of them make that choice, and it is appropriateor specialist provision where that is more suitable.
It is categorically not the Government's policy to close special schools and enforce inclusion whether or not it is right for the individual child. Indeed, since the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 Ministers have not had the power to make decisions on school reorganisations and closures; those decisions are made locally. Nor was there any opposition from the Conservatives to devolving that responsibility to localities at the time. Furthermore, figures show that the rate of closure of special schools has halved since the change was made. Between 1986 and 1997, some 234 special schools closed. I gently remind the Opposition that it was their Ministers who made those decisions. Since 1997, some 93 special schools have closed, but on the basis of local decisions.
Many Members have powerfully pointed out that parents are concerned about the closure of any local school, but particularly special schools, which parents often feel they want to defend because they know and understand the quality of the provision there. I fully understand those concerns but make two points in response. First, local authorities have a duty to secure sufficient schools for the children in their area and must have particular regard to the need for SEN provision. When setting out how they will undertake that provision, they must listen to the views of parents. When closure is proposed, consultation with parents must occur. If there is a dispute, an independent adjudicator makes the decision. Some Members have pointed out that that process sometimes results in a change, and many Members will be aware of cases where plans have changed, sometimes out of all recognition, as a result of the consultation process.
That is not to argue, and I do not, that the process always results in the outcome that parents want. In Wandsworth, to refer to a recent example, many parents were dissatisfied with the outcome of the process, so I do not argue that it always results in perfection. Nor do I argue that SEN provision is perfect, but it is better than it was and we are determined to improve it.
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The hon. Gentleman asked for a moratorium on closures, as did many of his hon. Friends. That might look good in a speech or a press release but I have major doubts as to its efficacy. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in her opening remarks that the hon. Gentleman was from the progressive left of the Conservative party. I think I would describe him as being from the statist left because he is actually arguing for the re-nationalisation of decision making on school reorganisation. He will be going into the leadership contest with the battle cry, "The civil servant in Whitehall knows best." I wish him luck in his quest. He is a brave man.
A moratorium would require primary legislation, so it will not be a swift option. Such a move would blight many excellent reorganisations, whether or not there was local controversy, for an indeterminate length of time.
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