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Special Educational Needs

11 am

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I begin by saying how delighted and privileged I am to have been given this 90-minute debate on such an important subject. My thanks also go to those in the Public Gallery; I recognise some Bedfordshire parents.

The special educational needs spectrum is wide; it runs from children who are simply unable to organise themselves—I am slightly unlucky in that respect, because I seem to have three of those—to children who need round-the-clock intensive support and care. We have all heard of Baroness Warnock, the architect of and authority on inclusion. She has recanted; she thinks that inclusion has gone too far. During Prime Minister's questions, the Prime Minister was asked for a review of SEN policy, and Lord Adonis is searching for a third way. The new education White Paper on SEN is, frankly, depressing.

It is not difficult to see why and how Baroness Warnock originally reached her conclusion on the inclusion agenda. At the time, children with physical disabilities—regardless of how intelligent or mentally able they were—were automatically segregated from their peers and sent to a special school, very often a residential school many miles away from parents and family. Such children were denied the opportunity to interact socially with peers and to benefit from the curriculum taught to other children of similar academic abilities.

One reason why Baroness Warnock recants the inclusion agenda is that she personally knows children for whom it has not worked. Those children have autistic spectrum disorders—when I mention ASD I will be referring to children whose autism is at the higher end of the continuum—and Asperger's. They have legal protection under Acts of 1981, 1993 and 1996, and more recently under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001—SENDA.

Following the introduction of the Education Act 1996, SEN children had a legal right to an education commensurate with their needs. For those with milder learning difficulties, that might be in a mainstream school with additional help. For those with more complex and difficult needs, that might be in a special school. Local education authorities were, for the first time, accountable and legally responsible for providing that education. The statementing process came to result in a legally binding contract between the parent, the LEA and the school. Unfortunately, the 2001 Act produced an unintended by-product—and I do think that it was unintended. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who is here today, steered the 2001 Act through Parliament, and I believe that that was done with the best intentions. In fact, I support the 2001 Act, apart from its unfortunate by-product.

The 2001 Act states that there is a duty to educate children with special needs in the mainstream unless that is against the wish of the parents or incompatible with the education of other children. Unfortunately, that has been interpreted by many LEAs as meaning that it is
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Government policy to educate all children in mainstream schools. LEAs view it as an extension of inclusion and a manifestation of political ideology.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that MLD—moderate learning difficulty—schools play an important part within the range of provision for special educational needs children? They provide parents with a range of choice for their children. Does she agree that there should be a moratorium on the closure of MLD schools, so that those schools are not lost, and so that we do not throw them out, like the baby with the bath water?

Mrs. Dorries : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I shall cover that exact point in just a few moments.

Whether the Government intended it or not, a by-product of the 2001 Act is that LEAs believe that educating all children in mainstream schools is Government policy. What is the evidence for that? According to lay parent representatives and tribunal barristers, when a parent requests specialist provision, in either an MLD or a special school, it is almost always refused in the first instance. Having spoken to MPs of all parties and to many organisations, I know that they overwhelmingly concur with that conclusion.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I have some personal knowledge of the trauma that can be caused when the parent of a child who goes to a special needs school is told that the school has to close, and that the child has to go to mainstream school. I know that that situation affects a small minority of people, but it still cannot be right.

Mrs. Dorries : The minority is not as small as one would think. I shall give some figures on that point later.

LEAs are resisting requests for statementing, delaying the process. When a parent finally reaches the point of a statement, the LEA will minimise both the needs and the provision in order to justify inclusion in mainstream—a situation led by cost implications as much as by political dogma. If a parent wants or feels that their child needs specialist provision, they have to fight for it via a special educational needs and disability tribunal—SENDIST. Officially, there is no cost to such tribunals, but they involve a complicated legal process and parents need legal representation. The Education and Skills Committee recently took evidence from Simon Oliver, a barrister and chair of the SEN tribunal. He revealed that it costs between £2,000 and £10,000 for a parent to take a case to a tribunal. Because of the cost involved, only affluent middle class parents are able to take on an LEA's decision. Conversely, the Government consider the low number of tribunals in the UK—3,300—to be a measure of policy success. I look on it as a measure of the number of people who can afford to pay. The sad reality is that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are denied opportunities because the system is out of their reach.

The SENDIST annual report for 2003–04 states that the vast majority of cases that go to tribunal—88 per cent.—are successful and find in favour of the parents.
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Of the parents who go to tribunal, 39 per cent. go in an attempt just to get a statement. It seems that parental preference works well and that LEAs respond positively if the parent wishes their child to go to a mainstream school, but not in any other circumstances. That is owing to the reluctance of LEAs, which believe that they are carrying out the Government's wish to place children in mainstream schools.

All authorities are under financial pressure, so it is no surprise that they act in a contrary way whether it is appropriate or not. Minimisation of the extent of a child's needs in the statementing process is without doubt driven by financial pressure and political dogma. The closure of 91 special schools since 1997 compounds the problem. Even if some LEAs wanted to send all the children who needed them to special schools, many no longer have the places available.

The situation is turning ugly and parents are beginning to organise themselves into effective lobby groups. I have been told stories by lay parent representatives of LEAs refusing to supply transport for a child to attend a special school but agreeing to transport the child to a mainstream school in order to force parents' decisions. Parents react to that. Many parents of children with Asperger's or ASD at the higher end of the continuum have SEN problems themselves and simply cannot navigate the system. Even parents who do not have SEN struggle to access it.

There are examples of best practice throughout "Every Child Matters", "Removing Barriers to Achievement" and the new education White Paper. I would like to give three examples of my own. First, I would like to tell hon. Members about a little boy called Jack, whose case is an example of worst practice. It adds weight and brings clarity to the statement by Baroness Warnock that inclusion has gone too far.

I met Jack in my first surgery as a new MP. He destroyed my room. He turned the chairs upside down, banged the door backwards and forwards, took books off cupboards and the desk and put them on the floor, and played with the light switch continuously until it made a fizzing noise. I thought that he would electrocute himself. As well as a hyperactive little boy, I had in my office his concerned, embarrassed and distressed mother, who had accompanied him. It was not a good situation. In order to try to calm Jack down, I made paper planes from some loose notes on my desk. He stopped and watched. He had my one-to-one attention, and that gave his mother five minutes to tell me his story.

Jack was in a local mainstream school. The teachers told mum that Jack was fine with the few hours' support that he received each week. Jack's mum showed me his daily report books: "Jack learned the alphabet today", "Jack communicated well today", "Jack had a good day." Personally, I could not understand how that could be possible. One of the first things that one notices about Jack is his inability to communicate using speech. The second thing that one notices is the amount of effort one has to put in to securing his attention, even for a minute.

Mum told me that Jack was bullied at school. One could understand why: children are not the most patient beings. It was entirely understandable that Jack's behaviour could drive other normally mild-tempered children to the point of distraction. She told me of an incident a few months earlier when a child had pulled the
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chair out from under Jack as he went to sit down, causing him to fall backwards. She had not sent him to school since. Jack was a victim of inclusion. The policy had, in fact, excluded him from school, and a little boy who needed education the most was receiving none at all. That is a UK-wide problem.

When things go wrong with a child who has Asperger's or a child who is higher on the autistic continuum, things go spectacularly wrong. Children with autistic spectrum disorders and Asperger's find mainstream the most challenging environment imaginable. They struggle with language. Can we imagine that? Can we imagine what it is like to struggle with language and not to understand what people are saying to us?

Such children are confused by noise and by changing faces. They find it impossible to interact socially, but they understand that the inability to make friends and the creation of problems around them are of their own doing. Their behaviour is often extreme and bizarre, yet according to child psychologists, local education authorities refuse to accept the proven research that because of the nature of the condition, which robs the child of an interest in people and the motivation to interact, children with ASD and Asperger's do not learn from other children naturally. They find the noise, stimulation and movement of the everyday world so overwhelming and terrifying that they simply shut down. Some 27 per cent. of children with ASD are excluded from mainstream school at any one time. Today, 27 per cent. of autistic children in mainstream are not in attendance. Some 23 per cent. of that 27 per cent. are repeatedly excluded.

Parents of SEN children talk of common themes: the minimising of needs during the statementing process, closing special schools, and turning those that are left into regional residential centres for those with extreme needs. On Friday, I had a conversation with the headmaster of a special school in the north of England. He said:

The headmaster believes that the lifeblood of his school has been cut off, and that children such as Jack do not reach him now unless the parent has the financial means to go to a tribunal.

Bob Spink : My hon. Friend will not be aware of this, but Cedar Hall moderate learning difficulties school in my constituency, which also serves the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), has found that its intake has been reduced almost to zero. The school is being throttled. Is she aware that in my constituency, some children who because of inclusion are in mainstream school are taught behind glass screens?
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Mrs. Dorries : I was not aware of children being taught behind glass screens, but I am aware that the lifeblood of schools—referrals—is being stopped in order to justify the closure of the school within a short period.

What is so special about a special school? A child with ASD may not want to be a member of society. They have a communication disorder, and if they are to embrace society as adults, they have to be formally taught communication skills by highly trained professionals and adult teachers. Such skills cannot be expected of a mainstream-school teacher who is also trying to deliver a national curriculum to non-SEN children.

None of us wants to return to a society in which children are banished to residential schools, but the stark reality is that the policy of inclusion, which is leading to special school closures, is forcing parents to send their children away from home. If that headmaster in the north is right, and his school becomes a regional centre for the worst residential cases, we will be right back to the point at which Baroness Warnock came in 25 years ago.

Special school closures also mean that we lose the pool from which language and speech therapists come to help and to support the children in mainstream. We are losing the centres of excellence and training. You may not know this, Mrs. Humble, but a teacher spends a maximum of half a day throughout their entire teacher training on special educational needs, and many spend only one hour.

I am pro-inclusion. I am a parent who fought for my child to go to a mainstream school. I believe that children who are able to thrive in the mainstream should be there. There is no reason on this planet why any physically disabled child who is mentally able should not attend a mainstream school. In case the tone of my speech seems to be anti-inclusion, let me stress that I am a pro-inclusionist. What I am arguing is that children on the higher autistic continuum or with Asperger's syndrome are not suitable for the mainstream.

Let me return to my point about teacher training. A teacher from Newcastle who spent his entire teaching career in special schools has suddenly found himself in a mainstream comprehensive school, because of the closure of his special school. He said to me:

that the head is trying to introduce.

Recent research by the Youth Justice Board found that 80 per cent. of young people in young offender institutions have SEN, and the majority of them were never even statemented. There is a frightening prospect that many of the SEN children of today will become the ASBOs of tomorrow.

One of the Government's answers to some of the emerging problems has been the establishment of the parent partnership programme, which I welcome. I
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applaud it, inasmuch as it helps parents in mediation with schools and teachers, which is a service that they never previously had. However, the parent partnership code of practice clearly states that the programme is not allowed to advocate on behalf of the parent. It reports directly to the local education authority—its line manager is the head of the LEA. That must give rise to a conflict of interest in some areas of the country.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I take this opportunity to place on the record my support for Cedar Hall school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink).

My experiences as a constituency MP lead me to believe that many parents of children on the autistic spectrum fall between three stools. They are batted between the education service, the health service and social services departments, and they are constantly frustrated about being sent back and forth from one to another, almost in a permanent loop. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to reorganise the resources that we have to provide a bespoke service for those parents and children who are badly let down by the current system?

Mrs. Dorries : My hon. Friend has opened up a subject which could be an entire debate in itself. It involves primary care trust deficits, the fact that we have a massive shortage of speech and language therapists, and the fact that PCTs cannot afford to do some of the work that the LEAs are asking them to do in order to get reports together and to statement children. That is why special educational needs and disability tribunals cost so much; parents have to pay for a lot of the work themselves. The subject that my hon. Friend raises is of great importance.

To make a real difference, parent partnerships must be independently funded, autonomous of the LEA, and given the teeth to do the job; they must be independent of the LEA and be able to advocate on behalf of parents. I think that the Prime Minister called for a review and Lord Adonis is desperately searching for a third way because they know that SEN in the UK today and the introduction of the education White Paper do not go together. How can they? The Government propose to introduce trust schools, competition and a selection criterion with no statutory obligation via a code of practice. Who will want these children? Who will take them? The answer is no one.

The Government claim that the White Paper is about driving up standards. How can standards in schools that take in SEN children be driven up? When MLD and special schools are closed down, those children will all be in the mainstream. They will be the school's barrier to improvement and to driving up standards.

The White Paper states:

The present policy of inclusion forces many children into an education environment in which they are uncomfortable and become disruptive, thereby undermining the Government's so-called zero tolerance on behaviour and discipline issues. Their policy in this respect is clearly contradictory. According to the White
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Paper, schools will be free to select by interview if they want to do so. How would Jack fare in an interview? What head teacher would accept a child who wrecks an office in five minutes?

The White Paper mentions SEN children in two dedicated paragraphs, both of which are completely inconclusive and end in a similar way. The first of those paragraphs ends with the phrase:

and the second ends:

Every paragraph in the White Paper is entirely conclusive except those referring to children with SEN. It is time for the Government to come clean. What exactly is their policy with regard to SEN and the White Paper, and how do they intend to manage SEN within the remit of the White Paper? Again, I am referring specifically to children on the high end of the autistic continuum and those with Asperger's.

I think that when the Prime Minister called for a review of SEN he knew exactly what he was doing. He knows that there is an incompatibility between what is happening on the ground and what he wants to achieve via the introduction of the White Paper. I am going to raise myself to the giddy heights of the Prime Minister, Lord Adonis and Baroness Warnock and ask the Minister to call for a review. I know that she is a Minister of good intent and is much admired by hon. Members on both sides of the House for her ability and compassion. I ask her sincerely to consider seriously a review, particularly for the groups of children that I have just mentioned. A review may even help the Government to calm their own malcontents; it may help with the passage of the White Paper.

If the Minister chooses to answer my call, I ask her not to speak in the jargon that the Government have used of late when talking about education. I ask her not to mention effective partnerships because, as I have stated, when it comes to SEN there are none. I ask her not to mention cross-agency co-operation, because agencies do not co-operate when it comes to SEN. I ask her just to talk about how we can make better the education and lives of children with SEN, and to call for a review. How can we prevent SEN children from becoming the people with ASBOs of tomorrow? Why use spin when the truth works so well?

11.23 am

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am delighted to participate in the debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on raising this important issue. I agree with everything that she said. Her speech was intelligent, informed, balanced and infused with genuine concern and compassion for the pupils involved. Towards the end, she referred to malcontents on the Government side—I cannot imagine whom she means.

I have been concerned about special educational needs issues over a long period. Several members of my family have been teachers and have dealt with children with SEN; indeed, my wife was a special needs co-ordinator in her school when she was a teacher. I have also had a number of relevant constituency cases, but I think that it would be inappropriate to refer to them
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individually now. So I have some background and am informed to an extent on these issues. During my eight and a half years in Parliament, I have become more concerned. The issues are still unresolved and there are still deep differences of view on them. They raise passions because we are predisposed one way or the other. However, I think that the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, my constituency next-door neighbour, has tried to be objective and not to express a biased view.

Special educational needs cover a range of issues, including physical disabilities such as hearing impairment, that are related to slow learning. Most of them are not difficult to deal with. They are less problematic and we can and do make provision for them. Slower learners are perhaps not difficult to deal with in a mainstream school; we have a setting system. We have special hearing units, sight-impaired units and so on.

The problem, as the hon. Lady said, has to do with behaviour in school and whether we include or exclude pupils with serious behavioural difficulties. There is a spectrum with total inclusion in mainstream schools at one end and special schools and special residential schools at the other. The question is how we deal with those pupils for their benefit and for the benefit of others. The trouble is that the issue is driven by ideology and money. One of the arguments is based on the passionate belief that we should not discriminate between people and that it would be best for them to be involved in the same communities, the same classes and the same schools.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that treating people equally sometimes involves treating them differently and providing services that are tailored to their needs? It is not discrimination to allow children with special needs the choice of a special school or a mainstream school.

Kelvin Hopkins : That is a strong point. Over the years, I have thought it peculiar that people like me who went to a grammar school had small classes and intensive teaching, while those who attended secondary modern schools had larger classes and less good teaching. It should have been the other way round. Those who are most able should have the least effort put into their education, while those who are least able should have the most effort put into their education. The system should be compensatory.

The liberationist ideology derives from a philosophy that was common when I was young in the 1960s. It was reinforced by psychologists such as R. D. Laing who thought initially that there was no such thing as mental illness, but just different ways in which to perceive the world, and that we were all the same. He was debunked during his lifetime and, like Baroness Warnock, at the end of his life, R. D. Laing recanted. He said that his whole philosophy was an attempt to rationalise his manic depression. He was not well mentally himself, but he had a great mind. Throughout history, many people who suffered from a similar illness have been great.

I appreciate that it is politically explosive to say what I am about to say, but we are now starting to understand that some of our differences are determined by our physiological nature. With the unravelling of the
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genome, we now see that some of the problems that we thought previously were just people being naughty or having been badly brought up are the result of genetic problems. During the past few weeks, it is thought that a gene has been identified that is responsible for dyslexia. Furthermore, it may be not genes but hormonal imbalances that determine autistic spectrum disorders. We are now learning that there are physiological causes for behavioural problems, not social causes. It is more nature than nurture. We have to use nurture as best we can to help people to come to terms with their difficulties and lead good, productive and happy lives like the rest of us.

If we ignore the fact that psychological difficulties stem from nature, we will do people a disservice. It was cruel, but in the past matters were simple; children were beaten until they did what we wanted them to do. We do not beat children any more, and that is absolutely right. However, pretending that children do not have a problem that needs special attention and putting them into mainstream schools in the belief that they will get on with it and be socialised into behaving well is not sensible. It is certainly not kind.

We must challenge our deep feelings about what is right for a child. Dear friends think that I am a wicked person because I suggest that we should have special schools tailored to specific difficulties and that inclusion is not always the right way forward. Inclusion is certainly not the right way forward for teachers and pupils who are trying to deal with children who have serious behavioural problems in class. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is another variant of such problems. It is common in my constituency. Many parents are tearing their hair out about it.

It is unkind to imply that children misbehave because they have been badly brought up. There are so many cases of children with appalling backgrounds who have turned out to be perfectly nice people. Equally, youngsters with caring, nurturing parents who have done everything for them have still turned out to be difficult. We must accept that factors in those children's make-up are nothing to do with their experiences. When we recognise that, they can be dealt with properly. Some children are so difficult that they need special schools. Many education authorities still have the ideology that blanket inclusion is the way forward, and that anyone who favours special schools is somehow malevolent and discriminatory, and not a nice person.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his words. Does he share my concern that 25 per cent. of children with special educational needs in the higher bracket are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) mentioned, being excluded from mainstream education and are being dumped in pupil referral units, which are an extremely poor substitute for the special school that they may require?

Kelvin Hopkins : Absolutely. I have cases in my constituency of precisely that problem. Youngsters are reaching their teenage years, which are complicated by puberty, without their problems having been dealt with. Early diagnosis, early identification, and early attention
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to their special educational needs are absolutely vital if we are not going to see such people finishing up in prison, mental hospitals or wherever—detained in one way or another. If we can get to them early and provide everything possible to maximise the possibility of a good life in adulthood, we are doing them and society an enormous service. The lifetime costs to the state will be much less if we get it right first. That may mean providing places in special schools that are geared to dealing with particular needs.

We must stand back and review the matter, and take other people's advice. Sadly, even in the world of psychiatry, an area about which I know something as well, there is still a big debate about whether mental disorders are to do with experience—nasty things that we see in the wood shed when we are young—or physiological problems. Some think that drug therapies are right; others think that psychotherapy is necessary. Perhaps a combination of the two, appropriately tailored, is the way forward. There are even fierce debates about that, and we must shake ourselves out of our prejudices and consider the problems objectively. We must consider what is happening in the real world, and what really works; we must not presume that pushing children into mainstream schools will be to their benefit. I do not think that it is.

We must also take into account the parents' preferences. Many parents initially want their children to be in mainstream schools. They start by saying that they do not want their children to be regarded as abnormal, and they want them in a mainstream school. However, over time, they realise that their child is suffering and they want more special provision for them. They may say, "It's not working. I want them to go to a special school." I have examples of that in my constituency. The parents' preferences must, over time, be taken into account.

Finally, we come to the question of money. The fact is that local authorities' budgets are pressured. There is a temptation for them to say that it is cheaper to put children into mainstream schools and put a bit of extra provision into such schools than to provide special places. Public provision is being reduced, so private schools, which are extremely expensive, are opening, taking children from upper-middle class backgrounds whose parents can afford to pay, or from those authorities that are still prepared to pay for special places. However, we need funding for special educational needs to be separated from local education authorities' budgets, so that they are not pressured, and so that decisions can be made objectively, taking account of children's needs. We should redevelop a network of special schools, capable of dealing with various special needs across the country in the state sector, perhaps jointly run by local authorities, with independent referral systems if necessary. It would be a network of state provision where such children could be given the education that they needed to give them the chance of being happy and productive citizens in the longer term.

11.35 am

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on securing this important debate. It is clear that this matter troubles
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many people out in the wide world of local government and in the even wider world of parenting. My hon. Friend's comments were helpful, constructive and appealing.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) for his lucid rendition, which was free of dogma, and just the sort of contribution that is vital to this important subject. I found myself nodding in agreement on many occasions; it was a pleasure to listen to his wise words, which we should all take seriously.

It is no secret that I am a county councillor and the finance portfolio holder in Northamptonshire, or that I have grave concerns about the revenue support grant that will be announced in a few days' time. I know that that revenue support grant, which, in the words of the Minister, appears to be less generous than in previous years, will have a sizeable impact on provision for special educational needs. Certainly in my county that gives rise to great concern.

It might help if I gave the Minister some background on special educational needs in Northamptonshire. My county has a great record in that respect, not least in relation to sufferers of autism. We have a nationally recognised reputation in that area of which we are very proud. We take special educational needs very seriously—as we should. Some 3.1 per cent. of our pupils have statements—that is 3,500 children with special educational needs. We try to offer a sizeable range of provision, which in some respects relates to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire and by the hon. Member for Luton, North. We have 1,000 or so children in maintained schools, 350 with designated special provision attached to mainstream schools, 2,020 in mainstream schools without special provision who are part of the normal process, and 130 in independent or non-mainstream special schools, of whom 80 have residential provision. We therefore have a relatively wide menu of provisions for children with special educational needs.

We must also recognise that, as has already been said, many children with special educational needs have other sizeable disabilities, which makes their ability to grasp opportunities in later life much more difficult and makes it equally difficult—but equally important—for us to offer provision to enable them to live a life that they would consider to be fulfilling. Indeed, we have 600 families who work not only with the special educational needs services but with the disabled children's services. Through those services, we provide for and support families in their own homes. Where we can, we provide respite care, which is a very great need for parents who look after and love children with the needs that we are talking about and with those extra disabilities.

We have a family link service, which provides a network for parents who have particular difficulties with their children, and provision for the children themselves. We provide specialised, specifically designed play-schemes and residential placement for children with the most complex and challenging needs within that framework. We therefore try hard, not only to offer a wide provision of care and statemented educational need, but especially to recognise the additional disability which often comes with the need about which we are primarily talking.
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Finally, we recognise that some parents want to take care of their children, keep them out of mainstream education and provide that service themselves. We have 28 families who receive direct payment to arrange their own support in that respect. They are very brave and courageous parents who take a difficult decision.

My sister was a teacher, but she resigned from teaching because she had a boy of 15, now 19, who was in a serious road accident. Although that is not an example of special educational needs, there was a special need and she decided that she wanted to look after the boy. She has taken on a lifetime of service in that respect. I am aware of the range of difficulties, and we in Northamptonshire try hard to meet them.

Our number of out-of-county authority placements is also low. We have six out-of-county placements for every 10,000 people, against an average of 8.3 per 10,000 in the country. We believe that that is right. However, we must make as much effort as we can to ensure that we have good provision in our county, because out-of-county placement is so expensive and crippling to a county council budget when it is not controlled. We have a good record on in-county provision, but we want to do more.

It is worth recognising how much the service costs the council tax payer in Northamptonshire. Our budget is £4.7 million and rising dramatically for SEN specifically. Together with the £1.7 million for disability, that is a sizeable part of our social services budget. I want to impress on the Minister that it is that part of the budget that is rising most dramatically—I am sure that I do not need to do so, but it is important to highlight that area of concern, because not only is my county under serious pressure with regard to financing such services, there is a general malaise and problem throughout the country that we must face if we want to provide disadvantaged children with the best possible lifestyle chances. There is not one person in the House or the wider world who would not agree with that objective. The problem is how do we provide the resource to do so? Costs are rising dramatically.

Let me tell hon. Members how out-of-county costs for Northamptonshire have risen in the past three years: in 2002–03  they rose by 16 per cent., in 2003–04 they increased by 8 per cent., and in 2004–05 they rose by yet another 11 per cent. That has a massive impact on children's services, with which the RSG clearly does not keep pace. Indeed, I wonder whether it can in the present funding framework. This is about keeping pace with need in a world that is becoming ever more complicated.

My county has another problem, because although some 5.6 per cent. of all moneys for SEN and disability with SEN needs comes from the health service nationally, in Northamptonshire we have no contribution. That is another problem that we must deal with. Perhaps we should do so locally and be better advocates for those children with our local health providers. I am not laying the charge at the Government's door; I am simply saying that the problem exists and that we must do something about it.

Cost is a major problem and I shall highlight it briefly because I do not want to bore hon. Members with statistics. A 38-week placement for a deaf pupil costs £30,000 a year; a 38-week placement for a pupil with behavioural difficulties costs £45,000 a year; a 52-week
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placement for pupils with profound and multiple learning difficulties costs £84,000; more special cases may cost £160,000 or £170,000 a year. That has a massive impact on local government budgets that are already under pressure and will be under even greater pressure. The cost of placement in our local schools is lower, mainly because of the non-residential element, and varies between £10,000 and £20,000. It makes sense to try to provide the extra help and support that parents need.

I have described a problem, but we are beginning to see it as a crisis. I fear that this year, the prophesised revenue support grant settlement—we have yet to see whether those prophesies are true—will cause even greater pressure. The truth of the matter is that in my county and many other counties, authorities simply do not have enough money to do the job. I know that every Department hears the plea that there is never enough money, but we are losing the race for SEN children, particularly SEN children with disabilities. We are losing the race.

We do not receive enough money because the RSG does not keep pace and we have overspent our children's budget. Every year, we put it up by a sizeable amount, but we cannot keep pace. We have some success, including with people from different counties, particularly in autism, but that success generates a need for further expenditure, which is difficult to keep up with. The Minister knows that money for placement does not flow into the county for about three years. It takes that long for the process to recognise placement. I see the Minister's officials looking quizzical, but that is what my county officials tell me and I can only relay what they tell me. Northamptonshire has been a growth county for some years, as have others, and that makes the cash lag worse. It will get worse, because we are an important part of the sustainable communities programme, which will add heavily to our problems.

I want to move on quickly because I am taking too much time. I shall not talk about medical science saving more children with severe disabilities, about early intervention being a vital part of the process, or about the fact that less out-of-county care means that more respite care is required for parents, but I want to make a plea to the Minister. We are finding more cost-effective ways of dealing with the problem but we are losing the battle for resources. We need help with our higher costs and our growth agenda and with the delay in funding that I have mentioned. I know that it is hard for the Minister when appeals are made to her—we all recognise the serious need in this area—but I appeal to her to use all her skills with her colleagues in the Treasury to recognise that alleviating the problem is important to the wider community and vital if we are to give these children, many of whom have severe disabilities, the opportunity to enjoy at least some of the lifestyle that we take for granted.

11.50 am

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), who is able to bring his wide experience as a county councillor and his deep knowledge of these problems to bear on the
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subject before us. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on securing this important debate. I declare an interest, because I have a son of six who is mildly autistic. As a parent, I know the many challenges that one must face to secure a child's needs. I shall not go into too much detail on that, but I will make one or two points that have been brought home to me through my own experience.

I turn to the statementing process and the assessment of special needs. Most parents assume that once they have secured a statement everything will move forward smoothly and slot into place, and that everything will work out satisfactorily and favourably for parent and child. In some cases, that undoubtedly happens. Some LEAs are very good indeed at implementing statements and ensuring that the child's needs are examined and fulfilled. However, I am afraid that, all too often, the reverse is the case. Every MP and councillor and many parents know only too well that that is only the start of the process and that, time and again, they will have to take the case to a tribunal.

Many constituents have come to me with cases that one would have thought should have proceeded simply, but have not, and they have had to go to a tribunal. I had to take our case to a tribunal because the LEA—which was not Norfolk; I shall not say which it was—did not give us what we needed. Therefore, I know only too well how the tribunal system works. It is not straightforward and the costs are significant; the stress is enormous and the uncertainty is extremely undesirable and unpleasant.

Mrs. Dorries : My hon. Friend is a capable and able person who is intelligent and of means. One main issue is that many parents who do not have such ability or means cannot take a case to tribunal. The chair of the tribunal says that cases cost between £2,000 and £10,000, which puts it out of the reach of people who do not have the advantages of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Bellingham : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for not only making a flattering remark but anticipating precisely the point that I was coming to. If people such as we have a child who has special needs, we have the motivation and, probably, the financial muscle to take the case to a tribunal, but the vast majority of parents are not in that position. Dozens of parents have come to me in absolute despair because the statement that they have secured from the LEA is not delivering. Their only way out of the quagmire is to plead with officials or go to county councillors or MPs, or to take the case to tribunal. Very often, the latter course of action is completely beyond their financial resources. The Minister should consider funding for parents to take cases to tribunals because, as far as I am aware, no legal aid is available. Perhaps it should be possible in extreme circumstances for legal aid to be granted to parents. That would be for the Department for Constitutional Affairs to examine in some detail. I would like the Minister to comment on that matter when she winds up the debate.

It is not even the end of the process when a tribunal award or recommendation is made, because what it recommends must be implemented by the LEA. Some LEAs are very proactive, sympathetic and professional at implementing a tribunal's recommendations and
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judgment, but others put every possible obstacle in the way of implementation. Parents in my constituency have come to me saying, "Well, this is what the tribunal said but the LEA is not acting on it." Far from acting on it, in some cases the LEA is extremely difficult, and obstructs the parents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South, who drew on his substantial and wide experience as a county councillor, talked about funding, a matter also raised by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), who made a very fair and balanced contribution to the debate. Funding is at the root of the dilemma, because every LEA will look at its budget and at what a tribunal may recommend and ask how it can afford the extra provision, time and support that the tribunal may insist on. LEAs know that the only way that they can afford that is by taking money from other services in education.

I think that the hon. Member for Luton, North suggested ring-fenced funding for special needs provision, which the Minister should consider carefully, proactively and with imagination. Drawing on my experience of the many constituents who have come to my surgery over the years, I believe that the problem will not go away until there is some ring-fenced funding for the LEA to make a commitment to parents and families that special needs assistance will flow to the child and follow them to give them the help that they require.

I am very concerned about the closure of special schools. If those schools close, the present situation will get worse and worse. There are two excellent special schools in my constituency: the Alderman Jackson school, which caters for children with very severe physical and mental difficulties, and the Ethel Tipple school, which caters for children with mild and slightly more serious autistic and learning difficulties who may go into mainstream schools or who may have come from them.

If the Minister visits the Ethel Tipple school, she will see for herself that many of the children will have a chance to go into mainstream education, as many of the parents, and the school, hope they will. However, some will not; there is a pattern that some children start off in mainstream primary schools, find that they cannot cope in a secondary school and then go across to the Ethel Tipple school where they are given a lot of extra help. The school caters for their special needs in a caring, imaginative environment. If those children stayed in mainstream education they would become disruptive, lose concentration and damage the progress of the whole school. That is why special schools are needed so badly.

I hope that the two schools in my constituency will stay open, but throughout the country more and more of those schools are closing. I am in the same position as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire: I am not in any way against mainstream education, but some children cannot cope in mainstream schools. That is the point.

The Minister must respond to the criticism levelled at the Government: why does the White Paper not address the problem relating to the future of special schools? It contains little about special needs education or the Government's policy towards special schools. Why are they closing? What will happen to the children who are
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then put in mainstream schools? What will happen to children who do not have statements or whose parents cannot take them to tribunals? What will happen to those many children in mainstream classes who will suffer the disruption and all the associated problems that flow from a lack of understanding of a small minority of pupils' special needs?

I hope that the Minister will be able to answer those questions. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire on instigating this important debate, which I hope will be the start of some real progress by the Government. I have to say, however, that I am not holding my breath.

12.1 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) for securing the debate.

This is the first occasion on which I have spoken officially for my party. I am therefore lucky that there is a huge amount of consensus across the Chamber—although that consensus is a result of the merits of the case that the hon. Lady made.

We have heard about Members' experiences as parents and on local authorities, particularly Northamptonshire. Before I was elected, I was a teacher for 12 years, so I have some front-line experience of these matters. My experiences do not lead me to deviate from any of the messages that we have heard, but they are useful.

I reiterate our thanks to the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. I find it difficult to disagree with much of what she said. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) summed up the issue of special needs when he said that it is governed by ideology and money. Like many others, I consider myself a proponent of inclusivity in the mainstream, tempered by the reality of the situation.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) spoke about his frustration as a county councillor who wants to deliver what needs to be delivered but is unable to do so. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) spoke about his frustration with the statementing and tribunal processes, and many people's inability to access those. I shall focus on the failures of the statementing system, which all too often does not have the confidence of parents and, ultimately, does not benefit pupils. I shall also focus on the need for increased capacity and training for teachers to deliver special needs education.

The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire spoke about the vagaries and inadequacies of teacher training, to which I can relate. Before I embarked on a career in the classroom, I had two hours' special needs training. Many issues that we have discussed did not cross the lecturer's lips. It is as stark as that.

I have read in "Removing Barriers to Achievement" what the Government intend to do, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it is clear that the statementing system is not working as it should. If it is not working in the mainstream, it is not working in special schools. The Government rightly talk about early intervention. That phrase conjures up the right motives from the Government. Early intervention is essential, yet parents still experience delays of months and even years in getting initial assessments.
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Increasingly there are problems with the text of statements. Local education authorities often word statements imprecisely, with the result that statements do not provide the entitlement to provision that parents expect. Campaigners also point to the huge volume of paperwork involved in getting statements. All those factors present a parent of a child with special educational needs with huge hurdles.

I want the statementing system to be reformed. In particular, we must counter the adversarial relationship that it creates between parents and local authorities—parents somehow blame local authorities when funding is at stake—between schools and local authorities and between parents and schools. The teachers are left in the middle. They know the direction in which those children should go, but they are denied the support and the means to achieve that. That was very much the evidence of a recent report in The Times Educational Supplement, in which teachers spoke of the need for special schools.

Statements provide a right for children. Local authorities all too often become involved in battles with parents in tribunals. The money argument that the hon. Member for Luton, North raised is all too often the governing motivation. Those scenarios are not as extreme as we might think. We are talking about 3 per cent. of the children of this country potentially being involved in such situations. The Government have to make parents clear on all their rights. We need to consider making the process simpler.

Kelvin Hopkins : I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's reference to 3 per cent. of children, which represents an enormous number. Would he be surprised by the recent suggestion in a survey that one in 10 of our children suffers from a degree of mental disorder? So, we are talking about a third of those.

Mark Williams : I am grateful for that intervention. The other telling statistic is that 20 per cent. of children in the mainstream will have some requirement for special needs provision. That is very important.

The Government policy of early intervention is crucial, yet there remains considerable concern that the resources and the capacity still are not in place. That financial point was made effectively by the hon. Member for Northampton, South. My professional experience leaves me in no doubt that in the mainstream a huge number of children are working at school action and action-plus levels of the special needs register when they should be further up the register and should have access statements. Whether or not that is the position on children with moderate learning difficulties, it is, as we heard, certainly the case for those with severe learning difficulties.

There is no stark choice and there should not be one. We need the mainstream option, special schools attachment units and residential homes. We could go down the line of a moratorium, which I know is being proposed by other Opposition Members, but I would caution against that. I empathise and I am against closure, but I am concerned about whether such an option could damage some of the sensible reorganisations that local authorities are undertaking.
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Inclusion, of course, makes sense, but it cannot be the universal option. Nevertheless, a policy of inclusion without teacher training and dedicated funding will encounter, and has encountered, considerable problems. Teacher training must improve if teachers are to be able to cope with the unique demands of special needs education.

I remember one of my first few days in a particular school. I was summoned to the head teacher's office and told that in a few minutes' time I would acquire a little boy who was profoundly deaf. I had no background in sign language—I have catalogued the inadequacies of teacher training, particularly post-graduate courses. I had had no training, and nor was it forthcoming. In time, I was blessed with a special needs assistant and incredibly supportive parents who fought hard to ensure that the terms of the statement were adhered to. There were times when we muddled through, but muddling through was not good enough for that little boy. By rights, he should have had more, and the system let him down.

That was borne out by the Ofsted report on special needs and disabilities, which talked of schools being committed to the needs of pupils but their not having the experience, the skills and the resources to make the provision that they wanted. What work has been undertaken to ensure that newly qualified teachers and teachers in colleges are receiving the professional development and training that they initially need? That subject was catalogued in "Removing Barriers to Achievement".

I support the expansion of the numbers of SEN centres of excellence. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire quoted the example of the special school in the north. I hope that it will not be turned into a centre of excellence; such work should not militate against existing special schools where they are working.

I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Luton, North about a review of whether the whole statementing process should be managed by an independent organisation. Such an organisation would never be free from the shackles of financial control, but it would be far stronger than local education authorities. Such a measure would also help us to get rid of the conflict of interest that LEAs face and, in particular, it would allow speedy decisions to be made.

The big thing that emerges in my dealings with parents and LEAs is frustration. We could jazz this debate up in technical jargon, but at the end of the day it is all about the children.

12.11 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on securing the debate and on the way in which she opened it. She set out clearly the context of the debate, and recognised that inclusion is to be welcomed—it is something to be positive about—but that in some cases it has gone too far, to the detriment of many of the children in our schools.

The Times Educational Supplement conducted a survey of professionals in this field in October. Its findings were interesting. Two in three secondary heads and one in three primary head teachers said that some of their pupils should be in a special school and that they have been let down by the system, and four out of five
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teachers and heads in mainstream schools favour an end to further closures of special schools. There should be a recognition that the landscape is changing. The barriers that existed when Baroness Warnock produced her report in the early '80s have come down, and there is more inclusion in mainstream schools, but the process needs to be looked at again.

The Ofsted report "Special educational needs and disability: Towards inclusive schools" was quite critical of the way in which some schools tackled the education of children with SEN. One of its comments was:

Sadly, that comment was reserved for a minority of schools, not the majority.

Mr. Francois : May I bear out what my hon. Friend is saying from my experiences as a constituency MP? That issue has increasingly cropped up in my visits to schools, particularly in the last year. Many teachers in mainstream schools want to try to include children whom they think they can help, but they also realise that there are some children who cannot practically be helped in mainstream schooling. Resistance is growing among teachers. They are increasingly having foisted on them children whom, despite all their best efforts, they do not have adequate resources to help.

Mr. Hoban : As ever, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. We need to listen to professionals and parents who recognise that the environment is changing and that what might have been appropriate five or six years ago might not be appropriate now. Government and LEAs need to be much more nimble about understanding the way in which the environment has changed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire rightly pointed out that the presumption in favour of mainstream schools in the 2001 Act is leading to a systemic bias towards the mainstream, and working against providing a greater choice of special schools for parents and their children.

Mrs. Villiers : Does my hon. Friend agree that securing SENs that are tailored to the child—they might be in the mainstream or in a special school—is important not only for reasons of social justice but to tackling antisocial behaviour, because, sadly, many SEN children who are failed by the education system end up on our streets causing trouble?

Mr. Hoban : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. A high proportion of people in prison suffer from some form of SEN—such as dyslexia or autism—which limited their progress in school and led to antisocial behaviour.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) made a thoughtful speech. I wish in particular to pick up on his point about nature versus nurture in respect of behavioural issues. A disappointingly large proportion of young people in pupil referral units have statements and might be better placed in an EBD school—a school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties—where they can get support that is tailored to their needs. In looking at behaviour in
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schools, we need to be careful to understand the root cause and what the correct solutions to the underlying issues might be. We must continue to have a debate about this matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) made a powerful speech, which highlighted one of the issues touched on by all contributors to the debate: the tensions that local education authorities face in providing sufficient resources to meet the needs of children with SEN. I will deal with that shortly.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): My hon. Friend touches on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South about resources. Does he recognise what I am seeing across my constituency and what I think is happening in other London boroughs, which is a change in the number of statements given—a restriction on statements? That is perhaps a way of controlling resources. It leads on to what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said, which is that a number of people experience the problem that they need to go to a tribunal because of a lack of flexibility in the statement, particularly if they want to keep their children within the inclusiveness of the school, but they need to pull them down a year and the statement does not allow that.

Mr. Hoban : My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Interestingly, the number of new statements made has fallen since 1997. At a time when many of us have seen an increase in need in our constituencies, perhaps involving children on the autistic spectrum, we have seen a decrease in the number of statements, from 35,650 in 1997 to 26,000 in 2004. We need to understand why there are fewer statements when most people's expectation is that the number should have gone up in that time.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk demonstrated his interest and expertise in this matter. He was right, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire, to remark on the barriers to taking a local education authority to a tribunal. I am thinking of the cost barriers. There was an account of a parent in Hampshire who spent £2,000 on obtaining reports for a tribunal. That illustrates the adversarial nature of the statementing system, to which I shall return.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) on making his debut speech from the Front Bench. We agreed with much of what he said and I hope that the consensus in the debate so far will continue when the Minister speaks shortly.

Many see the process of statementing as adversarial. Parents see the LEA as assessor, funder and provider and see the tension and conflict in that relationship. That undermines in their minds the integrity of and trust in the statementing process. That is why I am delighted to say that, this morning, a commission set up by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) set out suggestions on how the statementing process could be reformed to take the decision about funding and assessment out of the hands of the LEA by setting up a national body to tackle the issue. That would enable parents to have confidence in the outcome of the
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statementing process, and LEAs would not feel trapped in the tension between in-county and out-of-county placements, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South referred.

This morning's publication by the commission is an important contribution to the debate, particularly on statementing, which I think for many parents causes the most problems. They want a statementing process on which they can rely. LEAs would welcome, I hope, a statementing process that takes some of the conflict out of the system, so that they can focus on the principal task of providing for children's needs. Such a process would also increase the choice available to parents, an issue on which we campaigned at the election. We believe that choice is important for children with special educational needs. It is important that there is a choice of a mainstream school or a special school and that parents can find the right support for their children wherever they live and do not face a postcode lottery in respect of provision.

A lot of common sense has been spoken by the participants in this valuable debate. I hope that the Minister recognises that the debate on special educational needs must move on if we are to meet the needs of parents and children, particularly the growing needs in relation to Asperger's and to behaviour, where more support is needed rather than less.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle) : I am glad to be able to contribute to what has been a very good debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on securing it and on the way in which she expressed her views. The debate has clearly created a lot of interest among hon. Members on both sides of the House and it has been positive. It behoves us all to try to secure what consensus is available on the way forward on this issue. All those who have contributed to the debate have said that it is not easy. There are never enough resources, no matter how much they increase. Even since the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, there has been an increase in spending from £2.8 billion to £4.1 billion. We are talking not about declining resources—far from it—but of a recognition in society more generally of the rights of those young and older children who have been ignored and at the poorer end of provision in the past.

We are trying to put right the historical anomalies of lack of support and help over the years. Such matters are neither easy nor cheap. We should do what we can to promote a consensus across parties, when that is available. In that spirit, I welcome the reference by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) to the commission. I shall read with interest its interim findings and suggestions. It is not and never has been the Government's policy to force children into mainstream schools. I welcome the fact that parties have recognised—

Mrs. Dorries : Will the Minister give way?

Maria Eagle : I will, if the hon. Lady lets me finish my sentence. I welcome the fact that there has been a
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recognition across parties that inclusion can be good and right for many of our children. It is a matter of where the line is drawn, which has come through in contributions to the debate.

Mrs. Dorries : It is kind of the Minister to give way. I understand the Government's position, but LEAs interpreted the 2001 Act as the Government's intention that all children should be included in mainstream schools. That is the LEAs' interpretation, not necessarily the way in which the Act is written. Perhaps more guidance needs to be given to LEAs.

Maria Eagle : I am rarely asked to provide yet more guidance to LEAs. The hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) might have something to say if I did. There is a code of practice. We also produce substantial elaboration of the Government's policy and set out how it should be implemented at local levels. Things are then left to local authorities. I do not doubt that some interpret provisions differently, but none of them should interpret them to mean that the Government's policy is to include all children in mainstream education. That is nonsensical and not sensible. It is not the Government's policy.

We want choice for parents. As the hon. Lady said, some parents want mainstream education. For many parents, it is absolutely possible and right that their children should be educated in the mainstream, and we support that. It is clear, however, that the population of children with special educational needs is changing. There are increasing numbers of children with profound and complex impairments and learning difficulties. She referred specifically to Asperger's and autistic spectrum disorders. Local provision has to change to meet those changing needs and it is doing so.

Since the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, local authorities—not Ministers—make decisions about school reorganisations and closures. That is right. They have to secure sufficient schools for the children in their area. They must pay particular regard to the need for the provision of special educational needs. They have to listen to parents and consult. If there are proposals to close a special school, they must be published and consulted on widely, as well as discussed with parents. If there were a dispute, the school's adjudicator, who is independent of the Government and of the local authority, would make a decision. That is the right way in which to deal with such issues; it is not for Whitehall to revert to type pre-1998 and decree which schools should open and which schools should close. Good as they are at many things, my officials are not in the best position to do that. In local areas, such matters should be decided on the basis of national policies, but decided by local people. That is the current position.

It is true that special schools have closed over the years, as the population of children with special educational needs has changed. Some 234 closed between 1986 and 1997; 122 have closed since then. Local arrangements have led to fewer special schools closing. I should also make the point that special schools often close because they are moved to new buildings or premises or because there is new mainstream provision with attached units. Such provision might be better for some children; they would be close to a mainstream
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school and have experience of both types of schooling. The issue is not just one of special schools closing, bad; special schools opening, good.

However, I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and others: special school provision is vital. My hon. Friend referred to ideology; I have never heard him do that before. It is clear that there is ideology both ways in the disability movement. However, in the Government we do not allow that to sway us too much.

Kelvin Hopkins : The way to find out what happens at local level is to compare what happens in different local authorities. Perhaps different chief education officers have different ideologies and approaches. The Minister might see that in the pattern of references.

Maria Eagle : I see that my hon. Friend really does think that ideology and money drive everything, and perhaps there is a grain of truth in what he says. The point that I need to make is that we do not intend to close special schools. That sometimes happens in school reorganisations, but the law is clear that local authorities must have regard to the needs of special needs pupils and make sure that there is sufficient provision to meet those needs. How that is done will change over time and that is why some of these things occur.

Before I run out of time, I want to respond to one or two of the points made by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. She suggested that the schools White Paper and the increasing choice agenda in schools would mean that children with special educational needs in particular would be disadvantaged. She also said that disabled children were being excluded on grounds of disruption or whatever. I do not deny that that happens sometimes; in individual cases, it does. However, under the duties in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which were extended to include schools under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, it is not—

Mrs. Dorries rose—

Maria Eagle : Will the hon. Lady let me finish? Under the 2001 Act, schools are not allowed to discriminate
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against disabled people by excluding them on the basis of behaviour arising out of their disability. I am not saying that that means it never happens; I am not naive enough to think that a change in the law is never broken. However, if such an exclusion happens, there are routes that families ought to take to get redress. It is not right to discriminate against a child on the basis of their disability; that is illegal.

Mrs. Dorries : For the purposes of clarity, I should say that when I made those comments, I did not mean physically disabled children. My comments were made in the context of zero-tolerance behaviour management in the classroom. The education White Paper clearly states that schools are to take a new route towards discipline in the classroom. Children with special educational needs, such as autistic children or those with Asperger's syndrome, find it difficult to behave in such an environment. That is the context in which I made my remarks.

Maria Eagle : The hon. Lady is making my point for me. No children should be excluded on the basis of behaviour shown as a result of their disability—that would be a breach of the 1995 Act. I know that she is trying to have a dialogue with me. I have told her that I am saying not that such exclusions never happen because the law has changed, but that they are illegal and that redress is available that needs to be taken up by Members of Parliament, parents or whoever until the teaching profession and others in education realise that it is now against the law to exclude in that way, notwithstanding any push on behaviour in classrooms and schools. Such a push would not justify discriminating against children with special educational needs.

Unfortunately, I have nowhere near enough time to deal with all the excellent points made. However, I should like to make it clear that we have had an excellent debate on an issue that we will come back to. I agree very much with Members who said that there are difficulties with the statementing process—particularly the tribunals. They are quasi—

Mr. John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. We must now move on to the next debate.
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