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19 Apr 2006 : Column 131WH—continued

Special Needs (Somerset)

4.55 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate, on a very sensitive and important issue that affects us all.

The very term "special needs" places pupils and their parents in a separate category with labels all of their own, not all of which are complimentary. They are different—they did not mean to be different, but they are. People with special needs do not automatically slot into any mainstream. In the textbook of education, they are unfortunately classed as not normal, which is a harsh thing to say. Special needs covers a multiplicity of factors that can influence a child's schooling at all stages, levels and ages. Some children may be struggling to overcome dyslexia, as I am. Quite often, their home life is also strained in many ways.

Disabilities of mind, body, behaviour, upbringing and spirit can all qualify for the strange status and mythical term "special needs." Society, with commendable politeness, puts every person with special needs, including myself as a dyslexic, down as "challenging people," which is a difficult term.

In Somerset, we owe a great debt of gratitude to the dedication and professionalism of the men and women who run the county's education service, especially Jon Rose, who heads it, and Mike Turner, who looks after all special needs teaching. They are two exemplary people. Without their efforts, special—or, dare I say, challenging—people would require something extra from state schooling and could be considerably worse off. I have no gripe with the specialists and staff at the sharp end, but—there is always a "but," as the Minister knows—I have a real concern about the financial decision making at local and national level. That is why I asked for this debate.

The town of Minehead in west Somerset is probably best known for Butlins—it has the largest Butlins—buckets and spades, normally in that order. However, for a resident of the town with a child who fits into the category of special needs, there is a wonderful facility available at the Minehead first school, an excellent school that has recently had a top-flight report. The question is, how long will the accountants allow it to stay? Rather like what is happening in the NHS to cash-strapped hospitals desperately trying to balance their books, the money for special needs seems to matter more than actually meeting the needs.

Somerset county council plans to close six special needs units. When I say the county council, I mean the elected leadership. It is unfortunately a political plan. The people who will be left to make it work will do their utmost to stretch resources and to provide as much care as they can. If they fail, what transpires will lie squarely at the feet of the elected councillors.

Minehead is not the only place that will be seriously affected by the new policy. However, it typifies the geographical layout, unfortunately, of much of the county of Somerset. I wonder whether the Minister has ever been to Minehead.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle ) indicated dissent.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger : The Minister shakes her head; I urge her to come, she would love it. I would supply her,
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if she likes, with good maps and a list of useful items that she should bring, such as buckets and spades. She should certainly look around the area.

The point that I am trying to make is that Minehead is a long way down a meandering and overcrowded road. It is a long way from anywhere else. It is not easy to get to and public transport already leaves an enormous amount to be desired. The sheer distance between communities makes the provision of all educational needs much more arduous and extremely financially complex. If facilities in the six special needs units are withdrawn, the consequences are obvious: either the children will physically have to travel further, or the specialist staff that remain in the schools will have to make longer journeys instead. For society—for all of us—either course carries a high price.

I am told that the proposed solution for Minehead will be a small specialist unit based within the area, possibly at our college or middle school, and the staff will have a remit to travel around the different schools in the area—to give the Chamber some idea of the scale, London fits easily into west Somerset—as a sort of flying squad of educational specialists. It sounds workable at first, I agree, but there will probably be only four specialists, who will all have to spend several hours a day simply getting about. The sums do not seem to add up. The time for being with each child will be more and more limited.

I am concerned mainly as the Member of Parliament who represents west Somerset and Bridgwater, but I have always listened with great interest and reasoned care to organisations of parents who have children at special needs units in Somerset and who are trying to protect the existing services. I pay tribute to their determined stance. Let me quote briefly what they have written about the proposed change. They say:

Those are strong words from the parents of children with all manner of behavioural and other disabilities.

The bully's name is Councillor Gloria Cawood, who holds the education brief for the county of Somerset. She has apparently accused the parents of self-interest, as though the provision of special needs was like building a new housing estate. She has not put it so brutally, but I think that she thinks that those people are nimbys in their crudest form. Politicians, we all know, do not always hit it off with pressure groups, but they ought to go out of their way to be careful when it comes to dealing with the parents of children with special needs. Such parents do not form a pressure group in ignorance. They are informed and well aware of how complex the issues are, and as they have to deal with children with special needs every single day of their lives—they live with them, they are their children—they understand the cost and, quite often, the pain. They are always the first to praise the professionals who help, without a shadow of a doubt.
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Mrs. Cawood has made some very influential enemies. I understand and accept that the Minister holds no responsibility for Somerset county council, but I hope that she will join me in wishing an early end to the misunderstandings that have arisen and a beginning to sensible discussion. Only by dialogue can the problems be resolved to the benefit of those children.

Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) cannot be in the Chamber because of other priorities in the House. However, he has been in contact with the group whose views I have just quoted. He told me that he has penned an open letter to the county council voicing his concern as the Member of Parliament for Taunton. I am delighted that he has finally got off the fence—rah, rah! I would have liked him to have made a contribution, but unfortunately he cannot. He does, however, realise the importance of helping the children at all levels.

Perhaps it is because special needs span such a wide range of human difficulties that we politicians are guilty of trying to avoid the issues. The more we look at the subject, the bigger the problems seem to become, and, as the Minister knows, the more money they cost to tackle. Our system of distributing resources is seriously flawed. Governments of any persuasion provide cash to local education authorities and prefer not to be involved unless something goes badly wrong. We have all had experience of that in our constituencies. The fault is almost always somebody else's and unfortunately the buck never stops.

The Minister will probably regale the Chamber with details of the generosity of her Administration. That is fine. bit I have little doubt that more money is still needed, not only for Somerset but throughout the whole nation, especially in rural areas, given the great distances and problems that they face. So many people choose to ignore or do not understand the issue of rural deprivation. Perhaps other counties argue their cases with more fervour and get a bigger slice of the available cake. I do not know, but surely more resources are needed for everybody—surely an issue as complex and sensitive as special needs deserves and should receive a more flexible approach.

Right now about 90 children in Somerset are deemed to require such special needs help that the county has to export them to get it. Those 90 children go to neighbouring counties at Somerset's expense. However, the numbers are similar in most English counties; for example, Devon sends Somerset some of its own children and Somerset thus recoups precious cash. That is the norm. If special needs provision is to be left to the counties to administer, surely that is an odd manifestation of best practice. I am not saying that it should not happen, but I wonder why it does and would be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

My investigations into this complicated area of policy have local and personal origins. Dyslexia runs in my family. I have two dyslexic daughters and I have made it my business to seek the best specialist advice available. As a parent, I have consulted Britain's foremost authorities on special needs. When I met one of the three most renowned experts in the country, of whom I believe the Minister is aware, I was very surprised to learn that none of those three had discussed special needs with any
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Minister; in fact, they have never been to the Department to talk about the overall picture of special needs.

Given that Professors Ricky Richardson, David Skuse and Richard Kitney are among the three best brains in the country when it comes to assessing special needs and advising on treatment, that lack of contact is a serious oversight. I ask the Minister whether she would be prepared to extend an invitation to those three gentlemen so that she can talk to them about the future of special needs—not merely in relation to me or anyone else, but in relation to the whole country—to ascertain the best way to help special needs children. The children must always remain the priority.

My purpose today has been to highlight the real concern in my constituency. It is the pressure on the country and the problems that lie ahead for professionals and parents alike that are the cause of my concern. I would be delighted to do what I can to help the Minister reach a decision on the best way to help children throughout the United Kingdom.

5.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) not only on obtaining the debate, which is on an important subject—especially so in his area at the moment—but also on the way in which he set out his concerns. I share his objective of securing better outcomes for children with special educational needs in Somerset, given that I used to be Minister for disabled people. I would prefer to call children with special educational needs disabled children, because they equate to that similar group.

It is unfortunate that some recent debates on the subject were based on a fundamental misconception of Government policy, particularly in relation to special schools and special provisions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is categorically not the Government's policy to close special schools or to force children into mainstream education irrespective of their needs, their parents' wishes or of any support that they might receive.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned politics, and I know that in some instances local decision makers have resorted to alleging that they are driven by pressure from elsewhere. When one looks at the legal powers, one can see that the argument is not sustainable. None the less, it can gain currency. It is not the Government's policy to have inclusion at all costs. However, it is our policy to ensure, when suitable, if the parents want it and if it is likely to help, that disabled children should have access to mainstream education in greater numbers than in the past, when it was too easily assumed that separation was best. As a consequence of such policies, many young disabled children did not receive the quality of education that they deserved, and it set them off in life with a disadvantage that was hard to overcome.

Some argue that inclusion has gone too far. However, although the number of special schools has declined over recent years, the number of children taught in them has remained broadly constant at around 1.2 per cent. of the total school population. Everyone in the Chamber believes that it is the quality of the child's
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educational experience that is important, and not where they are taught. Children can thrive in different settings, even at different times of the day. There is nothing wrong with having specialist provision in a mainstream setting where, if suitable, children can switch between one and the other, but it depends on the individual needs of the children and the capacity of those settings to meet such needs. There is no dogma: we want what is best for children. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that that is what he seeks.

Our policy, clearly stated in our long-term strategy document "Removing Barriers to Achievement", is to build capacity across the system by encouraging local authorities to develop a continuum of provision through building the capacity of mainstream and special schools to cope with that range of needs, co-locating special and mainstream schools when sensible, and promoting collaboration between schools in order to share expertise.

As has always been the case, changes will continue to be made to individual schools, both special and mainstream, in the light of local needs and demands. Local authorities and schools are best placed to respond to the needs of pupils within their area. It would not be sensible for me to spend my time sat at a desk in Whitehall making decisions about school reorganisations in Somerset or anywhere else. We do not want to return to that way of doing things.

Thinking about what is best for children is what I assume is going on in Somerset. I assume that that is what is behind the plans for reorganisation in other places, too. I emphasise, however, that the Government's aim is to improve outcomes for disabled children; it is not to marginalise or ignore their needs, nor is it to use reorganisation as a way of making provision worse. Plans that emerge, although being locally determined, should demonstrably make improvements and should make things better for disabled children.

The hon. Gentleman may well be aware that, from December this year, all public sector bodies, including local authorities and schools, will come under a duty to promote the equality of opportunity of disabled people generally, including disabled children. Proper chances at school will be a key part of those bodies being able to demonstrate that they are fulfilling that duty, which is being brought in under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that I might talk about the great generosity of the Government in terms of increased funding. I am obviously extremely predictable; I was going to make brief mention of the fact that there has been a big increase in funding. There is no doubt about that. Certainly, between 1997–98 and 2003–04, there was a big increase in extra funding for special educational needs, both in per-pupil terms and overall through specific special grants. Between 2001–02 and 2005–06, the spend went from £2.8 billion to £4.1 billion, specifically in respect of special needs, and there has been an increase of £360 million through special grants. Somerset has had its share of that; its increase is just slightly under the average.

So there is no doubt that there has been more money, but in the current spending review there have also been additional opportunities through the "building schools for the future" programme, which is worth more than £2 billion a year. That provides a stimulus and investment
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for local authorities so that they can transform the pattern of local provision for children with special educational needs and disabled children and put particular emphasis on co-locating mainstream and specialist provision for children with special educational needs.

I hope that the suggestions being made in Somerset will lead to an improvement in outcomes for disabled children; that is what the authorities ought to aim to do. However, it is a matter for local decision. As is the case with the hon. Gentleman, my local council does not happen to be under the political control of the party of which I am a member, so there can be substantial debates locally about issues such as schools reorganisation. Of course I agree absolutely that we should listen to parent pressure groups because they really are the experts, and know on a day-to-day basis the precise impact on individual children of what can sometimes seem like bureaucratic and process-based changes.

On the decision in Somerset, I think that the council has decided to make the changes. It has gone with option 3, I think, which will mean something to people in Somerset. It will now have to justify that, via the process of the school organisation committee, which has a decision-making capacity. If there is no consensus—it does not seem that there is, from what the hon. Gentleman said, and from what I have been told—the independent schools adjudicator will make the final decision.

I hope that everybody concerned in the area will look to improve outcomes for the disabled children who will be affected and their parents. That has got to mean listening carefully to what parents have to say, although it does not necessarily mean acceding to everything that they suggest. In that respect, I endorse the hon. Gentleman's call for sensible discussion locally. That has got to be the next step, now that the council has decided what it wants to do on the basis of its various options. There has to be even more consultation and proper listening, so that parents feel a part of the process and that their concerns have been listened to, and if the council is to assuage their fears. They can then either agree with, or at least understand, what it is trying to do through the changes that it proposes.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the buck never stops, because central Government send money out and say, "Don't ask us to make a decision. Here's the money. You sort it all out. We want these kinds of outcomes." I think that the buck does stop; it tends to stop in local elections. When the power to make such decisions is at a local level, it is clear where the accountability lies. I am sure that at some stage the local electorate will decide whether whatever emerges from the proposals for change has worked. That is as it should be; the decision should be with the local electorate. I am sure that at some stage the parents will be able to make their views known in a highly effective way that makes politicians listen.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger : I do not disagree with the Minister. One problem, as she is aware, is that there is now a press blame game. The press are leading the agenda; they are pushing it forward. The Minister is right, but does she agree that we are talking about the most vulnerable parents, who do not have time to get
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involved in active politics because looking after the children for whom they are responsible—as we all are—takes up so much time on a day-to-day basis?

Maria Eagle : It sounds to me as though the parents are already involved in active politics, given that they have been seeing their local Members of Parliament from all parties and garnering support. That is my definition of some active involvement in local politics. As those who perhaps have more expertise, the parents would be listened to carefully by all local stakeholders. Some councillors and officials—I am not pointing fingers at particular people; I do not know any of them—may wish that the parents were a little quieter, but consultation and discussion locally is about listening as well as talking.

Between all sides, the matter will have to be resolved and one hopes that that will be done in a way that satisfies the vast majority and that there will be consensus. Certainly the hon. Gentleman and I agree—I hope that many people in Somerset, including parents, also agree—that the outcomes have to be better for the disabled children receiving teaching and support in the units proposed for closure. My understanding is that a significant transition period is proposed between now and when the closures are due to come into force. That helps, but clearly those making the proposals will have to do more convincing for stakeholders to accept them fully.

When I had a look at Somerset's reputation and its Ofsted reports, I saw that there were encouraging things to be said. I accept that Somerset's last Ofsted report was in January 2002 and so predates by some significant time the proposals that we are discussing. None the less, it is clear from the reports that there is some good practice and provision and that there are good arrangements to build on, which is encouraging. That must be a positive thing. We want better outcomes for all disabled children locally, but Somerset is not starting with a blank slate.

The hon. Gentleman said that more money was needed for rural areas. I hope that I have convinced him that there is more money. It sounds to me as though
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what is needed now is good old-fashioned negotiations and discussions among all the parties. I am sure that he and hon. Members of other political persuasions will be involved in ensuring that that process is as successful as possible. I hope that, as a result, the decision that is implemented and the arrangements that are finally made will do better by the children in the units proposed for closure. That is the bottom line. In no way would the hon. Gentleman, the Government or anyone else in this Room endorse any changes that made things harder or worse for disabled children. We want improved outcomes. The policy of the Government and the extra money that has been sent down to localities such as Somerset are clearly aimed at improving outcomes. We have to aspire for all our children and we do. I am sure that many people in Somerset apart from the parents do just that as well.

I note that the hon. Gentleman has family experience of dyslexia. He made points about experts who are around somewhere—in the Palace, as I understand it.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger : They are at Great Ormond Street and are probably three of the most distinguished experts in the United Kingdom. They work within London right across the spectrum of special needs.

Maria Eagle : The hon. Gentleman says that we are talking about a spectrum disorder and he knows better than I, because of his experience. Tackling spectrum disorders forms an important part of the Department's work in respect of moderate learning disability. We try to garner expertise and use it where we can.

In that regard, I am happy for my officials and, if there is a sensible point to it, for me to meet the people that the hon. Gentleman suggests. We have some links at departmental level with those who deal with dyslexia—for example, the British Dyslexia Association, with which he might be familiar. We funded the production of its resource pack for schools called "Achieving dyslexia friendly schools". Somerset is one of the better counties in that regard.

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