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Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke). In her opening speech the Minister paid tribute to Alf Morris, to whom the House owes a debt of gratitude. To paraphrase the late Iain Macleod, a debate on disabilities without the contribution or presence of the
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right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill would be a bit like a production of "Hamlet" without the gravediggers. [Laughter.]

Mr. Robathan : Was that a compliment?

Mr. Burns: It was.

The Government document on improving and enhancing the life quality of those suffering from disabilities ranges widely over many areas, but I should like to focus on two in particular. The first concerns education and children, albeit in a narrow and specific sense: children who suffer from dyslexia and dyspraxia. Dyspraxia, which is not as well known as dyslexia, is a neurological condition that causes children to suffer from varying degrees of short-term memory loss or concentration. It is becoming far more common place among young people, partly, I suspect, because it has only relatively recently been recognised and understood as a problem.

We have known about dyslexia for far longer. I find it staggering that I have been a Member of this House for 19 years—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]—and that it was only after I had been here for three years that my county council recognised the existence of dyslexia. One shudders to think what happened to children who previously were told that no such condition existed. Logically, no help was provided to assist them and to minimise their learning difficulties.

Great improvements have been made over the past 15 years, but there is still a problem with statementing children and thereby recognising the problems that they are having with dyslexia. The problem is even more acute with dyspraxia and identifying the assistance that children need to secure the same opportunity to a full education as any other child. Such children need to be assisted with extra lessons and help from special needs teachers. When they are statemented, which sometimes can be a long and time-consuming process, the problem is ensuring that they receive enough time and help from the teaching assistants and specialist teachers who are best qualified to assist them.

Dyspraxia remains less well understood and less well known. The help necessary is more complex, which in itself is a problem. Is it in the best interests of children with dyspraxia to remain in mainstream schools or to be educated in special educational schools that are devoted, conditioned and organised to give direct help? I believe that the latter is better. One cannot generalise because each child must be judged on his or her individual merits, but it is most unfair on children to be kept in a mainstream school if they cannot cope.

I know a little boy who suffers from dyslexia and dyspraxia. He started his educational life aged five in a mainstream school. It was two years before anyone, including his parents, realised that he suffered from dyslexia and dyspraxia. For those who do not fully understand some of the manifestations of dyspraxia, a five, six or seven-year-old boy with a short-term memory will not necessarily remember what he is being told. If parents ask that child something, particularly a multiple-choice request such as "Go upstairs, put your pyjamas on, put your slippers in the bathroom and bring the towel downstairs," half an hour later when they go upstairs they find the little boy playing with his toys in
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his bedroom. Their immediate reaction is that he is misbehaving and being naughty, that he does not want to do as he was told because it is more fun and more interesting to play with his toys. In fact, because he had been given more than one instruction, by the time he got to his bedroom he had completely forgotten what he had been asked, so he did what he wanted to do. If parents and school teachers do not realise that the child is suffering from that condition they think that the child is misbehaving and not doing what he is told. The child will then suffer because he will be told off.

Thus, at school, because of the lack of short-term memory, the ability to learn to read and write and to take very simple instructions from a teacher is lost; the child's concentration goes very quickly and teachers and parents feel that he is misbehaving and cannot be bothered to concentrate on his work when, through no fault of his own, his concentration has long since gone.

Ritalin is one way to assist such children; on strict medical advice, under proper supervision it is a tremendous help for some children. I know that it is a controversial drug and that there are strong views on either side of the argument, but there is evidence that it can significantly help children, particularly during the school day, to concentrate and get on with their work.

One must recognise, however, that a mainstream school may not be the best place for those children and their education. The little boy whom I knew started off in mainstream schooling, but within a year his teachers felt there was a problem because he was slow in developing his reading and writing and recommended extra lessons at the end of the school day. He had the extra lessons, which were extended to extra lessons on a Saturday, but it did not make that much difference. By the end of the next year, the school told his parents that he was dyslexic, and might be dyspraxic, and that it was not in his best interests that he remain at the school because, although he was getting extra lessons, he was not getting the help that his condition and abilities demanded but was holding back the rest of his class.

I fully support the judgment of that little boy's teachers and parents. He was taken out of mainstream school and went to a specialist school—Fairley House, just behind the Tate, down the road from here—that looks after children who suffer from dyslexia and dyspraxia. The teaching ratio in some cases is 1:1 and the school helps children tremendously.

The boy is now 14. He left mainstream schooling with a reading age three years behind his age, although one is meant to have a reading age about 18 months ahead of one's age. His reading age is now 12 months ahead of his age. His writing abilities are still 18 months behind his age—they should, of course, be ahead of it—and his writing is poor, but he has developed computer skills, which are a great help. He can concentrate and read fluently and he is beginning to contribute to his education in a way that a 14-year-old boy should. He can now be taken out of the special school and placed back in a mainstream school where there are specialist teachers to assist children among the mainstream pupils who need help with dyslexia and dyspraxia, without holding back his classmates and colleagues.

That classic example shows that one cannot have a policy that says that all children who suffer from dyslexia or dyspraxia must be in mainstream schooling
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because that is inclusive. In theory, it might be a brilliant idea, but, in practice, it is too generalised and it is not such a brilliant idea. It can be harmful to both the individual child and other children, and the education of all of them can suffer as a result. Of course, in an ideal world, emphasis must be placed on as many children as possible, particularly with dyslexia and dyspraxia, being placed in mainstream schooling. However, in reality, either for the whole educational process or even just—

Mrs. McGuire: I just want to be clear what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I was following his arguments on dyspraxia, but is he now saying that children with dyslexia should be placed in specialist schools?

Mr. Burns: No, I am not saying that that should happen as a matter of course. Each child should be judged on his or her individual capabilities. For some children who have extreme dyslexic problems, a school that specialises in helping children with dyslexia and dyspraxia is a better option than a mainstream school. The degree of their problems means that such children suffer in a mainstream school, because they cannot get the 100 per cent. attention that they require during school hours. In a way, they also cause other pupils in their class to suffer, because they hold them back by placing a disproportionate demand on the teachers' time, at the expense of those other children. I am afraid that, in reality, that does happen.

Of course, I am not saying that a mildly dyslexic child should not be in a mainstream school, but in the case of certain degrees of dyslexia—depending on the individual child—such a school is not suitable. I want to make a plea that the idea of special needs schools should not be dismissed because people rightly want to have as inclusive a society as possible. However wonderful it sounds to be inclusive, it can be damaging, both to the individual and their peers in the classroom. There has been a view that there should be more mainstreaming of pupils, when, in practice, that is not that sensible.

I have three pleas. First, the statementing process should be far easier for parents to access. Secondly, when the statements have been completed, the analysis carried out and the recommendations made about what extra help a child should get, the help should be provided immediately—without a time lag. If one were being cynical, one could say that the longer the process of statementing, identifying needs and meeting them is strung out, the cheaper it is for the state. Thirdly, we should not over-concentrate on seeking to treat all pupils the same and insisting that they attend a mainstream school when, because they have an impact on each other's education, it is not in the best interests of individual pupils or their fellow pupils to be educated together.

The other area that I would like to discuss, which I mentioned when I intervened on the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill, is mental health. This Government—and other Governments, albeit using different phraseology—have sought to promote social inclusion over the past nine years, and rightly so: no one would criticise that. The Minister and other hon. Members said that great strides have been taken in dealing with the inherent problems, attitudes and
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practical difficulties that people with disabilities face. There is more to be done, as every hon. Member has said, but steps have been taken and improvements are being made not simply because of legislation—important though that is—but because of changes in attitudes and mindsets.

Mental health, sadly, lags dramatically behind, in what is supposed to be a civilised century. In the past, to no one's credit, the mentally ill were put out of mind by putting them out of sight. That stopped, ironically, when Enoch Powell was Minister of Health back in the early 1960s. He made great strides in seeking to integrate many people who suffered from mental illness into the community, rather than having them locked up and hidden away. That has been the policy of successive Governments of every political persuasion, but there has been a knock-on effect, which is deeply tragic and a blot on a civilised society.

Of course, many people who pose no threat whatsoever to the community live in hostels or in homes that are converted into single-bedroom units, but as soon as a building in a residential area—it may be the house next to any of us—has been allocated for conversion into single dwelling units for people who have been or are still suffering from mental illness, we see the petitions, the uproar, the rumours, the speculation about what may happen and the rather unpleasant accusation that house prices will fall as a result. I am sure that many hon. Members have probably had that distasteful experience.

What usually happens? The proposal usually goes ahead, the establishment is created and people move in. They live good, meaningful lives there, and no one in the street ever has a single problem with the people who live in that house. All the scaremongering, all the petitions and the hot air prove to be totally erroneous. That shows the great fear in society about mental illness, part of which is due to people's total ignorance. They are fearful of something, so they stigmatise and attack it.

The House, the Government and the Opposition must do more, and we must do it faster, to break down the barriers. I was the Minister responsible for mental health 10 years ago. We were talking about it and we were doing things then. Health Ministers under this Administration have talked about it and have done something about it. The trouble is that the fear and stigma are so great that it is like chipping away at Mount Everest. All I would say to the Minister is that we must do more; we must accelerate it; and we must focus on it just as people who are interested and involved more generally with disabilities have concentrated and fought for rights and improvements in society. That is what we must do more with regard to mental health.

I make no criticism of anyone or any Minister over the past nine years or the past 29 years, because they have done a lot, but we must now put the spotlight on mental health. Instead of just talking about such things, we must bring them to fruition and ensure that people suffering from mental illness enjoy a life of comparable treatment to those who suffer from flu, cancer or appendicitis, because, quite frankly, there is very little difference between them in principle; the only difference in practice is that people are sympathetic to those who suffer from cancer or flu. People want to be around them, offering help and sympathy, but as soon as someone suffers from mental illness, people do not want
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to know, and hon. Members know the epitaphs and expressions that are used about those individuals. They are often so scared about what they are suffering from that they do not want anyone else to know, so that they do not get criticised or shunned as a result. That is a contradiction and an abomination, and we must do more about it.

3.40 pm

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