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24 May 2006 : Column 1492

Mr. Hayes: The Minister is about to intervene on me with an even more salient and clever point than I anticipated, as he so often does.

Jim Knight: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman; I have been very patient. As he is interested in statistics, I remind him that in the past 10 years, 122 special schools have closed, while in the previous 10 years, 234 closed. The trend is going in the right direction. Since 1997, more than 300 special schools have opened, 90 in the past two years. We often use the statistic about the proportion of children who are in special schools, which has gone up by 1 per cent.

Mr. Hayes: Yes, but the hon. Gentleman will know that many of those openings have been special units within mainstream school campuses. By the end of the debate, can he unpick that figure a little more, break it down, and tell us how many of those schools are freestanding independent schools with their own governing body and so on?

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes: I have given way so often that I am beginning to tire of my own verbiage, but I will do so again.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I want to speak against the hon. Gentleman’s new clause. As he has been addressing the House, I have become increasingly concerned by his repeatedly saying that the most important thing is structures, whether special schools or mainstream schools. Last week, the Education Committee went to Darlington to see a truly excellent example of an establishment that brought together a secondary school, a primary school and a special school, and where the education was entirely centred on the children’s needs. The whole educational debate is moving on to be child-centred, so that we look after the educational needs of all children and stop having this obsession with structures.

Mr. Hayes: As ever, the hon. Lady makes a good contribution to the debate. I was enjoying it immensely until she used the term, “child-centred” and then I began to think of all the dreadful, progressive, post-Plowden dogma about child-centred learning that did so much damage and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) has drawn the House’s attention on more than one occasion.

However, the hon. Lady is right that good education depends on much more than structure. It is sad that the Bill has necessarily focused our attention on structure when we should be discussing quality, as she so often does. Good education depends on the quality of teaching and learning; leadership; the home-school environment; and a proper understanding of children’s needs. That mix makes for high quality education. Most important of all is the need to raise the status of teachers and to believe in education and in those to whom we entrust our children.

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Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. He is being as generous as he was in Committee. New clause 5 deals with the closure of special schools. I am puzzled by an action by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the leader of the Conservative party, who declined to help the Vines special school in Battersea to prevent its closure. On 11 May, the governors and teachers called on him to help, but he declined. Does that mean that new clause 5 simply represents party politics? I am sad that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) is engaging in that. If Conservative Members genuinely mean to prevent closures, why did their leader refuse to help? He was asked to help as Leader of the Opposition, not as an ordinary Member of Parliament.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Lady knows me too well to believe that I would make nakedly party political points about the subject. I do not make them. I acknowledge the point of the Minister for Schools that even more special school closures took place before 1997, when we were in government. I pointed out that the Education Act 1981 was introduced under our stewardship. My pedigree on the subject goes back to the 1980s when, as a county councillor, I defended, for example, Foxwood school in Bramcote from closure.

I shall not comment on the case that the hon. Lady mentioned, but I emphasise that although I am not interested in my advancement in this place and I would never toady to my leader or be a sycophant, I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is not only noble, an intellectual giant and a fine leader of men, but that, in a short time, he will prove to be one of our nation’s greatest Prime Ministers. Is that enough?

We should not ignore the cries from the heart and from the front line that we hear from teachers about special needs education. The practical cost of inclusion when it is not appropriate is clearly high, but that is not my main consideration. What we cannot quantify often counts most: the joy of a child who can relax, play and learn in the knowledge that he is safe; the relief of a teenager who no longer feels different; and the peace of mind of parents who simply want to entrust their children to people with the specialist skills and experience to help them achieve their potential.

One such parent wrote movingly to The Times only a few days ago. The letter stated:

Such stories are common and the consensus among the parents of special needs children, who are surely best qualified to judge, is clear. A special needs child has special needs, which are best served by specialised teaching and care in an environment that caters for them.

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1.15 pm

I repeat that there are many good special units, fine leaders and teachers in mainstream schools and that many children prosper in them. However, let us end the prejudice against special schools and special education. Denying parents of children with special needs the choice of a school that is tailored to their needs is dangerously proscriptive. Closing special schools denies that choice and that is why we have tabled the new clauses.

There are many other aspects to the complex subject that we are discussing. We must consider the early identification of need much more seriously. Hon. Members with an interest in specific elements of special needs know that that is vital for autistic children—early identification of need can make a great difference to their progress. Hon. Members also know that it is profoundly important in the case of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties whose lives can be changed if they are statemented and supported in the right way. Hon. Members know that the House—not the Government; I make no party political point—needs to get better at concentrating on the critical matter of early identification of need.

As I have said, 8 per cent. fewer special needs children are now secure in special schools. I was going to speak at length about Nuffield school, but I did that in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham asked a question about it at Prime Minister’s questions and there has been an extensive Adjournment debate on it. I know that hon. Members will want to pay attention to it if they have not already done so. It is one of many examples that I could list.

A recent report published by Rathbone, the national charity that provides advice and support to parents of children with special educational needs, is a damning indictment of the current SEN system. Evidence collected from 570 schools in 36 local education authorities reveals that alarming numbers of parents feel frustrated and let down by their child’s school. Forty-two per cent. of parents questioned believed that their children had made no progress since being on the SEN register and 10 per cent. felt that they had regressed. I draw hon. Members’ attention to the Rathbone study, but I will not detain the House with details now because others want to contribute to the short debate.

Parents of special needs children already have to contend with so much. At the beginning of my contribution, I asked us to try for a moment to envisage their circumstances. Is it fair that they should also have to take the flak for a failed and failing education policy? Baroness Warnock, the architect of inclusion, has admitted that inclusion, as an aspect of her report and the subsequent Act, was “disastrous”.

Special schools do a special job for very special children. The teachers and those whom they teach invariably show great commitment and immense courage. Let us now have the courage to admit that we got it wrong, as the architect of inclusion has done. Let us have no more closures, broken dreams and shattered lives. I am delighted to invite hon. Members, in the spirit of generosity that has permeated our consideration of the measure, to embrace the new clauses with relish on behalf of those very vulnerable children.

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Ms Angela C. Smith: I greatly enjoyed the comments of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). He must have had one of his lunches at the Savoy in order to perform so well.

Much of our recent debate on these issues has become rather adversarial, which has polarised philosophies. A belief has grown that there is a stark choice to be made in regard to the means of educating special needs children between inclusion and special schools. That view is unhelpful, because it ignores the fact that children with special needs are as individual as the rest of us, that they often present with complex sets of needs, and that their education should to be tailored to reflect that. The hon. Gentleman’s comments hinted that he understood that and showed some movement from the position that he held some time ago.

Our debate should therefore focus on how best we can develop a spectrum of provision in each local authority area. Such a spectrum should encapsulate special schools and special educational needs units in mainstream schools, as well as learning support units—which have a role to play—and pupil referral units, alongside provision developed and managed by the voluntary sector. In my constituency, for instance, we have an excellent facility called Pit Stop, which takes children with learning difficulties out of school and gives them the breathing space and focused attention that they need to get them back on track. Pit Stop works closely with its partner secondary schools and has a wonderful record of bringing children back into mainstream education. It is an excellent example of how special needs education can work more flexibly in the interests of the individual child.

It is true that many special needs children need the kind of education that only a special school can offer. I have no problem admitting that. However, those children can also benefit from mixing with their peers in a mainstream setting. Increasingly, special needs professionals are recognising that a flexible mix of provision, achieved by schools working together, is the way forward. That is why my local authority is redeveloping its provision, and building new fit-for-purpose special schools across the city, alongside the development of a series of SEN units in mainstream schools. This is not an either/or approach; it uses both options.

New clause 5 is unhelpful because it would limit the ability of local authorities to plan strategically the spectrum of provision that I have described. It would, for instance, limit Sheffield’s plans slightly to reduce the number of special school places available for children with learning disabilities while increasing the number of special school places for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Local authorities are best placed to recognise and to consult on local need, and to remould the spectrum of provision accordingly.

New clause 4 would replace section 316 of the Education Act 1996. In so doing, it would remove the requirement for local authorities to consider in the statementing process the need to ensure that a child receives the provision that his learning difficulty calls for. It would replace that requirement with proposed new subsection 3, which asserts the rights of parents. That substitution ignores the fact that schedule 27 to the 1996 Act makes it clear that there is already a presumption in favour of parental preference for the
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placement of a child in a particular school. The schedule also contains the important qualification that, if a statement names a school, the school should be suitable in relation to the child’s age, ability and/or special needs.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I thank the hon. Lady for giving way, and for mentioning the naming of a school in a statement. Is she aware that the Government have plans to build another 200 academies, and that local education authorities will not have to name an academy in their statements unless the academy agrees to be named?

Ms Smith: My local education authority has an agreement with our academies that they will take children with special needs as a top priority, and I call on all local authorities to work constructively towards doing the same.

John Bercow: The hon. Lady rightly says that there is merit in mixed provision. I entirely accept that. However, she said a few moments ago that local education authorities were best placed to make judgments on these matters. May I suggest that there is often a well-grounded concern, even among those who are not overly suspicious or cynical, that LEAs are at least partly motivated by the consideration that they need to save money where they can? In that context, is there not sometimes a conflict of interest between the LEA commissioning and providing the educational provision, and its being obliged to pay for it? Would it not be better if there were an independent element in the process, so that there would be no reason to question or impugn the motives of the LEA?

Ms Smith: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it is important that the local people who elect their accountable representatives are listened to, and that they have the chance to remove a particular elected body if they feel that resources are being prioritised over need. That option is available and should be used.

The approach outlined in the Education Act 1996 is reasonable. It directs that parental preference should be strongly favoured, but requires that such preferences should be balanced, where necessary, with a professional assessment of a child’s needs. New clause 4 would effectively prioritise the requirement to secure efficient use of resources over the need to provide the appropriate provision necessary to meet a child’s special needs. I therefore believe that the new clause does not merit support today.

Amendment No. 16 is interesting because it draws attention to the needs of children who are sometimes badly served by our education system, a point to which I will return. However, the amendment, as it stands, is flawed. Non-statemented children with special needs are at present registered on school action or school action plus, but the code of practice that triggers entry to those registers allows for a great deal of flexibility in how schools interpret the criteria.

The criteria are drawn incredibly broadly and have led to wide and significant variations between local authorities. For example, Knowsley registers 21.6 per
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cent. of its pupils as having non-statemented needs, Rotherham 18.3 per cent., Doncaster 12.3 per cent. and Cornwall 16.3 per cent. Given those variations, it would be irresponsible to give admissions priority to children on those registers.

That does not mean that we do not need a debate about provision for non-statemented SEN children, because we clearly do. For instance, we need to discuss why there are such wide variations between local authorities. However, I suggest that the real challenge is to ensure that all our schools are equipped effectively to meet the needs of low-incidence special needs children.

New clause 31 would require governing bodies to secure the necessary support for SEN children, yet the SEN code of practice already places that statutory duty on those bodies. We have all heard stories of schools that fail to satisfy the demands of the code of practice and all MPs get complaints about children whose needs are apparently neglected. That point was also made by the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings.

I therefore ask the Minister to look closely at the evidence relating to provision for non-statemented children, and to act if necessary to strengthen the role of local authorities as champions of parents and children, in order to help to drive forward improvement in this often neglected area of education provision.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) suggested that Warnock had been pernicious, but I remind the House of what was happening pre-Warnock. We need to reflect on that, because we certainly do not want to go back to a situation in which children were institutionalised, regardless of the nature of their special needs, with no entitlement to a full and rich curriculum, and without the ability to mix with other children that they have today. We have had one of those infamous pendulum swings that take place in education over time and, possibly, it has swung too far. If the Minister shows total resistance to all the amendments, there is a denial that something is wrong, or at least a pretence that everything is right when, clearly, it is not.

1.30 pm

It is well researched and proven that the main inclusion agenda, which I broadly support, has simply been under-resourced. The problem with inclusion is that it was never going to be a cheap option; it was going to cost money. Unfortunately, with pressure on resources, it has been seen as a cheaper option, which has led to certain actions. We must accept that under-resourcing has created a great deal of problems. First and foremost, it has created problems for those pupils who inadvertently, in so far as they are not in full control of their behaviour, make up 60 per cent. of exclusions. That is unhelpful for everybody. New clause 31, which we want to strongly support, picks up that point. When there is an exclusion, a full assessment of the special needs of the child involved is required.

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