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Westminster Hall

Thursday 26 October 2006

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Special Educational Needs

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Education and Skills Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 478-I, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6940.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Before I call Mr. Sheerman, I should say that many hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak this afternoon and those on the Front Benches have kindly agreed to try to restrict the length of their contributions to about 10 minutes. That gives us two and a half hours or thereabouts to try to allow everyone to speak. If everyone plays the game, everyone who wants to will be able to take part. Sorry to hold you back, Mr. Sheerman.

2.31 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I have not served under your chairmanship in this Chamber before, Mr. Hancock, and it is a pleasure to do so. We are old colleagues and friends—because I spend so much time in Southsea, of course.

The debate is taking place because the Select Committee on Education and Skills conducted a thorough inquiry into special educational needs. We had the Government response to the report two weeks ago. I shall start by informing people of how and why we went about our inquiry. Our Select Committee does not randomly pick up subjects to investigate. We try to do things where we can add value, where we believe that an inquiry is necessary and where we can be helpful in a number of ways, not only to the Government but to the people outside the House who need particular provision from the education sector.

It was appropriate for us to conduct a thorough inquiry into special educational needs because we had been away from the subject for a long time. The subject has been neglected; that is a good reason for an inquiry. When I looked back on the work that I and the Committee had done under my chairmanship over the past five years and beyond, I saw that it was quite a while since we had considered special educational needs, and we had been thinking about it.

To be totally honest, a member of the upper House, Baroness Warnock, also made a contribution that got everyone talking about special educational needs again. I shall not rehearse her remarks in too much detail, but she thought that it was time for a thorough review of special educational needs, because some of the things in her original report all those years ago had not quite delivered the service that she had hoped for and met expectations as she had hoped. In some cases, she thought that the reverse had happened.

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There were also a large number of myths out there. There were myths that local authorities were closing every special school, that the Government had a secret agenda to close special schools, and that inclusion ruled and was going to be pushed through despite opposition from parents and students or anyone else in the community. It was therefore a good time to try to clear away the myths and do the classic job of a Select Committee.

I need not remind most people here, but I think that it is best to say for the record that our Select Committee does not only consider carefully whether there is scope to add value in an area. We also have what we call navigational seminars to get some of the leading experts together to talk to us about their specialist interest. It should be remembered that our Select Committee covers a vast Department that deals with provision from early years through to higher education, the “Every Child Matters” agenda and much else, so we have a great deal of breadth, but when it comes to a particular inquiry, we need the help of the specialists. So, with a team of specialists, we had a seminar. That persuaded us that a report would be timely, and we got on with it.

This was classic stuff for a Select Committee—apart from, I have to say, the Public Accounts Committee, which has a rather different way of approaching subjects. Some of us think sometimes that the research base on which the PAC conducts inquiries is a little thin. We do not do things that way. We call for oral evidence from anyone we think will be useful to the inquiry and we listen attentively. Of course, we call for written evidence as well. Then we go on the road, looking at good practice and, in some cases, average practice, and sometimes we venture to another country if we have heard that its system can teach us something. That is how we proceed.

There is no secret to a good Select Committee report—we listen. If we listen, we get a resonance from the community and we write a good report. If we do not listen and we do not hear that resonance, we come up with a pretty mediocre report that no one takes any notice of. I wanted to put the methodology on the record. That is what we did. We listened to anyone who would come to see us. We listened informally and formally on the record, and we made visits.

We were rather cross—no, “cross” is too strong a word. We were a little offended by Baroness Warnock when she said that she did not want a parliamentary inquiry; she wanted a commission of inquiry. Everyone wants an independent commission. I believe, however, that some of the best inquiries are done in this House by a Select Committee if it knows its job. That is what we did. We got on with it and I have heard on the grapevine that Baroness Warnock thought that our report was rather good.

We consulted the enormous world outside the House of wonderful pressure groups, interest groups, parents associations, people campaigning for the abolition of every special school by 2020, and people who want to put up the barricades and who would die rather than see any special school close. What a wonderful array of people passionate about their subject. I thank them for what they told us, which is encapsulated in our report.

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To put it bluntly, we were very disappointed by the Government response. We were not entirely disappointed—there were honeyed words in the accompanying letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I looked at the letter and thought, “Wonderful. They will not only accept our recommendations, but implement them and do something pretty vigorous in the Department.” However, when I read the response and considered not only the tone but the detailed responses to individual parts of our inquiry, I was very disappointed indeed.

One reason for my disappointment is this: at the heart of what we were trying to find out by listening to people was the fact that something was very wrong in special educational needs provision. There is an interesting argument about where that provision should be delivered. Some people want it to be provided in a special setting, particularly if the special educational needs are more severe. I am sure that you, too, Mr. Hancock, have been visited at your advice service or surgery by people who say, “The last thing in the world I want is for my child to go to a special school.” The very next group of parents who come will say the opposite: “The last thing we want for our children is for them to be in mainstream education.” Views on this issue are polarised.

Our Committee found that we could not come up with a broad-brush policy that gave one answer or the other. The more we listened, the more we found that there was a whole community out there that wanted the appropriate setting for the child. That is not rocket science—the appropriate setting for the child. For some children I saw with severe special educational needs, I could not believe that there was a better setting for them than the one they were in—a special school. We saw some wonderful special schools. The dedication and enthusiasm of the wonderful teachers and support staff made one feel pleased to be part of the education sector in even a small way.

However, we also went to mainstream schools in which children with special educational needs of quite a severe kind were well looked after. That is true. Parents with children in both those settings were happy. People were unhappy when they thought that their child was in an inappropriate setting and they could not do anything about it. That was frustrating for them, and that frustration was at the core of our inquiry. People were frustrated when they could not get their child into the appropriate setting—the setting that not only they but the experts thought was appropriate. Sometimes those experts were local authority experts, but often they were from the health sector or were engaged by parents to give independent advice.

For many parents, the deepest unhappiness was caused by their feeling that their children had not ended up in the best setting for them because of the inappropriate way of deciding what their needs were. Anyone who has delved into this, and everyone here will have delved into it thoroughly, knows that the local authority decides what the special educational needs of the child are, and then provides that special education environment. Even when a statement of educational needs is recommended and, after a long process, awarded, the local authority then has a big part to play
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in deciding the setting in which that statement should be responded to: locally, far away or in a specialist institution or school. That is at the heart of the unhappiness with the current situation. Those points about the unhappiness with the core of the statementing process form the opening to this debate. However, I shall not speak for too long.

We made strong recommendations in the report, but we are not the Government; we are a Select Committee. We identified what is at the heart of the problem, but the tone of the Department’s reply was probably the most abrasive and challenging that I have ever read in any response to a Committee report since I have been Chairman. The tone was very strange, as though we were not trying to be helpful. I should have thought that any civil servant or Minister who saw our report would say, “Thank God someone has done this and come up with a whole raft of sensible proposals that can help us to guide decent, serious policy.” But we did not get that response, we got one with a tone that said, “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Like me, Mr. Hancock, you probably feel as strongly as I when someone suggests that you have suggested something that you have not suggested at all. The Department’s reply suggested that we wanted an unelected, unrepresentative new quango that would take over that role, but there is not a word about a quango in our report. We do not want a quango. We want the Government to look at the problem and say, “We are the Executive; this is at the heart of the problem with special educational needs provision in our country, and we must do something about it.” That is why we are angry with the tone of the reply and some of the detail in it.

Some aspects of our report have been ignored, and my colleagues and I have orchestrated something of a division of labour on this matter and will each address different points. We made a number of recommendations in the report, all of which are sensible and were picked up from listening to people out there, which was sometimes difficult. A lot of Select Committees listen to the usual suspects such as pressure groups, interest groups and others who are highly visible, but we made attempts to speak to parents. We engaged in a full hour on “You and Yours”—some of my colleagues are smiling—and we had 800 responses by e-mail, letter and phone from parents who feel passionately about the situation with special educational needs.

We also went to places such as Darlington education village: a brilliant prototype, where there is a purpose-built special school at the heart of a new campus which also has an infant school, junior school and comprehensive school. On that campus, children with special needs can join in everything possible, whether that be assembly, swimming or music—whatever is appropriate—and return to the special needs environment when necessary. When we visited the village, we had a special hour with parents to talk about how they felt. However, I do not want to delve into too much detail yet, so I shall conclude.

It has also been said that the Committee called for a new general inquiry—to open the whole Pandora’s box and start again from scratch. Anyone who reads our report will know that that is not the truth. We did not call for that, and we do not want it. Indeed, if only the
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Government would listen, we could go back to something along the lines of what we had from Baroness Ashton of Upholland three years ago, with “Removing the Barriers to Achievement”, which is not about tearing everything up and starting again. There is a lot of good stuff in special educational needs provision today, but some aspects are really letting down the people who need our help.

The Secretary of State recently told several audiences, including the Labour party conference in Manchester, that our education system must be judged on the quality of provision that we give to the most vulnerable. He emphasised that how looked-after children are treated is a litmus test as to whether we as a society care about children. That also applies to children with special educational needs and whether we look after them and provide the right setting for their education. We must bury the hatchet about whether inclusion or education in a special setting is best, and go back to considering the child and the five pieces of guidance in “Every Child Matters”. Those five points are there, we do not have to invent them, but we want them to be applied to children with special educational needs. That is one of the recommendations in our report, and if we get that, we in the Select Committee will be very happy people.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Mr. Sheerman. If there is a concerted attempt for Select Committee members to follow on from each other it would have helped if you had provided the running order that you had decided on, but as you have not, I shall decide it. Secondly, you are, of course, always welcome in Southsea, and long may you continue to come for your holidays and enjoyment.

2.47 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate and to declare an interest as the father of a boy approaching three who will have significant and probably long-term special educational needs.

It is truly a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), because he and his Committee have produced an outstanding report—one of the finest of its genre. It is painstaking, rigorous and insightful. I am aware of his sincere commitment to the issue, and I recognise he will acknowledge that I speak from no partisan spirit when I say that the thesis that he has advanced in the report is a great deal more compelling than the Government’s answer to it. I say that with genuine regret, because I waited with bated breath and beads of sweat upon my brow for the ministerial answer, and I was badly let down by it.

This is, of course, an extensive, almost labyrinthine territory, and one has to try to pick those issues on which one particularly wants to focus in the short time available. I shall focus on three that seem to lie at the heart of the debate and encapsulate those important concepts of power, money and capacity. The first theme, which is all about power—who decides; who controls; who is the instigator; who calls the shots—is the centrality of the position of the local education authority.

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What the Select Committee had to say on the subject was both measured and persuasive. The problem at the heart of the system—I do not say that it is the only such problem, but it is significant—is that local authorities are currently in a virtually omnipotent position: they assess and decide, pay for and provide. In that sense, however good their individual attentions and the competence of the particular staff may be, there is an in-built conflict of interest.

The authorities decide at every stage what a child gets, and they have the responsibility, of which they are aware in advance, to pay for it. They often also have a responsibility, and make the choice directly through in-house provision, to deliver what it is judged the child needs and must receive. Throughout the process, whether it be in the course of a parent seeking a statutory assessment or getting a statement, in debating its terms or in parental attempts to secure its implementation, the LEA is in a powerful position. That is fundamentally wrong. We need a system that is independent of government, LEAs, the sources of supply and the means of payment.

What was the Government’s response to this powerful case? The hon. Member for Huddersfield focused on one of the more footling and invalid objections: the Government saying, “Well, this would undermine local democracy. It would remove the elected element.” Given that nothing precise was said about the exact contours of the new policy, but rather the Committee properly concerned itself with identifying a strategic weakness, it was wrong for the Government to jump to that conclusion, although I confess that I do not think that there is anything indispensable about the electoral component.

We are talking about the needs of a particular, significant, important and frequently neglected minority, whose electoral purchasing power is, in any case, not very great, so it is not particularly important whether provision is determined by an elected body. More specifically, this was a bogus criticism from the Government, who then raised all sorts of other objections: would there still be a right of appeal for parents? Would LEAs have a right of appeal? They do not have one at the moment, so I do not see why they should have one in the future. Would what was issued still be called a statement? What would happen to the special educational needs and disability tribunal—SENDIST?

The Government response bore the hallmark of being written by one of those rather clever officials who knows everything and nothing, and takes it as a great personal affront that the judgments at which he or she has arrived have been questioned by a mere inexpert, amateur, interfering set of politicians. It is precisely that sort of overweening arrogance and condescension to which parents are so accustomed. We received a dose of it ourselves. I suggest that the Government take a much more responsible approach in looking at what is a major criticism of the system. It would be much better, as outlined in recommendation 26 and paragraph 99 of the Committee’s report, to break the link.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues did the House of Commons a signal service in highlighting the problem with the Government’s enthusiasm and apparently almost insatiable appetite for the extension
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of delegated funding for the delivery of special educational needs. We know the argument: if more funds are delegated to local level, decisions can be made more quickly, people do not have to wait in the queue, there is no requirement for demonstrable need, there is not that adversarial contest with the LEA and the school can just get on and deliver.

It must be said that in making that argument, to which there is some weight, the Government have always said that it must be subject to the important caveat that delegated funding results in a better deal, not for schools, but for individual children, rather than in a reduced entitlement. The commitment to delegated funding should not be an ideological, abstract or theoretical one; it should be based on and grounded in the concrete reality of demonstrated improvement in the quality of service in the interests of some of the most vulnerable children in our community.

In that context, the painstaking character of the inquiry bore fruit, for we heard both from Ofsted and Network 81, a respected parents’ representative organisation, of instances in which funding had gone to schools and had not been used for the purposes for which it was provided. If we are to have more of that in the future, before making any such decision, certain clear understandings and guarantees need to be in place. The funding has to be ring-fenced, subject to minimum standards, specified nationally, of what will be delivered; subject to a broad range of appropriate provision; and subject to an adequacy and regularity of training at all levels in the system. That should take place in initial teacher training during periods of induction and should continue as a feature of professional development.

Above all, if we are talking about delegated funding, we need one other thing: oversight. I suspect that other hon. Members know, as I do, of parents who say, “My child got a statement.” The other day, someone said to me, “It took 10 years, Mr. Bercow, for me to get a statement for my child. Our school is now failing to deliver the 25 hours a week, and since 7 September, in the first two weeks of term, Shana received just two hours.” The school denies it and tells the Minister that it is not true, and that everything is delivered, the forms have been filled in and the boxes ticked. That is what the LEA comes to believe too. However, the parent said, “Mr. Bercow, I will provide you with very persuasive evidence that that simply is not the case. It is not happening. The hours are not being delivered. The help is not being provided”.

There must be that oversight and a recognition of the responsibility of the LEA if the funding is to go directly to the schools. It must regulate and police proper behaviour by them. Simply leaving it to parents to complain to the head teacher, to try to appear in front of the governors or to remonstrate with their local Member of Parliament is not a satisfactory substitute. It is not a bad theory or a poor principle, but it has been sloppily applied in practice.

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