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26 Oct 2006 : Column 495WH—continued

In that respect, for the Government simply to say that they do not think that it is either necessary or particularly desirable to have detailed scrutiny of individual funding on given children is not very persuasive either. Where we are talking about
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statemented children, to whom specific commitments that have legislative or statutory backing have been given, that provision must be honoured, and we must see that it is being honoured.

I am sure that you and colleagues will be pleased to hear, Mr. Hancock, my third and final point: specialist services and specialist provision delivered by specialists is an important issue. We have a serious problem in that regard. In “Every Child Matters” there are no fewer than 32 references to specialist provision or support, but in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, the Government’s SEN strategy, there are no fewer than 68 such references. We heard the Audit Commission as long ago as 2002 say that there is a “shortfall” in the provision of such specialist services. We know also from the Government’s own strategy, published in 2004, that Ministers recognise how crucial it is first to ensure high-quality, specialist, local provision, particularly to meet low-incidence needs, and to meet the needs of people with severe, complex and multi-faceted disorders, before the number of places in special schools are reduced or whole institutions are closed.

I say to the Minister in the most genuine and sincere spirit that that justified intellectual conclusion and stated commitment by Ministers is not being reflected in the reality on the ground. For example, I know that the MacIntyre school in my constituency, which is a distinguished special school, gets everyone in only because they qualify on appeal to SENDIST. I know that the Nuffield speech and language unit, for which I and others are battling extremely hard in a determined campaign to preserve, is also suffering. It is a specialist facility that looks after people with severe verbal dyspraxia. The Royal Free Hampstead NHS trust plans to close it when nothing substantive is in its place.

Good work is being done in our system by outstanding professionals, but there are serious problems. I want to tell the Government, in a positive and benign spirit, that too many children have suffered too much for too long with too little done to help them. That must change and the prerequisite of change is abandonment of the arrogance of officialdom and the beginning of a readiness to listen.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Mr. Bercow. Your son is extremely fortunate to have you as such an eloquent advocate on his behalf.

3.1 pm

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow not only my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on which I was proud to serve and who gave us a broad and eloquent overview of the matters that we were concerned about, but the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) who on this and numerous occasions in the House, not least recently on the Education and Inspections Bill, has demonstrated his commitment to and eloquence on this matter.

I want to touch on a number of different aspects of what we are trying to get across in our report and to touch as lightly as I can on the Government’s response to them. I shall start by talking about collaboration
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because special educational needs, although highly specific and relating to a particular group of parents and children, resonate in what we do across the whole of education policy. In our report we said that there was no simple solution and no magic bullet for special educational needs, which is why we refused to come down on one side or the other of the sometimes sterile argument about special schools and provision in mainstream schools. We concluded from the mass of evidence and memorandums that children would sometimes be better served in a special school setting and sometimes in a mainstream setting. There is no doubt that when special schools and mainstream schools are able to collaborate—perhaps when they are physically proximate, as is the case in a couple of examples in my constituency—there is a far better chance of good outcomes for children than when they occupy separate silos. The emphasis of the evidence that we heard and our recommendations was on collaboration.

The Government do not say in their response that there is an inherent contradiction between giving greater autonomy to individual schools and collaboration. I accept that, but I also think that there is an onus on them to put some flesh on the bones and not just to say, as they did, that collaboration arises naturally. That sometimes happens when there are good, spirited and committed individuals in both sectors, but the truth of the matter is that we should legislate and plan for the majority, not the fortunate minority who have that sort of leadership. The Government must look at the dangers of schools being given more autonomy and more focus on the standards agenda without considering the position of children with special educational needs. Standards are fine as a long-term focus, but the short-term way of achieving that is to make personalised learning the appropriate provision for every child, whatever his or her needs. If collaboration is to mean anything, there must be some impetus from schools. That is where the local education authority has a role and where the Government’s envisaged schools commission should have a role. I argued for that in another debate on the Education and Inspections Bill.

We received a lot of highly specific and relevant evidence from various sectors on the urgent need to promote training. I welcome the Government’s announcement of new professional standards, what the Minister said and the amendment that was tabled in the other place in response to Baroness Walmsley who spoke the other day. I pay tribute to the detailed and constructive way in which the Minister in the other place, Lord Adonis, responded. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and I went to see him twice during the passage of the Education and Inspections Bill through the House of Commons and we were genuinely impressed by his response, which has now had flesh put on its bones in the Lords amendment.

That is all very good, but I hope that the current pilots that are envisaged under that will be rolled out as soon as possible. I also hope that when that is done some attention will be paid to the necessary funding and commitment that will be needed and that that is given. The £1.2 million that was originally allocated is a good start, but in no way will it address the degree of
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SEN and disability training that must be provided through teacher training and ongoing professional development.

I agree absolutely with the Special Educational Consortium—Baroness Walmsley also touched on this—that

as would I and, I believe, the Select Committee,

including those on the one-year courses,

It is terribly important that the Government take that up.

On continuous professional development, again if the ends are willed, the means must be willed. The Government rejected the Select Committee’s recommendation that there should be mandatory timetabling of that. That is fair enough and I accept that it is a broad aspiration, but the onus is then on the Government to return with something more substantive and specific on how all teachers will receive continuous professional development training in SEN.

I pay tribute to Lord Adonis and welcome the guarantees that special educational needs co-ordinators will be qualified teachers and senior management. That is an important development, but again the devil is in the detail and organisations such as TreeHouse, which Lord Adonis and other Ministers visited earlier this year, told me and other hon. Members that they welcome the commitment on training for new SENCOs, but asked about existing SENCOs. We welcome the commitment on support and funding for continuous professional development, but what about teachers who are already in post? We cannot work on the assumption that we must wait 10 or 15 years for a new generation of well informed teachers to deal with those issues in schools. There must be action and support for those who are there now. The Government should carefully consider that.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Does he agree that, as the report says, SENCOs without exception should be trained teachers and, equally important, they should be part of the senior management of the institution, and able to exert power and ensure that the neediest children get what they are supposed to have?

Mr. Marsden: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point and I agree absolutely. I would go further and say that there is a parallel here with issues that have arisen in the past about the way we treat disabled people in higher and further education. There is no point in having responsibility at a relatively low level in the management of a university or further education college if that message cannot be communicated to all members of those establishments. There must be a champion at a senior level. That is exactly the point that the Select Committee and the hon. Gentleman are making.

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Exclusions trouble me and many others greatly, and those grave concerns led me to table amendments to the Education and Inspections Bill to tease out the Government’s response. The Special Educational Consortium—not the Committee—has said that it

I remind hon. Members that the figures are stark and that, according to the pupil level annual school census of 2003-04, two thirds of exclusions are of pupils with SEN. The Audit Commission report, Ofsted and organisations such as the National Autistic Society have given the Government and all of us in the House the same message. The Government cite changes in the statistics as evidence of a reduction, but those changes reflect the way in which SEN is recorded, not changes in the level of exclusions.

It is also important to consider whether provision for excluded children in pupil referral units is appropriate and adequate, because the Committee received evidence that it is not. There is enormous concern about the issue out there, and I am also particularly concerned about multiple and fixed-term exclusions. In seaside constituencies such as mine and, indeed, in inner-city areas, such issues are compounded by people’s enormous mobility and transience, and much of that relates to families with particular problems, who have special educational needs children or disabled children.

The Committee heard quite a bit of evidence about early intervention. We heard about the importance of involving parents, establishing flexible local networks and encouraging LEAs to learn from best practice. Again, however, the Government did not really acknowledge one of the issues that we raised—that of parents with SEN children who might have SEN problems themselves. I have experience of that from my constituency, as I am sure many other hon. Members do. How will such parents be supported and assisted in making decisions on behalf of their children? How will they ensure that their children get the most appropriate provision? I think that I am right in saying that there was no response on that issue, and there should be.

As regards a national framework, the Government have said that “Every Child Matters” should be suitable, and it does, indeed, provide a very good overall view. However, we cannot have a situation in which meeting the specific needs of special educational needs children depends on something that is continuing to grow and that is growing at different speeds in different local authorities. In particular, there is an issue about the continuity between educational support for children with SEN and social care support. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) have chaired a series of parliamentary hearings into the experience of disabled children, and their findings are being published this afternoon. One of the statistics in the responses to those hearings shows that 80 per cent. of the parents who were interviewed believed that the social care response was poor, while 52 per cent. and 48 per cent thought that the education response and the health
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response respectively were poor. There is no point getting SEN education right for people up to 3.15 pm if we do not get it right for them after 3.15 pm.

As regards the importance of parental involvement, I welcome the Government’s commitment on parent partnership schemes. Again, however, I must echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield. Some of the Government’s responses were condescending in the extreme; indeed, at one point, they said that it was important to “deal sympathetically” with parents. The issue is not dealing sympathetically with parents, but offering the level of specialised provision that they need for their children. At another point, the Government said that one third of parents were dissatisfied with the education of their autistic child. I assume that the situation was seen as satisfactory because two thirds of parents were satisfied, but that is not, and never should be, the case. That clashes with the view of Ministers.

In conclusion, we should be looking in our special educational needs policy to echo the Olympic motto—higher, faster and stronger. We should be aiming higher in what we expect for disabled children, we should be going faster in implementing some of the improvements that the Select Committee report recommended and we should be stronger in the support that we offer. We should not have a dislocation between the understanding and enthusiasm of Ministers and the condescension and over-defensiveness of officials.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Thank you, Mr. Marsden. I do not want to appear to be harassing hon. Members, and I apologise to Mr. Marsden if he thought that I was, but I am trying to get everyone into the debate. If we can play fair be each other, everyone will.

3.16 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Like other Members, I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee. I have been a member of it for most of the five and half years that I have been in Parliament, although I returned to it after an eight-month break and was just in time to help to write the report. However, I did not do any of the hard work or take any of the evidence that led to the report. Certainly, in the time that I have been in Parliament, the most useful things that I have done have been connected with the Committee’s work.

As we have heard, the Government response to the report was extremely disappointing, and if that response was disappointing, then so too would be their response to the Audit Commission reports of 2002 and 2003, which raised many of the same issues as this report. There is also the report that will be launched at 4 o’clock this afternoon in the Strangers Dining Room, to which the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) referred. Obviously, we cannot attend that event, because we are here, but that lengthy report, which was produced as a result of the parliamentary hearings on services for disabled children, touches on a number of points on the same issues of SEN education that we are discussing here and that the Select Committee report considers.

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For example, page 41 of that report says:

The subsequent paragraphs refer constantly to the Select Committee’s findings and recommendations, and the authors regret that the Government have rejected them.

The Government response ignores most of the Select Committee report and misrepresents part of it, as the Committee’s Chairman has explained. The response is 80 pages of largely self-congratulatory details about what has already been done, as opposed to what more needs to be done.

The Government’s rosy view bears little relation to the parents’ perspective. The Committee received an e-mail from a parent last week, after the Government response was published. This parent is the mother of a profoundly autistic nine-year-old girl, and she says:

That response very much matches the views of parents whom I have met regularly over the past 20 years. I was first elected as a councillor in 1987, and for 16 of the 20 years since, I have been an elected politician in various capacities. I have met parents as part of my constituency case work and ward case work, and those who are struggling with issues such as statementing for their children are a regular feature.

In the past couple of months, parents have come to my surgeries about their children who are autistic, or who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or cerebral palsy. Those parents are fighting huge battles to get the specialist education that their children need, which does not reflect the rosy view given in the Government’s response to the report. Neither does my experience of 22 years as a professional in education, teaching in schools of the 11 to 18 age range, before I was elected as an MP.

Before the Minister waxes indignant and says that credit has not been given for what has been done, I do not say that there has been no improvement. In the past 20 to 30 years, there has been a massive improvement in attitudes at every level of society towards such issues. Pupils with special educational needs now get a much better deal than they did 20 or 30 years ago. There is no question about that. In the past seven years, there have been improvements in funding, since the bottom of the 20-year funding pit was reached in 1999, and we have reached average western European spending on education. That is a big improvement on where we were, but it will take a lot more than one year of average investment in education to provide a system that our children—those with special educational needs, and children in general—deserve.

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