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26 Oct 2006 : Column 508WH—continued

Despite the evidence that Lord Adonis, that famous unelected politician, gave us, he does not really have any wiggle room. The centre must take responsibility for the policy.

My criticisms of the report—they are moderate criticisms—arise because having correctly understood the problem of enforced inclusion, or what I might call “inclusion without choice,” it fails to offer an effective remedy. It falls back on the default mindset of pretty much every post-war politician, recommending more government as the solution, but an intrusive central Government created the problem in the first place. Baroness Warnock was brave in 2005 when she condemned the policy of which she was herself the chief architect, but she was guilty of recommending a top-down solution to a top-down problem. She talked about creating a national commission to find an alternative to the national policy of inclusion. The problem is that the policy of special needs education is formed by remote experts. We should not replace the policy of inclusion with another top-down policy devised by such people.

We know that inclusion can work; we know equally that it sometimes does not. The problem with the term “national policy of inclusion” is in the first two words, “national policy,” not the last. We need to scrap the idea of having a central national policy. It is not a matter of swinging the pendulum back from the centre towards a policy that is slightly less inclusionist; it is about allowing local choices that suit local children. We must rid ourselves of the idea that we need a one-size-fits-all policy on special needs education. There are huge differences between children with special needs. Even within families there can be big differences, with parents choosing to send some children to mainstream schools and others to special needs schools. Even in a child’s school career there can be occasions when both mainstream and special schools suit their circumstances. I therefore oppose the idea of a national framework, which is why I have issued my own version of chapter 5 of the report.

A national framework would set in place the mechanism for policy from on high, when we should be seeking policy from down below. A national framework
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is unimaginative and is the default mindset. I propose a radical alternative that would allow inclusion and special schools and a co-existence between the two ways of dealing with special needs.

Before I outline my idea, I wish to deal with the matter of the postcode lottery. It is often claimed that that is what we have in the provision of special needs education, and it is true that there is huge variation; one of the report’s findings is the extent to which special needs provision varies depending on where one lives. In fact, it is a lottery in the literal sense of the word: people have to put up with what they are given. It is chance, rather than choice or design, that determines the special needs provision for a child depending on where they live. Giving greater laissez-faire responsibility to town halls without proper accountability to parents would only exacerbate the situation. We need to push power not from Whitehall to town halls but directly to parents. Parental power is the solution, not LEA power. One might say that we need double devolution.

Instead of making LEAs more upwardly accountable to the experts in Whitehall through a national framework, they should be made downwardly accountable by giving parents new legal rights. I propose that we give parents and guardians of every child with a statement a legal right to request and receive control over their child’s share of local authority funding. That would mean a radical overhaul of the statementing process, and would require statements not only to specify in great detail the intended outcome for that child, but to quantify a form of financial entitlement enforceable through the courts.

I am open-minded about who should make the decision and who should quantify the amount of entitlement, and I fully take on board the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made. However, it is the parents and the guardians who should control the money. As one witness to our Committee put it, the money could be velcroed to the child. That would solve the problem of SEN funding dissolving into the system without meeting the needs of the child and in many cases would give a real choice of the setting in which the education was received—mainstream, special school or a mixture of the two.

There is a danger in creating new independent structures to deliver special needs education. It is tempting to say that the system involving town halls and LEAs does not work and to look for alternatives that involve new independent bodies. However, one person’s independent body is another person’s unaccountable quango. Pluralism should be the answer in delivering special needs education. Let 1,000 flowers bloom. Pluralism with choice should drive up standards in SEN provision. It is the current top-down provision that has provided us with the postcode lottery.

Finally, I add two sentences. The tone of the Government’s response suggests a bureaucracy that is at best flustered and at worst somewhat arrogant. I regret the Government’s limited response to the Committee’s important report, which addresses a topic of concern to mums and dads throughout the country who are not too interested in party politics.

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3.51 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), to whose comments I shall perhaps return. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for steering us through mounds of evidence and for producing a detailed and informative report. I also pay tribute to other members of the Select Committee for their helpful comments this afternoon and to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who made a number of excellent and insightful statements. I find myself agreeing with him quite a lot these days, although I do not know which of us should be more worried by that.

A great deal of evidence was presented to the Committee, with the written and oral evidence being supplemented by visits. I should like to thank all the staff, students and parents who gave us a lot of helpful and detailed information on those visits. I also thank the Committee for considering the matter very seriously indeed. The report is correct to point to some confusion in Government policy and in messages about special educational needs. We perhaps ought not to be surprised by the confusion, because there have been changes in teaching practices, new challenges posed by new educational needs, and the inclusion agenda, which has been running for 10 years or so and is bound to change over time.

Inclusion emerged as a thorny problem. In retrospect, I am not entirely sure why that was the case, because we were concerned about parents and students who thought that being forced to use mainstream education was inappropriate, and parents and students who thought that being forced to use special schools was inappropriate. It was the orthodoxy—one way round or the other—that was a concern for the Committee and a number of our witnesses, rather than simply the issue of inclusion, so I would challenge some of the comments that the hon. Member for Harwich made. From the visits and the evidence, we picked up on the general support in society for inclusion, providing that it does not prevent parents and students from receiving appropriate support. That is what should be uppermost in our minds.

We also obtained evidence of a number of problems with the statementing process. That evidence related not only to the appeal system or the statementing system, but to the different ways in which local authorities throughout the country apply statementing, to the difference in the number of statements and to the correlation—or lack of it, in some cases—with the incidence of social deprivation.

We became aware that other systems existed that did not have the stark cut-off point of the statementing process. That was combined with a growing knowledge that all children have a continuum of needs, which should be reflected in resource allocations across the board. We considered the Scottish system and thought that it might offer a way forward. We were also concerned about training. One of the Committee’s major conclusions was that there was a need for more teacher training on special needs, with a compulsory element for all teachers.

I draw the Minister’s attention to our perceived need to move to a national delivery model. We put a great
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deal of time and effort into thinking what might be necessary in such a model. The key issues were minimum standards, local flexibility within a national framework and a review of statementing.

Like other members of the Committee, I am disappointed by the Government’s response and by the tone of that response. The report was detailed and informed and therefore required a detailed and informed response from the Government. I am not clear whether they argue in their response that a national delivery model is necessary or whether they say that it is being delivered already, but through “Every Child Matters”. If that is the case, there is a great deal more for the “Every Child Matters” agenda to do, because the necessary changes on the ground are not being delivered. The degree of local variability was what we were trying to address through minimum standards.

3.57 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.12 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I apologise for giving the wrong information to some hon. Members after I suspended the sitting. I said that we do not get extra time on a Thursday but we undoubtedly do, so we will now conclude at 5.45, if not before.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: Thank you, Mr. Hancock. I shall do my best to wind up soon so that we can make progress.

Page 56 of the Government’s response states:

but they then say that they will not comply with that. Given the local variation that we discovered, they need to reconsider that position.

On page 48 of the response, the Government do not give adequate reasons as to why statementing and the process of statementing cannot be reviewed under the alternative approaches that have been piloted. That would be helpful. I would also welcome a stronger statement on co-location and the benefits that it can produce for all children. Several members of the Committee were impressed by the education village in Darlington, and we thought that that model could be usefully applied elsewhere. Again, a clear statement from the Government about whether they believe co-location is helpful would be welcome.

Lastly, we need further comment on the interaction of special educational needs and league tables. I shall not dwell on this as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) eloquently described the problems, which have been too readily dismissed in the Government’s response. There are clear issues for individual schools when there is a conflict between a possible intake and league tables.

Having said all that, I want briefly to list what is helpful in the Government’s response: more involvement of students and parents in the whole SEN
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process; developments in teacher training; more money for the personalisation agenda; a greater recognition of the problems that are presented by pupils with autism and with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties; and a recognition of the need carefully to consider post-16 transitions.

4.15 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is a great pleasure to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and the other members of his Committee for an excellent report. I must apologise to you, Mr. Hancock, to the Minister and to others that I will not be able to stay to hear the end of the debate as I have to see a constituent elsewhere in the building. I wanted to hear what the Minister had to say, particularly his response to the hon. Gentleman’s points and others on his Department’s response to the report.

There are three special schools in my constituency. One is maintained and two are non-maintained. They are all excellent in their own way, but I do not want to take up time boasting about local excellence. I simply want to raise a specific point about the non-maintained special schools sector.

The national body that represents the non-maintained sector welcomes, as do I and many hon. Members in the Chamber, the Select Committee’s call for the Government to clarify their stance on inclusion, in particular what it means for special schools such as the Mary Hare school for the deaf and Prior’s Court school, which specialises in provision for children with autism. Both are in my constituency and are filled with pupils placed there by local authorities that are unable to meet the needs of those pupils within their own provision. It must be understood that such children are the vast majority of pupils provided for in the non-maintained sector. Both those schools are remarkable places. They achieve superb results, and one cannot visit them without being moved by the dedication and professionalism of the staff and the achievement of the pupils. They are doing the Government’s bidding by delivering special needs education, but they are getting a raw deal out of it.

The Government’s response to the report is disappointing, and I share many of the sentiments that have been expressed. Despite continuing to promote a continuing role for special schools, the Government do nothing to ensure that it becomes a reality. Non-maintained and independent special schools consistently produce some of the best contextual value-added scores in the country, even though they are not widely publicised by the Department for Education and Skills and will not be reported in future years. Non-maintained special schools are not included in the Government’s online programme for raising attainment and individual standards in education—RAISE—and they are unable to submit pupil-level performance data. In a climate in which outcomes and evidence are ever more important, non-maintained special schools are at a great disadvantage.

I should declare an interest as a trustee of the foundation that raises funds for the Mary Hare school for the deaf. It recently opened its new performing arts centre, and as a trustee I have been closely involved in
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the fundraising effort. We had the truly bizarre situation of receiving a welcome and superb grant of £300,000 from the Department towards that project and then having to pay back more than that amount to the Chancellor in VAT, which would not have been payable had the school been in the maintained sector. That money-go-round is a daft waste of civil service time, before one even starts to think of the central absurdity that it demonstrates.

At a time when the “Every Child Matters” agenda should be putting whole-service schools, such as the two I mentioned, at the centre of local and regional planning and provision, the reality is very different. Such schools feel that the focus on their provision is too much on cost alone, with no discussion of values or outcomes. Pressure on local authority funding and on health means that the schools are frequently considered only as a last resort after a child has been through and failed in mainstream education and every other service available from the local education authority.

The Government assure us that they view the development of local authorities more as commissioners than as providers. Despite that, schools are having great difficulty in gaining access to the commissioning process. The Government paint a picture of stable special school numbers and falling SEN and disability tribunals. That is not a picture that is recognised across all non-maintained special schools. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) for his important point about the conflict of interest that lies at the centre of the tribunal process. Almost all the pupil placements in many special schools come through tribunals. Tony Shaw, the principal of the Mary Hare school for the deaf, spends nearly half his time attending, fighting and usually winning at tribunals across the country.

I hope that the Government learn to value the report, develop an understanding of the problem across the special skills sector and understand that children with special needs will suffer if the non-maintained sector is allowed to wither on the vine.

4.20 pm

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): I know that several hon. Members have said that they will be brief, and I will try to do the same. I have three quick points to make.

I commend the Committee on an excellent report. I also commend to the House the work of the Back Benchers who, in the past 20 minutes, have published a report on services for disabled children which supports many of the recommendations and conclusions of the Committee. There are three things that I would implore the Government to take on board from both reports. First and foremost, the experience of families with children with special educational needs in what has commonly become known as the system must be changed. Too often, those families experience bureaucracy and have to cope at home with a disabled child or a child with special educational needs, and then a whole load of other difficulties come up. Many such families are not equipped with the skills to take on officials in education or health authorities or the other agencies that provide services for young people. We must change that experience for the parents of children with special educational needs.

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My second point is about statements. I have read the Government’s response to the references to that subject in the Select Committee’s report. I sympathise with the Government’s position that they do not want to diminish the role of local authorities as the advocates of people with special educational needs, and their view that parents should have some comeback on the system and get redress when they do not agree with a decision. I accept that, but there are far too many parents with children who do not reach the statement stage or who wait far too long to reach it. We must bring about a change so that children get the support that they need at a much earlier stage.

Mr. Marsden: We talked about that precise point a great deal in the Select Committee report. The Government have said—the Minister will no doubt say so too—that they have significantly increased spending on special educational needs, but does my hon. Friend agree that if there were greater support and assistance and earlier intervention for parents, some of the money that is spent on trench warfare in tribunals could be redirected into the system at an earlier stage?

Clive Efford: My hon. Friend makes the point well. In an attempt to be brief, I shall not comment on it any further than to say that I support that view.

In recommendation 34, the Select Committee has suggested a way forward. There is an opportunity for us to prevent statements from becoming a barrier to children getting the support that they need.

My third point is that we need to empower parents. They need to have recourse to an independent body that can advocate on their behalf. Too often, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, summing up the problem for many parents, local authorities assess, decide, finance and provide. That places parents in a difficult position as they try to challenge a local authority that, for reasons of expediency, as all of us who have been involved in local government will understand, is trying to spread a thin budget widely.

We can understand the pressures that those authorities are under and the decisions that they are trying to make, but we have to recognise that parents and children have rights. To secure those rights, they need some form of independent advocate away from the local authority to ensure that they get them. In short, future funding for special educational needs—I hope that this will be taken on board in the next comprehensive spending review and in subsequent ones—should deal with the hidden problem of children with special educational needs in classrooms and of children who are not given the proper statements that they need, or else we will continue to fail many children. If we are to deliver on our policy that “Every Child Matters”, we must start to make a difference in this area.

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