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26 Oct 2006 : Column 514WH—continued

4.26 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I, too, am delighted to speak in this debate and to pay tribute to the Committee’s work. Although I welcome the report, it should not have been necessary to reiterate calls for a review of the statementing process four years after the Audit Commission’s report. Nor should it have been
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necessary for the Committee to request a specific response from the Government on alternatives to statementing which addresses the issues of

Those simple processes should already be at the heart of both policy and practice.

The subject is close to my heart for, like my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I have a child with special needs. It is also a subject that I, like other hon. Members, come across almost weekly in my constituency surgeries. The provision of special needs education appears to me to be the last bastion of education ideology. Since 1981 at least, the theory has been stretched to fit the observable facts. The recognition that experience no longer matches a preconceived model is, within certain fields, called a paradigm shift, presumably because it sounds learned. I prefer to call such a realisation common sense.

I am delighted that the Committee has recommended that the Government should clarify their guidance on inclusion. I also welcome what has been somewhat uncharitably dubbed Baroness Warnock’s U-turn on the subject, because it offers some hope that given time even Government policy will be able to adapt in the face of experience. The doctrine of inclusion was intended to recognise that SEN is a broad church, but it has instead sustained a blinkered orthodoxy in which children with a variety of needs are increasingly perceived as a homogenous group.

When I visited Southview school in my constituency recently to open a fantastic new building, one of the messages that both staff and parents wanted me to understand about the challenges the school faced was that their pupils had different skills and complex needs. Just like everyone else, they needed support that was tailored to meet those needs.

It is a damning indictment of the system that even Baroness Warnock believes that

Indeed, the only neat category of children with special educational needs seems to be the shameful number of them who are not in education, employment or training—NEET.

The spectrum of needs is most apparent when we consider the autistic spectrum disorder. Indeed, the name gives the uninitiated a pretty good clue about what to expect. Despite that, most people’s preconceptions about Asperger’s syndrome are based on little more than Mark Haddon’s prize-winning novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”. One of my constituents, Mrs. Jayne Metcalf, is one of many mothers fighting for a better outcome for her child. She wrote to me recently about her son Josh, who is nearly eight and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. The Committee has already invited the Minister to read the 230 written
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submissions received in the course of this inquiry, but I would like to share Mrs. Metcalf’s observations on the current system.

Despite being diagnosed by a paediatrician in April, only now is Josh beginning the statementing process. In the meantime, Mrs. Metcalf is having to keep him at home. That is not the mainstream school’s fault, she says; it simply does not have the staff or the budget to cope with him. Why, she asks, does he need a statement when he already has a medical diagnosis? Perhaps the Minister can answer that question for her. Better still, perhaps he can abide by the Committee’s recommendation that early diagnosis of children with autism or Asperger’s is preferential to statementing. Mrs. Metcalf also asks why the system is geared towards the easy recognition of physical disabilities and not behavioural issues. Happily the Committee also recommended:

Perhaps the Minister will take that on board as well.

The irony implicit in the discussion of inclusion is that SEN provision is always perceived as being separate from mainstream education, even when its aims seem to be collaborative. The language of collaboration has itself become pejorative, and it now seems to be a precursor to the pitched battle that so often occurs between councils, teachers and parents.

The Committee heard that statementing is a

that is conducted in an “environment of conflict”, with parents forced into an “adversarial stance” by the current system. SEN provision in mainstream education seems often to be tacked on as an inconvenient afterthought. As a final straw, in the one area in which separation is desperately needed—between the assessment and delivery of SEN provision, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham alluded—it is absent. Breaking the link between the two is the first of the interim recommendations from the Conservative party’s commission on special needs; and the Committee, too, was unequivocal on that point.

The Government need to bring special needs education into the mainstream education policy agenda instead of simply trying to integrate children with special needs into mainstream schools. I am not coming down on either side of the fence on the issue of inclusion or special schools. Indeed, one of the benefits of the Government’s advocacy of a “continuum of provision” is that there is no need to choose a side, but a true continuum of provision implies a choice of delivery—not a choice to seek the best solution for a child, but the right to see it happen.

My researcher Christian has a mild form of cerebral palsy, but he attended an independent mainstream school because he was not offered the choice of attending a mainstream school within the state sector. I want to see a system in which there is some recognition that parents who have children with special needs are often in the best position to know what those needs are—the very point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell).

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The responses received during the BBC Radio 4 programme prove beyond doubt that inclusion suits some children but not others. We need to view special and mainstream schools as being complementary, not competitive. We should not be afraid of returning to a system in which the supply of special schools reflects parental demand rather than provoking a hollow laugh from parents who cannot get their children into one.

On the question of supply, my constituents are fortunate to be well served by two special schools, the Edith Borthwick school in Braintree and Southview school in Witham. A third school, Kingswode Hoe, is outside my patch, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) would not mind my drawing attention to the good that it does for many of my constituents.

The Committee visited several special schools in Essex, but unfortunately none of those in my constituency. I invite the Minister to visit Southview school and to see the new building there. Southview has now reached the halfway point in a campaign to raise £44,000 for new equipment to fit out the building—a task not made easier since Government support for the communication aids project ended. Far from being an inaccessible resource for the few able to attend the school, the deputy head teacher, Paul Ellis, is optimistic, saying:

In other words, he is optimistic that Southview can take its place in the “continuum of provision”. I also welcome the Committee’s recommendation that we need to develop a national strategy for minimum standards of access to therapy.

The last letter that I received from Mrs. Elizabeth Drake, the head teacher of Kingswode Hoe school, expressed her despair at the difficulty of continuing to provide sufficient speech and language therapy for the school. That should be one of the foundations of SEN provision, not an optional extra. I urge the Government to undertake the root-and-branch review of SEN provision that they have avoided for far too long. We should ensure that children like Josh Metcalf have access to the support that they need so that, to paraphrase Christopher Boon, they can enjoy more good days than black.

4.36 pm

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): I commend the Select Committee on its excellent report. I intend to be brief, because I want to focus on a specific and extremely important issue identified by the Committee—that of collaboration between, and the co-location of, mainstream and special schools, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and several other of my hon. Friends.

I strongly support the Committee in what it says at paragraph 360. It urges the Government to

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Those contradictions are more than apparent to two schools in the Oldham part of my constituency, because the lack of joined-up thinking in those elements of Government education policy is seriously putting at risk one of the best and most successful special needs initiatives that we have seen anywhere in the country in recent years.

A few years ago, Oldham council took the wise and bold decision to invest in a new purpose-built school to consolidate its special educational needs provision into one state-of-the-art special school. The boldness of that decision was to co-locate what we now know as New Bridge school on the same site as the existing mainstream Kaskenmoor school in the Hollinwood area. The potential benefits of co-location were rightly heavily promoted by the council during consultation. Co-location is now into its second year, and the gains have exceeded all expectations. Both schools have benefited significantly from being located on the same site, to the extent that they are now a living example of the kind of facility that the Select Committee so strongly recommends.

There are many instances of day-to-day collaboration, interaction and sharing of resources on the campus, which increasingly sees itself as a learning village rather than two schools on the same site. I shall give one example of what that means. Kaskenmoor and New Bridge schools recently entered the Kielder challenge, with a team of four young people from each school. It is an outdoor adventure competition for children aged between 13 and 16, with and without disabilities, from schools and youth centres throughout the United Kingdom. More than 200 teams entered the challenge and the New Bridge-Kaskenmoor team won an award as the team that was

That is the reality and the benefit of co-location and collaboration between special needs and mainstream schools. It is also the realisation of the Committee’s recommendations and of the Government’s ambitions as voiced by Lord Adonis. When he gave evidence to the Committee in March, he referred to Government policies as seeking to

and bringing

I know from what Lord Adonis said to me during his visit to the New Bridge-Kaskenmoor campus earlier this year that he believed he was witnessing the realisation of that policy approach and that it really worked.

Paragraph 360 of the Committee’s report recommends that the Government should

We are already at that stage in Oldham, and New Bridge-Kaskenmoor is the embodiment of the Committee’s recommendation.

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It is no surprise that the local council with the vision to create such a campus is also bidding to be part of the early wave of funding for “Building Schools for the Future”. What is surprising and even shocking is that in its plans for “Building Schools for the Future”, Oldham council proposes to close Kaskenmoor and, in doing so, bring that flagship example of co-location of mainstream and special needs provision to an end. The academy that is likely to serve as the replacement for Kaskenmoor will be on a different site and away from New Bridge.

The main factor causing Oldham council to propose this incoherent plan is that it has been made crystal clear that its best hope for inclusion in an early wave of “Building Schools for the Future” funding is for it to embrace the academy principle. It is being steered towards a bid that, to be acceptable, should include at least two and possibly three academies. The inevitable consequence of that is that several secondary schools will need to be closed to be replaced by academies. The candidates for closure are the schools that have had lower levels of academic attainment and, measured against past performance, Kaskenmoor would fall into that category as GCSE A to C results have been below floor targets. However, this year we have seen a remarkable improvement and attainment levels have doubled. The school is on a clearly improving path and the prediction based on current year 11 performance is for another step change improvement in the next round of results.

It is impossible to prove that co-location and collaboration with a special needs school has brought about those results. Although I firmly believe that that is the key factor, new leadership for the school has also been important. The cohort of Hollinwood children who have benefited from the country’s first ever Sure Start unit are now coming through to Kaskenmoor and, until recently, three of Kaskenmoor’s feeder schools were in special measures. The turnaround of those schools is also having an impact.

The point at which those and many other measures are starting to come together to allow the young people of Hollinwood to succeed is surely the wrong time to talk about closure and depriving the community of the school it so clearly identifies as its secondary school. At the same time, closure would risk destroying the synergy and on-site collaboration that has served mainstream and special needs so well at New Bridge and Kaskenmoor schools.

It is ironic that, as a consequence of an inflexible, ideological attachment to driving through academies as a condition for accessing “Building Schools for the Future” funding, what we are witnessing in Oldham is the exact opposite of the policy that the Committee urged the Government to adopt. It is also the exact opposite of what Lord Adonis predicted when he forecast that special schools and mainstream schools would be brought into closer proximity through “Building Schools for the Future”. As far as Oldham is concerned, Lord Adonis was wrong.

I hope that the debate will encourage a rethink and cause Ministers and officials to take a critical look at the negative consequences for special needs education inherent in Oldham council’s “Building Schools for
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the Future” proposals. Lord Adonis has a strong commitment to the co-location of mainstream and special school provision and a genuine understanding of the benefits for all the pupils involved. I hope that he will act to ensure that where such provision exists and is clearly working, it is not dismantled in the rush to implement other new initiatives.

4.44 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): As we are short of time, I will try to be brief. Some hon. Members would say I should make the Front Benchers wait—I, of course, would not.

I am pleased to be associated with the Committee’s report. It is a particularly well researched, thorough and detailed piece of work. In that context, I pay tribute to the Committee Clerk and team for their hard work and support for members of the Committee—I certainly found that support invaluable. I also recognise the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) who has now left the Committee. Her minority report was an interesting contribution to the overall debate, as was the chapter 5 submission of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell). His championing of localism and parents does him enormous credit. I also pay tribute to members of the Committee on their diligence during a fairly long inquiry and for accepting so many of my amendments to the report.

Despite being a very good report, most would agree, and have agreed in the debate, that the Government’s response is extremely disappointing. It amounts to a failure to recognise the severity and the scope of the issues raised. Most of the response was written before our report was published or had arrived at the Department for Education and Skills. Hon. Members will know that there have been other good reports from Ofsted, the National Audit Office and the Conservative party commission on special educational needs. When reading the Government response, I felt at times that I was reading a response to somebody else’s report. That would certainly explain some of the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Committee’s report. I, like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), felt dismayed by the Department’s defensive tone. While that may be an appropriate response for a Government agency or another political party’s report—although it would probably not be appropriate in those cases either—it is certainly not the response expected by a Select Committee endeavouring to get at the truth.

I suspect that the Minister has felt some embarrassment while sitting in this Chamber and listening to hon. Members. It is not as if there were no large areas of common ground with the Government. There is as much in the report that we agree about as disagree about. The key difference is that the Government do not believe that the system has fundamental issues to address. I do, and clearly the Committee also believes that.

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