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26 Oct 2006 : Column 520WH—continued

The issue of inclusion ran through this inquiry like a stick of rock. I started with a critical view of inclusion, particularly regarding how it seemed to be coerced or forced on to some parents. Having considered the evidence and sat through the meetings, my view has
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changed. I now believe that no two children are alike and one child’s inclusion is another child’s prison. But inclusion in a local school may also be the best solution to fulfil that child’s needs. That view does have important caveats. The right level of support needs to be a place for every child. That is clearly not currently the case. There are many gaps at local level, for example, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) said. During the inquiry we found that teacher training in special education needs was patchy to say the least. I want a much clearer commitment from the Government to ensuring that many more teachers entering the profession have the right level of training for special educational needs pupils and for those with major disabilities.

Many schools and teachers do not have the levels of expertise that they need to cope with the many demands placed on them. However, it should not just be the new teachers who get the training; it should be part of a continuing professional development and ingrained in the training and development budgets of schools.

Many of the points about statementing have been made so, for brevity, I want to address the subject of exclusions, mentioned by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis). Our report highlighted the high levels of exclusion among special educational needs and disabled pupils, and I am deeply troubled by the Government’s failure to address our points in detail. The figures are stark. The pupil level annual school census data for 2003-04 show that two thirds of exclusions are of special educational needs pupils. The Audit Commission has confirmed that.

Like the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, I want gently to chastise the Government, as statistics used by them in the Education and Inspections Bill debates suggest that exclusions of SEN pupils are falling. I am referring to Government figures for 1997 to 2005, which reflect changes in the SEN code of practice which mean that many pupils are no longer recorded as having SEN. They are now simply not in the statistics.

I hope that the Minister will answer my two specific points and deal with the wider issue of the need for fundamental reform of special educational needs provision. I remind him again that the report does not stand on its own, but is part of a long line of such findings. Our report is not negative or substantially different from the diagnosis made by other reviews. Therefore, one can only conclude that we are right that the problems are long standing and deep seated. I hope that the Minister will be conciliatory, but will also explain how and why the Government are right and every other major independent survey is wrong.

4.51 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): First, I pay tribute to the enormous amount of good work involved in special needs provision. Unfortunately, as we all know, not all the allocated provision is giving what individual children need. Secondly, I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), and his Committee on producing an excellent report that is also timely. It is perhaps just in
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time for some children, and I hope that it is not too late for many others. The report is timely because it is essential that we face the fact that many parents and their children have been and are getting a raw deal.

Many parents have been forced into adversarial situations in which they are fighting for their children’s rights. I recently met a local support group for parents of children with autism and I came away with these words ringing in my ears, “Why do I continually have to fight?” Of course, there are others who have not been in a position to keep up the fight. Why should parents and carers of children with special needs be constantly engaged in battles, sometimes from the moment of birth? I am talking about pre-school, the choice of primary and secondary schools, statements, resources and specialist support in school, including speech therapy, and post-16 education. What choices are offered at that level? That is not to mention dealings with the health service and social services for respite care.

I have been proud to serve on the commission for children with disabilities, to which other hon. Members referred. The Government response to the report makes much of the “Every Child Matters” agenda and the requirement that all local authorities carry out an audit and record in their children and young people’s plan how services will be provided locally according to need. It states:

I have examples of where it is still not happening as it should. It is incredibly complacent to make that statement in the response, and we have a long way to go. Although I commend the Government on, for example, the early support programme—I am pleased that that will be rolled out nationally—and the endeavours to promote joint working, we are not there yet.

Areas of agreement have emerged between the Committee, many interested organisations and, indeed, the Government in their response. For example, I concur with what many other hon. Members said about the training of teachers. Important points were also made about the SENCO—the special educational needs co-ordinator—being brought into the senior management team. Other aspects of teacher training were mentioned. Of course, it is important for all teachers to receive training throughout their career. Teachers have to be able to understand and respond to the needs of individual children, while having a good knowledge of conditions such as dyslexia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—obviously, I could go on.

I designate statements as a battleground, and the Committee says that it has been a long time since the flaws in the system were pointed out. To statement or not to statement? I have been a chairman of education and the situation is very difficult. One desperately wants to get the resources through to the children so that one can help to support them, and the statement process can get in the way, but parents do not have any confidence in the system unless the child has a statement. I agree with the Committee that there is a case for a national framework, but I would want quite a lot of local flexibility.

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I want to touch on the Committee’s recommendation on what I would call the separation of functions in respect of statementing. There is identification and prescription on one hand, and commissioning on the other. I sincerely concur that there has to be a separation of those functions. Otherwise, the system cannot work, and it does not work. Again, I have agonised about that as a chairman of education, but what surprises me is the number of objections that the Government put up against the proposal. It is utterly unreasonable to throw the whole idea out of the window on what are false arguments. It needs to be investigated properly and we need to see how it can work.

Of course, there is a monetary implication, and although I would not go as far as the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), we have to face the fact that the cost of giving an individual child the right provision might come to £100,000 a year. That is very difficult for a small authority. We have to get to grips with that, because it makes the conflict even greater when a small authority knows that the budget will go absolutely haywire.

The Government response concedes that statements must be completed in the statutory time scale of 26 weeks. We are told:

Why, then, are the Government not responding to the serious situation involving educational psychologists? At the relevant point in the Government response, I have noted in the margin “outrageous”. As the report says, and as a number of professionals in the area have said over the past few years, there is a crisis in the funding for the training of educational psychologists. How, then, can the statements be completed?

This September, the profession moved from a one-year master’s degree training for psychology graduates with teaching experience to a three-year doctorate for psychology graduates with some experience of working with children. Historically, the one-year programme was funded by local government through a top-slicing arrangement. With the end of that arrangement, no funding mechanism appears to be in place at all. It has been suggested to me that the only way to fund educational psychologist training is for the local authority to employ a trainee on a trainee salary and pay their university fees for three years. The estimated cost over three years is about £90,000.

My contact in a local authority suggests that that funding could be provided only by reducing the number of educational psychologists that the authority employs. That is an enormous crisis. The importance of educational psychologists is covered in many reports. For example, the Steer report on discipline acknowledges how very important their function is.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, because she is making an extremely important point. Does she agree that the issue is not merely, although it is partly, the shortage of educational psychologists, but the fact that if a parent disagrees with the view offered by an in-house, local authority-employed educational psychologist, he or she
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has to commission a report from one of his or her own? We are talking about expenditure of several hundred pounds or more. That is beyond the reach of many people in this country and it is a grotesque social injustice.

Annette Brooke: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Not only are such fights taken on only by parents who can fight and keep going, but the process costs a lot of money, which precludes many parents from achieving what they want for their children. He highlights the fact that whatever system we have for statementing, we need more educational psychologists, not fewer.

The issue of pre-school education is important to me. When the Childcare Act 2006 was being considered, I was concerned that there would not be enough funding in local authority pots to provide special pre-school education for children with special needs. It is great that that is to be provided, but it is foolish to pretend that it will be cheap to provide and will come just under the grant for free entitlement. It will not.

We all know that that early pre-school intervention is very important. In the recent report “The Cost to the Nation of Children’s Poor Communication”, I Can comments:

Speech therapists and other support training for communication skills are, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, absolutely crucial, because children cannot progress until those obstacles are overcome. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that primary care trusts and local authorities are equipped to employ adequate numbers of speech and language therapists?

There has been much debate about inclusion and mainstream education, and I am glad that the consensus is that this is not a question of special school education versus inclusion. Everyone has come to the centre and agrees that we have to find what is right for individual children. That is important.

It is worrying that Government policy is not clear. When I was chairman of education for Poole unitary authority, the pressure was to include more and more children. There is no doubt that there was pressure. Even Government documents appear to suggest that the number of children in special schools will fall, but I understand that the ministerial evidence to the Committee was that the Government agenda is not to reduce numbers in special schools. Some clarity is therefore needed from the Minister today.

I believe in inclusion for many children, but that has to be resourced. It has been seen as a cheap option and used as one for local authorities that are hard-pressed for funds, but that cannot be. There has to be adequate support, especially for teachers. It is hard for teachers, and for other pupils in a class, when a child with extreme behavioural difficulties has to be dealt with. We must accept that, because teachers are leaving, a large number of whom have completed only about five years of teaching. The pressures in the classroom come
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from that. So, an awful lot needs to be done, and we need clarification from the Government.

I agree with hon. Members about the spectrum of support and on the point about collaboration and autonomy, about which we have heard a lot. How will collaboration be promoted? That is difficult. Like the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), I have had representations from the non-maintained sector. I received a letter from Langside school in my constituency, which is run by Scope. The head teacher expressed disappointment with the Government response to the report, and said that despite continuing to promote a continuing role for special schools, they do nothing to make that a reality.

The head went on to say that pressure on local authority and health funding means that our schools are frequently considered only as a last resort, after a child has been through and failed in every local authority service. Why should a good school be a last resort? That is why we need independence in the statementing process.

Much has been said about choice and admissions. I am not convinced by the Government’s response on whether academies are accepting children with special needs when they should be. That is a poor section of the document.

Should there be a major review of special educational needs? I think there should be. The Government are totally wrong and it has been a long time since the last, big change of direction—25 years. We may have had legislation and a 10-year strategy, but much has changed. Evolution and modification are taking place, but we must consider the complexities of special needs today and the fact that we now listen more to parents and children.

There has been so much change that a review is needed, and the statement in the Government response suggesting that that would mean that everything had to stop is ridiculous and nonsensical. We should have an open debate about how much we as a society are prepared to spend on our children with special needs.

5.6 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who spoke with passion and conviction.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for the Select Committee’s excellent report, which was also timely. We are grateful to the Committee for its work in preparing the report; as the hon. Gentleman said, it is clear that the Committee has been listening. It is also clear that the Government need to assess their response to the report—all hon. Members have criticised it—and other recent Select Committee reports such as last week’s Public Accounts Committee report on underperforming schools. The Government’s dismissal of that report was quite astonishing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) was right, in his characteristically reasonable speech, to be so critical of the Department for Education and Skills in that regard. Even schools that have read the report are commenting on it. I have here a letter from the Royal School for Deaf Children
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in Margate, which was passed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who is chairing a Standing Committee and cannot be here. In the letter, the school says that it is disappointed by the Government’s response, and that despite continuing to promote a continuing role for special schools, they do nothing to make sure that that becomes a reality.

The way in which the system of special needs provision should operate has been called into question by the Select Committee report; by Baroness Warnock, in recent contributions; and by the university of Cambridge report, “The Costs of Inclusion”. In its hard-hitting report, the Select Committee said that

It found

and urged the Government to consider

When I saw those words and compared them with the Government’s response, I thought that the Government really must address how they respond to such reports.

Even the Government recognise the shortcomings in the system. Lord Adonis told the Select Committee:

In spite of that, the Government refuse to hold a review; I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that they should have a review. They base their view largely on the opinion of Ofsted, which told the Committee that

That is the position that the Government are trying to hold, but it is difficult to justify, particularly when it comes to the unwieldy statementing process. The Committee rightly stated:

That was echoed in this debate by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods).

That Audit Commission report said:

It recommended that

The university of Cambridge came to similar conclusions.

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