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I have heard at first hand, as have many hon. Members, the truly awful process many parents have to go through—the nightmare of it all—not to mention
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the expense, such as the cost of commissioning their own psychology reports, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in an intervention. There is also the worry of having to deal with the process while at the same time coming to terms with realising that they have a child with special needs who requires extra help at home.

My hon. Friend also cited a constituent who went through a 10-year statementing process. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) quoted a constituent who said that they were “bone tired” of the system, which had “sucked our family dry”. I am sure that many families could echo those comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) cited Josh Metcalf, aged eight, who despite being diagnosed with Asperger’s in April is only now beginning the process. I hope to goodness that that does not take as long as it has for some.

In another place, Lord Adonis said:

I can tell the noble Lord that there are proposals. One of my hon. Friends cited the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), when he was shadow spokesman on education, set up a commission on special educational needs under Sir Robert Balchin. The resulting interim report last November made a number of suggestions, including the replacement of statements with special needs profiles drawn up by independent profile assessors, with funding provided by a national funding agency. That addresses the very real conflict of interest to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred in his passionate and excellent speech. I have no doubt that other people and organisations could come up with suggestions that the Government could consider.

The Opposition have been calling for a review of the SEN system for some time. Last week, my colleagues in another place voted for amendments to the Education and Inspections Bill that would have provided for a review, accompanied by a separate amendment on a moratorium on the closure of special schools while the review was taking place. Regrettably, that amendment was defeated, and I shall not embarrass the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole by reminding her of which way her party voted on those amendments.

It is also obvious that there is no clear framework surrounding SEN provision. The Select Committee recommended

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) needs to consider that point when he is finding a local solution to the problem, as well as the point that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole made about how the low-incidence cases can be dealt with on a local basis and how expensive provision can be dealt with in a small local authority area.

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The charity I Can has said that it believes that the Government cannot devolve SEN responsibility to local authorities without the setting of an integrated national standards framework and a clear implementation and auditing strategy.

It is also clear that existing Government publications such as the SEN strategy have severe shortcomings, in particular a lack of clarity on fundamental issues such as inclusion. The Committee noted “considerable confusion” over the meaning of “inclusion” and felt that the Government needed to work

That explains the different attitudes of different local education authorities towards the closure of special schools throughout this country, to which the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who is a member of the Select Committee, referred.

The Government response is again worrying as it simply means no change. Paragraph 28 of section 3 states:

However, that is not what is happening on the ground. Baroness Warnock stated in her report:

So, it is not surprising that the Select Committee found that

The university of Cambridge found:

It is impossible to reconcile those two views. Although the Government claim to have a neutral policy with regard to special needs provision, many outside Government perceive a one-sided policy that undermines provision in special schools. I strongly believe that it is wrong to imply that mainstream education can cope with all special educational needs. Some children need teachers with specialist training and expertise if they are to fulfil their potential.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is again making a compelling point. I have visited the Nuffield speech and language unit and met children there, and I know that there is not the slightest prospect in the foreseeable future of those children being able to survive in mainstream schools. If the Government allow the arrogant and incompetent management of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust to dispose of that facility, those kids will be absolutely cut adrift. It is a disgrace.

Mr. Gibb: My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for that school, and I hope that he is successful in his
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campaign. He is right in what he says. I can cite other cases. I want to a Percy Hedley Foundation school in Newcastle, which looks after children with severe cerebral palsy. The work that it does with those children to re-teach their brains how to use their limbs means that many of them will be able to walk and learn how to communicate using a computer. If they were simply in a mainstream setting, none of those skills would reach those children and they would be severely disadvantaged as a consequence.

I also know young adults with mild cerebral palsy who can survive perfectly well in a mainstream setting if they have the right facilities for wheelchairs and communication equipment. Such children thrive, and go on to take degrees at university. However, we should be careful if we are trying to close provisions such as the ones that my hon. Friend mentioned.

In conclusion, it is important that parents’ views are paramount and that they have real choices of provision for their children. In addition, local authorities should inform parents of the special school provision available and the statementing process should be as swift, fair and efficient as possible. As the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) said, the Government should aim higher, faster, and stronger. That should be the objective of any Government in this particular field.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Before I call the Minister, I should thank all Members who have taken part this afternoon for the courteous way in which they have treated the Chair, and for the way that they have been generous with each other in ensuring that every Member who wanted to got in. It was a credit to everyone present.

5.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): I congratulate all Members, irrespective of whether they are on the Education and Skills Committee, on securing this debate and on the tone in which it has been conducted.

It would be good to begin by talking about the tone of the response, which was mentioned by the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). It was not the Department’s intention to put noses out of joint. If he and other Members feel that the response was intemperate, I would be the first to say that that was not our intention and to apologise for it. That is not what we were trying to do, even if there are differences and disagreements within the policy. In the coming moments, I shall try not to wax indignant—the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) suggested that I might do so. I shall also give my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield the opportunity to respond.

Unsurprisingly, this has been a passionate and good debate, and many speakers highlighted the difficulties that families may face in obtaining appropriate support for children with special educational needs. It is interesting to see people in this Chamber who have had to go through that process, including the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who spoke passionately about his own experience.

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As a constituency MP, which we all are first and foremost, I appreciate how frustrating it can be for families who find themselves in that position. However, it is important to place the real and distressing cases that we deal with in our constituencies in a broader context, and I shall try to do that. It is in the nature of our work as MPs to hear about things going wrong rather than going well. The reality is that the majority of children with SEN have their needs met satisfactorily by their schools. In saying that, I know that we must not be complacent and that there are difficulties that must be dealt with. I shall say a little about that and the path that the Government are taking.

Ofsted has reported improvements since we published our long-term SEN strategy, “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, in 2004. We can see those improvements, for example, in the percentage of children with SEN not achieving at least level 3 in maths at key stage 2, which decreased from 28 per cent. in 2003 to 25 per cent. in 2005. It is important to remember that. Likewise in English, the percentage of children not achieving at least level 3 decreased from 31 to 27 per cent.

Those improvements reflect the Government’s increasing investment in provision for children with SEN. Much has been said in the past three hours about investment and the need to invest. I agree with and support that, but it is important to put it on the record that local authorities’ indicative spending on SEN stands at £4.5 billion in 2006-07. Within that £4.5 billion, more resources than ever are going to schools to support earlier intervention; the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) alluded to that. Figures provided by local authorities show that indicative SEN funding in mainstream schools rose by 43 per cent. from £1.3 billion in 2003-04 to £1.8 billion in 2006-07, and school budgets for special schools rose by 23 per cent. from £1.1 billion to £1.3 billion. That is a 43 per cent. increase in three years.

Having reached a number of the milestones in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, we need to move on, and everyone in the Chamber accepts that this is not a time for complacency and standing still. I shall briefly mention five key areas before returning to some major topics that hon. Members raised.

We must raise the awareness and skills of staff in identifying and meeting special educational needs—my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and others made that point. We must increase access to specialist support; improve accountability for the outcomes that children achieve; improve the quality of support to parents, particularly parent partnerships; and do more to provide advice and support to parents going through the system. I agree that that should be done at arm’s length from the local authority, and we shall try to do that.

We must also improve provision for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties and children with autism. That is a passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), and I was with him at the launch of the “Make School Make Sense” campaign of which he has been a great champion in the House.

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I turn to some key questions that I have been asked. Do we need a completely fresh look at SEN policy? In the time remaining, I shall not duck that question, but face it head on. The Committee urged us to take a completely fresh look at SEN policy and to overhaul the system of assessments and statements. I understand entirely why the Committee said that, but while we share its desire to improve things, we do not believe that a review is the right way forward at this time, when progress is being made in improving provision for children with SEN. We believe that that would lead to prolonged uncertainty and halt that progress.

It is not just the Government who are saying that. When Ofsted gave evidence to the Committee, it advised against a major review and members of the Committee will recall that it said that the danger of a big review at this time is that it would diversify work, resources and developments in such a way that it could send us back to the slow progress prior to 2004.

Jeff Ennis: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Dhanda: I am short of time and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield time to respond, but I will give way this time.

Jeff Ennis: I am sure that the Minister is aware that many organisations are saying that the statementing process is too long and legalistic. It has been jettisoned by the Scottish Parliament and is being reviewed by the Welsh Assembly. Given that scenario, would not the £80 million a year that it costs to fund the statementing process be better spent on children’s individual special educational needs?

Mr. Dhanda: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I shall come to the statementing process and how I think we could get better value out of it. A lot has been said about it, so it is important that I return to it and comment on it.

On inclusion, hon. Members spoke passionately about special schools and some claimed that the Government have a policy of favouring the closure of special schools. I must make it clear on the record that we do not. Spending on maintained special schools has risen from £891 million in 2000 to £1.3 billion in 2006-07, enabling the quality of provision in those schools to improve. Local authorities spend £506 million on fees for pupils at a number of excellent non-maintained and independent schools. I think the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) asked specifically about non-maintained schools and the support that we give them.

A statistic that surprised me a little, not least in the context of our debate, is that rather than declining, the proportion of pupils with statements who attend special schools has risen over the past five years from 36.3 to 36.9 per cent. Our so-called anti-special schools policy is clearly failing. That is not our policy and I am surprised that during three hours of debate that has not come to the fore.

Just as we have never had a policy of closing special schools, we have never accepted that we must choose between sustaining special schools and improving
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provision in mainstream schools. In its recent report, “Inclusion: does it matter where pupils are taught?”, Ofsted said that there was

We are therefore right in our policy of promoting a flexible range of provision that includes mainstream and special schools, resourcing provision within or attached to mainstream schools suited to the needs of individual children and offering choice to parents as far as possible.

I shall comment on statements, not least because my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough mentioned them.

Mr. Gibb: Given what the Minister said, does he think it possible that some local authorities have misunderstood the Government’s policy and are basing what they are doing on previous guidelines from the Department that they have misinterpreted? Should he think about reissuing guidelines to local authorities?

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We will send guidance to local authorities, making it clear that they must take into account parental preferences. If they are to close a special school, they must make appropriate provision. I hope that that clarifies where we stand.

On assessment and statements, the Committee set out what it believed to be key elements in any system for deciding support for children with SEN: an effective assessment of needs, efficient and equitable allocation of resources, and appropriate placement in high-quality provision. The current system is designed to meet those three objectives. The Government appreciate the tensions that can occur when managing assessments and statements, and the very real frustrations that they can produce. They are perhaps inevitable in a system with finite resources. However, reviewing and replacing the system is not the best way to improve outcomes for children with SEN.

I take on board the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield made. The Committee in its report did not suggest a quango to undertake the statementing separately; it urged the Government to consider the matter. However, if we move the system away from local government, we must accept that we diminish the local accountability of the present system. We must bear that in mind.

With regard to statements, I note that—

John Bercow: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Dhanda: I was mid-thought, but I am happy to give way.

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