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In my own county of Bedfordshire there are no specialist speech and language units. I understand that in the neighbouring county of Hertfordshire there are eight stand-alone speech and language units, whereas Essex county council recently closed all its speech and language units so all the provision is in mainstream schools. There is a patchwork of provision, differing according to local authority area. I am not saying that mainstream provision can never work, but it should be of concern that provision is so different in neighbouring local authorities. There is a patchwork lottery, no doubt for historic reasons, or reflecting the local taxpayer base and other issues. That is a matter of concern.

I want to focus my remarks on one child in my constituency. She is a six-year-old little girl by the name of Jade Chambers who until recently attended Heathwood lower school in my constituency. I have visited the school and met the head teacher and other teachers, and overall it is a good school providing a good education. Jade Chambers was placed in the school, and when her needs were assessed in October 2005, the school made it clear that it was concerned that Heathwood lower school was perhaps not the right place for Jade to be educated. The local education authority did not agree with that assessment and Jade was placed in an enhanced language provision in the school.

The aspect of that case that most concerns me and on which I want to focus the bulk of my remarks—I should be grateful if the Minister would provide some idea of his thoughts on it—is the issue of the physical restraint of all children. This is a debate on children with speech and language difficulties: Jade Chambers has speech and language difficulties. She is a six-year-old girl with the speech and language understanding of a three-year-old child, who has been placed in a mainstream setting. At home she is not a difficult child, but at school, because she does not understand what is going on around her, she often presents in a difficult manner to the extent that the police were called to the school on a number of occasions. Indeed, the police will be acting as witnesses at the special educational needs and disability tribunal for this case on 5 December. The issue that I find totally unacceptable is that a child can be repeatedly physically restrained in a school without the parents knowing that it is happening.

I hope that the Minister is aware of the circular from the Education Act 1996 known as 10/98, which only provides guidance on that issue and is not mandatory. There are, of course, many reasons why schools will need—absolutely rightly, properly and correctly, although regrettably—to restrain children. They may be behaving appallingly badly or putting other children or staff in danger. Sadly, physical restraint is, of course, needed in our schools. However, the relationship between the child and the school is triangular, not linear. The parents are absolutely key and want to be part of the solution and to be integrally involved in ensuring the success of their children’s education. At the very least, they need to know whether physical restraint is being applied even once, let alone repeatedly, to a child.

When we are talking about children with speech and language difficulties, a further issue is that these children cannot come home and tell their parents what
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is happening. The first that Jade Chambers’s mother knew about what was happening was when her daughter came home with ripped trousers, had a tremor on her lip and was barely able to describe what had happened. That is simply unacceptable.

The Government have said that the Minister’s colleague in another place, Lord Adonis, does not know how many children are being physically restrained in our schools and that is unacceptable. We should gather those data, and some local authorities have made it mandatory as far as circular 10/98 is concerned. I do not know a lot about St. Helens council—I am not even precisely sure where it is—but it has made the policy contained in the circular mandatory. It has decided to do so in its capacity as a local education authority.

The Minister will know that the Education and Inspections Act 2006 has actually given schools more powers in that area. Sadly, there is perhaps good reason and need for that—I understand that. But may we please have in tandem with that the requirement that parents are kept informed, and that there is training in the use of restraint? Account should be taken of a pupil’s age, gender and size, and the use of restraint should be properly recorded, with detailed notification being given in writing and orally to the parents when it has happened. In addition, Ofsted and a designated school governor should review the restraint registers.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend will be aware that under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 provision is made for a review of training for ordinary staff and potentially for special educational needs co-ordinators. Is he aware that, in the other place on 31 October, Baroness Sharp of Guildford asked Lord Adonis for a commitment that SENCO training should include some knowledge of and experience in speech, language and communication difficulties? Lord Adonis said that the Government would certainly look at that. Does he not need to do so now and reach an affirmative conclusion sooner rather than later?

Andrew Selous: My hon. Friend is absolutely right—Lord Adonis does, of course, need to do so.

In conclusion, will the Minister give me and this Chamber an assurance that the repeated physical restraint of children in our schools, whether or not they have speech or language difficulties, will be something that parents are immediately informed about so that they can be aware of what is happening and be part of the solution to help the school manage the issue?

10.7 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I thank the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) for triggering the debate. I know that he takes a great interest in the subject and I am sure that his contribution will be appreciated by many outside this Chamber. He was eloquent, forthright and passionate, and I congratulate him on his speech. I am also aware that the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists is taking an interest in what is said today, and I am sure that many parents and children who have a direct or indirect interest in the issues already raised will be suitably impressed by his contribution.
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I hope to make a relatively short speech as others have far greater experience of the subject. I look forward to learning more today and have already learned much from the opening speech and from the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who mentioned something that was discussed when I recently met speech and language therapists at their annual awards ceremony: the significant reduction of re-offending rates in prison of those who have received speech and language intervention. Qualified speech and language therapists are available, but they cannot find jobs. I am sure all hon. Members would agree that the cost involved in finding them jobs is a wise investment for the future.

I should declare an interest. It is not to be found in the Register of Members’ Interests, but it has a greater significance as it is an emotional interest. Like the hon. Member for Buckingham, I also have a family member who has speech and language problems. I was delighted when my daughter Sarah and son-in-law George became parents two years ago following the birth of a baby girl, Maria. Although at the time I felt much too young to become a grandfather, it was the best thing that has happened to me since becoming a Member of this House—even better than being elected with a 13,600 majority. Unfortunately, following a bleed in the brain at birth, Maria now suffers from cerebral palsy and like many children with that condition, she has already benefited from the skills of many people, including speech therapists. From 3 am on Friday last week, over the weekend and still today, she is in the sick children’s hospital in Edinburgh. Many other children on the ward are in a much worse condition, and my heart goes out to them and their families.

Two nights ago, one young boy with cerebral palsy lay there, screaming and trying to communicate with his family; he knew what was going on, but was unable to communicate. He reminded me of a son of good friends of mine who lived his life in that way until he died at the young age of 21. The boy in the next bed, the young man who died and my little granddaughter deserve the best help and support that we can provide. If we cannot deliver that, we will have let them down.

Little Maria will not only need the help and support of all those who love her, but will depend on those who can bring the best out of such children, who have a range of difficulties that will be present throughout their lives. As the hon. Gentleman said, early intervention can open up a new world of communication for children and reduce the frustration that builds up when communication is a problem. We all know how frustrating it can be to have a speech ready and not to be called—to have a message that we wish others to hear but which, for a variety of reasons, is not heard. Imagine that that was the case every single hour of every single day. For many children with speech and language difficulties, life can be a desperate challenge. That is why I hope that the debate will play a small part in keeping this important issue on the agenda.

In my own city of Edinburgh, we are fortunate to have an excellent range of facilities and many excellent dedicated staff who work with children who have such specialist needs, and their families. If I can pay tribute to just one such organisation, it is Capability Scotland, which has the slogan, “Turning disability into ability”.
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That sums Capability Scotland up. What it provides, and what is a key to success, is support and encouragement for parents to work with their child and to provide new and stimulating experiences through play and other enjoyable pastimes so that the learning is not all hard work. Children learn much more when it is fun. That organisation knows that it is important to include the parents in the education of children who have a range of difficulties, as parents are not only involved in their care from dawn to dusk, but are the best judges of what is working and what is not. The experts are important, but they must listen to the parents to develop the best way forward.

Many children with speech and language difficulties will face a number of other challenges throughout their lives: mobility, possible bullying, how they move on to independence and, later, earning a living, to name just a few. Delivering the education that those children require is vital and must be done in conjunction with other services provided at local authority level, by private companies and by voluntary organisations, as well as by central Government. For instance, disabled access on buses can make all the difference to a family if their child cannot walk. Speech and language provision may be available somewhere, but if they cannot get to it because of a physical barrier, that is a real problem. Facilities, help and support can be made available, but the users must be able to get there to make use of those facilities, the experts, the medical support and the support offered in many schools.

Many children and their families require support, advice and information about what is available: practical help, financial help, respite and much more. Despite the fact that such help is often available for parents of children with special needs, many are not aware that it exists, sometimes even when it is on their doorstep, although I appreciate that often it is not. When parents do find out information, it is normally limited and related only to the body that has provided them with the information. For example, a local health centre may suggest that a child is entitled to an occupational therapist, but it might not advise parents that they could also be entitled to respite care. Similarly, a parent may be informed by a council that they are entitled to a reduction in their council tax, yet they may still be unaware that they could receive disability living allowance. The problem is that different bodies—the NHS, local health authorities, education departments, social work departments and other Government offices—often do not liaise with one another. There is poor communication among departments, so although each may be perfectly capable of informing parents of what its field has to offer, there is no one source where parents can find out about everything to which they are entitled.

To help to fill that gap in my constituency, I have produced a special needs information pack. I would like to offer the hon. Gentleman a copy of it, and if it helps one or more of his constituents, I shall be delighted. The pack provides information on a wide variety of issues, including benefits, social work, child care and leisure facilities. It is specifically tailored to Edinburgh, West, but other things can help children who suffer from speech and language problems,
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because they often have many other problems in their lives, and the pack also deals with aids, adaptations, equipment, advocacy, advice and counselling, detailing what is available locally. It also includes useful contacts for other sources of information and a selection of information leaflets on other matters, such as

The pack has been praised by local parent carers groups and individual parents of children with these needs. It has helped some parents in my constituency and I hope to put it online to make it more widely available. I hope that, through a variety of means, we can contribute in a practical sense, as well as through debate, to helping a group of children who face real challenges throughout their lives and who are some of the most delightful individuals on the planet.

10.15 am

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate and on speaking so powerfully about a subject on which he obviously has a very deep interest. He talked about a continuum applying to children who have deafness and hearing impairment, and that continuum necessitates a diversity of provision when it comes to education.

I am fortunate that there are a number of specialist schools in my constituency which deal with many learning difficulties, including speech and hearing impairment. I am referring to Maple Ridge school, Dove House school, the Loddon school and Limington House school. All are of immense value to our community in north Hampshire. The commitment of the staff and the leadership of the head teachers mean that the children in my community who have perhaps more severe needs are dealt with in a way that is a credit to both our community and our education authority.

In considering the delivery of education to the children on the continuum that my hon. Friend talked about, we should also consider the importance of provision for those who can attend mainstream schools. Hon. Members may well have seen a report issued by Ofsted in July this year which said that obviously there are sometimes difficulties in providing specialist units in mainstream schools, but when there is effective qualified specialist teaching, those units can be immensely valuable for children who have these needs, particularly speech and hearing impairment.

The National Deaf Children’s Society feels strongly that it is important that there are choices of mainstream provision for children who have to deal with such problems. Its chief executive, Susan Daniels, has said that choice is important, but she also draws out the problem that choice is rare and urges local authorities to do more by way of forward planning and to work with neighbouring authorities to ensure that such choice is available in local communities.

My hon. Friends talked about the lottery of provision. Perhaps I, in Basingstoke, am fortunate to have drawn the right numbers, or perhaps I just have an excellent local education authority that understands the importance of both specialist provision and provision of education in mainstream schools for children with hearing impairment and deafness. In my
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constituency, there is a local pyramid of schools with deaf and hearing impaired units. At secondary level that is provided at Aldworth science college, and at junior and infants level it is provided at Park View infant school and Park View junior school. We are very fortunate to have those facilities locally for children who have that particular need, providing the sort of choice that the National Deaf Children’s Society has advocated so strongly.

My concern is that each of those three valuable units faces the threat of closure. That threat exists for one simple reason: the local authority needs to consider their viability. Of course, when specialists in education talk about viability, they look at numbers, but I believe they also look at the money. Although Hampshire has an excellent local education authority, it receives one of the lowest dedicated school grants in the country, as I am sure the Minister is aware. The formula certainly does not work in the favour of the children in my constituency.

The loss of those three units would be a great loss to my community. It would mean a loss of expertise in teaching. When one visits those schools and talks to their head teachers, it is clear that that expertise has been built up not just over recent years, but over a lifetime of dedication to serving children who have those particular needs. It would also mean a loss of teaching in the community for children with those needs. They already face great difficulties, which many of us would find difficult to contemplate for ourselves. To remove the choice so that they have to be shipped out to schools that are not in their community—I know that constituents of many hon. Members are in that situation—is a very retrograde step.

It is perhaps worth drawing out one other line of thought, which has been brought to my attention locally by health visitors. As my hon. Friend said, health visitors have an important role because they see children very early in their lives and are often integral in identifying hearing problems at an early age. I was therefore most concerned to hear from mothers and health visitors about the loss of the eight-month check for young children in Basingstoke and the north Hampshire area. In the context of reviewing a child’s development, that check is important for many reasons, but one of its most important aspects is to check a child’s hearing, just as it is important to check language and speech development at the age of two. Both those checks are being put to one side in north Hampshire because of financial pressures. That is another retrograde step, and I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on it.

As my hon. Friend said, late intervention in speech and language matters can create enormous future problems for children. We should be concerned about the loss of the ability to identify those concerns early in a child’s life through health visitors, and we should seek a Government response. We should not be looking for the closure of the units in my constituency. If anything, we should be thinking about how to increase the support for those units in future.

My hon. Friend talked about effective education of deaf and hearing-impaired children, and that is indeed what we should be focusing on, through specialist schools as well as by supporting units in the mainstream sector. I want to hear what the Minister
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would like to do to support local authorities such as mine, which are, frankly, struggling to support specialist units in the community. We need to do all that we can to ensure that the group of children in question, who face immense problems as it is, are not dislocated from their community. They already face significant challenges and we should do all that we can to reduce the pressure on them and their families, rather than increasing it by closing units.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Before I call the last of the Back-Bench Members to speak, I remind the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that I want to move to the Front-Bench speeches at 10.30 am. I shall be grateful if cuts his remarks accordingly.

10.23 am

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): You will have no problem with me, Miss Begg.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), whom I entirely support in her desire to prevent the closure of special schools. I shall deal with that subject, but first I want to comment on the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett). He spoke extremely well. I am intrigued by the information pack initiative, and I wonder whether he could make one available to me as well. I am sure that I shall not be the only hon. Member in the Chamber to ask for one. I see him nodding his assent, and I thank him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) spoke with his usual eloquence and great passion. He and I are at the two ends of the spectrum where speech making is concerned. Perhaps I may tell hon. Members a story of a boy who did not, they tell me, say a word until he was six years old. Then he went to speech therapy, until he became a teenager. He stopped going there not because they cured him but because it was too embarrassing to sit there with all the tiny children. In fact, in Yorkshire they all said that they eventually wished that when they mended him they had put in a switch—they said, “He couldn’t speak till he was six and he hasn’t stopped since.” Those are the sort of comments that this child had to face. I am sure that we all accept that being unable to speak does not necessarily mean one is stupid. There are many people with complex needs who have learning difficulties as well, but there are those who just have speech difficulties.

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