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28 Nov 2006 : Column 14WH—continued

I want to talk about the closure of special schools. There is pressure on such schools in Essex. In my constituency, a wonderful school for those with moderate learning difficulties, Cedar Hall, is under great pressure. The pressure is largely on MLD schools, not those dealing with severe learning difficulties. There is a feeling that it is more appropriate for children with moderate learning difficulties to be taught in an inclusive environment in the mainstream, and that is exactly right for some children. However, there are children for whom an MLD school is right. It is necessary to keep those schools open and support them fully, and not to refuse to refer children or tell parents about those options. We need to make sure that county councils support the MLD schools, as well as the important SLD schools. Closing MLD schools and moving the children into mainstream schools tends to
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exacerbate the difficulties in giving them speech and language support. That is my experience.

I have two points to make to the Minister, to which I hope he will respond, because, as he knows, I sincerely believe that he is a good chap. One is that children who require speech and language therapy—even those whose requirement is statemented—sometimes do not get that help from trained specialist speech and language professionals. They receive help from other people, who work with fantastic good will and enthusiasm, but who cannot provide what is needed to help those children as quickly as possible, which is very important. I hope that the Minister will deal with the issue that emerged this morning from the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham: the shortfall in numbers of professional therapists. We are looking for the Minister to give us comfort and to tell us this year, if not this morning, what he will do to ensure that the gap in the provision of trained professionals is closed before the end of the decade.

John Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that when it is agreed that speech and language therapy is to be provided by someone from the primary care trust, there must be a watertight legal right to enforce the provision on the PCT? The ducking and diving and reneging on commitments is wrong, damaging and regarded with contempt by parents.

Bob Spink: My hon. Friend makes the point more forcefully and eloquently than I could have done, and I am grateful to him for doing so.

My second point for the Minister relates to the fact that when I was a business man with companies in the 1980s, I had sheltered employment schemes. We were a community, not just a business. In the constituency of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), we had a unit with 10 people who did all sorts of wonderful work, with great value added. They brought the whole work force together as a community. They added more to my businesses than I added to their lives. We were able to do that because the Government provided encouragement and financial support for the schemes. I wonder if we can look again at how to make sure we can provide decent, dignified employment for such people. Many of the people whom I employed had never earned a wage before. I wonder whether there is a way to get that debate rolling again. If there is one thing we can do in this House, it is to provide dignity and quality of life for vulnerable people in our constituencies. We have a duty to do that.

Someone who cannot read or write or do sums will get by in life—many such people do—but when someone cannot speak or communicate people look the other way. Someone with those problems will have great difficulty; their human dignity will be offended and their quality of life will be much lower. That is the essential point that we must address when we consider education and caring for vulnerable people.

10.30 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who was inspiring, as he
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usually is on this subject. I hope that my good neighbour, the Minister, will be duly inspired by the very good speeches that we have heard. I congratulate all who spoke, but particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who brought his own special visual aid. I hope that we will all be able to share that information and that it can eventually be used to help our constituents.

This subject has been highlighted before. The important Rose review states:

My party currently has a four Rs commission, in which the fourth R is articulation. As we have heard throughout the debate, poor skills in those areas go on to affect behaviour. It is not surprising that children who are not understood try to communicate in other ways that are less than satisfactory to most of us. Young children who do not have educational attainments are held back throughout their adult lives, and may become involved in criminal activity. I do not suggest that all people who have language problems and speech impairments will go on to become criminals, but a high proportion of prisoners have those inabilities. It is therefore important to take on board the impact of those problems on our society.

It is important to appreciate that speech and language therapy is complex and covers a spectrum, from children with transient language difficulties—their number is increasing simply because of our lifestyles and because people do not talk enough in the home—through to children with the persistent difficulties about which we have heard a lot today. Clearly, early intervention is key—indeed, there appears to be a critical age by which speech and language skills should be developed to prevent problems with subsequent development. A longitudinal study found that children whose language difficulties were resolved by the age of five and a half were more likely to go on to develop good reading and spelling skills. Many children’s communication difficulties are transient and can be resolved through early intervention. As we have heard over and over again, if children do not get that early intervention, the costs to society are large. As well as needing specialists, we need our mainstream teachers to have an understanding of communication, because many of the transient problems could be picked up in the classroom setting. For that to happen, we need all our early-years teachers to be suitably trained in this issue.

I do not want to go into the whole debate about mainstream schooling and inclusion, but I can go back 20 years and think of children and young people who were in special schools but who would not have been there if they had received speech and language therapy. That is critical. We have, to a large extent, moved on with the Government’s agenda, but we know that children who are included, particularly those with more complex needs, are not getting adequate support in mainstream schools. We should keep in mainstream education children who simply need a year’s course of speech therapy and will then be able to access all of the main curriculum, but it is crucial that children who are included should receive that full support.

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Statistics show that one in 10 children in the UK have communication problems, but I suggest that as many as 50 per cent. of five-year-olds arrive at school without the speech and language skills that they need to participate fully and to achieve their potential. The majority of children with communication problems are educated in mainstream schools, and we know that communication problems can accompany other disabilities. We need to take on board the fact that a large number of children with statements of special educational needs have been identified as having speech, language and communication difficulties. As the hon. Member for Buckingham said, in our debate on the Select Committee on Education and Skills report, we discussed at great length the point that the money available must match up with the requirements set out on the statements.

Many MPs have supported the Make Chatter Matter campaign and have signed up to the early-day motion on it. The campaign is all about giving information to parents and having skilled staff, communication-friendly early-years settings and specialist provision. The debate is timely because I visited Carden nursery in Brighton just a week ago to see an interesting project initiated by I CAN. The nursery is on a school site and has children in mainstream sessions but pulls out 10 children in the morning and 10 in the afternoon for special sessions. Those sessions are intensive and involve three adults working with a maximum of 10 children. I was able to watch the sessions without the children seeing, and have learned about Makaton and cued articulation. I also learned that most of those three and four-year-olds had been identified as having language difficulties by their health visitors, so I make a plea: we must have a sufficient number of health visitors to pick up those problems at an early stage. All the children there have a relatively high level of cognitive development, and the intensive work will almost certainly result in all of them ultimately accessing mainstream education—it will allow many of them to go straight into mainstream schools at five. The project is obviously expensive, but it will save money in the long run.

How big is the problem? Do our local authorities know the extent of it, taking into account the whole range of communication and language difficulties? We know that the general shortage of speech and language therapists means that children in some areas are unable to access crucial services; there is a postcode lottery. The Education and Skills Committee report on special educational needs highlighted problems in partnerships with health authorities. There is a lack of joining up. In the past three months, I have had problems with children being allocated to a nursery school in the county council area that is not their parents’ first choice, which takes them out of their primary care trust area. It has been a huge battle to get therapeutic services aligned to individual children. That is outrageous, especially for the poor parents who are in the middle of it all and who had to accept placements for their children that they did not want in the first place. They should not have to battle or come to their MP to sort out such problems.

Evidence submitted to the Select Committee highlighted that issue, and the Committee responded by calling for a national strategy. The Government’s
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response to the report, particularly on page 8, made me see red. I will add another word to those used by the hon. Member for Buckingham to describe it. Complacent—that is how I would sum it up. It is good news that there is some research coming through from Canterbury Christ Church university, but even so, I am concerned. We have heard that the budgets of 78 per cent. of speech and language therapy services across the UK have been reduced or frozen, and we know that speech and language therapy graduates have been unable to find jobs. Furthermore, there is a boom and bust problem: my local university, Bournemouth university, and other universities are saying that PCTs are not commissioning places for the future. So not only do we have unemployed speech and language therapists now, but in four years we will not have enough therapists coming through. That is ridiculous.

I know that I CAN has proposed a programme to the Minister in respect of its Early Talk course. I do not want to promote a particular provider, but I hope that the Minister will give due consideration to I CAN’s proposals.

Today, we have heard about Oliver, Maria and Jade. I agree that we need to get a grip on the procedures for restraining children, as we discussed in the Committee that considered the Education and Inspections Bill. The point, however, is that there are hundreds of thousands of children with specific needs, and we are not doing our best for them.

10.40 am

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate and, indeed, on the oratorical grasp and passionate embrace that he brought to it—it was a mix of Pericles and Mark Anthony. He has a growing reputation for championing good causes, and there is none better than the special needs of these special children. The issue warrants and needs our attention.

The care of children with special needs has been a particular concern of mine for 20 years, since my time as shadow chairman of education in Nottinghamshire. In that role, I took a robust view of the dangers of the agenda that emerged following the Warnock report and I defended the interests of children and parents who wanted out-of-county and, indeed, out-of-country special provision placements to meet their needs.

It was then that I first witnessed the superb work being done in special schools and the care and devotion that they invest in bringing greater opportunities to children who are too often forgotten by those in positions of influence and power. One such school—Dawn House in Nottinghamshire—teaches the full national curriculum to children between the ages of five and 16 with severe communication difficulties, and has twice been included in Ofsted’s list of excellent schools. As we debate the matters before us today, we should remember their important work and the success of similar schools.

We are rightly proud of a country that contains such schools, the whole ethos of which is rooted in excellence and care. It has been said by many wise men—not least, most recently, the Leader of the Opposition—that the mark of a civilised society is the
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way in which it treats its most vulnerable and defenceless members. Who, I wonder, could be described as more vulnerable than those children whose youthful fragility is intensified by their incapacity to communicate their hopes, fears and needs? They are indeed special and they deserve our special care and concern.

When the work of the House is done at the end of each week, I, like other Members, return to the innocent eyes and soft kisses of beautiful children. I marvel at their great energy as they push and pull me. I marvel at their small bodies, which are fragile and perfect. I enjoy the protective instincts that they invoke in me. I invite hon. Members to imagine how they would feel if their children were all the more vulnerable—physically or emotionally—because of disability. I ask every Member in considering my hon. Friend’s argument, to share that flight of imagination.

I do so knowing that Members from all parties care and knowing that the Minister cares too. I say it mindful of the comments that have been made by the other contributors to the debate: my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who talked about the importance of parents and of training teachers; the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett), who spoke of the need for early intervention, reinforcing the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham; my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), who talked about the importance of special schools in her constituency, which, like those in my constituency—Gosberton House school, Garth school and Priory school—do such excellent work; my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), who focused on the need for adequate numbers of specialists; and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who talked about the dynamic nature of special needs and the need for us to be sensitive to that dynamism and to adjust provision to meet those changing needs. Indeed, no needs change more than those of children with communication and language difficulties.

This is not a matter of party doctrine, but, sadly, it is sometimes a matter of dogma. The unlimited pursuit of integrationist policies that followed Warnock in 1978 and the Education Act 1981 closed many special schools. It closed minds and damaged lives. Of course, some of the Warnock legacy was fuelled by the best intentions, but the cost to schools and children has been profound because the people who drove this misguided agenda were as powerful as those whom they affected were powerless. The integrationist, broad-brush approach to an infinitely complex issue has damaged the educational prospects of countless children, not least those who suffer from speech and language difficulties.

Those without the capacity to communicate with their peers, parents and siblings often feel isolated, frustrated, misunderstood and desperate. They find themselves outside the social spheres that we take for granted: the family chat, the workplace gathering and even today’s debate.

For the fortunate, however, there is a place where they can feel included, understood and connected.
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That place is in the classroom in schools such as Dawn House and, since 1971, at the Nuffield speech and language unit, the work of which has been championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham and, altogether less fluently, by myself over the past year. There, talented staff, whose specialty is communication, can give children the one-on-one care and attention that they so desperately need. Such a focus is simply not possible without adequate specialist provision; with 30 children clamouring for the attention of one or two adults, it is inevitable that a child with speech and language needs is the last to be heard. Such problems have profound effects on the nation, as a recent report from the I CAN organisation suggests.

I also amplify my hon. Friend’s point about the proven link between communication disability and emotional behavioural problems, which often lead to social exclusion and eventually to not in employment, education or training status. It is a scandal for our society and for the Minister, who has been so generously described as high flying, capable and reasonable, that the number of NEETs has grown since the Government came to power.

The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I have five particular questions for him. Some have been raised already; others, are all my own. First, what measures have the Government put in place to ensure the early identification of such special needs? Secondly, what steps have been taken to promote inter-agency work to assist children and families who are dealing with the range of difficulties that ensue? Thirdly, what plans does the Minister have to ensure that local authorities maintain proper data on the speech and language difficulties of children in their area?

Fourthly, I turn to the issue of augmentative and alternative communications equipment, on which there was a written statement yesterday. We welcome that statement, which said that much of that equipment will be given free, following the campaign run by Scope, and, humbly assisted by myself, through communications with Ministers, but what provision will be made to ensure that equipment is updated? As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, the special needs that we are discussing are dynamic; they change and so the equipment must change accordingly. On the same subject, how can the Government guarantee that those who use the equipment will be adequately trained? It is vital that training is in place for those who use equipment that is so valuable to people with communication difficulties.

Finally, how can the Government guarantee a smooth transition between early years, children’s and adult services?

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): That is six questions.

Mr. Hayes: No, question four had two parts—Roman one and Roman two. The Minister was not listening as carefully as he should have been.

The seamless approach that I have described will be essential as people with a communication impairment
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move through life, because it will enable them to grasp opportunities to learn, develop and work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham has done the House a great service by bringing this matter up for debate. He has my assurance, as I think he knows, that those on the Conservative Front Bench will be unrelenting in their defence of the interests of special needs children. The Minister has an opportunity today to make his mark and to fly even higher than he has already in the estimation of my hon. Friend by being sensitive and responsive to the arguments that have been advanced here and elsewhere. Indeed, in making that appeal to the Minister, I pay tribute to Scope for its work on this subject and for the support and guidance that it has offered me as I have dealt with the matter and, alongside my hon. Friend, advanced the interests of children with speech and language difficulties. I invite the Minister to make his mark and I give him adequate time, I hope, to deal not only with my five questions, but with the altogether more incisive comments of those who have spoken before me.

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