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30 Jan 2007 : Column 106

Opposition Day

[4th Allotted Day]

Special Educational Needs

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.39 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) (Con): I beg to move,

What an extraordinarily statesmanlike procedure the debate will follow!

The motion reflects the extraordinary frustration and distress felt by many parents of children with special educational needs, and by those children themselves, about what is happening to special needs provision. Those emotions poured out again the other week following the decision by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to send her child to a private special school. We fully understand her right to do that, we support the decision that she made, and it is not for us to inquire into such a personal decision; but her decision did reveal—and this is a matter of legitimate public debate—the gap between the Government’s official claims about the state of special educational provision in our mainstream schools and the reality of the tough decisions that parents across the country must face.

There are, in reality, two very different worlds that clash in any debate about special educational needs. There is the SEN world according to Whitehall, and there is a completely different world—the world as experienced by parents. In the Whitehall world, we are told, everything is calm and everything is orderly, but the real world—the world of which we hear from parents who come to see us in our surgeries—is a world full of the anguish, exhaustion and desperation of those who are entangled in a system described by the Education and Skills Committee, in its excellent report, as “not fit for purpose”.

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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend not think it bizarre that the Government dismiss the Select Committee’s report so cavalierly and contemptuously in their amendment to the motion? The Committee said that a “fundamental review” of special educational needs was required. We can only assume that Labour Members do not have constituency surgeries. Perhaps they could come to our constituency surgeries, and share some of the frustration of our constituents with special educational needs.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the main purposes of the debate is to bridge the gap between the experience that we have, which is reflected accurately in the report of the cross-party Select Committee, and the extraordinarily complacent assertions that we hear from Ministers whenever they are confronted with the evidence on this subject.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The doom and gloom in the hon. Gentleman’s introductory remarks would make the flesh of Private Fraser of “Dad’s Army” creep. Does he not accept that there is a patchwork picture? In Leicestershire, for instance, centrally provided money has enabled new area special schools to be built at Birch Wood in Melton Mowbray, near Hinckley and in Coalville in my constituency, and more are to follow. Surely that sort of initiative and investment should be welcomed.

Mr. Willetts: I do welcome individual initiatives that improve special educational needs, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that in parts of the country the position is getting better, but today we are focusing on national policy and national statistics. We are holding the Government to account for national policies that are leading to the closure of special schools when that is not what parents want, and we are entitled to do so.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Does not the hon. Gentleman’s intervention prove the point that the Conservatives are trying to make—that many parents do indeed face a postcode lottery?

Mr. Willetts: There is indeed divergence between different local authorities. In parts of the country parents can be lucky and find excellent provision, and very persistent parents who are willing to go to tribunals and fight court cases can obtain excellent provision as well, but that is not good enough. We want a national policy that clearly supports special schools and the particular problems of children with special educational needs, and that is what is sadly lacking at the moment.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there needs to be a sensible debate about special educational needs provision, but he must get the figures right. As the Select Committee pointed out, in the 1980s and 1990s there was a decline in the number of children in special schools and a rise in the number of children with special educational needs. Since 1999 to 2000, the proportion of children in special schools, the proportion with special educational needs and the proportion with statements have reached a
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plateau. I think that if we are to have a debate, we ought to have a debate on the basis of the right figures rather than the wrong ones.

Mr. Willetts: It is a pity that the hon. Lady talked about right figures and wrong figures and then referred to those ratios since 2000, because she should be aware that in respect of the figures for the number of children with special educational needs there is a significant discontinuity in 2002-03. Therefore, it is not accurate to quote those ratios because the ratios do not provide a consistent series. The Secretary of State made that mistake—perhaps he is staying away from the Chamber today because he does not want to be held to account for it—and I am afraid it has just been made by the hon. Lady as well.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Willetts: I will take further interventions after I have made a little progress by setting out my argument.

We understand that inclusion in education is important and desirable, but we should be clear about what we mean by “inclusion” and “exclusion”. One parent said to me of her son that although he is physically included in a mainstream classroom, he is so bullied and finding it so hard to follow what is happening in the lessons that in reality, deep down, he is excluded. That very point about inclusion in mainstream provision not necessarily equating with real inclusion was powerfully brought out in an excellent report by John MacBeath for the National Union of Teachers. He said:

Although we believe in inclusion, all too often the children who are nominally included in a mainstream class are not achieving inclusion. It can be the case that provision in a special school targeted on children with special educational needs is the best foundation for enabling such children to participate and be included in mainstream society as they grow up. Of course we wish to achieve inclusion, but the key question is: what constitutes inclusion?

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman repeat those words to Tory Wandsworth council, which will close two special schools later this year, against parents’ wishes?

Mr. Willetts: I will turn to the evidence of what is happening in local authorities across the country in due course, but what we are focusing on today is national policy—it is the guidelines from the Government for which we are holding the Government to account. We believe that there must be a fair balance between mainstream schooling, which might be best for some children with special needs, and special provision in special schools. Wherever possible, in reaching decisions on that choice we should trust the parent and the child.

After the original Warnock report, we achieved a fair balance and the right framework in the Education Act 1981 and the Education Act 1996; there were, of course, imperfections, but that legislation got the balance broadly
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right. However, things have gone seriously wrong since then. That is why parents increasingly find that they have to fight desperate battles to get their child into a special school if they believe that its provisions are in the best interests of their child.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Can I give my hon. Friend a little help on that? I have just been through a tribunal to try to get one of my children statemented. I got information from the Library on how many successful tribunals there had been, and it is a pitifully low figure. The reason for that is clear to anyone who has appeared in one: it is a daunting and difficult uphill task for any parent. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Often such parents are in any case wrestling with the trauma and stress involved in having a child who might have serious special problems; to impose on them the additional trauma of having to wrestle with complicated cases in tribunals is to pile distress on distress. The evidence shows that more parents are going through the processes that my hon. Friend describes: the number of appeals has increased by about 55 per cent. since 1997 to approximately 3,500 a year. However, it is not just that the number of appeals is going up.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Willetts: Let me complete this point. It is not just the number of appeals that is going up; there is also clear evidence of the closure of special schools. There are now 146 fewer maintained special schools than there were in 1997, so there is a clear pattern of their closure. I shall be interested to hear if the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) welcomes that statistic, or if, like me, he is deeply concerned by it.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is very generous in these debates. Does he not accept that one downside of localism is that constituents experience bad local authorities, as well as good ones? My excellent local newspaper, the Wandsworth Guardian, ran a story this week about parents suffering at the hands of a bad local authority. One parent said:

That council is Tory Wandsworth.

Mr. Willetts: What we are talking about today is a national policy framework, and it would be truly ironic if Labour Members started criticising Tory councils for complying with Labour Government national policy. It is the policy nationally that is leading to the closure of special schools, and that is the issue that we are raising.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Willetts: Let me make a little more progress; I am trying to explain what is happening to special schools. I referred to the 146 special schools that have closed since 1997; let us compare that with the evidence on the performance of such schools. Ofsted rates eight in 10 special schools as “good” or “outstanding”, and
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says that only 2 per cent. are inadequate. However, in one year alone—2004-05—26 special schools, which is more than 2 per cent. of the total number, were closed. By way of contrast, Ofsted says that 13 per cent. of normal mainstream secondary schools—of course, there are many more such schools than there are special schools—are inadequate. However, in that same year—2004-05—only 25 secondary schools were closed, which is less than 0.5 per cent. of the total number of such schools.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Willetts: Let me just complete the point and give the hon. Lady the statistic. In other words, according to Ofsted, special schools are six times less likely than secondary schools to be inadequate, but three times more likely to be closed. That practice does not reflect special schools’ performance, and I ask the hon. Lady to defend it.

Anne Snelgrove: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not accept that Ofsted’s report entitled “Inclusion: does it matter where pupils are taught?” found that effective provision was distributed equally between mainstream and special schools, but that more good and outstanding provision existed in resourced mainstream schools, which he has been criticising?

Mr. Willetts: No, I would not criticise mainstream provision; there can be excellent provision in mainstream schools. What I am asking for is a fair balance that reflects the views of parents about what is in the best interests of their children. The current arrangement is not a fair balance, because what we have is the steady erosion of provision in special schools.

Perhaps I might quote the new statistics that, by good fortune, were released today in answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled a while back. They reveal that the total number of special school places has fallen from 98,250 in 1997 to 89,000 in 2006. So it does not matter about the exact number of individual institutions; the key statistic is a fall of nearly 9,000 in the total number of special school places, as a result of Government policy.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Willetts: I face an embarrassment of riches. I give way to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith).

Ms Angela C. Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being very generous. He has just quoted the drop in the number of special school places in the last 10 years. During the previous 10 years—1986 to 1997—the then Tory Government closed 234 special schools, so have we not seen the process slow down, rather than speed up?

Mr. Willetts: No, because the crucial statistic is the number of special school places, which is the single best measure of what is happening.

Several hon. Members rose—

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Mr. Willetts: Hang on—let me explain this point, because it is very important. We know, thanks to a parliamentary answer given today, that there are 9,000 fewer places in special schools than there were in 1997. When the Government produced their Green Paper on the subject in October 1997, they said:

In the Government’s own words, provision was constant in the 1990s, but since they came to office it has fallen, as we now know, by 9,000 school places. That is the problem that we are addressing today.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Willetts: I shall give way to the Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman quotes the Committee’s report on special educational needs, and I am grateful, as it was a good report. However, we did not say that we were deeply concerned by the loss in the number of places. We gained much experience from our visits, such as that to Darlington, which has a new complex of schools. New and improved special schools have been built that take larger numbers of pupils, and the horrible, pokey little Victorian schools, which were miles away from any other educational provision, have been closed. It is a complex situation which the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s speech is not properly reflecting.

Mr. Willetts: It is possible that, for example, two small special schools merge and form a new one. That can happen, but I am trying to focus on the number of places. The evidence of the decline in the number of places since 1997 is overwhelming, and that is a problem that concerns many parents. If it does not concern the Chairman of the Committee—although his report is overall very useful—we will have to disagree on that point. However, I have to tell him that many parents and their advisers are deeply concerned by that phenomenon.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): The key issue is not the number of special schools places overall, but where they are and what the need is in that locality. Thus in my area a new special school is opening that is bigger than the one that it replaces, because the growth in the population of Milton Keynes has resulted in a need for more places. Will he accept that that is the issue? Simply saying that the numbers should be kept constant regardless of need is a fatuous and illogical point.

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