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Mr. Willetts: There are two different points at issue. I am willing to accept change if it means that one special school merges with another, resulting in new investment in special provision. I am willing to accept that the new provision should emerge in parts of the country where the population is growing. I am trying, however, to look behind the figures on the number of special schools—bad though it is—to the underlying issue, which is the number of total places, which has
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fallen by 9,000 without any evidence of a decline in need. The only attempt that has been made to relate the number of places to need—a ratio of the children in special needs relative to the total number with special needs—is an unreliable statistic, because the total number of children with special educational needs is an unreliable series. It cannot be used to trace back historically and that is why we cannot use that statistic.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is still confused about the complexity of the situation. What we discovered from our visits, and the oral and written evidence, was a complex picture. In some areas, parental views on what they preferred—special school or inclusion—changed if the inclusive provision improved. The situation is complicated and that is why we did not perceive a particular problem in the falling number of actual places.

Mr. Willetts: Two points are clear, and the Opposition understand them. The first is that the total number of special school places, having remained stable in the 1990s, has been cut by 9,000 under this Government. The second point is that parents come to see us at our surgeries deeply dissatisfied because they cannot get their child into a special school when they believe that that would be in that child’s best interests. We have frustrated and unhappy parents who want special school provision for their child and 9,000 fewer places. The nature of the problem is therefore clear.

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): The hon. Gentleman is very interested in the statistic for the number of pupils in special schools, but has he taken account of the 20,500 pupils being taught in specially resourced provision or special units? That number has risen considerably in recent years.

Mr. Willetts: I recognise that those new units exist, and that some of them have received good Ofsted reports. I salute the work that the best of them do, but we agree with the Audit Commission and the Select Committee about the need for a review to determine whether those special units are working as well as is claimed. The Minister makes an assertion for which, as yet, there is very little evidence.

Although parents believe that special schools are best for their children, they are often unable to secure that provision because 9,000 places have been cut since Labour came to office.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I am disappointed with the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, although I agree with much of the text of the motion. The people who come to my surgery do not talk only about getting a place in a special school: more often, they want to talk about getting access to the expert help and support that their children need so that they can go to a mainstream school. The problem therefore goes beyond mainstream schools versus special schools.

Mr. Willetts: Teachers with the specialised training who are needed to teach a child with severe autism, for example, are a specialist resource. I agree that parents ask for people with those skills, but they are much more likely to find them in special schools because that is
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where they are concentrated. Sadly, the chances of finding them in mainstream schools are much lower.

The facts are clear, and the Government should accept their responsibility for what is going on. Across the country, local authorities are implementing the policies that the Government have been imposing since their first policy statement on the subject in 1997, which said that

On this matter at least, the Government’s policy has been consistent. In document after document, they have said that, wherever possible, they want children with special needs to be educated in mainstream schools. That is what the Government’s guidance on inclusive schooling is all about; their 2004 document stated that

That is the Government’s aim. Ministers should not try to dispute the statistics; instead, they should admit that we are confronted today with the consequences of the Government’s deliberate policy.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): In my previous constituency of Cannock and Burntwood, there was a magnificent special school called Maple Hayes hall. It was a private school, catering for dyslexic boys. Because the boys attended a special school—not a mainstream school—with their peers, their performance improved enormously. Many of them said that they had been saved by going to that school, and many local authorities, including Labour ones, sent boys there.

Mr. Willetts: My hon. Friend is right. We are all aware of similar examples, and the evidence is overwhelming that such environments often allow children to flourish the best. We know that parents want their children to go to schools such as the one that he described. We also know that 9,000 places have been lost, as a deliberate result of Government policy.

Indeed, some Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills seem to be changing their position and recognising that the policy is wrong. Lord Adonis—the Minister in the other place—has particularly started to do so. I have a soft spot for the noble Lord and, from reading The Spectator, I think the feeling may be mutual. I have great respect for what he is doing in the Department for Education and Skills; he clearly recognises that there are problems due to the rate at which special schools are closing, which is why he has tried to produce guidance about slowing down the rate of closure. However, he may be wrong in doing that—much as it pains me to say so—because his warm words will not stop the closure of special schools, when the Government’s policy framework and the legal requirements are still in place. That is why we need a review of all special needs provision, and while that is happening there should be a moratorium on the closure of places in special schools.

A series of outside experts has constantly called for such a review. The Audit Commission called for one in 2002. The Select Committee report on the subject said:

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We think it is time that the Government complied with the requests from the Audit Commission and the Select Committee—requests with which we agree and that we would take further.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we called for an inquiry into the statementing process, but I have to tell him again that we found that often the right place for a child with special educational needs was with their peers in mainstream education, with the right support. The position that he has enunciated would deprive children from being with their peers, where their education would be the richest possible.

Mr. Willetts: The Chairman of the Select Committee and the Select Committee have called for a review in the clearest possible terms. The Audit Commission has called for a review, but the Government have refused to implement one—a position that the Select Committee described as “unacceptable”. It is absolutely clear to us that the policy implemented by the Government has led to the loss of 9,000 places in special schools, which has caused enormous distress to parents and their children. The policy requires the review that has been called for by the Select Committee and the Audit Commission. I invite the House to vote for our motion to put further pressure on the Government to implement that review and, meanwhile, to impose a moratorium on the closure of places in special schools.

5.7 pm

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

There can be no more important task for a Government than ensuring that society protects the
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interests of its most vulnerable children, which is why, for example, we published the Green Paper on children in care, and why we are committed to continuing the real improvements we have seen for children with special educational needs under the Labour Government.

I am sure that during the debate, Members on both sides of the House will highlight the difficulties that families can face in getting appropriate support for their children with special educational needs; as a constituency MP I hear stories from families in my own constituency, and I know just how frustrating that can be. Although there is much more to do before we can be satisfied that all children with special educational needs are receiving the support they need, and although there is more to do to ensure that parents are confident of that, we must not lose sight of the real progress that Ofsted reports that we are making in that regard.

The Opposition seem to be saying that we are complacent—indeed, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) used that very word—and that we should throw everything up in the air, stop all special schools closing and create new quangos to assess children’s needs. The Government could do all those things, but I ask the House to consider whether they would actually improve outcomes for children with special educational needs.

In evidence to the Select Committee, Ofsted said:

Similarly, Brian Lamb, the highly respected chair of the Special Educational Consortium has said:

He went on to say that the action set out in the Government’s response to the Select Committee would help.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): I wrote my own minority report. Would the Minister agree with what I pointed out, which is that

Jim Knight: I am not sure that parents are increasingly doing that. As far as I am aware, the balance is roughly right, but I would be interested to see any detailed statistics.

Our priority is to build capacity throughout the system. That means making sure that staff have the skills that they need to recognise and meet children’s needs earlier and to gain access to specialist support. Building capacity means planning for the long term. That is why we developed our 10-year SEN strategy “Removing Barriers to Achievement” in 2004, and also why our response to the Select Committee sets out our priorities for action over the next three years.

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Helen Jones: May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that if there is to be early identification of special needs, there must be far more training of staff in identifying those needs? I urge him to accept the Select Committee’s recommendation that SEN training should not be optional in initial teacher training, but should be a core compulsory module within it.

Jim Knight: I broadly agree with what my hon. Friend says. We set out in our response to the Select Committee that we have committed an extra £1.1 million to the Training and Development Agency to develop exactly what we have been talking about.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): Will the Minister comment on what the Chairman of the Select Committee said about the Department for Education and Skills in the report—that when the problems with special educational needs are so serious, it is not acceptable for the Government to say that there is no better alternative, because it is the Government’s duty to look for a better alternative?

Jim Knight: I was about to say that we understand the arguments for a review. We set out our 10-year strategy in 2004. We have just launched personalisation and progression, and we think it appropriate to allow that to take its course, because we see it as critical to dealing with the individual needs of all children, including those with SEN, in the classroom. After that, we have asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools to carry out a review in three years’ time—and we believe that the timing is appropriate.

Mr. Sheerman: Let me put it straight to my hon. Friend. Baroness Warnock called for a totally independent review, and we said that we did not think that necessary, because we would carry out the review. What we called for was a review of statementing. I think that we did a good review of SEN provision; it was on statementing that we took issue with the Government—and still take issue with them. The issue is not about the generality; it is the specific question of the local authority’s dual role in statementing.

Jim Knight: I will deal with that point later. I cannot promise to satisfy my hon. Friend, but I will certainly come on to the point about reviewing statementing.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con) rose—

Jim Knight: As I am on a roll, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister, and I declare a continuing interest as the parent of a statemented child. I would like to reinforce the observation made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). Given that local education authorities are in a virtually omnipotent position as the bodies that assess and decide, pay for and, ordinarily, provide the services that a special educational needs child will receive, can the Minister not see the wisdom of accepting recommendation 26, relating to paragraph 99 of the Select Committee report, which says that we must separate the link between assessment and funding? What we require is a
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system independent of Government, independent of LEAs, independent of the source of funding and independent of the means of supply.

Jim Knight: I see the intellectual logic of that separation, but there are real difficulties in working out how the accountability and resourcing of such a system might operate in practice. I will deal with that a little later.

We have asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools to take stock of progress at the end of the period, and we will not hesitate to take further action in the light of her findings. Real progress has already been made since we published “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, which clearly shows in improvements in attainment. For example, among low attaining pupils, 75 per cent. of children with special educational needs now achieve at least level 3 in maths, and 73 per cent. achieve at least level 3 in English at key stage 2. Those improvements reflect increasing investment. That is why local authorities’ indicative spending on SEN stands at £4.5 billion this year. Within that funding, more resources than ever before are going to schools to support early intervention. Over the past three years, the indicative amount of SEN funding in mainstream schools has risen by 43 per cent. and the school budget for special schools has risen by 23 per cent.

Having reached some of the early milestones that we set out in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, we are now focusing on a number of issues. Those issues include building staff skills in identifying and meeting SEN; increasing access to specialist support, as I indicated in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones); improving accountability and the quality of support to parents; and improving provision for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties and children with autism. I will talk through some of those ambitions in more detail in a moment, but first I want to address some of the Opposition’s rhetoric.

Special schools play an incredibly important role in meeting the particular needs of some children. I want to make it clear that, contrary to the Opposition’s claims, we absolutely do not have a policy of closing special schools. In fact, over the past six years, spending on maintained special schools has risen by about £400 million to £1.4 billion, improving the quality of provision in those schools. The proportion of pupils with statements who attend special schools has actually risen over the five years. Ninety new special schools have opened in the last two years alone. If we had an anti-special schools policy, clearly it would be failing—and I would not have opened three new special schools in the west midlands in a week over the summer, or be looking forward to opening a new special school on the site of a mainstream campus in my constituency shortly, or the extension to another special school in my constituency in March.

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