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If we were against special schools, we would not have created a strand of the highly successful specialist schools programme specifically for special schools so that they can share their expertise in particular types of SEN with other, mainstream schools. We have announced today that a further 15 special schools have joined the programme. More than 40 special schools now have an SEN specialism. They will work with both
mainstream and other special schools to spread best practice and raise standards. In the end, what the hon. Member for Havant is afterrather than getting obsessed by special schoolsis ensuring that there is specialist teaching that understands the needs of individual children. We can use special schools and the network of specialist special schools to develop that expertise in mainstream as well as special school settings.
Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Does the Minister recognise that special schools are not a homogeneous group? Some good work is done in different types of special schools, including schools with 16-plus provision and residential schools, such as Broomhill Bank school in my constituency. Does he recognise that diversity of provision is important in the sector, and does he share my concerns that the sector is becoming more uniform, as well as having fewer places available?
Mr. Knight: That diversity is important. It is important that when local authorities make local decisions about provision for children with SEN, they take proper account of diversity and commission services accordingly. It is always local authorities that decide on changes to special educational provision, following local consultation and in response to changing local needs. They close special schools on wholly unsuitable sites and in unsatisfactory buildings and build new ones, or co-locate them with mainstream schools. They also develop specially resourced units in or attached to mainstream schools, which Ofsted says is often the best scenario for the children concerned.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The Minister was a councillor many years ago in Mendip, so he will know the geographical area of Somerset. Two special educational needs schools have been shut in west Somerset, at one end of my constituencyhe knows the area well. Children now have to go all the way to the far end of the constituency to get to special needs schools. The county cannot afford that, yet the schools had to be shut because of funding problems. The Minister cannot have it both ways. Which is more important: that we try to keep those other schools open and move the children a long way, or that we try to keep a school locally for the children in the greatest need?
Jim Knight: It is up to local authorities to take such decisions. The hon. Gentleman talks about funding, but throughout my county of Dorset, which has more problems with per capita funding than Somerset, there is an excellent range of special educational needs provision. In my constituency it is possible for pupils with a range of needs to access that provision relatively locally.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab):
My hon. Friend says that local authorities are closing special schools in unsuitable locations, but my local authority is closing a popular special school in a very desirable location, although The Vines has been thriving. It received an excellent report from Ofsted, and although it was praised by the local authority as one of the best schools in the authority area, plans for its closure were
announced a few months later. Sadly, the school will close in August. Although the local authority has tried to blame Government policy for the closure, the real reason is the value of the site on which the school is built, which is £6 million.
Jim Knight: Hon. Members have talked about Wandsworth councils proposal to close two special schools. I have said that these are local decisions, and it is not for me to say whether the proposal is right or not. However, it is interesting to compare the actions of that Tory flagship council with Tory Front-Bench policy. Perhaps the Tory leadership now disowns Baroness Thatchers flagships.
a mistaken view that local authority reorganisations involving special school closures mean an inevitable loss of specialist support and fewer good quality choices when in fact they try to develop a range of provision to meet changing needs.
there is an expectation that the proportion of children educated in special schools may fall over time as mainstream schools grow their capacity to meet a wider range of needs, but flexibility of provision is key.
Mr. Willetts: The Minister cannot have it both ways. He is showing that Conservative councils are complying with his national guidance. The statement that he attributes to Hampshire is an almost verbatim quote from the Governments strategy for SEN; that is why Hampshire is doing such a thing. The Government say:
the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time.
That is what the Minister is requiring local authorities to do. He cannot stand behind them when they take decisions that comply with his policy. He will be on the picket line next, trying to stop them doing it. The authorities are delivering the Governments policy.
Jim Knight: The hon. Gentleman has to understand that local authorities need to respond to local needs. If, as democratically accountable bodies, they decide to do something different, they have the power to do it. They are responsible for school organisation, and these are decisions about school organisation.
Leaving aside the contradiction between what the Tories say in the Chamber and what they do in power, what would the official Oppositions policy of a moratorium on special school closures do to improve outcomes for children with SEN? It would certainly mean that Ministers in Whitehall, rather than elected local councillors, would take decisions about meeting local needs. During deliberations in the other place on the Bill that became the Education and Inspections Act 2006, Baroness Buscombe tabled a new clause titled Closure of special schools, which would have provided:
No special school may be closed, unless by special consent of the Secretary of State.
I do not understand how Conservative Members think that that policy would work. If, God forbid, the
Department for Education and Skills should ever become Tory controlled, such a policy would mean that the Department would spend a ridiculous amount of time taking local decisions that were insensitive to local needs. Local authorities would be prevented from replacing old and out-of-date facilities.
Under such a moratorium, Oldham would not have been able to close three small special schools to create New Bridge school, a special school for 284 students aged 11 to 19 with a range of needs. Among the pupils are students with profound, severe and moderate learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorders and physical difficulties. The school offers excellent facilities and is located on a site with a mainstream secondary schoolthat is excellent practice. The school has been praised by Ofsted for its
excellent array of extra-curricular opportunities and the wide range of suitable vocational courses available to students, alongside a key skills and leisure curriculum.
Ofsted found little difference in the quality of provision, and in the outcomes for pupils, across primary and secondary mainstream and special schools, but it noted that mainstream schools provided with additional resources to cater specifically for children with particular types of need are
particularly successful in achieving high outcomes for pupils academically, socially and personally.
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 provision in mainstream schools. Our policy is to promote a flexible range of provision, including mainstream schools, special schools and resourced provision in, or attached to, mainstream schools.
Mr. Hunt: Does the Minister agree with the view, expressed by Baroness Warnock in her recent book, that there is often a complicated trade-off between the social benefits of inclusion and the educational benefits of being educated at a special school, where a child can receive specialist support that may not be available in the mainstream? If he agrees with that view, does he also agree that the best person to take the decision is the parent of the child concerned?
Jim Knight: It is important for us to make sure that the parents voice is heard, and we are keen to ensure that it is. That is one of the priorities that we set out in Removing Barriers to Achievement, and one of the areas on which we are focusing.
We will issue guidance to local authorities on the factors that they must take into account when reorganising their special educational provision. When Lord Adonis announced the guidance recently, he made it clear that local authorities wishing to close special schools would face an improvement test. Under that testOpposition Members should pay attention to thisany plans for reorganising local special educational provision, including any proposals for closing special schools, must improve existing provision. Local authorities must also show that appropriate alternative provision is ready before schools close. Is that not a sensible pragmatic approach
that safeguards the needs of those who rely on special schools, without blocking change? Is it not a substantial policy, in contrast to what the Opposition propose?
John Bercow: That would work if it were the policy, but it will not work if it is not the policyand that is what I politely suggest to the Minister. I accept the logic of his overall view, but I put to him the case of an institution that is not formally a school, but operates as such, the Nuffield speech and language unit. There are currently three children at that school with severe speech, language and communication impairments, and they face the threatit is almost a certaintyof being kicked out of that institution, without being provided with substitute provision of the same quality to meet their needs. That is the consequence of arrogance, incompetence and insensitivity, not on the part of the Government but on the part of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, and it should not be allowed.
Jim Knight: I am aware of the hon. Gentlemans close interest in that facility, and his effective advocacy on behalf of it, but the guidance that I mentioned will be statutory, and I hope that that gives some comfort to Opposition Members who have concerns about the subject. The guidance will safeguard the interests of children with special educational needs. It will provide added protection and will guarantee local communities, children and parents that provision in their area will only get better.
One system with which some parents experience difficulties is the assessment and statementing processa subject that I promised I would cover. I recognise parents real frustration, but I do not believe that we are talking about a symptom of a whole system in crisis. As we have heard, the Select Committee on Education and Skills asked us to revise the statementing system. I understand its perspective, and I want to reassure the House that we considered the issues carefully before we made our response. I ask Members to consider just a few of the practicalities of changing the assessments and statements system. If local authorities were no longer responsible for statutory assessments, it is likely that we would need another agency to carry them out.
Jim Knight: Because someone would have to carry out the assessments, and it would need to be a credible, accountable and independent body. There would be no point in providing the independence that Members ask for if we did not set the system up in an independent form. Obviously, we are always willing to listen to ideas, but having thought about the subject, I believe that we would need another agency. How could that agency guarantee local accountability in the same way as a local authority? If the assessment agency specified the provision to be made for each child, what would happen afterwards? If parents were provided with a voucherOpposition Members may support such a proposalwhat would happen if it was not enough to buy the appropriate provision? Those questions have not been answered convincingly, in the House, in the country, or internationally.
Mr. Sheerman: May I probe my hon. Friend a little further? The Select Committee asked for a review, and it suggested that it should be possible to come to a better arrangement than one in which the local authority both conducted the evaluation and provided the resources. The Government said that we were asking for a quango, but that is not the case. If a group of serious people sat down and discussed alternative methods of assessment, they would not propose a great quango. A small independent committee system might be the answer, but the Government could opt for various solutions. We were aggrieved at the implication that we were proposing a quango, because we were not. There must be another way of dividing assessment from the provision of resources, and I believe that men and women of good will could find a system that was both simple and effective.
Jim Knight: As ever, I heed the wisdom of the Chairman of the Select Committee. As I told the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I can see the intellectual attraction of that separation, but when I have tried to think about practical arrangementsobviously, I am a bear of limited intelligenceI have not been able to determine what they should be. The Select Committee made a strong case for the division, but it did not offer any practical proposals as to how it would work. I am willing to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), but first I need some practical suggestions.
Mr. Sheerman: If my hon. Friend is challenging us to do what we thought the Government would do and come up with a series of measures, will he give us an assurance that he will take them seriously? If we do that quickly, will he assess our suggestions quickly?
Jim Knight: I always take the Select Committee seriously, as does the Department. If its members can deal with the issues of accountability and practicality and propose a system that will work properly in the real world, obviously I will listen.
John Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister of State, who has been exceptionally generous in giving way. It is always baffling when a brilliant Minister is characterised by a sudden and inexplicable timidity. It is perfectly possible for a group of well-intentioned people from all parts of the House to get together and produce an effective and practical blueprint. The Minister would not need to get rid of the local education authority role altogether if he did not want to; he would simply have to ensure that the LEA was not in a position of virtual monopoly. Whatever arguments he advances for the status quo, I urge him not to talk about accountability. Special needs parents do not have great power.
Staff training is critical to ensure that children receive the standard and quality of teaching that they deserve and to which they are entitled. The standards for qualified teachers are being reviewed by the Training and Development Agency, as I said, and we expect the new standards to recognise the importance of trainee teachers having a knowledge and understanding of SEN and disability, as well as the skills to vary their approach to meet the needs of individual children. We expect SEN and disability to be a national priority in the framework for continuing professional development. This year, we will introduce the first ever national programme of continuing professional development for staff supporting children with SEN, which will be delivered through the national strategies and will begin with training in speech, language and communication difficulties, followed by training on autism and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.
We are strengthening the role of the special educational needs co-ordinatorSENCOin schools, making it a statutory requirement for schools to have SENCOs and setting out our expectations in regulations. Those developments are in addition to the £1.1 million programme with the TDA that I mentioned, which will build staff skills at all levels, from initial teacher training to continuing professional development.
Access to specialist support is essential to enable all children with SEN to make progress, so we are supporting the development of regional centres of expertise and promoting collaboration between local authorities and other agencies to provide for children with the most complex needs.
We are piloting a trust model, drawing in private sponsorship, to help train specialist teachers in dyslexia. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is no longer in his place, mentioned a school that he used to represent. These specialist teachers will make a real difference not just in their own schools, but in families of schools.
Parents rightly want to know how their children are doing. We are improving accountability to parents by making better data available to schools through a common data set to monitor and evaluate childrens
progress. This means that parents can see how each childs progress compares with that of their peers, and make judgments about any additional support that should be put in place. We are encouraging schools to discuss this information with parents at meetings each term.
Finally, we will improve the quality of parent partnership services and strengthen the arms length nature of their relationship with local authorities by setting clear expectations for the way in which such services are provided.
Real progress can only be made through a sustained long-term programme of action. I hope that I have illustrated that commitment today, and that I have done justice to the comprehensive system of support that we are buildinga system that will deliver real improvements for children with special educational needs and their families, rather than the stop-go policy of the Opposition, which seeks to stall all improvements in reviews and moratoriums.
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