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5.36 pm

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): I begin, perhaps a little unusually, by thanking the Conservatives for using one of their Opposition days to debate this important topic. It is useful for us to have time to discuss such matters in detail. Notwithstanding the relatively brief debates that we had in the course of the Education and Inspections Bill, since our last major debate on the subject on the Floor of the House two significant reports have been published that have been highly critical of the Government’s provision—the Education and Skills Committee report and the Ofsted report on inclusion. Those reports follow hard on the heels of reports by Ofsted in 2004 and by the Audit Commission in 2002, which highlighted serious flaws in standards and access to provision for children with special educational needs.

I agree with much that is in the text of the motion. It touches on many of the issues that I shall raise in relation to the training of staff and the need for the Government to review their statementing process. However, as I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), I regret the framing of the debate, which is polarised between provision in mainstream schools or provision in special schools. By polarising the debate in that way, we are in danger of missing many of the more complex failings in the provision of education for children with special educational needs, which many parents come to discuss with me in my surgery. I often laugh at the fact that the hon. Gentleman has a habit of writing comments with which I agree, but when he speaks he has a tendency to talk me out of supporting him. I shall attempt to resist that urge today and be more conciliatory.

I shall deal later with the Government’s inclusion agenda and the Conservatives’ proposal for a moratorium, but first I shall make some general points about the quality of education in all settings. At the end of my remarks, I shall speak about the reform of the statementing process and the financial support that goes with it.

Let us be clear from the beginning that the division between mainstream and special schools is crude. Children can learn in a variety of settings—in a
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mainstream school, with additional support; in a mainstream school with a specialist facility; in a mainstream or special school with additional part-time support at a unit elsewhere, such as the Hope centre in my constituency; at a special school co-located with a mainstream school; or at a special school. Collaboration between mainstream and special schools is possible and desirable, albeit that it does not happen often enough. I therefore fear that the debate that we have had so far is rather a false one.

The key issue, as highlighted by innumerable reports by Ofsted and the Audit Commission, is that of quality—or a lack of it, or at least variations in it. Variations in quality exist between and within different types of school. Sadly, there is good and bad provision in mainstream and in special schools, and bad provision in either is unacceptable. For me, Ofsted’s most damning statement about education for children with special needs concerned the low aspirations about, and poor understanding of, what constitutes good progress for children. Why should children with special needs be short-changed on standards and rigour? Critical to the success of children in all schools, whether mainstream or special, is the quality of teachers and the quality of leadership. The level of expertise and training is the key factor in standards in schools, regardless of type.

The Government failed to respond to many of the Select Committee’s criticisms, but I am pleased that they at least responded to criticism about the training of the work force, as the Minister outlined. That is welcome, but I suspect that we have a long way to go. Last September, I spent a day shadowing teachers in Manor special school in my constituency, and one of the things that shocked me was the amount of time that senior management are required to give to training staff—all staff, not only teachers—who work within a special school setting. Many arrive with no prior knowledge of special educational needs. The burdens of headship are very great in any school, but greater still in a special school, where the leadership team are required to take such an enormous role in staff development.

Many children with moderate or severe learning difficulties also have complex medical needs that a school must deal with effectively. For those children, as well as for many others with primarily physical disabilities, seamless working with the local health service is essential. It is therefore an issue of enormous concern that many local authorities find their joint working with the primary care trust pushed to breaking point as PCTs try to find any service that they can cut to cost-shunt on to councils in order to meet the impending deadline to clear their deficit. In my own local authority, since last September the PCT has, without any consultation, withdrawn speech and language therapy from 160 children and reduced occupational therapy provision to special and mainstream schools by 50 per cent. It now proposes to decommission music therapy for autistic children and mental health services for young people with a learning disability. There is a real danger that short-term cost cutting will have an impact that will last a generation, and I dare say that the situation is not unique to Brent.

Let me turn to inclusion. It should go without saying, although it has not been said enough so far,
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that the key to good provision is that it is child-centred and focuses on the whole child and the family’s wishes, not on the disability. A child with special educational needs is as unique as a child without special educational needs, and though two children may have very similar diagnoses or statements, they may require a very different type of educational setting in order to thrive. However, that approach is surely at odds with a policy objective clearly aimed at placing children in mainstream provision and reducing the number of places at special schools.

The Minister said that the Government do not have such a policy. However, the 2004 special educational needs strategy, “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, clearly states that the proportion of children educated in special schools should “fall over time” and that there should be a “reduced reliance on statements”. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 and the 2001 SEN code of practice outline a similar approach. If the Government have changed their policy, as the Minister claims, I wish that they would simply come clean and say so. As the Select Committee observed in its report, if they are saying that they play no role whatsoever as regards local authority reorganisation or decisions to close schools, that is surely an abdication of responsibility. The Government set the national framework. If they have changed their stance on inclusion and now favour—as the Minister for Schools says—a broad continuum of flexible provision, which I hope most hon. Members welcome, they should make that clear to local authorities, which have to interpret the strategy on the ground.

I do not agree that education in a mainstream setting has failed so many children so badly. Education in mainstream schools, without the sort of expert support and high quality specialist teaching that Ofsted noted and to which I referred earlier, has done that. That failure to support inclusion leads to exclusion in an inclusive setting. Lack of teacher training and support led to the appalling mistreatment of, for example, Jade Chambers, who was restrained 45 times in six weeks. Such lack of training and expertise leads so many children with communication difficulties to go undiagnosed. The frustration of those children, which is inevitable if they do not receive appropriate support, leads far too many of them to develop the sort of behavioural problems that make exclusion inevitable, too.

Between 20 and 30 per cent. of children with autism are excluded from school for precisely the reasons that I outlined. We are failing those children badly. Lack of support, appropriate training and adequate leadership makes bullying children with SEN inevitable, as the Warnock report stated. That was possibly the most depressing statement in the report. It is a depressing admission of failure to say that it is inevitable for a child with SEN to be the victim of bullying.

Inclusion has all too often been treated as the cheap option. The root of the problem lies with the flawed statementing process and financial constraints on councils. The Select Committee was right to be disappointed with the Government’s response to its report. It was hardly the first to point out that the statementing process is flawed, yet the Government have refused to review it. Like many Members of Parliament, I meet countless families in my surgery
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who are battling to get the help that they believe that their child badly needs. The lengthy, bureaucratic, highly adversarial process leads in many cases to a long-term fracturing of the relationship between the family and the local authority. That relationship is essential if they are to work together to get appropriate education and care for the child.

My party is considering reviewing our policies on the matter, but I am sympathetic to the arguments that the Select Committee and others made for a clear division between the body that advises on need and the body that provides the resources to meet the need. My sympathy for that derives mainly from my work in science policy before I was elected. Many of the crises that developed in scientific aspects of public policy began with a loss of confidence in expert advice because one cannot clearly delineate the point at which expert advice ends and political decision making starts. For expert advice to be credible, one needs to separate carefully fact, expert advice and policy based on that advice. One needs to be able to track an audit trail through all the stages involved in making a decision, with clear accountability lines at each point, to pick up on the Minister’s point. For the same reason, I have always felt uncomfortable with the conflation of the roles in the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence of ruling on the efficacy of a treatment and determining its cost effectiveness. That problem causes much anxiety.

We cannot continue with a process that allows local authorities to delay statementing for as long as possible or draft statements in imprecise language to lessen the expense on the authority. I understand the Minister’s point that separating the roles may create a mismatch between those defining need and the budget that must pay for it. However, if we separated the roles, perhaps we could have an honest debate about how big the budget should be, instead of continuing with rationing based on the extent of parents’ motivation to fight the system. If the statement of need were separated from the payment of resources, we might be able to break the trap that leaves many children to begin the battle again every time they move house. That applies especially to families in temporary accommodation, who may move from one local authority to another, and looked-after children, who are especially vulnerable.

That point brings me to the question of resources. Hon. Members will know that, in general, I support the delegation of funding from central Government to local government. However, the situation that we are discussing today is analogous to the commissioning of specialist services in the NHS, in that we need to find a practical and pragmatic way around the issue of hard-to-predict or rare and expensive cases. It plays havoc with the budget of a small local authority if a child requiring high levels of support moves into an area in the middle of a financial year. If we had a central pot from which to support such cases, the pressure on local authorities would be much more manageable. As I have said, my party is looking at these issues at the moment, and we will bring forward more detailed policies shortly. I only hope that the Government will do likewise.

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As I said at the outset, I have great sympathy with much in the text of the motion that we are debating today. However, I thoroughly disagree with the Conservatives’ proposal for a moratorium on the closure of special schools. Ofsted was quite clear that there is good and bad provision in special schools. A moratorium would effectively make it impossible to close a school with poor facilities or poor standards, or to rebuild the school or move it to a unit co-located on a mainstream site. Nevertheless, we will support the Conservatives today because we support the substantive points raised in their motion and their call for the Government to review their provision for special educational needs, and perhaps also because we could not support the self-congratulatory and rather complacent amendment tabled by the Government. The Government’s record on this issue is lamentable and their response to the Select Committee report was woeful. It is time that they responded properly.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute time limit on contributions in this debate? However, in view of the time factor, Members might wish voluntarily to reduce the length of their contributions to the debate even further.

5.51 pm

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to debate provision for special educational needs. I am proud of the progress that has been made in the past 10 years, often with the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, this is a subject about which the public are especially impatient with partisan point scoring, both because it is obviously an area in which personal and professional experience and ideas are not confined to party lines, and because effective policy demands co-operation between central Government and local education authorities, regardless of political complexion.

This is also an area in which debates on matters such as mainstreaming versus special schools have often distorted the reality, as the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) has just said. It is pretty obvious to most people that we need special schools and mainstreaming, and that we will get the best choices and the best outcomes where there is close collaboration. That is the position set out by the Disability Rights Commission in its briefing for this debate, and it is the view of the overwhelming majority of concerned parents in my constituency.

Progress on inclusion is being made in our area, hand in hand with special school provision. A high proportion of special schools in Oxfordshire are co-located with mainstream schools, increasing the chances to mix. The number of tribunal cases is low, and has halved to 20 over the past four years. Contrary to the argument in the Opposition motion, in Oxfordshire there have been no special school closures under successive Administrations for decades. It is true that the excellent Ormerod school for physically disabled children is now technically closing, but its special circumstances illustrate an important and positive point—it has had falling numbers because
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parents and their children have chosen mainstream provision. However, it is being changed into a special needs base and will continue to admit physically disabled children while also taking on those with other needs—notably related to communication and autism—from whom demand is increasing. There was not a single objection to the change. I have also checked the numbers relating to special schools in the county. In April 1996 it was 916, and in April 2006 it was 915.6, which demonstrates a quite remarkable stability.

However, on important questions of special needs choice, availability and collaboration, there is one specific and pressing challenge facing pupils, parents and the local education authority in Oxfordshire on which I want to focus. Alone among English education authorities, Oxfordshire has no post-16 provision in special schools. Thirty years ago, the LEA decided to develop post-16 provision exclusively in further education colleges. I am not knocking the education provided in our FE colleges. Many students transfer successfully, and many parents and Ofsted are satisfied with their support. Equally, however, many parents, especially those whose children have more complex needs, are unhappy. Indeed, the time approaching transition is often a period of enormous anxiety, and it is easy to understand why. Special schools in the county have a good record of providing education in a particularly supportive environment, in which those who might find it difficult to make their way in mainstream surroundings develop the security and confidence to make the most of their abilities.

Two special schools inspected last autumn—Ormerod and Frank Wise—were assessed as outstanding. Two more—Fitzwaryn and Northern House—were also given top grades, and Iffley Mead special school in my constituency is good and improving. Indeed, I presented awards for the young enterprise business projects in central Oxfordshire on Saturday, and Iffley Mead school was one of the few state schools represented—its project won an award. Yet, at the age of 16, Oxfordshire students have to leave these supportive schools, with their more sheltered provision, and move to the environment of an FE college. These colleges are often some distance from their homes, have more students, and have a social ambiance which, with the best will in the world, will not always be easy for a student with complex special needs. It is recognised that such colleges are not suitable for some students, but that means that their parents have to make the case not only for alternative provision, but for out-of-county provision. In general, Oxfordshire has one of the highest levels of provision for in-county SEN, yet nearly half of those who are educated out of county are post-16, at a cost of £1.4 million a year, because their needs cannot be met within the county.

Parents campaigning for change in Oxfordshire have worked through a very effective voluntary organisation, Choice, which is committed to disabled young people post-16 being offered the same educational choices as those without disabilities. The county council and learning and skills council responded by commissioning a review by Dr. Matthew Griffiths. The review set out options for the future, and Choice conducted a consultation with parents, who overwhelmingly favoured special school-based provision.

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The LEA decided to support the principle that

and last month agreed interim proposals to enable some courses for some pupils beyond 16—those with the most complex needs—to be taught in their existing special schools from this coming September, even though the pupils would be on the roll of the FE college, effectively sub-contracting back to the schools. This is a step forward, and while there have been fears over whether responsibility would lie with the school or the college if something went wrong, the council has made a commitment that each pupil will have a document setting out their entitlement and the way in which parental concerns will be addressed.

What we really need, and what most parents want, is real choice for children to continue as a school student at a special school—a choice that is available elsewhere but not in Oxfordshire. However, the county’s proposals are a genuine attempt to make progress by opening up the school route without destabilising the FE provision. The financial implications of all that are that an extra £150,000 will be required in the next financial year, rising to an additional £1.1 million in 2010-11, even if only students with the most complex needs have places in special schools. It would be twice that amount if all special schools had the age range extended to 19. There are additional capital costs involved as well.

Oxfordshire is in a unique position in terms of provision, so it has ended up in a uniquely disadvantageous funding position in relation to funding. No one is suggesting the Government have deliberately brought that about—the situation is clearly a product of the very unusual trajectory that provision in Oxfordshire has taken. On the one hand, the county’s grant from the Department for Education and Skills through the Learning and Skills Council is very low because it has historically spent less on post-16 special needs students, because they went through the FE route; on the other, the further education colleges only receive funding in line with colleges elsewhere, despite the fact that in Oxfordshire they are effectively providing special schools on their roll. As a result, county officers advise me, Learning and Skills Council funding for post-16 special needs in Oxfordshire is £15 per head of the 16 to 19 population, compared with a national average of £63 and an average of £48 for our “statistical neighbours” among other shire counties.

Therefore, there are crucial questions for Ministers to answer. As Oxfordshire grows special school post-16 provision into the system, will funding be increased to a fair level comparable with other areas? Will those who continue in FE, whether through choice or compulsion, get fair financial provision compared with their peers in other areas who are in schools? There are basic questions of equity that must be addressed. In November, I wrote to the Secretary of State to seek a meeting with an appropriate Minister on that matter, and I hope that in his reply my hon. Friend will tell me both that Oxfordshire’s unique position is recognised and that he will be pleased to have an early meeting with me and other Oxfordshire MPs to examine those questions.

Special educational needs provision in this country has come a long way in recent years. There is still more
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to do, as we heard earlier, to ensure that every child can readily access the educational, social and psychological support that they need. While there is much good progress to be pleased about in our area, with more special needs students getting qualifications, assessments completed on time, and much good special needs provision helping young people to fulfil their potential—and let us not forget to praise the teachers who are working with the young people to achieve that—there are issues of fair provision and funding post-16 that must now be sorted out.

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