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6.1 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): I declare an interest, as I am a father of a seven-year-old who has special educational needs and is on a statement. We had to go through a tribunal to organise his current programme. I agree with the praise that the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) gave to the teachers in his constituency. I also praise the teachers in my constituency, although my boy did not go through the statementing process in Norfolk; we went through the process in London. I will not say which borough is involved, but the school is doing a superb job.

Every parent who has experience of this problem realises how vital early intervention is. That is why so much stress is involved in the whole statementing process. As I understand it, a remarkable 236,700 children in this country have statements—2.9 per cent. of the total. Nearly 1.3 million children in this country with special educational needs do not have a statement, and nearly 6 per cent. of those who do have a statement are in mainstream education. As the Minister and most Members will know from their constituency surgeries, the whole process is long drawn out, hugely time-consuming and traumatic. The vast majority of those parents who come to my surgeries, month in and month out, to tell me about their children, paint a picture of their family being at an all-time low, totally stressed out at a vulnerable time, and faced with a wall of bureaucratic paperwork. As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) pointed out, the process is often very daunting.

I speak from experience, because I happen to be a qualified barrister, and we were able to afford an experienced solicitor. We went to the local authority, and we did not receive the statement that we felt was appropriate. We then went to a tribunal. Even for two people with professional qualifications, that was a trying and exhausting experience. While that was taking place, I wondered all the time how many of my constituents would have coped, and do cope, in similar circumstances. Often, they do not cope at all.

The system is in urgent need of reform. Although Her Majesty’s Government have promised a review of the statementing process and framework, I understand that it is likely to be delayed until 2009. Why is that? I praise my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) under whose leadership our party has set up a special educational needs commission. The findings of that commission’s interim report are well worth considering. The commission recommends that statements should be
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replaced by a special needs profile, which should be drawn up by independent, accredited profile assessors using objective criteria. The child in question would be allocated to one of approximately 12 levels of support, each of which would attract funding that would be provided by a national funding agency. Vitally, the child would then carry those funds to a mainstream or special needs school. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) feels strongly about that point.

One of the attractions of our proposals is that much of the bureaucracy in the statementing process will be removed, and parents will be given far greater choice. I hope that we will therefore move away from a slow, laborious, adversarial appeals system, to one that is fast and non-adversarial.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the statementing system, which I have also experienced, is that it is very legalistic? One often has to analyse a particular paragraph, phrase or nuance to see whether it will allow for the breadth of provision that one wants one’s child to have. How can we expect people who do not have the necessary education or articulacy to persist and persist again to ensure that that they get the formula that will best suit their children? Does he agree that we must have a review?

Mr. Bellingham: I agree entirely. The Government should listen to what our party is saying, and consider the report and recommendations of our commission. My hon. and learned Friend and I both speak from experience. We are both barristers—he is an eminent Queen’s counsel, and I am only a former junior barrister, although I had the privilege of practising for a number of years. Even with the knowledge that I accumulated at the Bar, the tribunal faced us with a very large amount of paperwork, which required a great deal of digestion. My hon. and learned Friend is right to ask how many parents can even begin to cope with the process.

John Bercow: There is a related problem entailed in this conflict of interest. Is my hon. Friend aware of the common phenomenon of local education authorities telling parents not to worry, because the problems will disappear, recede or be overcome, and that one cannot know for certain whether that assertion is motivated by intellectual conviction or the desire to preserve filthy lucre?

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not want to speak any more about my case, because the House will get bored quickly, but I also deal with a large number of constituency cases, and I am left to conclude time and again that the local education authority puts every conceivable obstacle in people’s way at every turn. The LEA is not driven necessarily by the primacy of the needs of the children; it can also be driven by the cost implications of the statement. The extra intervention and help will always have a cost implication. That is why our proposal takes a great deal of pressure away from the LEA through the setting-up of a funding agency, and enables the child to take that funding stream with him or her to either a mainstream school or a special school.

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That brings me to the issue of special school closures, which has been discussed at some length. There is no question but that special schools do a superb job. I understand that they are six times less likely to be classed as inadequate, and yet they are three times more likely to close. North-West Norfolk has two special schools. The Alderman Jackson school caters for children with special needs ranging from those who are seriously disabled and who require 24/7 attention day in and day out, through to those who are still disabled and have serious special needs but on a more moderate scale.

Ethel Tipple school is in the same part of King’s Lynn, not very far away. The pupils range from those with mild special educational needs to those with moderate SEN. Many have come from mainstream education: typically, they have been in mainstream education throughout their primary careers. When they move to secondary school, they find it difficult to keep up. They may end up being bullied, or distracting the class. The attention that they received as a result of their statements in primary school, in smaller classes where other children may have had less inclination to pick on them, enabled them to settle, but they find it difficult to settle in secondary education and consequently move to Ethel Tipple school, where some have been given back their confidence and self-esteem and, as a result, have returned to mainstream education.

Our local education authority is now obeying the instructions of the Minister’s Department and is merging the two schools. To be fair, there will be a brand spanking new school on the site of Ethel Tipple, but Alderman Jackson school will close. All the special needs children, including those who are seriously disabled, will be taught in the same school. Of course I look forward to the new school opening in due course, but I think that the jury is out. We are moving into uncharted waters. The process of closing a school that was able to give hands-on attention to children with serious special needs and disabilities and moving them into a general special school will be fraught with problems. I hope and pray that it works, but obviously it will be a question of waiting and seeing what happens as we step into the unknown.

Speech therapy is a vital part of the whole early intervention process. I understand that 58 per cent. of children who have speech and language therapy written into their statements receive it. Time and again I meet parents in my constituency whose children have speech and language therapy written into their statements, but do not receive it. I recently met a group of North-West Norfolk parents from the spectrum group allied to the Norfolk branch of the National Autistic Society. There is mixed provision for their children, most of whom are on the autistic disorder spectrum. They range from children who are completely non-verbal to those with mild dyspraxia, mild dyslexia or mild autism.

One of the recurring themes at that meeting was the total inadequacy of speech therapy provision. Charlie is six and is totally non-verbal. He is in mainstream education. His statement entitles him to full provision of speech and language therapy, but he has received none whatever. Tom is also six and also in mainstream education with a statement. He is articulatorily dyspraxic, and his speech is very poor indeed. He was
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promised four days of speech therapy per week, but is receiving only two days. He is slightly luckier than Charlie, who receives none at all.

The problem is very simple. A few months ago the primary care trust decided to keep a speech and language therapy position unfilled until the new financial year because of pressures on it. A letter that I have received from the county council explains that the problems caused by reconfiguration of the PCT have led to many difficulties. Another big problem is the extent to which the local education authority liaises with and talks to the PCT. There are lessons to be learnt. The good news is that the post is to be filled, but there will be a backlog—a legacy—of problems.

I hope very much that we will approach this issue on a non-partisan basis. The public are very irritated by politicians who are too confrontational about it: they expect us to be pragmatic, innovative and imaginative. I hope that the Government will listen to Members throughout the House.

6.14 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I shall try to be brief, as I was allowed to intervene on the Front-Bench speeches. I noted that in the special Christmas edition of Private Eye I was described as a windbag and that my Education and Skills Committee was described as “soapy”. Perhaps I will dispel that reputation by being brief today.

I was a bit disappointed—in fact, my emotions were mixed—when I saw that this subject was to be debated on an Opposition day. I felt it was fantastic that we had secured another debate on special educational needs, but the feeling was tinged with sadness that we were dragging the issue into the realms of “We are better than you” and “You have done worse than us”. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) was absolutely right: we need a consensus.

In fact a consensus is emerging, and we should not avoid it. There is an emerging consensus between what was said by the Select Committee, what was said in the interim report of the Leader of the Opposition’s group, and much of the work that the Government are doing. We have seen change and more change since my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) became Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills. What caused my big disappointment was the way in which the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) concentrated on the number of children in special schools. The evidence, the visits, and all that our Select Committee did suggested that the position was much more complex.

Those who visit as many schools as we do—as I do, certainly—will know that there is poor provision in special schools. They are in awful, tumbledown Victorian buildings miles from any other school.

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con) rose—

Mr. Sheerman: I will not give way, because I am going to be brief. I am awfully sorry.

There are also bad modern special schools. Someone from a London borough to whom I was talking recently told me proudly “We are building a new
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special school.” I said “That is interesting. Where is it?” “Oh, about a mile from the nearest school.” What we need is co-provision—buildings that are on the same site, or close to each other. It should be possible to do what was done in Darlington, and build a special school in the heart of another school.

Mr. Carswell rose—

Mr. Sheerman: I will give way.

Mr. Carswell: I thank the hon. Gentleman. In the interests of building cross-party consensus, will he confirm that he too thinks it is time for the Government to review the statement process radically, to make it much less of a battle for parents to get their children assessed and to empower parents? Parents of children in Harwich and Clacton—which, as he knows, the Select Committee visited—are having to fight to obtain statements.

Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman is a very good member of my Committee, and he knows that I agree with him. That was a cross-party recommendation, and I have intervened a number of times in an attempt to make the point. We wanted an independent review to deal with it, although I think that the review that we produced was very good.

The position is complex. Things are moving quite fast, including the school building programme: 800 new schools have been built since 1997, which has allowed a great deal of fine provision in mainstream schools, and special schools are also being built. I want to be totally fair to the Government on that score. What is essential, however, is early and speedy diagnosis of a child’s needs. That is what every parent wants. Wherever parents may be, they want a speedy, highly professional diagnosis as early as possible: at nursery school, in the very earliest years. As for statements, we want the balance to be changed, and if there is to be an appeal process, let us make the darn thing fast. We ought to be able to give parents a guarantee that they will have to wait for only a short time.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right about the need for early diagnosis as a prerequisite of early intervention. Does he agree that, as part of either the early-years framework or the common assessment system, there should be a screening test to identify speech, language and communication impairments, which Afasic recently recommended?

Mr. Sheerman: Yes. As long as the tests are the right ones, I think that early use of them is very important. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have visited a school about which he is passionate, and I agree with what he has said.

Both the statementing process and the appeal process must be fast. If personalised learning means anything, and if we are to learn anything from it, it must relate to special needs. That is the very heart of personalised learning—indeed, the best personalised learning in special needs is the model for what we
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eventually want for every pupil. Such personalised learning is crucial for children with challenging conditions.

We must also look at costs. We have underrated that issue, and it has not been alluded to in the debate. The cost of failing to identify problems and of not providing proper provision must be considered. That leads to many children being excluded from school. The figures in that respect are very worrying; I think that I am right in saying that 27 per cent. of those excluded have special educational needs. Exclusion is expensive. Although it is expensive for a young person to get special provision within a particular framework, it also becomes expensive if that young person starts truanting or gets involved in crime. We should also consider the NEET category—those who are not in education, employment or training. A high proportion of NEETs—as high as 80 per cent. in some areas—have a history of special educational needs. My Committee also conducted a prison education review last year. It showed that about half of the people in prison have a history of poor education, lack of education and special educational needs. Therefore, the cost to our economy and to society is great.

If those conducting an inquiry do it right, they do not write it themselves; instead of dreaming it up, they listen to people out in the world. Members of my Select Committee read the evidence and take account of the oral evidence and go on visits, but we also listen. If a Committee gets things right, it picks up a resonance, and we then report that resonance—we write it down and tell the Government about it. We faced great difficulty in breaking through the usual suspects—all the pressure groups and the people who want to abolish all special schools and those who do not want to close any. We listened to voices from such extremes but we did not accept what was said.

However, we did listen carefully to parents; we did so as much as we could. Indeed, one Saturday afternoon I even went to Hampton Wick in the constituency of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and listened to 120 parents who told me in no uncertain terms about what it was like to have a child with special educational needs. I was told that in some cases that means that they have a child for ever, and about what happens at 16 and 18 and when education runs out, and about what happens when there is no work or no special provision—and about how the woman in such circumstances has often been deserted by her male partner, and she has to look after that child until he is 40 and then 50 and so on until her own life is finished.

The catalogue of stories that I heard revealed to me that if we do another special educational needs inquiry—we always find that there is another inquiry that should be done—it should be on provision for those post-16 years of age. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) highlighted that in the case of Oxford. In terms of profound special educational needs, we need to take a careful look at what happens to children when they reach 16, 18 and beyond.

Finally, we discovered something very disturbing. What is happening in our society that leads to increasing numbers of children suffering from very serious and sophisticated problems in terms of the ability to learn? Let me refer to autism. The spectrum is
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increasingly becoming understood; it is a wide spectrum, and there are some especially worrying features. Why do six times more boys than girls suffer from some form of autism? We did not have time to probe that.

Mrs. Dorries: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sheerman: No, as I believe that I can only give way twice.

Might a Committee other than mine—or a Department—start looking at the scientific facts in respect of the problem I have referred to? What is the medical or scientific analysis of what is happening in this complex area of special need?

I have galloped through my speech in order to give other Members a chance to speak.

6.24 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Like many colleagues in this House, I have a child with significant special educational needs. I have also been a school governor at two schools where I was responsible for special needs education, and for the past 20 months many people have come to talk to me about the issue.

Given that communication is one of the crucial tools for children with special educational needs, we all know that speech and language therapy must be at the core of what they require. As the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has said,

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