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The Government’s aspiration for inclusion for all children is admirable, but, unfortunately, their policy of removing barriers to achievement is not working.

I wish to talk briefly about my son, Max, because his experiences and what I, as his parent, have gone through are instructive. He is 14 years old. For the first nine years we tried very hard to keep him at the same school as his three other siblings. Unfortunately, year after year his confidence went down. We struggled; we fought with the school to keep him, and it played ball with us by keeping him there. Unfortunately, in the end neither Max nor the school could cope, so we moved him. We were lucky; we were able to move him to a specialist school. Over the next four years, he improved dramatically—his self-confidence in particular improved—and last year, when he was 13, we were able to bring him back into the mainstream. The problem with the current system is that there is no flexibility for children who do not have parents who have the ability—perhaps such as me—to fight hard for their children and who have the financial wherewithal to move their children to specialist schools. Many of my constituents cannot even articulate the problems that their children have.

However, for children without severe needs, the Government’s strategy has been working. Many schools in my constituency do a great job for children who do not have significant educational needs, such as those with dyslexia. Mainstream schools now have the ability to help to support children with such special needs. However, Baroness Warnock has said—and I must agree with her—that special educational needs

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Unfortunately, for children with severe needs, the system seems—for whatever reason—to be failing. Schools are shutting down, and there is a lack of qualified teachers to help children; there are even staff cuts. Last weekend, I met one of my constituents, Pauline Hicks, whose nine-year-old daughter, Darcey, is severely deaf. She showed me a letter that she had received from the speech and language therapy manager of Mid Essex primary care trust to the head teacher of her daughter’s school that said:

Because of a lack of resources there is now nowhere for her to take her daughter to receive the support that she needs. The problem is that, with the best will in the world, if the Government want to deliver on their objectives, they must put in the necessary resources.

Chapel Hill school in Braintree was in a very poor area. It went into special measures, and when it did so, I decided to become a school governor. Of the children attending Chapel Hill, 42 per cent. had some form of special educational needs, yet when I arrived there was not a single special educational needs teacher. We eventually found one who had had six weeks’ training, but it was too late. The school had to close and the children and the community were ultimately broken up—in some families three children ended up going to three different schools.

Southview school, another excellent school in my constituency, has just built a beautiful new building, yet the Government have made its task of kitting it out more difficult by ending the excellent communication aids project. The problem is the lack of consistency in Government funding. There is no point in funding for one or two years; there must be consistency.

However, the biggest challenge, as we heard from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), is statementing. Although most of our children learn their ABC, children who need statementing—and their families—are learning a less benign version of the ABC. It begins with “Assessment”, goes on to “Bureaucracy” and ends with “Complexity”. This is a big issue.

As the report of the “Parliamentary hearings on services for disabled children” said of those with special needs,

The Education and Skills Committee’s report on special needs identified

and recommended that

The problem is that the system involves reverse engineering. The approach taken is, “Let’s figure out what pocket of money we have today—what pool of money—and let’s see how we can allocate it”, instead of putting children’s needs at the front and centre. I
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therefore ask the Government to conduct a fundamental review of special educational needs that puts the child’s needs first and foremost.

6.31 pm

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I, too, am very pleased to be able to debate this topic, which is of critical importance to everybody in the Chamber today and to every Member of the House of Commons. It is acknowledged in all parts of the House that we still have some way to go on this issue. I agree completely with the Select Committee’s conclusion that we need a review of statementing policy, and I hope that at some point, the Government will agree to conduct one more quickly than they have already promised to do.

However, the issue is not just the statementing process; we must also acknowledge that there are sometimes problems with the implementation of statementing decisions. I, like many Members who have spoken today, will refer to the personal problems that I have experienced with the statementing process. My sister’s little boy was unable to speak at all by the age of two, and by the age of three he was still living in a world of silence. The general practitioner, the health visitor and the nursery school staff would not believe that little Tom had a problem. In this case, the mother—my sister—knew that something was wrong, but all the professionals refused, up to the point of school entry, to do anything about it.

In the end, a statement was arranged, and the question whether my little nephew was on the autistic spectrum was investigated. At one point, it looked as though he would be placed on that spectrum, but in the end, a statement was arrived at and the school put some support in place. However, the support and the statement were inadequate, and in the end, my sister had to go to a tribunal to get the situation sorted out. I was going to be a witness at that tribunal, but an advocacy service supplied by a charity from Hull sorted out the various issues before the tribunal took place. One point that has been overlooked today is that the tribunal process, adversarial as it is—in fact, it is a sign of the failure of the system—often resolves such issues. In the end, local authorities back down; they do not like tribunals. If a good advocate is available, the issues can be resolved. That bright little boy, who was trapped in that silent world, is here with us today. Because his mother was prepared to fight, he has got over his problems, is off the statement and is doing very well at school.

The problem with the existing system is that, far too often, parents have to fight for the statement and its application, and to fight continually to keep that statement in place. I know of cases where the reviews of statements at the point of transition to the secondary level have led to a downgrading of the support that should be available to enable a child to be placed in the mainstream sector, rather than in the special school sector. When a parent is so desperate that they have to visit their MP’s surgery to argue the case against a review ruling and to get things put right, we know that the system has gone wrong.

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John Bercow: Parents surely need the insurance policy of provision that is detailed, specific and quantified. Does the hon. Lady not accept that one of the endemic failings of the statementing process—not in all authorities but in many, and of both major political complexions—is the tendency to use words such as “frequent” and “regular”, which are gloriously unspecific? Christmas is regular, but it does come only once a year.

Ms Smith: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I was about to say that it is important to distinguish in this debate between the Government’s general policy approach to special educational needs and the specifics of how authorities are implementing SEN policy. The statement is at the heart of that process. We should always remember, in trying to evaluate how well we are doing in delivering the best possible services for children with special needs, that local authorities are responsible for developing SEN practice.

Government policy on SEN is clear; “Removing Barriers to Achievement” emphasised the continuing role of special schools and stressed the need for a flexible range of SEN provision, with special schools acting as centres of excellence for spreading good practice across all maintained education provision. That, to some extent, is why I do not understand the position of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) and her party, who say that they will vote with the Conservatives on the moratorium. Our policy is to encourage a broad continuum of provision, and anybody who disbelieves that will have to explain why Sheffield has been awarded substantial capital funding in the past five years to build five new special schools.

We are building those five new special schools because our previous provision, which was located in a particular part of Sheffield, was in the wrong place and that meant that children living in the far north of the city were travelling great distances to get to school. Anybody who has dealt with children with special needs knows that travel to school is one of the biggest and most difficult issues in SEN policy. It takes some children in Sheffield an hour and a half to get to school in the morning. That is why we have to redevelop our provision, and why a moratorium would be disastrous for my city. As a result of it, we would not be able to close down the old schools and build new ones in the right places, in order to give our children the best possible chances in the education system. Moreover, three of the new schools will be close to mainstream provision, thereby making it easier to offer a really flexible range of learning opportunities for students. In many cases, a mix of mainstream and special provision is best. Even in the mainstream sector, my city is developing integrated resources and the usual mainstream provision for special needs students.

On top of all this, the city’s schools are expected to work together to deliver for SEN kids on an individual level. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was the important one. If we get personalised learning right for SEN children, we get it right for all children. If we get learning right for children with dyslexia in state schools, we get it right for all children. I have taught English post-16, and I have taught people with dyslexia. If a person with dyslexia needs yellow paper
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in order to read more easily, everybody in the class should have handouts on yellow paper. That improves outcomes for the dyslexic individual, and does nothing to harm the learning of all the other children in the class. It is not rocket science—we can do it.

I am convinced that the Government have got the right strategic approach, but they also have a responsibility to ensure that local authorities and schools deliver the best possible learning opportunities for all children with SEN. There is no doubt that we have further work to do on that point. Too often parents complain that in the cases of non-statemented children—the issue of dyslexia becomes more relevant here—provision in mainstream schools is poorly developed and inconsistent in application. That is why the Government were right to respond by promising more effectively trained SENCOs; an entrenchment in schools of personalised learning, so that all children can be catered for; and more rigorous internal monitoring and evaluation by school of pupils’ progress.

Making it mandatory for SENCOs to be teachers is critical. There is no point in having teaching assistants as SENCOs in schools. Teaching assistants do a fantastic job, but being a SENCO is a job for a teaching professional. It is a key leadership role and the use of teachers in that role is right.

We will have to await the impact of the Government’s measures on improving the delivery of SEN education for children in the classroom, but what is certain is that parents are the key. They should be fully involved, and any decent school will fully involve parents in putting together the individual education plan for their child. Parents should be involved in monitoring and encouraging progress, but we also need to think afresh about how to strengthen even further the voices of parents with SEN children in the system. What does a parent do when the LEA refuses to believe that a school is doing something wrong? The parent goes to the governing body, which sides with the school. As a cabinet member for education in a local authority, I received letters from parents of children with special needs, complaining about schools. It happens in all authorities. I would demand that something be done and the officers would say, “You are the LEA, so you have to defend the school.” Incidentally, one good thing about the Education and Inspections Act 2006 is that it separates the schools from the local authorities and makes those authorities the champions of parents in challenging schools to deliver for SEN children. However, we still need to do more and I challenge the Government to find new ways of breaking the cycle of powerlessness that parents experience when things go wrong in schools. They are the first ones to know, and we should always listen to them when they say that things are not right.

The contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) about post-16 provision was right. It is woefully inadequate. Sheffield has the same problem as Oxford, and we have children going over the border to Derbyshire because most of the post-16 provision is in the local college. The college does its best, but if there is an argument for pastoral
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education for the general range of 16-plus children, there is even more of an argument for making that sheltered provision available for special needs kids—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Lady has had her time.

6.43 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con): This has been a good and informed debate in a very sensitive area, on a subject that can at times be over-polarised between those who believe in total inclusion and those who believe in none. As with most issues, the answer lies somewhere between the two poles.

As the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) would no doubt agree, there are many children with special educational needs who most certainly should be in a mainstream school, including many children with physical disabilities, children with mild cerebral palsy who have good communication skills and cognitive ability, and children with very mild learning difficulties or mild Asperger’s. For such children, inclusion in mainstream schools is very important and beneficial. It may mean that some adjustment is needed by the school, but it will be worth it to ensure that those children have access to a full curriculum and to the social benefits of being with a wide range of children, including being able to socialise with children who live in their neighbourhood, and all that goes with that, such as parties, sleepovers and weekend sporting activities.

However, there are other children whose needs are such that they require very specialised teaching, and providing that is not just about training, but about the experience gained in a career devoted to teaching children with particular problems and needs. In October I visited the Percy Hedley Foundation in Newcastle, a special school that educates children with severe cerebral palsy. It uses an advanced form of the Hungarian conductive method, which uses physical therapy to re-educate the brain to operate the muscles and limbs. There is a lot of one-to-one therapy by highly trained and dedicated teachers.

Many children with cerebral palsy are intelligent, but their physical difficulties mean that they need that specialist education to help them to overcome those problems. Children who are permanently confined to a wheelchair when they start at the school can learn to walk. Children with no communication ability can be taught to use a computer with a switch operated by touching it with their cheek. No mainstream setting could give that sort of training, and therefore access to a full education.

Which type of education is most appropriate must depend on the needs of the child and the wishes of the parents. The whole “race to inclusion” which occurred after the Warnock report of 1978 was a reaction to a legitimate problem. One of the great successes of the post-Warnock era has been the fact that disabled children are now integrated into a common educational framework. It has also led to an emphasis on the specific needs of the individual, rather than making assumptions based on medical diagnosis. But the problem with how that inclusion has been adopted in
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practice is that it has become an end in itself, rather than being focused on the needs of individual children. Because of that, the inclusion movement risks discrediting the concept of inclusion. It is naive to believe that it is possible to teach all children with serious and profound learning difficulties in the same classes, learning the same lessons, as their mainstream peers. Some disabilities, such as more severe forms of autism, make communication and interaction almost impossible. Forcing such children to interact in a mainstream school with hundreds of people can be extremely damaging for them.

Even today, the prevailing view in most local authorities is that they should reduce the number of statements and reduce their use of special schools. That very point was put to me by local authority officials in Bromley yesterday despite the revised statutory guidance mentioned by the Minister.

In the 2004 document “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, the Government told us that

Is that still Government policy? The Education and Skills Committee found that

Baroness Warnock has criticised the Government’s position. She said recently:

That is why we have seen the closure of so many special schools for those with moderate learning difficulties.

Cedar Hall school in Benfleet, Essex is an example of a highly effective MLD special school. Many children at that school had horrific experiences in mainstream education. I met children who had attempted suicide at their previous mainstream schools, so miserable were they. At Cedar Hall, with its specialist and experienced approach, those children flourish. They have friends for the first time, and their education is rigorous and effective. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) has spoken about his personal experience and his son Max, who thrived in just such a special school, to such an extent that he was able to return to mainstream education when he was 13.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was right to say that we need to try to reach a consensus on these issues. In his best—if I may say so—non-windbag style, he was right to point to the effectiveness of co-location of specialist schools or units with mainstream schools. That provides the best of both worlds, with specialist teaching and expertise as well as the potential for social interaction for the children.

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