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People have reported to me through pressure groups and parents’ organisations that a language unit may be gradually run down, and the authority will then say that there is no demand for it. Parents in such authorities have come to me or to colleagues and said, “We were told simply that we had to place our child in a mainstream class”—not in a language unit within a mainstream school—“and we were not informed of the unit’s existence as an option at all.” That seems to constitute an arbitrary run-down of provision.

I know of instances in which such units have come to house children who are on the autistic spectrum and who perhaps have behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. Although some units can cater to such children’s needs, if a child’s primary need is not speech and language therapy, one must at least ask whether a language unit is the proper or best place for that child. We must be careful not simply to push children into a particular facility without reference to their objectively identifiable primary need.

The challenges are considerable. The Government have at least three sources of guidance on the stocks, which I think have been publicly released, that are supposed to inform the consultation process on the future of such units. I have raised the matter with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and I should like to be clear in my mind that authorities know clearly what those sources of guidance are, that we can establish what mechanism exists for monitoring their enforcement, and whether Ministers are satisfied that the rules are being followed in both letter and spirit.

I raise the issue in such terms because I am not saying categorically that there is a rampant or majority abuse of the procedures. I should not go so far as to suggest anything of the sort, but the evidence that has come to me is more than merely anecdotal. I hope that colleagues will forgive me if I say that the special needs community, although it is gradually becoming more demanding, articulate and vociferous, and rightly so—I am looking at the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong), who had responsibility for social exclusion for a considerable period—is still not particularly powerful.

I have sometimes cavilled when Ministers, or representatives of any party, have said, “Well, of course these matters must all be determined locally. Local education authorities are elected bodies. They must make their dispositions in these matters, and if parents are dissatisfied they can kick out the authority at the ballot box.” To that piece of institutionalised cant, I tend to reply, “Get real.” For the most part, such parents are few and far between and thinly spread, and they often do not know each other. The idea that by objecting to a particular decision on a given institution in an individual locality they will be able to drive the local authority from office is for the birds. In dealing with vulnerable children, we need protective mechanisms. The Government have a special responsibility, which I am confident they will accept, to monitor what is occurring with a view to securing improvements and redressing bad practice wherever it proves necessary.

The House has indulged me so far, for which I am grateful. I do not think that the issues are ideological at heart. I have reflected on them long and hard. There are differences of emphasis—sometimes quite important
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ones—between the advocates of inclusion and those who are absolutely and indomitably opposed to it, but my sense, having mixed with a wide variety of people in the field during the past 18 months, is that most people do not subscribe to either position in its extreme form. Most are fairly pragmatic. They can see the benefit of an eclectic mix of provision tailored to the particular circumstances of individual children, and most are prepared to depend on and be guided by what the evidence proves.

In most cases, it is not an ideological matter or the source of a great philosophical tension between the political parties; it is a question of pragmatics and of trying to bring the big issues to the fore. If the Minister will forgive me—I would say this whomever the Government in power were—it is a question of ensuring that, while we are, very properly, preoccupied with our big battles about the future of the health service, education provision and social care, we do not forget those important services that are needed admittedly only by a minority, although a significant minority, and that require uplifting in political priority and public consciousness.

It is worth trying to co-operate across the parties. It is much easier to walk away into one’s hole and avoid any criticism by saying, “Never the twain shall meet; we can’t possibly work with people of another party.” That judgment probably makes for a quiet life, but it is the wrong judgment to make. I am proud to be a Conservative Member of Parliament. I happen to think that such issues are important, and I believe that this place is, on the whole, pretty tribal. Most politicians are too tribal, as are most commentators, but I think on the whole that the public are not very tribal. They rejoice in instances of politicians across the spectrum coming together and considering how to put aside our party differences and work together to better the public provision, especially when the beneficiaries are a group of children who are often very needy, frightened and vulnerable.

I remind colleagues that children with speech, language and communication impairments are disabled children. That is often not recognised. The hidden disability of an incapacity to communicate can be a source of great problems for the individual, for his or her wider social network and—ultimately, if those problems are not tackled—for the country. It would say something positive about this country’s political DNA if we came up during the next nine months with a set of constructive and practical proposals, the implementation of which would alleviate some of the difficulties, improve the quality of provision and raise the life chances of some concerned and frightened children who need our help sooner, rather than later.

10.7 am

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I welcome the debate that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has secured, and I enjoyed his excellent speech. I know that he will be busy later today, as he is sponsoring a reception for the Children’s Services Development Group, underlining his point that we owe so much to the many organisations involved in the field. They are right to seize the moment and focus on the issues that he raised, and which hon. Members from all parties have raised in the Chamber and in the various Committees and Departments with which we are associated.

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When I saw just before the recess that the hon. Gentleman had secured this important debate, I welcomed it, as I am sure did hon. Members from all parties. During the recess, when I had the opportunity to visit schools in my own constituency, I saw the meaning of many of the things that he said. I welcome the fact that he did not paint a picture of doom and gloom, because there have been many achievements, and we are entitled to acknowledge that. Nevertheless, challenges remain. In my constituency, I have visited excellent schools such Drumpark school in Bargeddie, which deals with special needs children, and Portland school in Coatbridge, which deals with children with behavioural problems. What stood out principally was the dedication of the outstanding people working day in and day out for solutions to many problems and trying to ensure that their children achieve their absolute potential. I realised that this debate would give us the opportunity to offer support and to push things forward a little more urgently, as the voluntary organisations would wish.

I was also encouraged to listen to the hon. Gentleman and to follow his speech, in common with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and others, because I was delighted to have had the opportunity to chair the all-party review on the needs of disabled children, a review that received outstanding support from the consortium and which campaigned under the slogan “Every Disabled Child Matters”. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Normanton (Ed Balls), now the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, was very encouraging and proactive, and we were able to produce a report that was inevitably much more general than the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman is dealing with this morning but which led to a very positive response.

I can tell the Minister for Schools and Learners, who will reply to the debate, of the very considered response to the work of the all-party group. It listened to those organisations that wanted to be heard, and even to some disabled children—for example, young people who were concerned about that period of transition. When considering the response to the all-party report, we saw that the Treasury and the then Department for Education and Skills was allocating an additional £340 million to deal with those issues. My Scottish colleagues will be delighted to know that under the Barnett formula we received £34 million—something that I hope the hon. Gentleman will remember in his review.

The all-party group made steady progress, but it would not have been right then to sit on our laurels and say “That’s fine. We’ve done a good job. End of story.” Our constituents would have told us that, as would parents, because our experience of visiting schools and working in education—I know that this debate is largely to do with education—shows that there are problems of poor provision and low attainment.

Speech, language and communication are extremely important. The challenge is to ensure that the policies of Government and Parliament, in their respective roles, have a clear influence to ensure that progress is made.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I welcome the contribution of the organisation I CAN. It has shown through projects such as Make Chatter Matter and initiatives such as the Chatterbox Challenge that, in many ways, the voluntary sector is leading the field. I doubt whether
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anyone would want to dispute the important role of the voluntary sector and the charities in this important matter because, in truth, they are addressing some serious problems, such as those of early identification—something that many local authorities have yet to address.

It is often said, although it is regarded as trite to say so, that to some extent there is a postcode lottery, and I am afraid that the facts indicate that that is so. Some local authorities appear to have other priorities. I do not criticise those priorities, but on the evidence and based on our experience it is absolutely right that we should address those issues this morning. For example, 1.2 million children in the United Kingdom have a communications problem that requires special help. On average, that is three children in every classroom. We are told that children are arriving at school without the skills to achieve their full potential. That is the principal challenge. In some areas, particularly in those with heavy unemployment and housing that is below acceptable standards—in other words, areas of deprivation— 80 per cent. of those children are being doubly penalised because we are not addressing, as we want to, the issue of speech and language services.

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the question of training, which is hugely important. He also mentioned the Communications Trust survey; and the trust is doing a first-class job. However, another finding of the YouGov survey was that preparation and training for serving children with special needs, who have speech and language difficulties, is that such preparations are often falling apart in some local authority areas. It showed that 61 per cent. of staff over the age of 45 had SLC training, yet only 37 per cent. of staff aged under 35 had it. That is extremely worrying, and obviously unacceptable. It is important, therefore, to underline training—as the hon. Gentleman did. Communications problems can occur in isolation and as a result of other disabilities such as autism or Down’s syndrome, or even hearing impairments. We should have a proper collection of data. In other words, we should find out what the problems are so that we can compare and evaluate achievement and try to encourage a rise in standards; but that is not the case, and I think that they were doing a fine job in seeking to achieve the objectives upon which I think we can all agree.

I underline the excellent points made by the hon. Gentleman about early intervention. It is absolutely crucial. We hear of tackling the difficulties of children with behavioural problems, but who knows what lies behind those problems? Who knows what family influences there were as the children left for school in the morning? In some cases, I wonder whether attainment in speech and language is not influenced also by those other problems. If so, we must take it on board.

I welcome the debate. I know that the Minister takes these matters seriously, and I hope that he has the opportunity to respond to all the points raised this morning. I hope that there may be a closer working relationship—the Minister’s body language is interesting—between Departments. We want to see them working together, and the Department of Health looms large in that. We want to ensure appropriate local authority
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responses, and we want to know that the Government will respond effectively to them and others in commissioning speech and language services.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I wish the hon. Gentleman well—particularly on the important review in which he is so heavily involved—and congratulate him on introducing the debate.

10.19 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Am I starting the winding-up speeches, Mr. Illsley?

Mr. Eric Illsley (in the Chair): Yes.

Annette Brooke: Thank you. I was confused by the time.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing the debate, on his speech and on his new role in leading a major review for the Government on the provision of services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs. Since our last debate in Westminster Hall on the issue, which was almost a year ago, not only has a major review been announced, but the communication trust has been set up.

Those announcements were preceded, however, by the various reports that have been mentioned. For example, the Pubic Accounts Committee report concluded that

The Ofsted report on the foundation stage said that

If we were writing a report for the Government on progress on the issue during the past year, we would judge that they can and must do better. Although there are examples of excellent practice, progress has been patchy overall and the new initiatives face challenges. I am absolutely committed to the fact that children’s communication skills must be at the core of the Government’s development of children’s policy. However, it is not just a matter of policy; there must be real changes on the ground.

We have talked this morning about early intervention, and I agree that we need to understand exactly what we are talking about and to identify good and not-so-good practice. We know that about 50 per cent. of five-year-olds arrive at school without the speech and language that they need to fully participate and achieve their full potential. That figure rises to 80 per cent in areas of high unemployment and poor housing.

The Ofsted report to which I referred identified a widening gap between boys and girls. We must consider the significance of that gap in respect of future educational attainment. Much is made of attainment at age 11 and of the fact that a quarter of children do not achieve satisfactory standards in literacy and numeracy. How much of that problem stems from a lack of early intervention and a failure to deal with the issue when it needed to be dealt with? We know that poor language and communication skills have a knock-on effect on behaviour. Not surprisingly, when a child becomes socially
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isolated and does not have the tools to integrate with his or her peers, behavioural problems develop. We know that many young people who end up in young offenders institutions have poor language and literacy sills. It is vital that we put more emphasis on a holistic approach to the issue.

I would like to emphasise that speech and language needs are complex. We are talking about a whole spectrum of needs, and I worry about the suggestion that one solution fits all. Transient problems can be sorted out with sufficient speech therapy and with back-up in the home. Such transient language difficulties are probably caused by our lifestyle—watching too much television, not sitting down for meals together and a lack of communication in the home. However, there are also very severe and highly specialist needs that may or may not be accompanied by another disability. We must be very clear about what approach we need to deal with this issue.

I shall refer to a case study that I have been dealing with this summer, but I will of course also discuss more general points. A grandmother came to see me whose grandson was aged four and did not speak a word, which was quite alarming. I raised the case separately—I could not get to talk to one person—with the primary care trust and the head of children’s services. That process started reasonably well because Tyler was first referred to the speech and language therapy service by his health visitor—my first point of call. The provision of health visitors across the country has become patchy, and although I support the intensive help given by family nurses to vulnerable families, basic health visitor provision is vital because that is how these issues are most likely to be picked up. The Family and Parenting Institute study has clearly shown that there are deficiencies in health visitor provision.

Returning to the case study, that first referral was the good news, and Tyler was seen in June 2006. Unfortunately, staff shortages meant that Tyler was not seen again until 7 December 2006—six months on at a critical time in the child’s life. Treatment then improved as speech therapy was given and it was recommended that Tyler receive specialist nursery provision. However, the provision was in another authority and a lone parent could not get the child there. There was no offer of transport or other help. I then wrote to children’s services and asked why such specialist provision was not in our authority. The reply said that the

That proves the point that we need the whole spectrum of provision to match the whole spectrum of needs. Some children will benefit from projects such as I CAN and from intensive provision in a pre-school setting. Other children will benefit from speech therapy that is backed up with support from home. It must be the right mix for the right child, and I do not apologise for talking about an individual case, because the crux of the matter is that we are talking about individual children for whom we must get the best support. I am greatly concerned that a child would have fallen through the net if it was not for their grandmother raising the issue. It is difficult for parents who do not know their way around the system to access what they need.

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We have repeatedly said this morning that training is critical for nursery school teachers. I had a parliamentary answer in July saying that only £37 million of the children’s transformation fund for training had been spent. Surely we should be spending the money to put the essential training in place. We must use the early years foundation stage, which becomes statutory in 2008, as an opportunity to ensure that staff are trained and that we do not have the rigid curriculum that some of us fear. We must take the opportunity to ensure that we have early identification and intervention, and most of all that we foster language and communication skills for every child.

As good as we as a society—not me personally—may be at information and communication technology, we have a problem with basic communication. We need to know how big the problem is, as the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) said. Considering the range of communication and language difficulties, do our local authorities know the extent of the problem? We have discussed statementing this morning. The Government must not bury their head in the sand and pretend that all is well. As MPs, we know that that is not the case. There is much more to be done to ensure that children can access the support that they need, that the finance is there and that we have qualified professionals who are trained to deliver that support. Joint working between health and education services locally and nationally is vital. For a long time I have been concerned about a situation with Dorset county council. However, we should congratulate it this morning because it has employed a full-time health worker in its children’s services whom I have met and spoken to at great length. It is such a pity that I have so many different authorities in my constituency; I can always find problems.

Finally, I want to mention some of the important points Scope made to us about—I shall have to read this bit in full—the availability of appropriate additional augmentative communication aids; now I can say AAC. Scope has been raising those issues for some time, and its conclusions were really interesting, as they are the same as those that we are making on other points. It referred to:

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