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9 Oct 2007 : Column 14WH—continued

and the need to establish who is responsible for the provision of the equipment. That is another dimension that I hope will be covered in the review of the hon. Member for Buckingham.

John Bercow: First, the answer to that is yes. That is an important issue; I did not address it because I wanted to focus on other subjects today, but the question of assistive and augmentative technology is important. It will certainly fall within the terms of the review, and we will consider it very seriously. Secondly, the hon. Lady might be interested to see a quite informative article in the education section of The Guardian today that focuses, among other topics, on that point.

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman.

In conclusion, I want to re-emphasise that we are looking for the right provision for each individual child, whether that is in mainstream education with proper
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support or in a specialist unit. Whatever comes out of our debate today, it is about ensuring that our children are able fully to access a curriculum at school and to have a rich lifestyle. They cannot have that if they have those language and speech impairments.

10.31 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): First, I declare my interest, as in the Register of Members’ Interests, as the chairman of a company involved in educational support services.

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who made a typically well-informed and robust oration, all without notes—another 30 minutes and he would have equalled the achievement of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition at the party conference last week. It was a particularly impressive, detailed and heart-felt contribution, but then my hon. Friend has form in this area. He mentioned the debate that he instituted in this Chamber almost a year ago, his role as the chairman of the all-party group on speech and language difficulties and, of course, his close personal interest because of his son. That interest is shared by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition through his personal experience, which is why he has concentrated for much of his time during his years in this place on the subject of special educational needs. The subject is close to many of our hearts, and all hon. Members will have a personal interest or will have been approached by many constituents. It is right that that should be mentioned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham made a number of points, and I do not need to repeat them, but I was particularly interested by his undertaking that he is interested in seeking out best practice, because the experience is patchy up and down the country. I was encouraged by his reference to the role of parents, because it is the parents who have the 24-hour, day in day out responsibility and care and often do not get the support that they need. He also mentioned the great dedication of some of the people involved in the lobby, but it is a fairly disparate lobby and so it is right that this place should speak up for a minority that desperately needs support.

We hear an awful lot about the numbers of doctors, nurses and teachers, the number of heart operations that take place, improvements in cancer treatment, the number of GCSE passes in schools and so on. We hear very little about the problems connected to speech, language and communications, and virtually nothing about the number of practitioners and therapists available up and down the country—I fear that there are woefully few. Communication is vital to social and educational development and, as the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) said, the right sort of early intervention is the right investment to make as early and as appropriately as possible, and it is a false economy not to do that. It is also right that early intervention should involve a joined-up approach between schools, pre-schools, Sure Start—that is why I am so pleased about the I CAN pilot projects in Sure Start children’s centres—and the health service, too, so that a seamless support operation can be put in place.

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We need more specialists and a greater understanding among teachers and other professionals in health and education. Apparently, an estimated 7,000 SLC therapists are on the books in this country. It is estimated that we need at least some 2,300 more and there is a question about the training places available for many of those coming out of university who want to go into that area.

A survey by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists recently found that 78 per cent. of managers questioned said that their budgets were being frozen, and 50 per cent. said that they would be obliged to provide an inferior service or to conclude that the service was altogether non-viable. The area has not had the attention or investment given to other areas of education and health.

Hilary Armstrong: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although we will always need more specialists, if we have more effective intervention at an early age, new parents learn how to communicate with their children and do so much more effectively? Does he agree that that is the way to ensure that many of the most disadvantaged children, rather than those with a specific disability, get through their speech and language difficulties?

Tim Loughton: The right hon. Lady’s point is self-evidently right, and hence my point that it is a false economy not to make that early investment and to work with parents and everybody else.

We will all recall that the Select Committee report published last year made some concerning comments about the SEN system in this country. Many hon. Members have mentioned the statistics about the six in 100 children who will at some stage have a speech, language or communications difficulty. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned the high number of children who arrive at school without the basic speech and language abilities that they need. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham mentioned the 73 per cent. of staff who have not had proper SEN training. The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) made a good point about the demographics, too. The expertise is with older staff who are coming up to retirement and less with younger staff. There is a potential demographic time bomb that we seriously need to deal with.

I CAN’s “Cost to the Nation” report noted that impoverished language is an emerging 21st century problem that results in lower academic outcomes in children with persistent language difficulties. We obviously need to tackle it young. As we know, there has also been a reduction in specialist provision. There are 146 fewer maintained special schools than in 1997. The number of places in state special schools has fallen by more than 5,000 since 1997. Although it is appropriate in some cases for children to be able to go through the mainstream school sector, in many cases that can be viable only if the support is available in those schools, often on a one-to-one basis. I am afraid that that level of support has not been matched in too many cases.

I want to praise the work of I CAN and many of the other organisations involved in this area. I CAN operated a school in my constituency that unfortunately had to close a few years ago but had an excellent reputation. I
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CAN commented on the Ofsted report on the foundation stage, which came out in March of this year, and made the point that

It identified this fact:

It also said:

I CAN also commented, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham, on the relationship with health and the need for greater joined-up working between education and health, and on the joint working and ownership of the work force, because speech and language therapists might be employed by health services, local authorities, schools, charities or social enterprises, or might be working privately. A vicious triangle is operating here. Often, those who bring cases to me requiring speech therapy support have gone already to their education authority, which has said, “Oh, that is not for us. It is health.” They then go to their PCT or hospital and are told again, “Oh that is not for us, but for children’s or social services”. That is a vicious triangle. The problem does not go away if we pass the buck. The longer that that buck is passed, the bigger the problem with that child might become. We need much better joined-up working.

Although I welcome the greater joined-up working in Sure Start children’s centres, I fear that because of budget constraints, PCTs have too often been retrenching on some of their joint funding arrangements and that a bigger burden of the bill has therefore fallen into the lap of local authorities, which is putting particular strains on the provision of some services through Sure Start children’s centres. There are reports from around the country that some language units are being closed without proper consultation or risk assessments, often for the very reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned. It is very important that we have integrated working across health and education for the benefit of children with speech, language and communication needs. Surely, that is a crucial part of the “Every Child Matters” agenda as well. The fact that only five of the 27 children’s centres surveyed by the National Audit Office work closely with their PCTs shows that such joint working has a lot further to go.

I want to make two other brief points. As I said, the Conservative party has taken this matter very seriously. Earlier this year, a commission headed by Sir Robert Balchin reported on the question of special educational needs and made this recommendation:

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My hon. Friend touched on the problem with statements: there is a reluctance to refer people to get a statement, and ignorance about the availability or mechanism for getting one. However, if a person does not get one, they are very unlikely to get the services that go with it. That is a Catch-22 situation, which is absolutely intolerable and serves only to worsen the situation and the concerns and angst of parents having to deal with very complex problems with their children.

John Bercow: Does my hon. Friend agree that when we get people writing or coming to our surgeries seeking a statement for their children and it transpires that their need is demonstrable, we as Members of Parliament often end up thinking, “Thank goodness that we have been able to help them, but what about all of those who did not know that they could come to us”? I know that that is emblematic of many other features of public policy across the piece, but I put it to him that there is a gulf between people who are educated, articulate, broadly middle class and not completely empty-pocketed, who on the whole are used to jousting with authority, and who can write letters and fight a battle, and those who are uneducated, inarticulate, hard-pressed, possibly in very difficult family circumstances and who cannot cope. We have an obligation to them.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those whom he mentioned at the end are most usually in the greatest need of support, but perhaps it is the most articulate and tenacious whom we see and who then take up the cudgels.

What impresses itself on me more than anything in this respect is the battle that such people have with local authorities, or whatever agency. If the money that is wasted on rejecting claims and on the appeals process—the number of appeals has increased enormously—were targeted at providing the services, rather than on trying in too many cases to deny parents what is a right, the system might work rather better. We should be putting every piece of support and help at the disposal of those parents, rather than seeking to put obstacles in their way, as appears to be the case so often.

Finally, may I leave the Minister with a few questions, to add to the great list that I think he has already? His Department has said that it will be making speech, language and communication a key issue, so we would like to know exactly what it intends to do to improve the situation for children with communication difficulties. Will he commit to working more closely with the Department of Health at a senior level to explore what more can be done between agencies and to provide joined-up political leadership? What will the Government do to ensure that all members of the educational work force are trained to identify and support children with a communication disability? What will he do to ensure the appropriate local assessment and provision for children with SLC difficulties? How will the Government support local authorities and PCTs to effectively commission speech and language services?

I know the Government’s commitment on that matter. The work that the Minister’s colleague, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, did earlier in the year was excellent, with the support and great energy of the right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. However, we need action and to see how
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this will happen. We need to ensure that suitable resources are targeted in the right place, so that we can have serious results for those whom we all see in our constituencies, whose case was so well articulated by my hon. Friend.

10.46 am

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): It is a pleasure to respond to what has been an excellent debate with well-informed and interesting contributions from all right hon. and hon. Members. In particular, I commend the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on securing this debate and on being, as always, such an eloquent and persuasive advocate for children and young people experiencing communication difficulties.

I also take the opportunity to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to lead the recently announced review of services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs. That has left me in an interesting position in responding to him, because, clearly, we have acknowledged not only that we want to improve such services further—we would not have commissioned a review otherwise—but his expertise. It was tempting to ask him to write my wind-up speech for me. However, it is important to acknowledge that the fact that he is doing this review does not mean that he does not remain an independent and staunch advocate for the children about whom he has been talking today.

The hon. Gentleman’s appointment to head the review is a signal of the need for us to co-operate across parties, as he talked about towards the end of his remarks, and of the need to move away from tribalism when dealing with such vulnerable young people. I shall not fall prey to the temptation to reel off statistics about how, although 166 special schools have closed in the last 10 years, it is not as many as the 234 in the previous 10 years, and all that kind of stuff, which bores everybody.

We have heard well-informed and insightful observations during the debate. I tried to listen carefully and shall respond to as many of them as I can in the time that I have. The hon. Gentleman raised substantial points about training and co-operation. An informed and confident work force are essential if children with special educational needs are to receive the support that they need. I think that it is right that he is concerned and that other right hon. and hon. Members echoed his points.

To help early years practitioners, we have issued Communicating Matters training material and are working in partnership with I CAN—a children’s communication charity—to pilot its early talk training programme in 200 children’s centres. Similarly, all schools staff need to have the skills and confidence to support appropriately children with special educational needs, including those with speech, language and communication needs. To help raise teacher confidence, we are launching, in one week’s time, through our national strategies work, a major programme of professional development for teachers and other staff in the form of the inclusion development programme, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

The IDP is funded with £2 million to support the first body of work that is attached to it, and local authorities will also have the school development grant to support
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the training and development of teachers. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will consider that issue. However, we have told the IDP to begin by focusing on speech, language and communication needs and on dyslexia, which demonstrates the importance that we attach to children’s ability to communicate.

The newly formed Communication Trust will build on the IDP by guiding teaching staff to more specialised training and sources of information and assistance. My Department has committed £900,000 in support of the trust, which is a collaborative venture between the communication charities I CAN, AFASIC and the Council for Disabled Children.

The hon. Gentleman also discussed specialists and supply therapists, but before I move on to that issue, I shall touch on the issue of early intervention, which he raised, as did my right hon. Friends the Members for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke), and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke).

Early identification is the key to supporting special educational needs effectively, ensuring that all the right support measures are in place as soon as possible. From September 2008, all settings offering early years provision will be required to deliver the early years foundation stage, which supports all settings in their planning of activities and experiences that can help all children to make progress in their development and learning. It stresses the importance of practitioners being alert to the early signs of needs that could lead to later difficulties, and it provides a framework to enable early years practitioners to respond quickly and appropriately, involving other agencies as necessary.

Collaboration between services is essential to the provision of good speech and language support. Sure Start children’s centres that are aimed at the youngest children have a critical role to play, as our practice guidance for centres acknowledges. We are ensuring that all children’s centres promote language acquisition and identify speech and language difficulties as part of their universal provision. All children’s centre staff should be trained in language development by a speech and language therapist to help develop a centre-wide strategy and approach, and to ensure consistency among all staff. Through Children’s Trust arrangements, local authorities and health services should jointly commission speech and language services to ensure that children’s centres offer easy access to those services.

However, we recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman said, not all centres currently provide services of the quality that we would like. That is why the children’s centres practice guidance that was issued in November 2006 gave details of the best practice that we want all children’s centres to develop. We are also working in partnership with I CAN to pilot its early talk training programme in 200 children’s centres.

John Bercow: Will the best practice guidance to which the Minister has just referred be mandatory?

Jim Knight: As far as I understand, the guidance will not be mandatory, but I shall look at that issue, and if we need to give the hon. Gentleman more information about it, naturally, we will do so.

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