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Although there is considerable overlap between the group of pupils with special educational needs and the group of disabled pupils, there are also children with a special educational need who are not disabled and vice
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versa. I understand that the universities of Bath and Bristol are conducting research, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, on how pupils with special needs can be identified. I hope that the research will inform future policy. I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) on the broadness of definitions of dyslexia. We need to make sure that we in the House know what we are talking about, but we should also tackle the educational establishment, parts of which still deny that the conditions that we are talking about exist. I was a member of that establishment for 18 years, and I was taken in by that argument at times. It is sometimes parroted by people in that establishment, but that is not thoughtful enough. We need to make sure that everybody is on board and accepts the definitions that the Government will, I hope, bring forward.

The current system does not identify separate learning difficulties; instead it chooses only to class them as either moderate or severe. Without accurate information of the kind that would be provided under my hon. Friend’s Bill, it is impossible to get a firm grip on the scale of the issue. Lumping two groups of pupils together, or any groups of pupils together, is simplistic, and it does the children a disservice. It means that we fall back on emotional arguments about educational provision, rather than looking at what is best for each child within the constraints of the system.

We cannot pretend that there will never be any constraints. Sometimes hon. Members make an impassioned argument for a particular type of provision, but it would result in so much funding being put into one area that there would be a disproportionate knock-on effect on educational funding for other children. We must be realistic. Throughout my involvement in education there has been debate about how much money, and how big a proportion of the education budget, should be spent on special needs. It is right that the debate should continue.

Despite the large real-terms increases in special needs funding in the past 10 years, there will never be enough to satisfy every single parent’s wishes for their children, whatever the colour of the Government. We must be realistic about that. Some special needs places are extremely expensive. One case that I dealt with involved an outside placement costing £96,000 a year. The local authority had to balance the needs of that one child and the child’s family with the needs of all other special needs children in our town, including those in mainstream schools—a difficult task.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I agree strongly with what my hon. Friend says. Does she agree that if a child has particularly large expenses, those expenses should be centrally funded, because there might be a disproportionate number of such needs in one authority and none in another?

Anne Snelgrove: I find that an intriguing way forward, particularly as I represent a small unitary authority—as does my hon. Friend, I believe. I would certainly give full consideration to that view, and hope to have discussions with him after the debate.

I want to refer to Baroness Warnock, for whom I have great admiration, although she represents another party. In my teacher training, I spent some time
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considering her 1978 report, which stated that 20 per cent. of children had special needs. She included children in mainstream schools in that figure. I listened with interest when my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West said that there were 1.6 million children with special needs in this country. Baroness Warnock promoted inclusion, but she has since issued a pamphlet refuting it. It was always the case that some children with special needs were in mainstream schools and others were in special schools. The problem was not solely about where education took place; it was also about its quality. In 1978, some children with special needs were in special schools but not receiving appropriate education that stretched them, and others were in units in ordinary secondary schools and also did not receive the appropriate education. We in the House have to be brave enough to say that we need to look at the needs of the child, rather than the needs of the institution. I do not advocate closing special schools for the sake of closing special schools. I advocate doing what is right for the child.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I want to convey a small point of information. Baroness Warnock is a Cross Bencher, not a representative of “another party”. I am pleased that the hon. Lady welcomes Baroness Warnock’s publication of her new views on special educational needs.

Anne Snelgrove: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his correction and apologise to Baroness Warnock—I must have inferred from her comments that she was a member of another party.

The Warnock report rightly challenged many assumptions, especially prejudice about the potential of children with special needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) identified very well the gap in attainment for children with hearing difficulties and deaf children. It is 24 percentage points. at GCSE level, which is incredible. I suspect that it is the same for other disabilities such as blindness, and it is shaming that we have not examined the matter adequately in the House. My hon. Friend is right to focus on that.

Thirty years after the Warnock report, we still need to challenge assumptions. Many of the children whom we are considering need and deserve a properly resourced place in a mainstream school. Many deaf children would be better off being stretched educationally in a mainstream school, but with properly trained secondary school teachers, as other hon. Members have said. They do not need a return to the prejudice and second-rate provision of the 1970s that Warnock identified. The system that I advocate is based on the needs of the child, not the assumption that mainstream provision is always wrong and special needs schools are always right. It clearly depends on collecting and analysing the correct data—that is why the Bill is crucial. It seems like a small point, but it is a huge matter. We should be able to base our actions on the right information.

The education of all children in my constituency concerns me greatly, and I believe that the measure will be the gateway to improvements that are necessary to continue the trend of improvement that we have experienced in the past 10 years. It is important that
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special educational needs policy be allowed to develop and that best practice be allowed to flow from that. The Bill will be the oxygen to invigorate the process.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, I am frustrated when I submit a parliamentary question and receive the response, “This information is not collected centrally.” It is disappointing to hon. Members and our constituents. I look forward to tabling questions in future and receiving full and correct information from the Department.

The case for collecting information on the specialist support for children with dyslexia is even more compelling. My hon. Friend and I belong to the all-party group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties. We know the despair of some of the parents and professionals involved. They are often condemned as fanciful in their belief that dyslexia exists and they are frustrated and angry about that. However, those campaigners need access to the facts. That will enable us all to assess where local authorities are best meeting the identified needs of the children and end the current postcode lottery of provision.

My local authority has a good record on dyslexia, despite being small. However, the information for parents is not there because it is not collected centrally. Some of my local parents are frustrated because when they compare the provision for their child with that in other local authorities, they feel that the provision for their child is not adequate. It is impossible, as a Member of Parliament, to say whether that is true, because we are not collecting the data. Sometimes, parents feel guilty and blame themselves for not fighting hard enough for their child, and we cannot tell them whether that is correct. Again, we fall back on emotion rather than on what is right for the child.

The Bill strengthens the Secretary of State’s power to collect information and will assist in improving outcomes for children with special educational needs. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley, I am pleased that the National Deaf Children’s Society is supporting the Bill. Dyslexia Action also supports the measure. That is important to me and to my hon. Friends.

A big question for parents, teachers, schools and organisations such as Dyslexia Action is the lack of specific information about what is happening to special education in schools. The Bill demands transparency for that complex provision, which is often frustratingly patchy—good in some places, bad in others. I am pleased that Ofsted will examine SEN provision in its review in 2009. We hope that schools and local authorities will be more accountable for detailing the specific provision that is on offer. I hope that the Bill will be law by 2009 so that it will inform the Ofsted report.

11.4 am

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), with whom I have jousted constructively in several such debates over a significant period. I am well aware of her background and great interest in the matters that we are considering.

It is also a pleasure for me to be one of the first to congratulate warmly and sincerely the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson)
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not only on her admirable and heartfelt speech this morning, but on all the work, planning and forethought that led up to this important occasion. I was pleased yesterday evening to join her and several colleagues, as well as representatives of interest groups, to mark the Bill, the occasion of today’s debate and the great sense of optimism that her work has produced.

I declare an interest again as the parent of a child with significant special educational needs. My elder son Oliver, who is four, has notable speech and language difficulties and was diagnosed last summer on the autistic spectrum. He is a pupil in central London, where he receives fantastic help in a language unit in what I would describe as a language-rich mainstream school, which is driven by the tremendous commitment, vision and inspiration of the head teacher and his senior staff.

No parent would ever say, “I’m not worried about my child.” We are all concerned about our children. However, I confess that my wife and I feel that we are very fortunate that we managed to identify the existence of difficulties at an early stage, to access help, to secure a placement and to start the process whereby our child is assisted and becomes—this is important—a much happier little boy than he was for a while, or otherwise would be.

My concern is therefore not specifically for my child but for the vast number of children, some of whom I have, of course, like other hon. Members, encountered in my constituency, who simply do not receive the help that they palpably need. With the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho), I work in the all-party group on speech and language difficulties, which I have the privilege of chairing. Some hon. Members will know that the Government asked me to lead a review of services for children with speech, language and communication difficulties, aged from 0 to 19, with a view to publishing an interim report in March and a final report in July, suggesting how best we can take forward provision. I was happy to agree to undertake that task, because we are considering a set of issues that need not be a matter of great party political combat, and about which there is considerable potential for common ground between public-spirited people of all political persuasions and none.

I welcome the Bill because there is a knowledge gap—an information deficit. Too little is known by too many, and that has been the case for too long. That is unacceptable. If the position were to continue, it would represent an abdication of our public responsibility. That is why the fact that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West has identified the problem and proposed a way forward is so welcome.

What do we know? We know quite a lot, and I should like to highlight at this stage that we all know, talk about and celebrate the priority that should be attached to early intervention.

Let us take the field in which I have a particular interest: speech, language and communication needs. A considerable body of evidence shows that early intervention can be hugely effective. Something like 10 per cent. of school-age children suffer from speech, language and communication difficulties. The evidence
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is clear that, if we identify and help a child with a speech delay or speech impairment before he or she reaches the age of five or five and a half, the problem will be overcome or very substantially reduce and the child will be able to access the national curriculum, opportunities and courses, and fulfil his or her potential.

The corollary is that the absence of early intervention is massively damaging. What are the consequences of the failure to identify, and prescribe and provide for, children with speech, language and communication needs? The answer is fairly harrowing: emotional and psychological difficulties; behavioural problems; lower educational attainment; poorer qualifications; weaker employment prospects; persistent communication handicaps; challenges to mental health; and, in the worst-case scenarios—the evidence is on the record to demonstrate this—a descent into criminality. People who do not get help and suffer from untreated communication disorders are more likely to commit crime, commit it again and end up incarcerated. [Interruption.] I am sure that the point is of great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who is sitting on the Front Bench and is, I think, motivated to intervene.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con) indicated dissent.

John Bercow: He was not; he was simply chuntering from a sedentary position. However, I am sure that he takes a close interest in these matters, which are of enormous importance to this country. I would like to think that every Member in the Chamber now is here because he or she is interested in listening to and perhaps making a contribution to the debate, rather than engaging in some other activity.

Let me say what I think is incredibly important. When we talk about information, we do not mean information in a vacuum and for its own sake, but information as the route to knowledge and the mechanism and catalyst for change. Let us take parents; there is a great deal to be said for providing information to them. I am thinking of information given through suitably trained health visitors, general practitioners and teachers, or through children’s centres, local education authorities and individual schools.

I have heard a particular gripe many a time and oft: that parents in my constituency have not been able to request a particular service or a place at a given facility for the simple reason that they cannot ask for something of whose existence they are unaware. I know of an outstanding pre-school specialist facility in my constituency—the Puzzle pre-school, which caters for children on the autistic spectrum. It is run by Alex Stanyer, a woman of almost unbounded talent and commitment. She has told me, so many times that I cannot count them, that even though the local education authority is aware of the existence and record of her provision—it is a voluntary sector provider—it does not tell parents that it exists. That is one example of how we can apply existing duties better. Perhaps the Government need to consider a change in the regulatory environment or the means or frequency of information publication to make parents aware of
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what can be made available to them as they try to negotiate the Kafkaesque process of securing access to equitable provision.

There is also the question of training, to which I animadverted a moment ago and to which several Members have already referred. I am thinking of the training of the whole children’s work force—not only of speech and language therapists, who work in the field that preoccupies me, or of teachers or head teachers. I also mean the training of learning support assistants and all who are in contact with children. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned different elements of training. It seems to me that there are two elements to the training offer: first, the question of its availability, and then the question of the release of professionals to access it. We all agree that far more needs to be done on special educational needs training—most certainly in respect of initial training, but also in respect of continuing professional development, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) observed earlier. We have to understand that special educational needs training is not an isolated fact, but a continuous process. It has to go on throughout the career of the professional if it is to be of appropriate benefit.

I am horrified that in the modules for initial teacher training the time devoted to special educational needs is lamentably inadequate. Trainees get something like half a day’s induction, which is intended broadly to cover all elements of special educational needs. The hon. Member for South Swindon was right to say that we must not be unrealistic. We cannot expect training modules to inform potential teachers in detail, with great opportunity for practical examples, about every single condition. That is not realistic. I know that there is always great pressure on the teacher training timetable, but far more needs to be done if trainees going into the profession are to be broadly well informed about the range of problems, strategies, devices and sources of support that they can access in the interests of children.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Continuing professional development is key, because of the range of different needs. If a teacher or professional working with children comes across a special educational need with which they are not familiar, they need to be able to access training on that specific need to look after and support the child.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I would like to emphasise this point about the courses. The Government are very conscious of the need to build on their existing work and provide such funding as they can afford to increase training opportunities for people in particular disciplines. That is right, but there are always two sides to the equation. It is one thing for the Government to say, “Here are the resources; more needs to be done in this field, as there is not sufficient training,” but it is another to deal with the situation locally. Potentially, a wide range of courses is available, but we have to think about other things, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole did in her contribution. Is the local authority aware of the importance and potential value of the training? Is there
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a strategic lead in the local authority? Has the issue’s importance been adequately impressed on the local authority?

We then go down to the school level; the school might not know about the training or recognise its value. Alternatively, the school might say, “It would be good for us to be able to access that training for that member of staff, but we are very hard-pressed and cannot release them as there will be a shortage.” So then there has to be back-up cover, which does, to some extent, cost.

I say to the Minister in the most positive and constructive spirit that, in my view—I do not know whether my colleagues agree with me—this is an area of public policy in which a purely permissive regime is not adequate. It is not good enough simply to say, “This is what is available and we’ll leave it to the individual area to decide whether to pick up on it,” because that means that the child—it is with the child that we have to be concerned—is dependent on whether there is a far-sighted local bureaucrat, head teacher or class teacher. What I am concerned to establish is that there must be, to some degree, an element of prescription. We sometimes need to say, “This is sound public policy; this is what is required, and this is what must be delivered.”

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech with which I strongly agree. He talked about far-sighted local officers. Some officers, indeed probably many, are prejudiced in these matters and refuse to take special educational needs seriously because they do not believe that there is really a problem. Frequently they blame poor teaching or poor parenting, when in fact there is something specific to the child, for which proper support is needed.

John Bercow: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That rather underlines the point that there have to be certain safeguards, guarantees and minimum standards.

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