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If I may, I will move on from the subject of training to focus briefly on services. This is not the occasion for a detailed debate about the precise composition of services, but I simply make the point that it is well recognised in the field of special needs that in broad terms there can be said to be categories of provision to reflect categories of need. Some services are, and should be, universally available; others are of targeted application; and others still are specialist in character. Some people with modest difficulties or delays in particular respects can benefit, adequately and more so, from what we call low-dosage, high-volume intervention within the mainstream school and the undifferentiated mainstream class within the mainstream school. Some of those services can even be delivered—if not initially, certainly after a while, and with the benefit of the training that I described—on what we call the consultative model; that is to say that one does not necessarily have to have a specialist present delivering the service, which would be highly expensive use of resources. Some children require something rather more than low-dosage, high-volume assistance—they need targeted help, possibly on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, possibly less, possibly more,
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and they may be in groups or seen individually. Then there are categories of children and young people who require a specialist service.

I say to the Government that there is a real challenge that, in the review of speech, language and communication needs, my colleagues and I are trying to address, to ensure that we can develop conceptually and then roll out practically a commissioning framework that will allow for joint commissioning between education and health services, and sometimes between education, health and social services, of the provision that is required to cater specifically and adequately to the needs of children and young people who have what we call low-incidence and high-need conditions, and quite severe needs.

We spoke earlier about categories of need. The hon. Member for South Swindon, together with other colleagues, was quick to emphasise that we are not talking about a homogenous category in relation to special educational needs, and she was right to make and underline that very valid point. Let me add to it by saying that there is not only a variation between people with mild delay or moderate difficulty and people with severe difficulty, but a distinction between people who have one problem and people who have several. Some special educational needs children have an identifiable condition that might even be severe but which is easily comprehensible and susceptible to help of a simple and identifiable character. Other children do not have one-dimensional difficulties—they have what we call severe and complex needs that are not one-dimensional but multi-faceted in nature, and they will probably be enduring needs which will require assistance over a very long period.

Over the past few months, I have come across the significance of this issue when visiting institutions around the country. I have visited schools, pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools and post-16 provision in London, Sussex, Kent, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Manchester, Salford, Plymouth—I am going to Essex next Monday and Norwich on Wednesday—and a host of other places. I have found that there are some admirable services—this relates to the point so powerfully made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins)—that cater for only a relatively small number of children or young people and which are hugely stretched financially, but the disappearance of which would be a catastrophe for the individuals concerned and for the country as a whole.

Let me give a couple of examples. The Nuffield speech and language unit in Ealing faces a threat to its survival, as does the Michael Palin centre for stammering children, which is the most outstanding centre that one could have the privilege of visiting. There are the ACE—aids to communication in education—centres, which cater to the needs of children and young people with cerebral palsy who require communication aids in order to express their concerns and offer their opinions so as to ensure that their interests are reflected. We can be sure of two things that will happen if those facilities disappear: first, once they have gone they will not come back; and secondly, if they go, we dissipate the expertise and lose the experience, and we no longer have available the
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teams that can provide training, offer outreach, upskill the work force and provide the specialist assessment and diagnosis that are so often required.

In that sense—this is a completely non-partisan point—I feel that we should not overdo the rhetoric about localism. Localism has its place: in the form of local differentiation because of the characteristics of the area, local discretion, or encouraging local service entrepreneurs to do more, to do it slightly differently or to innovate, it is a healthy phenomenon. However, localism must not become a religion that poisons the well of public provision or causes policy makers nationally deliberately or inadvertently to abdicate responsibility and simply say, “Oh, these are not matters with which it is proper for us to interfere—we are mere Ministers, humble specimens who do not claim expert knowledge. It is a matter purely for the local authority or the primary care trust to determine the configuration of services.” That would be a great mistake. [ Interruption. ] I am not accusing the Under-Secretary. One sometimes has to say, “This is an outstanding service. It is not a business. It would not survive if it were a matter of commerce, it will probably only ever be required by a minority of children, but it is hugely valuable, it must be maintained, and it needs, if anything, to have its facilities extended—and if that means that it has to be funded centrally by Government, be it a Labour Government or a Conservative Government, so be it.”

Kelvin Hopkins: Again, I agree most strongly with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There is perhaps a compromise between localism and national provision, with consortiums of local authorities within a region ensuring that these specialist facilities can be provided on a larger scale but will not be too far distant from the children’s families. If local authorities could be instructed by central Government to provide these facilities between them, we could have regional provision rather than national provision.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. What is needed is the opportunity for group purchasing. It may well be that it can be done on a regional or national basis, but it is probably not going to be done in the sort of cases to which I referred purely on an individual authority—still less an individual school or parent—basis. Something much more robust needs to be in place.

I emphasise that the process of helping children and young people in this field is ongoing. Most of the focus has rightly been on children and in particular, to some extent, on young children—perhaps very young children. The Government are right to make a priority of helping a great deal at the early stages, because the evidence supports that. My impression so far is that although there are still significant gaps in provision, and plenty of weaknesses to which we will, I think, be able to point to in our forthcoming reports progress is being made at the pre-school and early primary level.

By contrast, I think it is true to say—we need more information on this as a lever for parents and campaigners to get better services—that precious little is going on in the field of speech, language and communication at secondary level. Far more needs to be done on that. It is not a failure of one Government.
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It is not a party political matter. It is, frankly, an historic under-recognition, under-investment and under-provision, which has taken place over decades. A great deal will have to be done if those children who have not had the early intervention are not to be isolated, failing, unhappy, stranded children in the secondary sector or beyond.

I referred in passing to the situation post-16. In the worst instances, people can end up committing offences. Somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent. of the 12,000 young people in our young offenders institutions have speech, language and communication difficulties on a scale and of an intensity that prevents them from accessing education or training courses. Yes, we should do more to help those people and not abandon them—I have thoughts on that subject—but even if the Government do not feel that they can put more money into that sector, although I hope that they will, one thing that they could say is, “Wait a minute. Some of the money we are spending on these education and training courses is probably not best spent in that way,” because some of the young offenders attending those courses are attending on what I call a purely tick-box basis, as they are either obliged or encouraged to do so. I have seen them. They are sitting in on the courses, but they do not understand what is taking place. They are not benefiting from the courses, which are not causing them to realise their potential. At least some of that resource could perhaps be devoted to speech and language therapy from which they would derive a recognisable benefit.

Mrs. Hodgson: Does the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that as well as speech and language difficulties, some young offenders and, indeed, prisoners also have severe and sometimes complex literacy needs? They are often dyslexic but have not been diagnosed.

John Bercow: Indeed. In fact, the statistics on that front are seriously alarming. It is not just expressive speech and receptive language that are the problem; those people can also suffer a much wider set of difficulties.

Hon. Members have referred to the phenomenon of children suffering from autism. We know that children on the autistic spectrum vary greatly, but they all tend to suffer from what is commonly known in the trade as the triad of impairments—lack of social imagination, social interaction and social communication. It is important that we train staff so that we do not continue to experience the problem whereby innocently enough, but very damagingly, professionals in the education sector mistake a disabled child for a disobedient child. When we talk about people on the autistic spectrum being more likely to be excluded from school, let us be clear: that is what is taking place in so many cases. The professionals do not understand that the child is not in any sense a conventionally badly behaved child.

The understanding even of autism, which is a relatively high-profile condition, is too limited. We have to try to stimulate awareness. I was with my young son in a park in central London only a week or two ago. My son has phobias about a number of things, as
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children often do, and perhaps autistic children do in particular. He is anxious about hand dryers. I have always explained that they cannot do him any harm and are not dangerous, but he hates the sound that they make. When we went to take him to the loo, I said to the park-keeper, who quite properly, has to turn the key and open the loo, “Would it be okay if my son went into the disabled loo?” because I happened to know that it had no hand dryer whereas in the ordinary loo there was one. She looked completely uncomprehendingly at me and at him—I make no personal gibe at her; I am simply making a wider point—and I repeated the question. She said, “But he’s not disabled.” Again, I put it to colleagues that there is an issue of understanding. People often think that to be disabled, someone has to sit in a wheelchair, lack a limb or have a demonstrable and immediately apparent impairment, such as blindness, but children with problems on the autistic spectrum or with speech, language and communication impairments—there is often a close link between the two—can, in some cases, be disabled.

We need a great public debate on special educational needs as a whole. Jim Callaghan initiated such a debate on educational standards in the late 1970s, and it was of enormous benefit to the country in kick-starting issues on the consideration of provision, the adequacy of standards and the need to develop provision further. I would like to have a great public debate on special educational needs in this country, to increase awareness of the issues and to make them very much more important in decision makers’ minds. The challenge is to bring the issues from the back of the minds of Ministers, commentators, policy makers and decision makers to the front of their minds.

I conclude simply by saying that over a period, special needs parents have become more demanding, more insistent and more determined to secure better provision. There will be cost implications, but it is right that we seize the challenge to improve provision in this field and ensure that the issues are regarded as part of front-line services and core provision. Special educational needs must not be relegated to a back room or a subordinate filing tray as though they were of secondary importance. I think it was Winston Churchill who said that one can often judge the quality of a civilisation by the way in which the Government of a country treat their prisoners. That view was right and far-sighted, as so often with that great man, for its time. If that is true in relation to the treatment of prisoners— and it is—it is true also of the way in which we treat, cater to and care for children with special educational needs.

Whatever else the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West achieves in the course of her parliamentary career, which may include ministerial office of high distinction—I do not know—I wish her well on her journey. However, I do not think that she will do anything more just, more noble or potentially more appreciated than what she is doing now.

11.38 am

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who made an interesting and moving speech.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on her success in getting the Bill to this stage. It is the first big hurdle. Should this and further hurdles in Committee be cleared, as we hope they will be, and the Bill become law, she will be able to reflect in the years to come that she made a great difference to the lives and aspirations of children with special needs and their families. I know that my hon. Friend and her researcher Jonathan have worked extremely hard to get to this point. Having been elected in the same cohort, and now both appointed to the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, I can testify that she never misses an opportunity to lobby on these issues, but that she always does so with a beaming smile and much grace, be we friend or political foe. It is only right to share with the Minister and hon. Members the fact that in her early career she was a majorette—not only does she have nifty footwork but what she cannot do with a baton is nobody’s business. The Minister should be aware of that and help her to achieve her goals. I can think of no more committed Member than my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West to guide the Bill through the House, and I pay tribute to her outstanding dedication and boundless enthusiasm on this as on all other subjects.

I know that many Members wish to speak, so I will keep my contribution short and sweet, just like the Bill. Although the measure is small—it has just two clauses—its effects will be enormous. At the national level, the new information that is gathered can be used to influence policy and long term-planning, as well as to help us to monitor their effects. Last week, the Select Committee heard evidence from various statisticians and educationists, who all agreed that additional data, particularly data sets on SEN and a number of other categories, would be hugely useful, especially in assessing the progress of pupils and the relative success of different types of school systems, which is a subject of great debate at the moment.

In addition, the Bill will assist with teacher training, planning and delivery, as has been said. The Training and Development Agency for Schools—I shall call it the TDA, as we are reducing our words—has recently published its SEN training strategy, most of which is to be applauded. However, as has been said, it is lacking in the area of postgraduate teacher training. A former postgraduate teacher myself, I well remember the inadequate training I received for SEN teaching—albeit that we had a whole three Wednesday afternoons, so perhaps we were quite advanced in Birmingham at the time. But the training merely paid lip service to SEN.

My first position was in inner-city Birmingham. I taught a class of 38 nine-year-olds, so hon. Members can imagine the disparate needs and abilities in the classroom. That was perhaps my greatest challenge—surviving the first year was character-building—and on many evenings I went home completely distraught, as I felt I had not been able to do my job properly as a result of inadequate training. There was also a lack of training in the job, but that has since changed significantly. Of my cohort of postgrad teachers, we lost nearly half in the first two years, which was heartbreaking.

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Although there have been improvements since then, the issue still requires lots of attention. Information that will be gleaned as a result of the Bill’s introduction will help to encourage wider training in this area, or at least make it easier to make the point to the agency. The profile of children’s disability is changing. Many children are born pre-term, giving rise to complex SEN problems that we have not previously encountered. The profession does not always have adequate teaching and learning strategies to hand to provide effective education for those pupils, let alone register their attainment. I am particularly concerned about pupils with foetal alcohol syndrome, which is estimated to affect between one and three of every 1,000 live births. That means that 28 babies are born each week in the UK with FAS. That is a conservative estimate, because the syndrome is not always recognised, and there is a lack of diagnostic expertise. Some 7,500 babies a year are born with FAS.

Kelvin Hopkins: I applaud my hon. Friend for raising the issue of foetal alcohol syndrome, which is something in which I have considerable interest. She mentioned the number of babies born with FAS, but there is evidence, too, of a wide spectrum of problems. The total number of children damaged by alcohol in the womb may be higher than that for all the other birth defects put together.

Lynda Waltho: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We know about the cases that are diagnosed: children born with FAS constitute the largest group of children with non-inherited disabilities, and their number is growing in the UK. At least with the Bill in place, we will be better able to plan, train and develop, and ultimately improve the outcomes for those children.

The Bill will be useful, too, at the regional and local authority level. My local authority, Dudley council, faces a £3 million overspend on children’s services. The leader of the council and the portfolio holder both attribute that to the growing number of children with special needs who require special assistance and education, often out of the borough. Many of those cases are at crisis point, which would be mostly avoidable with decent planning, based on the information that the Bill will bring to our attention. Knowledge of the numbers of children affected, as well as of the types of SEN, will assist such authorities in better planning so that there is less crisis management.

At the school level, experts across the sector agree that there is insufficient information available to determine the scale of SEN in our schools or to monitor the effectiveness of the support that SEN pupils receive. The Bill is the first step in equipping schools with the data they need to assess the progress of children with SEN and the effectiveness of individual schools’ support and strategy. At national, local and school level, improved information has a part to play in improving outcomes for children with SEN. As the Royal National Institute for Deaf People states in its briefing, the Bill has the potential to improve our understanding of what works; raise expectations; provide a better base to evaluate projects and progress; provide a secure basis for sharing good practice; improve our understanding of training and development needs; and provide a more secure basis for future national policy.

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Raising expectations is key for all children, but for children with SEN it is vital if we really do desire better outcomes. We can improve expectations only by improving our data and information on the children’s progress. That is the cornerstone of improving the outcomes for children with SEN so I, too, commend the Bill to the House.

11.47 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on introducing the Bill, and on her powerful contribution, which was informed by her personal experience, as has been the case with the speeches made by a number of hon. Members.

I speak for my party on issues relating to disabled people, but the Opposition will be ably represented today by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller), and we will hear from her later. There is general unanimity in the House in support of the Bill, which makes me wonder why the Minister did not find an opportunity to slip the proposals into one of the other Bills going through the House. I hope, however, that in his winding-up speech, he will lend the Government’s support to the hon. Lady’s Bill, which will see it into, and through, Committee, and back into the House.

I suspect that we all have a considerable amount of constituency experience of these issues. In the Forest of Dean, I know from my visits to primary and secondary schools that they all have a significant number of children with special educational needs, and cater for them in mainstream provision. We also have a very good special school, Heart of the Forest community special school, which deals with children with more complex needs. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) pointed out, some children need extra and more intensive provision, and the range of provision at that special school is very welcome.

My hon. Friend also referred to the potential clash between localism and central direction or prescription. I am in favour of plenty of local direction and local provision, but, as my hon. Friend said, many organisations in this field want a set of national minimum standards entitling everyone to a certain level of provision and the opportunity to improve what is provided locally.

Information is a powerful tool for ensuring that local decision making leads to better provision. The more parents of children with special educational needs know about what is available in other areas, the more they are able to put pressure on the democratically elected representatives in their local authorities to improve services, by asking, “If this service exists in that area, why doesn’t it exist here?” That is one of the important things that the Bill will do. Information is not the outcome that we seek, but it is the route to better outcomes for children. We shall not be happy if the Bill is passed and all that results is a lot of statistics and information, while nothing happens in the classroom and there is no improvement in provision. Information is a tool to drive up provision.

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