Previous Section Index Home Page

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman makes the point powerfully. I have had precisely the experience he describes. I meet parents who are not used to dealing with the highly educated chief education officer and the clever correspondence they receive. They are not letter writers so eventually they come to see me, as their MP, and I fight their corner because MPs have the
1 Feb 2008 : Column 597
resources and abilities to do so. Even then, however, there are difficulties because sometimes there is an almost ideological commitment to inclusion. Anybody who is against inclusion is regarded as an enemy—as I was when pursuing some cases, although I made my point and won in the end. I believe that some children need special provision that is not found in a mainstream school.

Another proposal, which has been piloted in my constituency and which I strongly support, is to set up inclusion units in schools, especially in secondary schools. When there are serious behaviour problems in the classroom youngsters can go to the inclusion unit where they are given one-to-one tuition for two or three days until they have settled down and can return to mainstream classes. The system works brilliantly, but the problem is that such units are not available in every school and some of them have time-limited funding. Accepting that such units are necessary in many of our schools would be a tremendous advantage not only to youngsters with special needs but also to the teachers and the other pupils in the class who suffer from the stress and disruption sometimes caused by children with special needs.

Mr. Harper: We need to look at inclusion not just in education but throughout the rest of the child’s life. One of the things that struck me powerfully about the SEN provision at some of the special schools in my constituency was that although it may have been separate it ensured that the child was better able to be included for the rest of their life, because they had been given the skills to succeed.

Kelvin Hopkins: Indeed. I agree. In fact, there is so much agreement this morning that there is almost no need to make some points. However, I hope that I have made some points that other Members have not made and that will be useful in promoting the Bill.

We have to acknowledge the need for some special schools that are finely tuned to specific needs. We need inclusion units when children who are rightly in mainstream schools have behavioural problems and may need additional help. We also need the resources to back up that provision. I ask my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench to support the Bill and to make sure that resources will be forthcoming so that every child, whatever their needs, is properly catered for in a civilised society.

12.22 pm

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I join all the other Members in the House today in congratulating the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) on presenting her private Member’s Bill. It has spurred on an incredibly constructive and useful debate, which will, I am sure, be the start of many more.

The hon. Lady spoke with passion and conviction. She painted a vivid picture of the reality of the problems faced by the parents of children with special educational needs and highlighted the importance of all those children reaching their potential. I congratulate her on her courage in bringing her personal experience into the debate. The support she has received from both sides of the House is—as she
1 Feb 2008 : Column 598
said to me in a quick note yesterday—because so many of us share similar experiences of special educational need, either through our constituency work or through our families.

In my Basingstoke constituency, I know of the incredible work of parents, support groups and teachers. They work tirelessly for the support that their children require if they have particular special educational needs. The hon. Lady made the important point that her Bill should not be an additional burden on schools; we should rationalise the data that are collected and focus on what will create a real difference in helping children with special educational needs to do better in the classroom. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) picked up on that point when she said that we cannot continue to let children fall through the net.

A number of hon. Members spoke about the scale of the problem that we face. The hon. Member for South Swindon talked about the problem of interpreting that scale given the diversity of special educational needs and—these are my words, not hers—the unsophisticated way in which they are assessed by what she called the establishment. I take it that she meant the teaching establishment.

We know from the briefing notes that we have received that the issue is not marginal. The problem is experienced by one in five of the total school population. There are clearly concerns about under-reporting, and the Bill will help with them in some way. As the Government’s SEN strategy said in 2004:

Today’s debate would suggest that we have a way to go. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge in his response that there is still room for improvement.

We have also heard from hon. Members about the human cost of undiagnosed or incorrectly supported special educational needs. The hon. Member for Worsley (Barbara Keeley) highlighted the significant attainment gap experienced by deaf children and how unacceptable that is given the nature of that special educational need. I was concerned to hear that the gap between deaf children and those with no special educational needs was 24 percentage points. Other hon. Members talked about the economic costs of undiagnosed special educational needs. The Minister will leave the debate with a clear message that hon. Members from across the House feel that the situation cannot persist.

The Bill is simple and straightforward. It plans to collect and publish information about outcomes for pupils with special needs and to place a spotlight on the quality and efficiency of special educational needs support that is delivered in schools and by local authorities. The type of data is key. An avalanche of data is available, but it is clearly not providing what is needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) speakes on disability for the official Opposition, and so he speaks with a great deal of knowledge. He talked about the importance of information in driving up local standards. That was a good point, which we will need to consider when we
1 Feb 2008 : Column 599
look at the detail of the Bill in Committee. If we are trying to assist children and get the right support in classrooms, we need to ensure that those children are correctly supported in a way that will allow parents to understand what is available in schools and how they can get the best support for their children at a local level.

The Opposition will support the Bill, because it will help parents to make better choices for their children. Importantly, it will highlight the gap between what we talk about in Parliament and local authorities and the reality of what is delivered on the ground, which we all know about as constituency MPs. We need to use the data that are collected to ensure that resources are focused where they matter—in the classroom.

Unsurprisingly, the Bill has received a high level of support from many organisations. They have praised the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West for her campaigning work and for promoting the Bill. Dyslexia Action said:

The hon. Lady has also received support from the Joint Epilepsy Council, the RNID, the National Children’s Bureau, Xtraordinary People—a group that campaigns for dyslexic children—TreeHouse and many other groups. She is to be congratulated on the tremendous work that she has put into galvanising bodies to provide that amount of support.

To focus the Minister in his response, I should like to quote from the briefing that TreeHouse sent to Members before this debate:

It is surprising that those basic data are not in place, particularly as the Government have made many announcements over the past decade on special educational needs. Indeed, in the past 10 years, five out of six Secretaries of State for education have made significant announcements on special educational needs.

They are fine words indeed, but Members who have taken note of those announcements might be forgiven—I hope that the Minister will forgive me—for feeling that listening to and rereading those announcements is a little like “Groundhog Day”. In 1997, in the Government’s Green Paper “Excellence for all children”, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), pointed out the importance of early identification and said that by 2002 there would be a clear structure for teachers’ professional development in special educational needs.

The Labour party’s 2001 manifesto also mentioned, quite rightly, the importance of identifying children’s special educational needs earlier. In November 2001, the special educational needs code of practice was presented by the then right hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley, now Baroness Morris of
1 Feb 2008 : Column 600
Yardley. The code of practice again pointed out the importance of teacher training to meet SEN children’s specific learning needs.

By February 2004, in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) again said that all teachers needed to have skills, confidence and access to specialist advice where necessary in order to help children with special educational needs reach their potential, and that data and training needed to be improved.

In October 2006, the national programme for professional development under the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) reiterated the need for continuing professional development and mandatory training for special educational needs co-ordinators. Last but by no means least, in December last year the present Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families reiterated in “The Children’s Plan” the importance of specialist training, better data and, this time, consultation on regulations regarding the training of SENCOs.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend offers a formidable list of public commitments not yet fully honoured. I put it to her that the forces of inertia are always powerful. To translate aspiration into reality, constant and remorseless upward pressure is needed; perhaps we are starting to get some. Does she accept that one other problem of the system is simply that not enough is known about the outcomes that will flow from particular policies? There is too much preoccupation with making a commitment and putting in the funding, and not enough consideration of what realisable difference has been made.

Mrs. Miller: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has made my next point for me. The Minister will take my comments in the constructive spirit in which they are meant, but it is not a question of making pronouncements on the issue; it is about putting the procedures and processes in place to ensure that those important ideals are carried through into the classroom, and to secure the outcomes that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West seeks—data and positive reassurances that the policies are a success on the ground.

The Bill is a clear and straightforward document. It states that it wishes to secure

However, the type of data is key. An avalanche of data has already been collected but, as has been said, it does not help or inform us as much as we need. Several critical pieces of information that directly affect outcomes for pupils with special needs, could be collected and published, and would place a spotlight on exactly what the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West wants: better delivery for children in the classroom. I hope that the Under-Secretary will comment on that in his response.

I want to consider three matters, which I hope we can consider in Committee. The first was mentioned by
1 Feb 2008 : Column 601
my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser), who gave me a note to say that he has unfortunately had to leave the debate early because of a pressing constituency engagement to visit two schools, which have recently been awarded specialist school status. He sends his apologies for not being here. However, he mentioned the importance of giving teachers the skills to support children with special educational needs and of taking into account children’s very different learning needs. I therefore suggest to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West that we should ascertain whether there are ways of including in the Bill a provision for detailing the availability by school of data on teachers, classroom assistants or SENCOs who are trained to identify special educational needs early or, indeed, to teach children with special educational needs.

In 1997, the Green Paper “Excellence for all children” clearly stated that there should be a structure for teachers’ professional development in SEN. In 2004, the Government stated:

little wonder, given that one in five children have special educational needs. Yet when, in my research for the debate, I approached the Library, which is an oracle for information that the Government have made available, it could not find any official statistics on the number of trainee or qualified teachers who had received SEN training at any point in their career. However, there is a huge paper trail of teachers’ feelings about being ill equipped to meet the wide range of special educational needs that they face in the classroom.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) does excellent work in the Select Committee that he chairs. The then Select Committee on Education and Skills considered training in July 2006. Its report stated:

should be

The report continued:

It also stated that little progress had been made since 2004. Ofsted reiterated that point in July 2006. It commented on the importance of providing extra resources, emphasising that those resources need to be specialist teachers.

The hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) spoke with personal experience of the problems faced by teachers as a result of inadequate training and of the problems in getting SEN training as part of continuous professional development. She mentioned the resulting attrition rate among her teacher colleagues; a significant proportion of the people with whom she trained were lost. She said that the situation may have changed in respect of training and continuous professional
1 Feb 2008 : Column 602
development. However, although the Government have made very little assessment of that, just over a year ago the NUT undertook a comprehensive piece of research that suggests that what the hon. Lady hopes for is not going on in the classroom.

The report dealt with teachers from a range of schools throughout the country, the vast majority of whom—86 per cent.—had not undertaken specific professional development on severe learning difficulties. More than two thirds of teachers identified a lack of professional development as the greatest barrier to dealing with that group. Some 76 per cent. of the teachers had not undertaken specific professional development on even moderate learning difficulties in the previous 12 months, and about 70 per cent. identified that as a significant problem. Only a quarter of the teachers in the report had undertaken specific professional development on behavioural, emotional and social difficulties in the previous 12 months.

The situation is perhaps what hon. Members fear in some of the more specific areas: only a third of the teachers felt confident about teaching children with dyslexia and only 28 per cent. felt so about teaching children with visual impairment. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) will be concerned to hear that only 6 per cent. of teachers said that they had undertaken specific professional development on teaching children with sensory impairment. The list goes on. As the report is not currently available on the NUT website—for technical reasons, I believe—I will make copies of it available to hon. Members if they want them.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend has once again offered a powerful illustration of some of the endemic difficulties from which we suffer. The YouGov survey for the Communication Trust showed that 73 per cent. of teachers did not feel that they had received anything like adequate help for catering for children with speech, language and communication needs, and the NUT survey showed that only a third of respondents felt able to cater for the needs of such children. They are both revealing.

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that in its recent report, Ofsted said that communication standards were lower than expected. In addition to more training, perhaps we should grant Ofsted an ongoing role of assessment, as that might act as a discipline to lever up standards.

Mrs. Miller: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, which could apply whether Ofsted or another organisation was involved. The situation certainly needs to be closely monitored. Although at the moment the Government have good intentions on these issues, when it comes to the practical realities in the classrooms of our constituents’ children, those intentions are not being carried through. That causes enormous concern for all involved.

I reiterate my earlier point about the work done by Xtraordinary People, which campaigns tirelessly on behalf of dyslexic children. In the absence of further Government statistics, it did its own research in November 2007 among 1,000 parents. Three quarters of them said that their children were receiving support from people who were not trained in dealing with dyslexia or specific learning difficulties. Kate Griggs,
1 Feb 2008 : Column 603
the founder of the organisation, sums up the situation that many of my constituents, and perhaps those of other hon. Members, feel they face. She says:

Next Section Index Home Page