16 May 2008 : Column 1649

House of Commons

Friday 16 May 2008

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I beg to move, That the House do sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (Motions to sit in private):—

The House divided: Ayes 0, Noes 30.
Division No. 190]
[9.33 am


Tellers for the Ayes:

Annette Brooke and
David Howarth

Baron, Mr. John
Bercow, John
Berry, Roger
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Bottomley, Peter
Brennan, Kevin
Burden, Richard
Byrne, Mr. Liam
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Harris, Dr. Evan
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Hopkins, Kelvin
Keen, Ann
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Munn, Meg
Pritchard, Mark
Randall, Mr. John
Shaw, Jonathan
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Ussher, Kitty
Williams, Mark
Wright, Mr. Iain
Tellers for the Noes:

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson and
Mr. Sadiq Khan
Question accordingly negatived.

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided.

16 May 2008 : Column 1650

Orders of the Day

Special Educational Needs (Information) Bill

Not amended in the Public Bill Committee, to be considered.

New Clause 1

Information on school provision

‘(1) Section 332A of the Education Act 1996 (c. 56) is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection (1) insert—

“(1A) Information provided under subsection (1) shall include information on all types of school provision available in any local education authority area which the authority determines is relevant to them.”

(3) At the end of subsection (3) insert “which shall include the annual publication of information provided under subsection (1).”’.— [Annette Brooke.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.45 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 9, at end insert—

‘(1A) For the purpose of subsection (1) the information shall include (but not be limited to)—

(a) the amount of special educational needs training received by teaching staff and classroom assistants as part of their initial training,

(b) the amount of special educational needs training received by teaching staff and classroom assistants as part of professional development training.’.

No. 1, page 1, line 22, leave out from ‘and’ to ‘assist’ in line 1 on page 2 and insert ‘a report on how this may’.

Annette Brooke: In Committee, I indicated that I wanted to return to the issue of information provided to parents by local authorities. In Committee, the Minister pointed to an existing duty on local authorities to provide information on their arrangements for special educational needs, including information on planning and reviewing special needs provision in their areas. He noted in relation to parent partnership services that the Department had issued exemplary guidance setting out minimum good practice and best practice for the provision of information, and he referred to the new duties under the Childcare Act 2006.

I remain greatly concerned that although parents can access impartial information in theory, that is not necessarily the case across the whole country. Some research has come my way since the Bill was in Committee that underlines my feelings and the experience of my constituents. A survey by CentreForum of one third of all local authorities in England and Wales found that only 5 per cent. are meeting their legal duty to provide information about special educational needs provision.

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In 2001, the Government introduced a legal requirement on councils to publish information on their websites describing local special educational needs policies—obviously, the provision of information is vital for helping parents to negotiate a complex system. It has been suggested that local authorities are manifestly failing to provide the information required by law. Overall, just 5 per cent. of local authorities provided all the information that they are supposed to publish, while only 27 per cent. gave information about the funding available to support children in the school action and school action plus categories.

The finding in the report that only 39 per cent. of authorities explain how they monitor the allocation and effectiveness of special educational needs spending and resource deployment is especially concerning. Lucy Wilkins, the report’s author, has said that the last time local authorities were surveyed in 2003, only 5 per cent. were publishing all the information that they are required to publish. Five years later, still only 5 per cent. are in full compliance with the law.

That underlines the difficulties faced by parents in trying to access support for children with learning difficulties. From our constituency experience, we know how parents feel when they are not confident that they have information on all the options available to their children, and they have great difficulty in making and accessing the best choice. The report highlights the concerns that, while we are very happy with the general principles of the Bill, previous legislation required information to be published, but, according to that recent study, that information is not being provided. After all, parents, not politicians, are best placed to decide where and how their child should be educated, but how can parents access choice if they are not given the information that they need? I feel that it is important to introduce tough regulations, possibly in the Bill, to make it clear that information must be provided to parents.

Personally, I am strongly in favour of the recommendation made by the Children, Schools and Families Committee in its first report in 2006 on special educational needs. It recommended local maps of provision. I understand that local authorities that already adopt a mapping approach report a marked improvement in practice and in parental confidence levels. For example, a senior officer at Wiltshire county council said that the detailing of the precise provision that parents can expect, depending on their child’s needs, has helped make the system fairer and improved the quality of provision. Other local authorities report that the particular practice of mapping not only where the provision is but its exact details is very helpful and builds on the work of the pupil-parent partnerships.

Following our Committee report, I should make it clear that when I pointed out that there were issues with pupil-parent partnerships, I was not criticising a particular one. However, there is a perception among the parents whom I meet here in the House of Commons and in my constituency, which has two children’s services authorities, that pupil-parent partnerships are not independent. That is another issue that the Government need to consider.

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Overall, despite the legislation, there is a real information gap. One of the most important points is that parents of children with special educational needs should be empowered. However, they cannot be empowered unless they have the necessary information in front of them. I would like to be reconsidered the new clause, which we tabled in Committee because I feel that there should be a lot more discussion and response and that the Department should be working to ensure that local authorities meet their existing commitments before we move towards more vague promises about more information.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) and I tabled amendment No. 1, after listening carefully to the discussion in Committee. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) tabled an amendment requiring an annual report. I felt that there was a lot of merit in that proposal, although perhaps it was too precise in requiring an annual debate. I thought about the issue and suggest that subsection (1) of new section 332D, which is entitled “Publication of information”, should read, “The Secretary of State must in each calendar year publish, or arrange to be published, special needs information that has been obtained under this Act and a report on how this may assist the Secretary of State or other persons in improving the well-being of children in England with special educational needs.”

In other words, the report should be widely available and should not contain only select information, which would mean that we did not know why the Secretary of State had decided that children’s well-being would be improved. The amendment would provide some back-up for what is published. A debate following such a move would give clear indications for future policy and the improvement of future provision. If the amendment is not agreed, I fear that we will just have a mass of information without an underlying set of purposes and without more detail than just “improving the well-being” of the child. It is easy to justify any amount of information in general terms, as important as that is. My amendment would give something much more specific and make sure that the focus was continually on improving the outcomes for children with special educational needs.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Kevin Brennan): The hon. Lady said that she was not making any particular criticisms, but I remind her that in Committee she said:

Was she referring specifically to Poole at that point?

Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for his intervention. He may be aware that my constituency has a number of councils—every type of council—within it. As I said earlier, it has two children’s services authorities so I could not put my hand on my heart and say from which authority I have had the most such representations.
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However, I should like to confirm that I am saying that there is a perception that the partnerships are not independent. As long as parents do not have confidence, there will be the issue of their seeking advice.

I also tell the Minister, and my local authorities, that when the parent of a child with special educational needs comes to my surgery, the first thing that I say to them is, “Have you been to the pupil-parent partnership?” As I said, I was so excited when they were set up, and that was always my first question. Perhaps that is why I have had the responses. However, I ask the question not to elicit a response of no confidence but to make sure that the parents are accessing every piece of information available locally.

I take this opportunity to make it absolutely clear that I am not undermining the specific work of pupil-parent partnerships, which are incredibly important. However, there is an issue about parents not having confidence. A lot of what we are talking about today, and have talked about in previous debates on the Bill, is to do with building up parents’ confidence.

I understand that the Government have commissioned Brian Lamb to consider ways of building up parental confidence. I feel that we are all like-minded on the issue, and I am happy to point out that what I hear from constituents and others is that they are not convinced that the partnerships are independent. One therefore needs to consider how to improve the situation. To backtrack on to my new clause, I should say that I want to enforce the motivation behind new clause 1—that is, genuinely to make available as much objective information as possible, to say what is there and to provide a full audit of what is available in a particular area.

I end my comments on amendment No. 1 by saying that I had a great deal of sympathy with the idea of having an annual report that drew things together. I recall suggesting that if we had such a report, the Children, Schools and Families Committee could consider it as part of its remit, for example. The Minister was most encouraging and said that he would consider that idea. In due course, I hope to hear what consideration he has given to that point.

Finally, I turn to amendment No. 2, which requires information on teacher training to be supplied. I want to emphasise how much I support the principle of checking exactly what progress we are making on teacher training for special educational needs.

That, of course, means a whole school approach. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and I tabled an amendment in Committee and felt that we had had a good discussion on the issue, so I thought that on Report we would probably just go through the details. This is a core issue—it is all about the quality of the teaching in the school setting.

10 am

We are aware that, very belatedly, action is being taken to put more special educational needs content into the four-year undergraduate courses for teacher training, but 80 per cent. of teachers still come through on a post-graduate certificate course. I am not sure whether that involves special educational needs training. There is also a course with training that takes place within schools—school-centred initial teacher training, or SCIIT—as well as Teach First. Teachers come through via many different routes. Although it is welcome that
16 May 2008 : Column 1654
at long last there are movements to work with the Training and Development Agency for Schools, it is a question of timing. The Government have moved to a policy of inclusion, rapidly at times, from 1997 onwards, but here we are in 2008 talking about the deficiency in teacher training. That must be tackled as soon as possible.

The NUT study, “Costs of Inclusion”, suggests that fewer than 14 per cent. of teachers are confident that they can recognise dyslexia and shows that teachers lack confidence across the board. It found that only 18 per cent. of teachers were confident in teaching children with severe learning difficulties, and the vast majority—86 per cent.—had not received specific professional development in that respect. A majority— 55 per cent.—felt confident in teaching children with moderate learning difficulties, but 76 per cent. had not received special professional development in the past 12 months. So it goes on. Much remains to be done on teacher training, as well as on postgraduate qualifications and on continuous professional development.

A few weeks ago, a written statement on dyslexia announced the set up of some pilot schemes. That is welcome, but I agree with Xtraordinary People—we need action now. While it sounds like a good idea to have pilots, are we not just pushing the solutions into the future? There is a lot of evidence to show that when there is a specialist dyslexia teacher in a school, the outcomes are very good. Xtraordinary People tells me that the vast majority of independent schools have that provision. The Government aspire to equality across the spectrum of education provision, so, given the importance of such specialist teaching, should we not be moving faster than piloting?

Kevin Brennan: I understand what the hon. Lady is saying, but does she welcome the fact that when the Secretary of State came to the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia on 6 May he announced that Sir Jim Rose would be looking into teaching children with dyslexia in the way described, and that it is right to proceed on the basis of evidence with any policy in which resources will eventually be invested nationally?

Annette Brooke: I thank the Minister for his intervention. I hope that I said that the statement was welcome; I attended the all-party group and listened to the Secretary of State. Indeed, it is step by step, but I can understand that people who have children with dyslexia are beginning to get impatient, and it is up to us, as the people discussing this Bill, to convey that impatience to the Government.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Back in 2004, in the policy document, “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, which was launched by the then Secretary of State, the Government said that they were already conducting ongoing research into effective teaching practices to support children with special educational needs, yet some four years on we still do not have any information to enable the Government to roll out such schemes nationally. Is that part of the reason for the hon. Lady’s continuing concern?

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Lady—she is right. When I say that parents and others are impatient, I am suggesting that they have every reason to be so, and that the feeling is that we should surely just get on and invest the money.

16 May 2008 : Column 1655

There are many special educational needs. Much attention is focused on dyslexia, which is important because it has been identified that perhaps one in five pupils are dyslexic. Children with dyslexia are underperforming greatly in all the key stage tests, which has wider implications for their potential and what might happen to them in wider society.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Reports in this morning’s newspapers suggest that failure to deal with dyslexia has cost the economy about £1.8 billion, so there are economic factors too.

Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman. The report by Xtraordinary People points out that there are hard costs to society from this underperformance. Many young people in prison have dyslexia. That does not mean that all dyslexic children go on to offend, but there is clearly some connection. In all sorts of social ways, children, and then young people, are missing out and causing, in one way or another, extra burdens on society. When we see the costs imposed on society by failing to address the issue early enough, we realise that the amount of money that needs to be spent on teacher training and employing specialist teachers is very small in relation to those wider costs.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a telling point. Is she aware that the very successful Dore programme that was being conducted in Stafford prison was discontinued at the behest of the Government? I cannot understand why that happened—can she?

Annette Brooke rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hoped that the hon. Gentleman’s remarks were going to relate to new clause 1. Perhaps the hon. Lady will bear that in mind.

Annette Brooke: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Interventions are important at all levels, but the purpose of the Bill is to intervene at a very early stage so as to prevent subsequent costs. I have mentioned the impact on society, but most important is the impact on the individual who is, in one way and another, unable to fulfil their potential. Training is of vital importance.

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