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21 July 2008 : Column 562
5.26 pm

Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and an honour to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who made a typically thoughtful and considered contribution. I am glad that time has been found for this excellent report to be discussed before we break for the summer recess.

I must begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on his report. It is the culmination of a great deal of work, and his expertise on these issues means that it should be treated as an authoritative framework for improving the outcomes of children with speech, language and communication needs—SLCN. As always, his speech was an oratorical tour de force which demonstrated not only a broad range of expertise on this topic, but also an ability to articulate the challenges facing children and parents in a way that commands attention and urges action from those listening. I had the hon. Gentleman’s support for my private Member’s Bill on special educational needs—SEN—and I am thrilled that it has now received Royal Assent. I know what a powerful advocate he is for those children who face a tougher start in life because of their own unique needs, and I would like to repay some of his support by stating that I will help in whatever way I can to ensure that the recommendations of this report become realities.

The five areas the report highlights are eminently sensible. I do not wish to make a lengthy contribution; instead, I shall look briefly at each of those five areas in turn, and highlight one or two recommendations that I believe stand out.

It is clear that more needs to be done to establish the fact that “communication is crucial”. There is something of an irony in that point. It is often said in this Chamber that it is the responsibility of those who have a voice to use it on behalf of those who do not. Although we all know that SLCN comes in many different guises and that it is often not directly linked to speech problems, I still think it worth expressing that well-used political mantra today, because to some degree that is what this report calls on the Government to do if we are to make further progress.

I know from personal experience how difficult things are for a child with SLCN, and the frustrations and hurdles that they must face. Many Members will know from previous debates that my son, Joseph, is severely dyslexic. He did not start to speak until he was three. His problems, and those we have faced in order to try to get his voice heard—as it were—are just one example among millions throughout the country, but they are the ones with which I am most familiar, so I ask Members to forgive me if I use his story as a reference point on occasion.

There is a strong case to be made, because it should be self-evident that without the ability to communicate clearly, the chances children and adults have to reach their full potential in life may be limited. The numbers of such adults and children are not insignificant; there are places in this country where more than 50 per cent. of pupils have some form of SLCN. More broadly, there are estimated to be more than 1 million children throughout the country with SLCN. That is why the recommendation to establish a communication council should be fully supported by the Government.

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I hope and expect that the opportunity that the report provides to do the things it recommends will not be missed. My attention was drawn to recommendations 5 and 7, which concern the provision of information. I am sure that hon. Members all know by now that I was lucky enough to be drawn second in the ballot for private Members’ Bills and that my personal experience drove me to draft a Bill designed to support children with SEN. In my discussions with parents, charities and educational organisations, it became strikingly clear that without available and accessible information the path of progress would always be far more long and winding than is necessary. The consensus on that opinion and the conviction with which it is held make those recommendations stand out as particular priorities. Parents cannot make informed decisions about the education of their children without information, so we have an obligation to provide it if we are serious about raising outcomes for children with SEN and SLCN. I hope that the recommendations on information will be swiftly carried out.

The case for early intervention is well established, and we know that investment in the early years of a child’s education will reap rewards further down the line. Of course, the most important benefactor of those rewards is the child, but it is always worth pointing out to those who fund support services that money laid out early in a child’s life can often be saved tenfold in later years. That is why I agree strongly with the charity TreeHouse, which says that there is a strong need for a cost-benefit analysis of effective interventions. I add my full support for each of the recommendations on early intervention. The remit of the Rose review has already been extended to look at the most effective ways of supporting children with dyslexia, and one hopes that there is no insurmountable reason why it could not be extended again to cover SLCN.

The development of a child is a joint responsibility of the family and the state, which is why it is so important to ensure that services are developed with the family in mind. Thus, I welcome the third section of the report, which also contains recommendations relating to the work force, all of which are sensible not only because of the impact they could have for children with SLCN, but because of the positive impact they could have on tackling the wider challenges facing teachers, who do not feel adequately prepared to identify and then support children with SEN.

I have raised previously in this House the fact that there is scope for increasing the content on both SLCN and SEN in initial teacher training. Recommendation 23 rightly states that the new masters in teaching and learning should almost certainly have a core module covering SLCN and wider SEN. That would provide a welcome sign that the potential that that masters offers for the ongoing professional development of teachers will not only be realised, but will be of vital benefit to all children.

So much of our success in working with children comes when people are willing to work together, with the best interests of the child at heart. I am sure that Ministers in the Department for Children, Schools and Families will work closely with those in the Department of Health to try to ensure that no child is allowed to slip through the net. It is key that parents and schools should also work together and communicate with each
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other as they both monitor the progress of all children, not just those with SLCN and SEN. I know that that is usually the case.

The last of the five areas into which the report is split focuses on ensuring consistency and equity for families. For too long, the provision for children with SLCN and other SEN has varied wildly depending on where in the country one lives. Joseph received speech and language therapy from when he was 18 months old when we were living in Gateshead. When he was seven, we moved to the London borough of Merton and that vital speech therapy came to an end, because Merton said that he did not need it as his speech fell within the “normal” range. We moved back to Gateshead, and Joseph was reassessed when he was 14 years old. Strangely, Gateshead’s authority said that it thought he would benefit from speech therapy. As a parent, it is hard for me to come to terms with the fact that, as a result of my work and my moving around the country, he has lost out on seven years of priceless speech therapy. As a policy maker, I am annoyed and frustrated that this patchwork quilt of provision exists, and I believe it is up to this House to bring that shameful reality to an end.

The wild variation in experiences, and the supporting figures, should not be perpetuated by a similar variation in provision and action. I was particularly pleased to note recommendation 39, which states that the Government should make available

Not only is educational attainment important; other factors are also significant, including emotional and physical well-being.

Clarification is required as to which groups the recommendations apply to. For example, one would assume that the report includes deaf and hard-of-hearing children, but that needs to be confirmed, and I hope that the Minister or the hon. Member for Buckingham will do so today.

The beauty of the report lies in the fact that many of its recommendations appear to be so blindingly obvious. Its strength is in the way that it pulls together the different strands that need attention and spells out a clear and coherent plan for dealing with them. Of course, a strong and persuasive argument can appear to have been obvious all along, but the reader of this report will be left in no doubt about what needs to be done, and that is thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s tireless work. His skill, intelligence and good-natured tenacity have ensured a first-class report, and I congratulate him again on his commitment. I promise him that I shall ensure that not only as many people as possible read this vital report, but that, more importantly, they act upon its recommendations as soon as possible.

5.36 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) has long been a champion of those who struggle to communicate and this report does him enormous personal credit. He is also groundbreaking in pushing the Government to be bolder in going for earlier intervention and adopting the policies of prevention.

I want to address my brief remarks to one specific section and that is young offenders, 7,000 of whom enter young offender institutions every year, two thirds
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of whom will reoffend at enormous cost to society. The key to getting them back on the straight and narrow, as it were, must lie in improving their literacy and social skills and their prospects of securing some employment in the future. We must be honest in recognising that these skills are not being picked up in schools, because far too many of these children are not engaged in the school process at all.

To be fair to the Government, they are investing in this area. Spending on education in young offender institutions has risen from about £18.5 million a year in 2001-02 to something approaching £63 million in 2006-07. But the question is whether we are getting results from that investment. Are we paying sufficient attention to the evidence from the research of Professor Karen Bryan and others that perhaps two thirds of the inhabitants of those young offender institutions cannot engage with the education process because they simply do not have the literacy and communication skills required? Are we wasting money and time? It feels as though it is time to think again, because on the one hand we have the huge cost to society of reoffending and the growing cost to the taxpayer of education in these institutions, set against the relatively small cost of earlier intervention in speech and language therapy to ensure that more of these young people can access these programmes. The research of Karen Bryan and others, dating back to 2001-02, shows that reoffending has reduced by 50 per cent. in those small pilots of children who have benefited from speech and language therapy. That is a big number, and it suggests that we need to build on that research.

We are getting warm words from the Government. There was a reference in response to this excellent report in the youth crime action plan, but the reality that has been brought out by other speakers is that the provision of speech and language therapy falls between Departments. There has been no systematic research on the impact of speech and language therapy on reoffending since 2005. I asked the Minister how many full-time therapists were working in the custodial estate and he did not know. I can tell him. He does not need to refer to the officials. It is one, and that is inadequate.

There appears to be some paralysis in the system because the Government tend to take the view that provision should be driven at a local level, and my political instincts lead me to have some sympathy with that view. It is a good theory, but the problem is that it is not working in practice.

Even if the Government cannot bring themselves to cut through the inertia and apathy by spending a tiny amount of money—speech and language therapy costs £33,000 a year across 17 institutions, so we are talking about a sum of less than £1 million that could make a difference—and to drive this from the centre, surely there is more that they can do in two key areas. As a bare minimum, we should be investing more in systematic research to improve our understanding of whether speech and language therapy can be deployed on a bigger scale in young offender institutions and in larger scale prisons.

We need a bigger scale study of the impact on reoffending of wider provision of speech and language therapy. We see no movement from the Government on that at all, just inertia.

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John Bercow: My hon. Friend poses legitimate challenges to Ministers. Does he not agree that if, at present, significant numbers of those communication impaired young offenders attend educational and training courses only in an entirely perfunctory and tick-box capacity and gain little or no benefit in the process, the Government should be willing, if not to increase overall resources, to top-slice the education budget in young offenders institutions and ensure that some of the money is used to good effect rather than to nil effect?

Mr. Hurd: That is an extremely helpful intervention and reinforces the point that I was trying to make. We are spending £63 million a year on those institutions—£8,000 per pupil—and the fundamental question is whether that money is being spent wisely or whether a fraction of it could be diverted to improve the efficiency of that spending.

At the very least, we should be investing in more systematic research and sending a much stronger signal to primary care trusts and the governors of these institutions about the need to identify and meet demand. It is difficult to add anything to the words of Lord Ramsbotham, a previous inspector of prisons, who said:

Those words were uttered some time ago; the Government have not responded. I have to say to the Minister that the apathy on his Benches is failing offenders, failing victims and failing taxpayers.

5.41 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): I welcome this debate, and salute my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). He has done a very good thing. Members of this legislature ought to be willing to think and act independently. Regardless of what colour rosettes members of the Executive might wear, elected MPs should be willing to look at public policy problems in the round.

Services for children with speech and language needs are not good enough. We have a real problem and I do not think that the status quo will do. With language therapy in particular, the provision does not seem to match the need. Unfortunately, I do not think that it is purely down to a lack of money. Generally, special educational needs provision is not good enough. The statementing process tends to be very confrontational and bureaucratic and, in my experience, quite discriminatory. It favours persistent parents and the articulate. In my experience, the hurdles that it creates trip up those who are most likely to stumble in the first place.

The report is worth while and I agree with what it says. However, I am slightly sceptical on one or two points, as I fear that too much of the report addresses symptoms. Symptoms need to be addressed and to be tackled, but more could be and needs to be done to tackle the causes. The cause of the problem is that the resources that will by definition always be finite—resources are always finite in any system—are being allocated more by bureaucratic fiat than by individual choices. Only those who are able to tackle the bureaucracy can exercise choice. Having advised more than two dozen parents in my constituency about how to tackle the system, I am aware of just how dreadful it can be.

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I want to talk briefly about what I mean by addressing symptoms rather than the fundamental cause—the malaise. The provision of better information and advice is obviously needed—it is a good thing and we want it—but, in any system, when the end user is denied information that usually suggests that the system itself is failing. The system lacks accountability. When poor information is symptomatic of a wider failing or when the end user from any walk of life is kept in the dark and denied information, that is usually indicative of a wider unresponsiveness—that, too, is the case with special educational needs services.

I wonder whether Google and the internet might not be better at providing information than any Government or state-run initiative. Informal networks of parents and self-help groups may already be forming and sharing advice on how to tackle the system. Rather than just providing information, we should be focusing on making the system more responsive.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham is right to recognise the unquestionable fact that there is a postcode lottery, but surely it exists because the system is unresponsive. There is a lottery because provision is unresponsive and comes from the centre. The service people receive is random because it depends on where they live—they cannot do much about it. If the system was more responsive and more tailor-made to the individual and the locality, we could solve the problem. That a postcode lottery exists is not an argument for more centralised target setting, but makes the case for making public services more responsive.

Similarly, I am slightly sceptical when the report calls for officials to help to spread best practice. What report nowadays does not recommend that? Obviously, we want what works to be replicated and to replace what does not work, but innovation does not necessarily come from official champions and from the top down. In the age of Google, the point is that systems should allow best practice to replicate itself. If we are serious about allowing what works to be replicated and adopted elsewhere, the key is to make the system more responsive.

I welcome the call for early action. In several of my constituency cases, months and even years have been allowed to elapse before the local education system responded. Young children have been badly let down. Had there been intervention, action and, as my hon. Friend said, identification at the age of two, three, four or five, rather than much later on, the life chances of those children would be much better. Lack of early intervention is yet again symptomatic of an unresponsive system.

I have one or two ideas about what a future Government should do to tackle the cause of the problem—the unresponsiveness of the system. First, there would be great merit in allowing certain special schools the freedom to become special schools with academy status, which would allow them to develop to meet special educational needs as they see fit.

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