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Simon Hughes: I am absolutely comfortable with that reply. That was also my assumption. The Government will have to respond and say what they think, and they will have to show a willingness to define those conditions.
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I simply want to put on record that the Bill depends on having a list of those conditions. That might not be so easy to achieve, as there are many very common conditions, and some very rare ones. One would have to find a way of writing such a list.

Since I have been in the House, there have been many debates about whether it is better to have special schools, mainstream schools with specialist provision, or mainstream schools that can take everyone, whatever their needs. We need to be careful not to imply that the only schools that should exist are mainstream schools. I have never taken that view, although some colleagues do. I know from visiting schools in my constituency that there are mainstream schools that have a fantastic ability to meet the special needs of their children, either specifically or generally. I can think of two examples. Snowfields primary school, near London bridge, has a unit for dealing with children with autism which is hugely valued and recommended. The other is a relatively modern primary school in Rotherhithe, Alfred Salter school, which I think the Minister visited recently. It is a really good, well-led school with provision for children with physical disabilities and the capacity to deal with children with hearing impairments, and so on. It was built, and works, as a school that caters for those needs.

There are also really good special schools. For them, the provisions in the Bill are already par for the course. Nothing needs to be added to their obligations. Again, there are two pre-eminently good examples in my constituency. Spa school is a Bermondsey school for children and young people with autism. It is a really great, friendly, successful, high-achieving school. Cherry Garden school deals with children with considerable physical and other educational needs. Happily, it is about to get a hugely well-earned new school building, for which the head has been waiting for a long time. My most moving moment at a school play was last Christmas at that school. Every pupil took part, no matter what their physical or other disability might be, yet it was absolutely the most moving experience.

There are some fantastically good schools, but the Bill is really about the others, like the school of which I am chair of the governors. It is a mainstream school, but it may also be attended by children with epilepsy, sickle cell, diabetes, a mental health problem or whatever.

Mr. Cunningham: Theoretically, a group of schools with different specialities could take a cluster approach by pooling their specialist provision.

Simon Hughes: Yes, of course that is right.

I am sure that the Minister will advocate caution, and that is also my position and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), who speaks for us on education. I am not seeking to block the Bill today; nor would my colleagues wish to do so. We are cautious, however, about whether the Bill as it stands represents the right way to go, and I want to set out our reasons for that.

Every primary school is already required to adopt a huge number of policies. The primary school of which I am chair of the governors has just reviewed all its policies, and one extremely experienced governor has kindly volunteered to rewrite them, so that none of
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them takes up more than two sides of paper—ideally, we want to get them down to one side—so that they are simple to read. There are a massive number of policies.

The hon. Member for Coventry, South will know from experience in his constituency, as I do from my own, that the legislation that this place passes has placed huge burdens on the governing bodies of schools, whether in relation to admissions policies, which we have just had to revise, or to others that we bring into force. Some provisions have a huge impact. Schools have rightly been challenged by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and they have sought to respond to it. We thus need to be careful not to embark on a policy that is burdensome rather than of benefit. We need to discover whether the objective could be achieved in a different way, by guidance rather than by a policy with an obligation. That is the question I have in mind, and I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response to it.

I come to the debate with some slight indirect pride because the St. James primary school in Bermondsey has just had its Ofsted report and been judged outstanding. I have no doubt that that is due to the leadership of the head, who was appointed a few years ago, and all her staff team, to whom I pay tribute. This is an absolutely fantastic small school with 210 places in Jamaica road near Bermondsey tube station. What being on the governing body of that school has taught me—I joined it on purpose so that I can never be accused of failing to have my feet on the ground, as it were, when it comes to how things work on the ground—is that every child really does matter. “Every Child Matters” is a Government phrase—originally Lord Laming’s initiative and it has rightly been implemented—and it is important to look at every child separately in respect of academic and social achievement. A good school should automatically seek to have a pastoral care regime and a social care regime for every child. It should be the responsibility of the school, because it takes the place of parents, to look after every single child.

The last question I pose—it is a rhetorical one—is whether all this is sufficient, as it were, and whether it is an obligation. It is also a question of whether Ofsted, when it inspects, should have to check whether what is in the Bill all actually happens. I have not done the necessary evidential research—not even into all the schools in Southwark, let alone around the whole country—to know what the Minister will have more access to than me, which is the extent to which all this is already good practice and already happening. We need an intelligent debate about what the evidence shows.

One thing I do know is that it is imperative that under the compulsory state schools system, any youngsters going to primary or secondary school with asthma, which can be very debilitating, or with a heart condition, which can make them much less alert and agile for long parts of the day, or with cancer or HIV, must be given the same dignity, respect, value and opportunity as everybody else. That is what the Bill is about. That is why I commend the Bill’s initiative; I will listen with interest to the Minister’s advice on whether this is the best way to achieve the objective that we share, or whether we need to find other ways in the minutes ahead. If the Bill goes to Committee, my colleagues will
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happily participate and work on the agenda that the hon. Member for Coventry, South and the 22 organisations have set us.

1.58 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on producing a Bill that is modest in size, but whose intention is far-ranging. There have been too many problems in our schools when it comes to dealing with children who suffer from certain types of conditions.

I am going to speak specifically about dyslexia and dyspraxia this morning, although they were not in the list that the hon. Gentleman set out in introducing the Bill. I fully appreciate, of course, that it was not an all-inclusive list and that there was no intention for the Bill to exclude children suffering from such conditions.

Mr. Jim Cunningham: I assure the hon. Gentleman and the organisation that he speaks for that there was certainly no deliberate attempt to exclude them in any way whatever.

Mr. Burns: I am grateful for that clarification.

Young people and children with dyslexia and, in particular, dyspraxia, face significant problems. In the latter case, far too many people lack understanding of the condition. I recall that 20 years ago, staggeringly, there were local education authorities that did not recognise or accept the condition of dyslexia. Consequently, no help was provided for children suffering from that condition and they were written off as troublemakers—children who could not be bothered to get into the work ethic and do their lessons. People did not appreciate that there was no lack of will to learn among those children. Because of their condition, they found learning extremely difficult, and because their condition was unrecognised, no help was provided. They became deeply frustrated, which could lead to behavioural problems or lack of interest in learning.

Writing those people off as troublemakers was unforgivable, but, fortunately, great strides have been made in the last 20 years. The condition is recognised and people fully appreciate that specialist help and attention have to be provided to such children to help them to get a fair and decent deal to enable them to learn like other children in their class and minimise any disruption that they might cause to those other children. However, there is still a problem with dyspraxia because of the lack of knowledge and understanding of the problem. I fear that too many children in our schools might, to varying degrees, be affected by dyspraxia where it goes unrecognised—which means that help cannot be provided—simply because of the lack of knowledge among too many teachers that it is a problem. That is why I particularly welcome the Bill providing for

With that training and the acquisition of skills, there would be greater opportunity for teaching staff to recognise and identify the problem, so children could be set in the right direction to seek the appropriate help, and schools and teachers, working with medical practitioners, could plan a proper scheme to help those children.

There is a problem, however. I do not know, and will not know until I hear the Minister’s speech, whether the Government want to give the Bill a fair wind so that it has the opportunity to be considered in Committee and
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possibly reach the statute book during this parliamentary year. I do not know what will happen, but if the Bill does not succeed during this Session, for whatever reason, I will make a plea to the Minister.

The intentions behind the Bill are admirable and necessary to improve upon an existing situation. We all, as constituency Members of Parliament, have experience of parents trying to get their children statemented so that their problems and needs can be identified and provided for. All constituency MPs experience during their parliamentary career the frustration of the time-consuming problems that can be involved in getting a statement in the first place. Once a statement has been prepared and a course of action and help identified, it can be difficult to ensure that that assistance is provided. That will continue even if the Bill, by some quirk, does not become law.

If the Bill does not become an Act of Parliament, I shall urge the Minister to ensure that her Department works determinedly and channels its efforts to improve the existing situation, drawing on a number of the attributes identified in the Bill to ensure that children who, medically and through no fault of their own, have a disadvantage in life that impacts on their ability to learn get a fairer and better deal so that they can compete with their peers in the classroom to get the finest education that this country can provide for its next generation.

2.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) on his success in the ballot and on introducing this Bill. I know that he feels passionately about this topic and that he is speaking on behalf of many young people with health needs and their parents. We are aware that the availability of good-quality support at school for children with long-term medical conditions is a major issue that needs to be addressed. I am grateful to him for introducing this Bill and for rightly highlighting the very real barriers that these children face. It is a tribute to his commitment that we are here debating this issue today.

We have heard from Members today many examples of schools that are not delivering the support that children need, and many Members raised particular instances in their constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) drew our attention to the very real difficulties faced by children with HIV. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush (Mr. Slaughter) spoke eloquently about a constituent of his with childhood cancer. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) told us about problems affecting children in his constituency with sickle cell anaemia, and the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) told us about difficulties in his constituency with children with dyslexia and dyspraxia.

We completely support the Bill’s underlying intention to improve support at school for children’s health needs. However, I have some concerns about whether having a legal duty on schools at this stage will actually deliver the best outcome for these children. We want schools to work together with us on this matter, and I hope to be
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able to explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South and to the House how I believe we can achieve the better outcomes we all want through other means, and to set out what we have done and will do. His Bill has given me the opportunity to do that.

We know that many schools are already providing very good support to pupils where it is needed. The hon. Members for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) gave examples of places they had visited and schools they knew about where that excellent support was being given. However, such examples of good practice are not uniform across the country, and where schools are not doing well, it can be for a range of reasons, such as lack of knowledge about such conditions, misconceptions or fear about what offering support would involve, lack of appropriate training, or concerns about possible litigation, as was mentioned. There may well be other barriers, and we need to find out what they are.

A legal requirement on schools to have a medical conditions policy now would be a bit like putting the cart before the horse: we need to understand the barriers before imposing such a duty. At this stage, it could be strongly resisted by schools and teachers as an additional and unreasonable burden. I do not want to force teaching or support staff to take on responsibility for administering medicines where they may not be qualified or confident to do so. I would rather work with schools to identify barriers and find ways to overcome them, and to bring them with us.

Mrs. Maria Miller: Does the Minister not think that one of the other, most notable barriers is the Government’s failure to deliver on their promises in respect of school nurses? We are, after all, still 1,000 school nurses short of the target that the Government themselves set.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: Of course we want to see more school nurses, but there has been a 38 per cent. increase in their number between 2004 and 2007. However, we recognise that we need to go further.

Although having a policy is important, it will not in itself guarantee better provision. The proof is in the implementation, and the way to improve provision is to identify the barriers that prevent schools from supporting these pupils, to share good practice, to increase awareness and to reassure schools about what is involved.

As has been mentioned, schools already have a statutory duty to promote the well-being of their pupils. Well-being is defined as the five Every Child Matters outcomes, one of which is being healthy and staying safe. We recently consulted on guidance on what this means in practice, and I want to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South and the House that we will ensure that the final guidance includes specific reference to the importance of schools considering the health requirements of their pupils, particularly those with long-term health conditions, as part of this duty.

On the provisions in the Bill regarding consulting parents and their children on individual health plans, we certainly agree and are addressing that issue in the child health strategy. The strategy sets out the plans for universal, targeted and specialist support across three life stages—early years and pregnancy, school-age children
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and young people—as well as the additional support for children and young people in need of acute or ongoing health care. It also sets out how the delivery system can be supported in implementing the recommendations, and in particular how the range of services in contact with children and young people can work better and with families to achieve common aims. A specific commitment is included to ensure that by 2010 all children with complex health needs have individual care plans to support co-ordinated care.

Published alongside the strategy is “Securing better health for children and young people through world class commissioning”—a guide that will support commissioners in delivering the vision set out in the strategy. Commissioning is key to providing local services and to accommodating the individual respective elements of individual care plans: one size cannot fit all.

That individualised approach, while working with the surrounding services, is central to how we perceive the future of schools. We are developing a White Paper that sets out our vision for the 21st century school, which will offer a genuinely personalised learning experience for all its pupils, including those with medical conditions. Our aim is that 21st century schools will inspire young people and engage parents, carers and the local community in the life of the school. They will work closely with other local children’s services to overcome the barriers to learning that pupils may face and to stretch and challenge the most able learners.

Our child health strategy encompasses the Government’s long-term vision of a 21st century children’s health service aimed at improving the health and well-being of all children, with a specific focus on children with disabilities. With schools, GP practices, hospitals, Sure Start children’s centres, the voluntary sector and Government all playing their part in support of families, we want to ensure that every child has a healthy start in life and a brighter future.

The Bill proposes placing a duty on NHS bodies to co-operate with school governing bodies. The concept of such co-operation is not new. Section 26 of the Health Act 1999 imposed a duty on NHS bodies to co-operate with each other, and section 22 of the National Health Service Act 1977 created a duty of co-operation between NHS bodies and local authorities, but of course that is just a general duty, where co-operation means sensible working together to ensure that the public are served to best effect.

We go further, as the hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned, in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which received its Third Reading in this House on Tuesday and is now on its way to the other place. That legislation will make schools a statutory relevant partner in their local children’s trust, with primary care trusts and others, and require them to work in partnership with other local agencies to improve children’s well-being. They will be represented on the children’s trust board and contribute to the preparation and monitoring of the local children and young people’s plan. All relevant partners of the children’s trust will be able to pool their budgets to commission or deliver more integrated and effective services, which better match the needs of each child, young person or family.

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