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If my hon. Friend asks me towards which form of provision the Bill leans, I shall be candid with him and say that it does not lean in any one particular direction.
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I am trying, perhaps inadequately, to take a holistic view of the situation by asking what is the overall problem, and how we can lever in appropriate policies, mechanisms of support, streams of funding and demonstrations of Government priority to secure improvements, in the hope that those improvements for the sector and all the children in it will come about over a period.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): As ever, the hon. Gentleman is making a powerful and passionate case, and as usual I find myself agreeing with him on almost every point.

While we are talking about statistics, can the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many of the 20 per cent. of children with special educational needs have a statement? Parents often come to me to discuss the challenges of obtaining a statement for their children. Further to that, when he conducted his inquiry, for which I know the Government were extremely grateful, did he find pockets of good or bad practice? Are there are areas of the country with higher and lower levels of SEN statements? What is his feeling about how statements are applied for and given across the country?

John Bercow: The answer to the hon. Lady, to whom I am grateful for her interest and her intervention, is that according to the current statistics approximately 3 per cent. of children have statements of special educational needs. I used the figure of 20 per cent. regarding who has such needs, so the bulk of the remainder is made up of children who are on either school action, which is a form of additional assistance for SEN children, or school action plus, which is a somewhat greater level of support. There are regional variations and county differences in the proportions of children with statements of SEN. It was not a principal focus of the inquiry that I undertook and I do not have statistics here today, but the hon. Lady will know that, on the whole, the Government are committed to a reduction in the incidence of statements, because they believe that it is important to usher in early support that will obviate the need for a statement. I confess that I think that having as an arbitrary target a reduction in the incidence of statements is not advisable, however, and I have had an honourable difference of opinion with the Government on that matter.

However, I think that, yes, there are differences and, if I may say so, there is some evidence—this goes back to my response to an earlier intervention—that educated, articulate middle-class people who lobby furiously for statements can enjoy fair success in obtaining them. On the other hand, there are some communities in the country where that culture of articulate agitation is either non-existent or very weakly established, and where, as a result, the incidence of statements is probably somewhat lower. The Minister may have a more authoritative survey of the issues with which she can favour the House, but I hope that that is an answer, at least in part, to what the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) asked me.

I turn to the specific provisions of my Bill. Clause 1 would impose on local authorities a new duty to ensure sufficient training and expertise in their area to cater to the needs of special educational needs children and
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those with disabilities. It would require an amendment to the Education Act 1996, and the background to the clause can be quite simply stated: there is a need for additional training, because at the moment there is often too little of it or, in some cases, nothing taking place at all.

I shall invoke two sources of support for that thesis. First, there is a National Union of Teachers survey, in which members of the body, in response to questioning, gave some candid and illuminating replies. Some 44 per cent. of NUT respondents said that they were “not confident” teaching children on the autistic spectrum, and no fewer than 76 per cent.—more than three quarters of the respondents to the survey—cited the absence or lack of continuing professional development as a barrier to being able effectively to cater to the needs and interests of those children.

Of course, if one were a cynic or just a hard taskmaster or taskmistress, one could very reasonably say, “Well, no person should be allowed to be judge in his own cause,” and that the simple fact that the NUT takes the view that it does, perhaps because it is lobbying for more training, money or courses, is not in itself conclusive. I accept that that view is not conclusive—although we should listen to it with respect—but let us add to the pot the fact that it was agreed with, and reinforced, in the seminal report of the then Select Committee on Education and Skills in 2006 under the distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). His report on the special educational needs system, involving a Labour-dominated Committee, concluded that teachers were “struggling” to deliver to the needs of those children in the absence of adequate training or skills. The report underlined the belief that it was simply not reasonable to expect a hard-pressed work force to deliver on that subject unless it got the necessary support. So, there is a need. In so far as training is concerned, I am not very insistent in clause 1 on a particular approach; it is not dirigiste or dogmatic. It says to the Government, “You can come forward with regulations to specify the nature and quantity of the training that should be delivered, but it is important that training be delivered.”

In the discussion on training, I start by focusing on the subject of special educational needs co-ordinators, because those people are absolutely fundamental to the delivery of an effective SEN policy within the school environment. Let us just retrace steps and be fair. The Government’s position has been set out with crystal clarity. Ministers have said, “Yes, we recognise that more needs to be done, so from September 2009 all special educational needs co-ordinators must be qualified teachers,” which, shockingly, is not the case at the moment. Moreover, Ministers have said, “All new special educational needs co-ordinators”—that is to say, those who have been in post for under one year—“must be the beneficiaries of training programmes accredited by a training and development agency.”

To those propositions, I and other supporters and promoters of the Bill give a hearty two cheers, but I want the Government’s policy to be one to which the response is three cheers. There is a relatively small but important difference between the Government’s position and mine. I say to the Government that of course all SENCOs must be qualified teachers, but all SENCOs should be able to practise as SENCOs only if they have
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received the accredited training that the Government promise they will deliver to all new SENCOs. Otherwise, the situation is pretty simple and straightforward to assess: there will be large numbers of SENCOs who are not new but, equally, have absolutely no immediate plans to retire; they might work in the sector with children for another five, 10, 15 or 20 years, but they will not have received the requisite training that is rightly deemed appropriate for new entrants to the profession.

Mary Creagh rose—

John Bercow: Just before I give way to the hon. Lady, I underline the point that my colleagues and I believe that such training should be provided to all SENCOs. Moreover, we believe that all SENCOs should be part of the senior management of a school, influencing the culture, shaping the policies and capable at a high level of representing the interests of some vulnerable, marginalised and potentially excluded children.

Mary Creagh rose—

John Bercow: I have a feeling that the hon. Lady is itching to make an intervention.

Mary Creagh: Again, I should be very interested to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s experiences throughout the country. One difficulty that I have come across, particularly in rural areas, is that to get the statement parents battle and battle— and in some cases and in some areas to which he has referred, teachers battle, too. There might be 30 pupils in a class including two with special educational needs, and the situation can be very hard. They get the statement, but then they cannot get the staff to provide the additional support. I have heard that from teachers—that the school is not recruiting. Is it a widespread problem throughout the country?

John Bercow: It certainly is. That is a kindly intervention, because the hon. Lady thereby immediately prompts me to move to the second part of clause 1.

Mr. Newmark: Will my hon. Friend give way? It is relevant to what he says.

John Bercow: I shall give way.

Mr. Newmark: I appreciate very much what my hon. Friend says about the importance of SENCOs, and there has to be leadership among senior members of staff. However, I am curious to know whether he thinks that such leadership should go one step further. Does he think that in every school, one school governor, at least, should take ownership of special needs as an important issue, rather than it being just a general matter for which the governors do not take responsibility?

John Bercow: I am sympathetic to that view, because I tend to take the view that something that is everybody’s responsibility ends up being nobody’s responsibility at all, so the idea of a designated person who is in pursuit of improvement is attractive to me. I was going to go on to—

Mr. Flello: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Bercow: Yes, okay. I give way once more to the hon. Gentleman.

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Mr. Flello: The hon. Gentleman is being extremely kind and generous. Before he moves on, I should point out that one of my concerns about the role of SENCOs is when a SENCO in a school has a heap of other responsibilities and duties. What is his view on that? Does he feel that it is right and proper that a SENCO should have a range of other duties in the school, or should they be able to commit their time and energies to developing the school’s special educational needs programmes?

John Bercow: I am unenthusiastic about a SENCO having a wide range of other responsibilities because it seems to me that the challenge on the SEN front is so immediate, so dramatic and so important that he or she should be able to get with that. For example, even if the SENCO will not be subject to a full-blown accredited training course, the Minister knows that I have said that an alternative approach would be actively to promote the inclusion development programme materials among SENCOs who do not get the full training course. If that SENCO is working on that, that is an additional responsibility, but it will play to his or her advantage in taking forward special educational needs provision in the school. The idea that we can have a hybrid, whereby somebody can have responsibility for SEN for a quarter of their time and that the other three quarters can be devoted to something else, seems to be a triumph of optimism over reality.

I said that I wanted a duty placed upon local authorities to publish a plan 12 months after the enactment of the legislation, setting out how educational support services in their areas are to be delivered. Let me underline what I mean by that. I am talking about critical educational support services, including educational psychology, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and speech and language therapy. I am a supporter of the Government’s quality standards for special educational needs support and outreach services—I know that that is a bit of a mouthful, but it is a key Government policy and it has merit. However, I am sorry that when, in the course of discussions with the Government, I have highlighted the fact that that provision is welcome but unfortunately not mandatory, Ministers have been disinclined to make those standards mandatory upon those who provide services for children or young people with special educational needs.

Will the Government look at ways of actively promoting those standards, describing them as best practice and incentivising areas to treat them as part and parcel of an authoritative approach to the issues? Even if they do not want to accept my clause 1 or—perish the thought—give my Bill a Second Reading today, Ministers might be able to say, “Yes, the hon. Gentleman’s got a good point about these specialist support services that are needed, and he’s right to draw attention to the quality standards and to call for their more vigorous promulgation. We will look to the children’s and young people’s plans as the appropriate route through which to take forward the commitment to the development and commissioning of the required quality work force to minister to children’s needs.”

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Believe me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there is a lot of cross-party support for the Bill, although I am sorry that more right hon. and hon. Members are not here. I can think of no more
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heartbreaking cases than those involving my constituents who are struggling to get proper support for children with autism, Asperger’s and other SEN—I think of Mrs. Debbie Kirby, who has fought so valiantly for her son, although I know that Rotherham council is doing its best. However, is not the problem that we have perhaps over-focused on delivering buildings in education—that is, on renovating them, building new ones and setting them up? I am proud of that achievement, but the next period in education must be about investing the money in people who can deal with the most vulnerable and weakest in our society, of whom children with SEN are the most important. I hope that this and any future Government will take that into consideration. However, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on this excellent speech and on his excellent Bill.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and what is more, I agree with him. It must be acknowledged—certainly by me in retrospect—that the state of the buildings was pretty appalling. There was widespread dilapidation, which was not conducive to the best learning atmosphere. I well understand why that was a priority, but we now have a serious gap to fill. We have to focus on the improvement of provision, which does not mean just in SEN and thinking, “Oh well, let’s lob people into special schools.” The improvement of provision does not mean just that or even mainly that; rather, it means trying, as far as possible, to deliver within an inclusive environment for the majority of children, who can learn, achieve, make friends and fulfil their potential in such an environment, as long as they are the beneficiaries of the appropriate support.

Such educational support strategies are needed because there is a problem. I refer to the Audit Commission report of 2008, which was based on its survey of schools, which found that one quarter of schools were dissatisfied either with the clarity of the local special educational needs strategy in their areas or with the clarity of the way in which SEN funds were deployed in their communities. That is a pretty significant level of objection. At the risk of anorakishly referring to my experience again—although one’s own experience naturally informs one’s thinking on a subject—I cannot help but recall that when I undertook my review of speech and language services, I concluded that the system across the country was characterised by what I described as

the shorthand translation of which is that we currently have a postcode lottery.

In their enthusiastic response to my report, the Government have set out the means by which they intend to tackle that postcode lottery. However, at present, as I learned from the National Autistic Society in undertaking my review, we have a shocking situation in which only 55 per cent. of children on the autistic spectrum, for whom speech and language therapy is stipulated in their statements of special educational needs, actually receive that speech and language therapy. In a sense, that goes back both to the intervention by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) and the helpful interjection by the hon. Member for Wakefield, when she talked about attempts to get support and statements in place, only then to find that the
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necessary professional expertise and person time required to cater to the needs of the children were simply not available. In a sense, that underlines the need for the educational support strategy.

The third feature of clause 1 is an attempt to improve teachers’ understanding and the children’s work force’s comprehension of special educational needs, more effectively thereby to be able to minister to children’s requirements. The Government could do a lot worse than to look back to “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, their special educational needs strategy of 2004. “Removing Barriers to Achievement” explicitly stated that every teacher should expect to teach children with special educational needs and would therefore require the training, skills and qualifications to do so. The truth of the matter, I am afraid, is that, all too often, that simply is not the case.

I referred a moment ago to an Audit Commission report, but let me say that, in the context of the problem of a deficit in teachers’ understanding of SEN, the public space is littered with a panoply of authoritative reports, which, independently of each other, reach much the same conclusion. I refer to a report by the Audit Commission from, I think, as long ago as 2002, to two reports by Ofsted, to the seminal report of the former Select Committee on Education and Skills, to which I referred earlier, and to the most recent, authoritative, well-received and expert report by Sir Alan Steer on behaviour. Each of those reports, independently of each other, concluded that understanding of SEN was inadequate, that there was a gap to be filled and that measures were required to do that.

I refer again to “Removing Barriers to Achievement”. In addition to trying to disseminate improved teacher training provision more widely at the primary and secondary levels, which the Minister envisages doing, let her reflect and then act upon the recommendation in “Removing Barriers to Achievement” that we adopt a tiered approach to the delivery of training. We should look at the work force in parts. There are those in the children’s work force who have contact with children, but who do not necessarily teach, who need a basic understanding of special educational needs and disability. There is a somewhat smaller proportion of people who require an in-depth knowledge of the issues and there is a smaller proportion still who should be expected to develop and acquire specialist expertise. All that is absolutely necessary if we are to make progress.

I turn now, the House will be relieved to know, to clause 2, which is on the subject of inspections. If we are to deliver a change, we need to amend the Education and Inspections Act 2006. It is my recommendation to the House that we should do so. What I am suggesting is that a specific duty should be placed upon Ofsted to consider the extent to which schools are meeting the needs of children with special educational needs and disability.

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