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Ofsted has to have a lead role here, because Ofsted is the overarching inspection body that oversees all the local school inspection reports that take place. I am not at all satisfied at the moment that schools across the country are meeting those needs. There is good practice and there are some outstanding examples, but there is very much a patchwork of provision and gross disparities between the experience, commitment and outcomes achieved in some areas relative to others. What I would
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say is that since the adoption of a light-touch approach to inspection, which has its merits, there has been an unfortunate consequence for the SEN sector. In essence, that unfortunate consequence is this: because we are talking in most mainstream schools about minorities of children with special educational needs or disability, it is not always easy for an inspector to spot the fact of those difficulties in a brief visit. It is often even more difficult to spot and recognise the significance of those difficulties if they are wholly or partially hidden. I say to the Minister and to right hon. and hon. Members that they will be able to testify to the truth of the statement I make—that in respect of, for example, speech, language and communication difficulties, very often part of the problem of trying to tackle them is that those difficulties do not immediately present themselves.

People with a disability such as the loss of a limb, people sitting in a wheelchair or deprived of the power or sight or a person who is a selective mute face extreme difficulties, but they can readily be identified; people with speech and language difficulties, however, often go years before their difficulties are identified. If there is only a minority of children, if the problems are hidden, if the inspection is short or, as is now often the case, undertaken by only one inspector who is either unqualified in special educational needs or distinctly inexperienced in their observation, I say that that does not bode well for the likely quality or even the scale of the commentary that the inspector will make in the inspection report on the subject of SEN.

I therefore wish to say to the Minister, to whom I had the pleasure of speaking on this and other points yesterday, “let us be fair”. Since I announced my Bill and had conversations with her and her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, I have been delighted to learn that the Secretary of State has written to Brian Lamb, who is undertaking the review of parental confidence in the SEN system, and asked him specifically to look at the question of the inspection framework, including the need to consider and report on whether either a legal or a regulatory change might be required in order to improve it or to suggest policy changes that he believes could deliver the same outcome.

That is welcome. My point to the Minister is that it would be even more welcome if, in her reply to me and other colleagues contributing to the debate, and without issuing any sort of blank cheque, which it would be unreasonable to expect of her, she were able nevertheless to say today that Ministers are minded to be heavily guided by the expert advice of Brian Lamb. It may be a legal change, it may be a regulatory change, it may be a policy change or it may be a capacity change that is required. I recognise that Eileen Visser and her colleagues at Ofsted are probably anxious about the implications of my proposed change not because they violently disagree with it intellectually or politically, but because they feel that there are resource constraints and limitations on their capacity that make it difficult to see how, with their existing staff complement, they can undertake inspections in a way that would satisfy the hon. Member for Buckingham. This hon. Member for Buckingham has absolutely no intention whatever of letting the matter drop and he will insist on it in every possible forum with relentless determination until he is satisfied that Ministers have taken on board the idea and responded effectively to it.

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Mr. Flello: I would certainly like to add to those words of the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that my hon. Friends will stand shoulder to shoulder with him on ensuring that this issue is not dropped. May I try to draw the hon. Gentleman a little further in expressing his opinion on these matters? Does he feel that when the Brian Lamb review is taken forward, a specialist SEN Ofsted should be undertaken, which might mean that instead of an inspector going into a school to carry out a normal or even a light-touch Ofsted inspection, a specialist SEN inspection is carried out from time to time whereby an inspector goes to a mainstream school solely to look at SEN provision?

John Bercow: The symbiotic relationship between the hon. Gentleman and me on these matters is becoming increasingly uncanny. He says “frightening” and I am inclined to say “frightening” too, and the Tory Whips who despaired of me a long time ago will probably find it equally frightening and alarming—it will add to their rather paranoid conspiracy theory of the world. The truth of the matter is that the hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. I am quite attracted by the idea.

My response is this: I do not really mind how it is done. If it is done by more staff carrying out the inspection on the same day as the rest of the school is inspected, if there are sufficient staff and a sufficient allocation of staff time—and expert time—to consider the SEN children on the same day, that is fine. If it is argued, however, that it is too difficult to do that, by all means let us have a separate and dedicated inspection.

My main gripe about the present arrangements is that all too often the inspection is by way of giving a cursory glance at SEN provision in the school. I know that Ofsted has a duty to report to the Secretary of State about its overall view on education, including about catering to the needs of SEN and disabled children, but it seems to me that that is going to be very broad-brush unless copious reports from the local level are available. Unfortunately, they are often not. Anyone who has studied Ofsted inspection reports and looked at their special educational needs’ features can testify that more often than not the references to SEN are few and far between. There is often, as I say, a cursory approach—a perfunctory, box-ticking, “let us get it out of the way” sort of reference to those issues, almost as an optional extra or periodic afterthought. Up with that, as Churchill would have said, parents and others are increasingly not willing to put—and they are quite right to be dissatisfied and to insist that we improve the arrangements.

That leads me to clause 3, which focuses on the subject of permanent exclusions of children with special educational needs and disability. I know that there has been a litany of statistics in this debate, but for the avoidance of doubt, let me say that there is only one statistic that needs to be underlined because it is at the kernel of this debate: children with SEN or disability are no fewer than nine times more likely to be permanently excluded from school.

What my clause 3 says—and it is a breathtakingly reasonable clause from a breathtakingly reasonable Member of the House, as I hope the Minister will be quick to acknowledge—is that no child with SEN or disability should be permanently excluded from school until a review has been undertaken of

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that have been made under the Disability Discrimination Act in order to seek to continue to accommodate that pupil in school. Moreover, the clause says that in respect specifically of an SEN as opposed to a disabled pupil, the exclusion should not take place until the review has been undertaken of the special educational needs provision that is being made for that child. That seems to me to be entirely justified.

Mr. Flello: I should like to pursue that point further. I feel that any child who has been permanently excluded should be examined to ascertain whether the underlying reason for that permanent exclusion is a special educational need that has not been picked up and properly dealt with in the past. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

John Bercow: I certainly agree. We know that all too often provision for SEN children tails off towards the end of primary school and descends into the dark abyss of nothingness at the start of secondary school. That does not always happen, and the Government are attempting to improve matters. As the Minister knows, my conclusion about speech and language was that resource was being front-loaded in the early years. I did not cavil at that, because it makes sense to intervene early, but I argued that that should not be to the exclusion or detriment of a necessary devotion of resource to children as they go through the later years of primary school and into secondary school.

The reality with which we must contend, however, is that there are large numbers of children getting to the end of primary school and going into secondary school whose need has still not been identified. That need, unaddressed, will cause a child to be anxious, stressed, depressed, unable to communicate, incapable of performing, disinclined to engage, and often inclined only to express his or her unspeakable frustration at what is judged to be bad behaviour and conduct that is undoubtedly, however inadvertent and blameless, disruptive.

In the field of special educational needs and disability, when talking about the behaviour agenda it is important not to conflate and confuse disability and disobedience, as I have regularly impressed on Ministers. I find it infuriating almost beyond endurance when some of the most low-grade, sub-standard, downmarket apologies for tabloid newspapers in this country, with their shrill, intolerant, bigoted political agendas, lambast people for behaving badly, and cruelly pick on children who might have done so but whose behaviour is occasioned and explained by either an undetected or unaddressed special educational need or disability. We must not get the two things confused.

I feel that the duty I propose is reasonable, but if the Minister does not like it, may I make another proposal? At the very least, the Government—who recognise in the national strategies that permanent exclusions are too high, and who want to reduce them—should challenge high-excluding authorities to explain why they are high-excluding, and to set out plans for reducing the incidence of those exclusions.

My other humble request of the Minister is that we get the guidance right. The guidance on exclusions has been revised a couple of times over the past two years, so a precedent has been set, and there is no earthly
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reason why we cannot tweak it again if necessary. I urge the Minister to comment today, and to follow up with further work, on strengthening the guidance on exclusions, so that it is manifestly clear and incapable of incomprehension. Schools must know what their duties are.

I have said nothing about fixed-term, unofficial or internal exclusions. However, those unofficial and internal exclusions that are taking place can almost certainly be regarded as illegal. When a school simply says to a pupil, “It would be better if you went home today in order to calm down,” it is shoving the issue away, abdicating responsibility and breaking the law in the process. Although there is not a completely comprehensive evidence base on the matter, the National Autistic Society, TreeHouse, the Special Educational Consortium and a number of organisations with which I deal almost daily, have large numbers of examples of such cases. We must move away from the idea of a permanent exclusion as a regular weapon and re-establish the proper notion that it is a mechanism of last resort to be applied if, and only if, all other potential and preferable avenues have been fully explored.

As the Minister will understand, my motivation in bringing forward the Bill is not an obsessive determination to see passed on to the statute book the Bercow Act. I entirely understand why right hon. and hon. Members who have never served as Ministers, and perhaps entertain no hope or prospect of doing so, might think it a satisfactory consolation prize to wave in front of their grandchildren in their dotage a statute which their efforts have managed to achieve. I could not give a flying flamingo about having a piece of legislation to my name on the statute book. My sole but passionate concern is to bring about an improvement in the quality of life for some of society’s most vulnerable, marginalised and excluded children, who can succeed with support but cannot without it.

The proposals I recommend in my three-clause Bill are right on three fronts. They are right in the name of decency and fairness to vulnerable, marginalised and potentially excluded children. They are right for the generality of children in the education system, with whom SEN children can interact to good effect if adequate provision is made for them, so they can be right in the name of educational and social togetherness. Above all, the measures I commend are right for the effective pursuit of the national interest of UK plc in an age in which a job for life is a relic of the past and the premium placed on knowledge, skills, qualifications and the ability to communicate is greater than it has ever been.

My Bill is relevant to the educational qualifications agenda, the acquisition of skills agenda, the fight against antisocial behaviour agenda, the public health agenda and the agenda of minimising the costs to our criminal justice system caused by people who languish on the scrapheap because a serious educational need or disability was not addressed, and they went off the rails, felt abandoned by society and took a damaging course as a consequence. We want to avoid all those undesirable consequences. We want to cater to everybody’s needs, maximise potential, tackle social exclusion, and facilitate the extension of opportunity that is right for both social justice and the economic efficiency of the country.

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On that basis, I commend my Bill to the House, and look forward with eager anticipation to the contributions that might be made by other right hon. and hon. Members, and above all, to the Minister’s reply on behalf of the Government.

10.38 am

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): May I say what a pleasure it is to speak after the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on this incredibly important subject? If I may, I will take the House on the journey from childhood to adulthood of children with special educational needs, and say why I think the Bill is so incredibly important.

While listening to the hon. Gentleman present his Bill, I was interested to hear things that I did not know about our Government’s policy. Obviously, I have not followed such issues as closely as he has. I am concerned about the target to reduce statements of special educational needs, which is perhaps a mistaken policy, for the following reasons.

Twenty years ago, premature babies born at 24, 26 and 28 weeks would not have survived the first six weeks of their lives. With improvements in medical technology, such children are now increasingly making it through the early years and into adulthood, and in many cases leading long and happy lives. However, we also know that many of those children will have single or multiple physical or learning disabilities. At a time when we are seeing an increase in the number of children born with such disabilities—children who in the past would not have made it from babyhood to childhood, let alone adulthood—the Government seem to be going against the trend, mistakenly in my view.

It is also the case that more older women are giving birth, more births are taking place by caesarean section, and more births involve the use of instruments. All those factors present a risk to the child. I do not think that people fully understand what happens when a child is born in difficult circumstances. It often does not become clear until much later in the child’s life. We are only at the beginning of finding out about the impact of bad treatment of children in the earliest stages of their lives on the way in which their neurological systems do or do not develop, and on the networks that are created in their brains.

We are seeing an increase in binge drinking not just among young people generally but, in particular, among young women. Another group of at-risk mothers are those who do not realise that they are pregnant, turn up at the hospital believing that they have appendicitis, and then discover that they are having a baby. I have met one such mother. These women do not alter their social behaviour as women tend to when they know that a baby is on the way, and are not able to take care of the child while it is in the womb. We are seeing an increase in the number of cases of foetal alcohol syndrome, which, in extreme cases, damages children’s facial characteristics. It may also be very difficult to spot that a child is carrying a learning disability alongside the physical damage that it suffered in utero.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): What the hon. Lady is saying is very interesting. I recently visited a home for foetal alcohol-damaged children
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in Copenhagen, and I think that the condition could well be responsible for many more disabilities than has been acknowledged—some of which may have been attributed to autism, which displays similar characteristics. I feel that it merits a great deal more investigation.

Mary Creagh: I agree that we are dealing with a massive hidden problem. It is, in fact, the problem of maternal shame. We all want to do the best we can for our children. We all love our children. The possibility that something we did during pregnancy may have damaged our beautiful child, either at birth or at a later stage, is not something that most mothers—and fathers—I know would willingly contemplate.

I have dealt with the nature and scale of the birth-related problems. Let me now turn to the business of tracking a child’s subsequent development. There has been a huge increase in the number of children’s centres that can work sensitively and supportively with mother and baby in terms of early diagnosis and intervention. It is not a case of a child’s arriving at school at the age of five and there being “something wrong” with it, so that the situation becomes school versus mother. It is a case of a health visitor’s saying “Hmm. He is not sitting up quite as early as he should be”—or not walking, speaking or listening as early as he should be—and working with parents to help them to understand the nature of the damage that may have been caused.

Many people who are active in the foetal alcohol syndrome charity are adoptive parents. In the most extreme cases, the natural parents are alcoholics, their alcoholism has continued, and their children will go into care. It is the adoptive parents who are the champions and campaigners, and I fully understand the reasons for that.

Last week I visited a Sure Start centre in Lupset crescent on the Lupset estate. As the mother of a 19-month-old baby, I found myself becoming incredibly broody. I do not know why, but I think that it may be something to do with the smell of babies’ skin. I sat in a room with 20 fantastically beautiful babies, all under the age of one, with their mothers and fathers. It is a tribute to the staff at the centre that they have made fathers feel so welcome. I know that that is a hugely difficult thing to do. Looking after babies, playing with babies and reading to babies is related to what is still physiologically a maternal duty. Clearly, with the best will in the world, a partner cannot become involved in breastfeeding. However, the dads were in that room, playing with their children and discussing the adaptations that they had made to their homes to make them safer.

Sure Start centres are places where people can learn, in structured, flexible ways, about child safety and development, and benefit from the support of trained professionals who will ensure that any problems affecting their babies are picked up as early as possible.

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