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There are also concerns that a survey found that a third of secondary schools in England are not ready for the new regulations on provision for SEN pupils that are due to come into effect from September of this year, whereby all SENCOs will need a formal teaching qualification and to receive additional training. I certainly support those measures, but the Association of School and College Leaders and other teaching groups have warned that many schools are not ready or already run alternative arrangements, which work well and will have to be dismantled. We need a degree of flexibility where there are already examples of best practice. That links to clause 1 of my hon. Friend’s Bill.

The Times Educational Supplement reported last month that thousands of SEN teachers are at risk of having their pay cut under proposals to overhaul allowances. Teachers who work predominately with SEN pupils qualify for an extra payment of more than £1,900 per annum, but the minimum allowance could be cut to £1,000 if the Government approve new recommendations. All these new regulations, all this new guidance and all the new legislation will not have an effect if we do not have the people in place at the sharp end who can deliver the services and support that we all agree these children need. We must make sure that the professional teaching staff are there, are on side and are signed up to the changes that we all want to see.

I want to finish by discussing some of the proposals that my party produced, with the help of Sir Robert Balchin, in the second report of the Commission on Special Needs in Education back in 2007. They are relevant to the Bill and, in fact, go further than it. In that report, we proposed root-and-branch reform of the system, from the assessment of children to the provision of services.

That returns me to the point on which my hon. Friend just challenged me. At the moment, local authorities are the assessors of a child’s need and are responsible for arranging provision for that need and for funding it. That treble responsibility has led local authorities gradually to reduce the number of statements issued, clearly so as to save money. Over the past 10 years, the number of children for whom a statement of SEN was made has changed. Back in 1997, the figure was 35,650, yet in 2006 the figure had reduced substantially—by a third—to some 22,600. The number of tribunals over that period went up sharply, by some 40 per cent., with a large number of parents winning their appeals to tribunals. The problem has not gone away. There are fewer statements, but there is clearly still a big problem. Parents are less satisfied with the support that they receive and therefore have to go to a tribunal to try to get a better deal for their children. As a result, the number of statements issued over the past 10 years has fallen by a third and there is greater dissatisfaction about whether children are getting the appropriate support that they need.

We think that there is a case for separating the powers of the local authority and handing the responsibility for assessment to independent professionals. One of our
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commission’s key recommendations was that statements should be replaced by special needs profiles drawn up by profile assessors, who will be educational psychologists and other such professionals. The profiles would be cumulative and subject to regular review, ensuring that continued assessment and provision could be as dynamic as the child’s needs, because, of course, situations change. A child does not have a static special educational need that requires the same support, or the same level of support, all the way through that child’s school career. In recognising that early intervention is crucial, the commission also urged that special needs profiles should be created as early in a child’s life as possible.

The profiles would allocate the child to one of a number of support categories, as is the case in the United States, Canada and much of Europe. Each level of support would then legally attract a certain amount of funding, which the pupil would carry to a mainstream or special school. Parents would be able to negotiate with any mainstream or special school for a place, irrespective of the local authority area in which they lived. To avoid the stress of tribunals, which I have already mentioned, we also want to see a special needs mediation scheme to try to establish the best approach for a child by agreement rather than by conflict, adversarialism and brinkmanship.

Another proposal was that special schools, under a rolling programme, should be given special academy status, providing considerable greater freedoms to develop as their professional requirements suggest and to expand pupil numbers. That follows on from the recent announcements on the inclusion of primary schools in the academy programme.

The whole new system that we have proposed will lead to inclusion where parents want it. In some areas, some types of inclusion have long proved a great success. Many children with sight and hearing impediments, for example, benefit enormously from integration, as we have already mentioned, as do children with physical disabilities. We should not skirt over the enormous social benefits to all children who have been taught alongside them. That is the sort of common-sense premise from which inclusion was first born.

The reasonable assumption is that those capable of participating in mainstream education should be able to do so, regardless of their disability. However, that moderate and sensible belief was hijacked in the late 1990s and skewed into a rather hard-line ideology. Baroness Warnock, whose 1978 report on special educational needs caused the enshrining of the policy of inclusion in the Education Act 1981, has herself recently denounced inclusion as having gone too far. She has recognised that it has condemned many children with highly complex and sensitive needs to an all too restrictive mainstream schooling.

We should also know that, across the board, parents’ confidence in mainstream education has wavered since 1997. As is well known, since then the number of children attending independent schools has risen by more than 11 per cent.—that was certainly the case before the recent effects of the recession. More and more parents have scrimped and saved to be able to afford school fees and to opt out of the state system. What is less well known is that 83 per cent. of that new intake have had special educational needs. That damning indictment shows how parents feel about SEN provision
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in too many maintained schools. We need to restore confidence in the system, and that means making it more precise and fairer, and honing it to the needs of parents and children.

Mary Creagh: What is the source of the statistic that 83 per cent. of the children who have gone to private schools in the past 12 years have had special educational needs? Where did that information come from—from the private schools or the parents? Who collected that information?

Tim Loughton: I cannot give the exact reference here, but I think that the hon. Lady will find it in the Bow Group report, “SEN: The Truth about Inclusion”, which was produced last year. A lot of interesting research data were collected as part of the report.

If we make more money follow the child, we put parents in the driving seat. However, doing so will achieve more than that: it will encourage other forms of inclusion. As appropriate funding accompanies a child’s needs, schools will be able to use the additional cash to develop specialist units on site. That means that in some lessons, children with particular needs can be taught with others who share the same difficulties, and in others they can muck in with the rest of their year group. Crucially, SEN children will be allowed to socialise together, particularly in break time and extended school time, and also to take part in the whole school community with other children. Such a system will work for some schools and some children. For others, however, special schools will always be a better option.

For children who feel stigmatised or withdrawn, a period in a special school may be necessary, just as it would be for children with severe difficulties. These are complex and personal issues, which is why parents must be in a position to make the decisions that they think right for their children. That means ensuring that special schools are there to be chosen. However, the trouble is that since 1997 more than 9,000 special school places have been lost, and with them has gone expert provision for children in great need.

In 2008, there were 174 fewer special schools than in 1997; one in seven special schools has been lost. That links directly to clause 3. Between 7 and 9 per cent. of all permanent exclusions from mainstream schools are given to pupils with a statement of special educational needs—pupils disproportionately represented in the pupil referral unit system. If more of those pupils had been given the option of going to special schools, more would undoubtedly have been given more appropriate provision. That would have meant that fewer would have been excluded in the first place.

We need to look at the issue flexibly; what is appropriate for each individual child is a matter of horses for courses. What we suggest does not mean that inclusion does not work, just that we need a system that is more responsive to the needs of children and their parents’ judgment. We want an education system that offers parents real choice to decide what is best for their children, and there should be an end to inclusion “come what may”, in favour of getting a balance. We need to think more smartly about exclusion. We need to make sure that we give back powers to heads and teachers to deal with genuinely disobedient, disruptive or violent children and that SEN children are given every opportunity
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to succeed, so that they do not become just another exclusion statistic, having failed at school because of the absence of the suitable and appropriate provision to which they are entitled.

In conclusion, I should say that at the moment the whole system is too cumbersome, bureaucratic and stressful—and often too costly, with the money going to the wrong targets. Parents coping with SEN children are already under a lot of pressure; they need help, advice and support, not barriers constantly being put in their way, wearing them down. They do not need to be made to go through lots of hoops or to be threatened with adversarial hearings. They should not have to fight all the way for what is rightfully for them and their children. As my hon. Friend said, too often it is the more articulate, middle-class parents who stand any chance of fending their way through this complicated and stressful system. In some parts of the country, there are examples of a much more user-friendly system working in certain schools and local authority areas, but in too many the reverse is true, and it is still far too much of a postcode lottery.

I hope that the Bill will be able to address some of these problems. First, we need better training of teachers so that they can identify the problem and intervene earlier, and carry more professional clout in securing the appropriate support and being part of the decision and policy-making process, as my hon. Friend mentioned. Secondly, we need to ensure that SEN provision is a standard component of Ofsted reports, in the same way that standards of teaching, examination results and the welfare of children in the care of schools are an integral part of Ofsted inspections. Thirdly, we need to tackle, as the Bill endeavours to do in an interesting way, the conveyor belt of raw exclusion, whereby children are simply excluded without proper regard to how they can be properly picked up on outside the school. That is no one’s interests, notwithstanding the fact that we need to ensure that teachers’ and heads’ authority and powers, which are being stripped away far too much, are given back to them.

The Bill puts forward some perfectly reasonable proposals in a not overly prescriptive way. As such, I hope that the Government will respond to it favourably and positively. I hope that there will be the opportunity to scrutinise its proposals in more detail in Committee, and on that basis I very much wish it well.

11.56 am

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) for his contribution to this excellent debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on her racy and intoxicating contribution. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made an excellent speech delivered with passion, knowledge and a commitment to do what is absolutely right and in the best interests of not only his own constituents but those of every Member of this House. I very much congratulate him on introducing the Bill.

It is also important to give credit to the Government, as indeed the hon. Member for Buckingham did, for the work that has gone on since 1997. There have been huge
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achievements and leaps forward on this and other matters relating to the best interests of our young people, whether it is the 3,000 Sure Start children’s centres, the additional teaching support or the extra money that is going into the school system. We need to give credit for what has happened so far, with a little bit of extra push, encouragement and gentle guidance to ensure that that work is built on for the future.

I pay tribute to North Staffordshire Asperger/Autism Association, which does fantastic work in and around Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire more widely, as well as in south Cheshire. It promotes and highlights the issue and supports, helps and works not only with people who are on the autistic spectrum but the carers, families and support groups around those people.

Before turning to the Bill, I want briefly to pick up on a couple of points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield. First, she raised the issue of reading to babies. I am delighted to know that, on a widespread basis, not only babies but unborn babies are being read to, as parents are being encouraged to read to the child in the womb. That sets the right standard for the future. If parents get into such habits from the earliest possible moment, that must be to the good.

Mary Creagh: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. Of course, as public speakers we all learn from the master of the Chamber—the hon. Member for Buckingham, who made such an eloquent speech.

On reading to babies, I am beginning to feel that I have failed completely in my duties as a mother in not having read to either of my children while they were in the womb. I hope that we can reassure prospective parents throughout the country that people have grown up perfectly well without that. However, if the research that is going on into child, baby and foetal development—it is cutting-edge, incredibly important stuff—shows that that is what should be happening, we need to be getting the message out there.

Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to Booktrust? After conducting research showing that a significant percentage of children grew up in a household that had fewer than three books, it has ensured through a programme of distributing books at 18 months, with check-ups at three and five years, that more children are growing up in a household that has at least six books.

Mr. Flello: I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. I did not wish to give the impression that parents must read to their unborn children, but that sets the right tone.

John Bercow: We are exploring an extremely important theme, as I am sure you would readily testify, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a man of enormous experience. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that since my children came out of their mother’s womb, I have not only frequently read to them but more frequently been accused of speechifying at them?

Mr. Flello: All I can say is that is that the hon. Gentleman’s children must be blessed to hear on a regular basis the words of wisdom that emerge from him. I am sure that they will grow to be well-developed young people through the experience that they gain from that.

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Tim Loughton: And I bet he doesn’t take interventions from them.

Mr. Flello: The hon. Gentleman suggests that they should intervene themselves; I am sure that they will soon learn to do so.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): While we are talking about recollections from the womb, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he is aware that Samuel Beckett once said that his earliest memory was from the womb, from a conversation when his mother went to a dinner party in Dublin? When asked what it was like, he said, “Oh, terribly bourgeois and boring.”

Mr. Flello: I think that I shall draw a curtain around this particular aspect of the debate, save to say, if I may make so bold, that I am sure an extremely good source of reading for both prenatal and postnatal children would be some of the excellent books that you have penned, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

To return to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield made, what concerns me about appointments is not only that they are often held during the day in the case of children who are identified as having special educational needs. We must also consider prenatal appointments, and we need to examine much more closely the availability of time slots both for parents whose children have special educational needs and for those who have yet to have their children. A working mother, for example, has to take time out of her working day to attend appointments, whether they are formal, part of a support network, or a way of engaging with their small children later on. There needs to be a much better look at how we structure appointments, so that they are held not for the benefit of the staff but for the benefit of service users.

My hon. Friend made very well an important point about violence. A case came to me, as a constituency MP, involving a parent of teenage child who had, in their earliest years, exhibited violent behaviour as a result of their special needs, which had never been formally picked up on and assessed. When the child was small it could be controlled, contained and dealt with, but as they got older and moved through the teenage years, there came the stage that my hon. Friend talked about. My constituent was effectively being beaten by an older teenage child. I understand that the response from the authorities, in the wider sense of the word, was, “Well, you’d better report it to the police.” That is not what we want. We need to ensure that parents, and especially the young person concerned, get help and support, rather than involve the criminal system. That seems completely against what we should be looking to do, which is encourage people to come forward and ask for help and support. Thankfully, that situation has been satisfactorily resolved, but it flags up an important issue about violence and what happens around it.

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