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The target to reduce the number of statements has been mentioned several times today, but therein lies very dangerous ground, because, sadly, many local authorities throughout the country are already reluctant to investigate the route of statementing. If there were something behind which they could hide and say, “Well, it is a Government target that we do not have as many statements,” I suspect and fear that some of the less
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progressive and less well-meaning authorities would use it as a fig leaf to mask their inaction and the great difficulty that some parents have in entering the statementing process itself. My local authority in Stoke-on-Trent has a good record on the time that it takes to process a statement, but I am yet to be convinced that it even scratches the surface in respect of those young people who need to be statemented.

I shall now deal with the issue of stigma. I have had many experiences, with constituents and in previous occupations, of the positive and negative impacts of stigma. For example, when I was a councillor in the city of Birmingham, I was also on the governing body of a primary school, and we had an application for a child with a sight impairment. He wanted to go to the school and his parents were very keen for him to go, but because of his sight problems, involving difficulties in very bright light and with finding his way around, there was a concern on the governing body about whether the school would be able to cater for him. We successfully made sure that the school would be able to accommodate and welcome that young person, however, and the school benefited hugely from the experience.

That young person entered a school with a warm and wonderful atmosphere. It was, and I believe still is, a very good school, and the interaction of the other pupils with that visually impaired pupil was superb. They learned so much and became more understanding and accommodating of somebody whose life experiences were outwith their own; and the adaptations and amendments that were required were straightforward and simple. A little bit of drive and forethought enabled the school to become accessible to someone with a visual impairment, and that is brilliant.

More recently, I visited a primary school in my constituency—I am blessed with some absolutely excellent primary schools throughout my constituency—that has a pupil with Down’s syndrome. I have known her through her family for a year or two, and she is a wonderful pupil. When I visited, a cooking session was taking place, and some pupils had been taken to it. Each week, there is great competition to be picked to take part in that Friday lunchtime session, and as I walked down the corridor, I saw that the pupils were in a small kitchen making cakes. That was of great interest to me, given my sylph-like figure. The children were resplendent in chefs hats and outfits, we spoke, the head teacher showed me around, we talked with staff and, as we left and started to walk down to the next class to continue our tour of the school, the young lady in question, Nadia, who I am sure will forgive me for mentioning her name, emerged into the corridor. She had been learning French, and with a swoop of her arm—a gesture—she said, “Bonjour!” For me, that typifies both the properly supported integration of children with special educational needs, which is what we should be driving for, and how we should aim to ensure not only that every child matters, but that every disabled child matters, so that everybody is given the opportunity to grow their unique talents.

As I mentioned, children without statements have even greater challenges than children who have been statemented. From what I have seen in the primary schools in my constituency and from my previous experience, I am concerned about some children who have not been statemented or not been through the
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system of identifying what extra support and resources they need. Often, such children are quite rightly given support, but in a school environment where the head teacher, the senior management or perhaps even the class teacher have recognised the need for additional support, sometimes it falls to a worker in that school—be it a teacher or a welfare assistant—to support additional children who perhaps have additional needs.

That misses the point. It is right that those children should have that support, but it should be given properly and in a way that ensures that their needs are properly assessed. Perhaps I can bring to my hon. Friend the Minister’s attention the need for a piece of work to be done whereby schools can be audited to find out how many of their children receive informal additional support, but have not been statemented. That might give us a much more accurate figure than the one that the hon. Member for Buckingham talked about at the start of his speech.

Clause 1(2) states:

We also need to ensure not only that teaching and non-teaching staff have the additional training and expertise to provide education for pupils with SEN, but that they have the ability to recognise pupils with SEN. All too often, the stereotypical view of a teacher in a primary school is of someone in a classroom with perhaps 30 demanding, curious and questioning pupils. With the best will in the world, unless that teacher or other members of staff, be they teaching or non-teaching staff, have the training to spot things and say, “That pupil responded in an interesting way in that lesson—we should find out whether there is something that we should identify” or “That pupil there seems to be constantly withdrawn and seems never to want to engage,” there will be another hurdle in giving our young people the additional support that they need.

Not only should we ensure that staff—not just teaching staff, but non-teaching staff—have sufficient training and expertise to provide an appropriate education; we should ensure that they have the training to recognise when a pupil is demonstrating signs of special educational need. The other issue is ensuring that our schools up and down the country have enough trained staff—enough welfare assistants and teaching staff—to provide the proper level of education, whether it be formal education in a classroom setting or even just education in basic life skills and engaging in positive play in the playground.

That reminds me that one key group of staff in many schools is the dinner supervision staff, whether they are on the catering side or working in support of it. When children are out playing at lunchtime, often the lunchtime supervisory staff also need the training and expertise to know how to deal with, assess and sometimes—dare I say it—cope with the demands of a child with special educational needs. We have some fantastic staff up and down the country. Indeed, the lunchtime supervisory staff and catering staff I have met on the rounds of the various schools in my constituency have always demonstrated the highest level of commitment to the children in their care, but it helps and rewards them more if they are given support and training.

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John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman has just made an extremely astute observation about the lunchtime period and the need for high-quality staff to be visible and active during it. That is of the essence. Does he agree that these two other examples of why it is necessary to have good provision during lunch time are relevant: first, a child with SEN—one on the autistic spectrum, for example—might find independent play very difficult; and, secondly, that child might find the extremely noisy atmosphere of the playground very disconcerting or perhaps even frightening?

Mr. Flello: I am grateful for that intervention, in which the hon. Gentleman raised some excellent points. I think that he used the word “symbiotic” earlier to describe the relationship between our separate contributions, which must be very worrying to the Whips on both sides of the House.

Other Members wish to speak, so I shall move on to make a couple of further points. Since before I entered Parliament, I have been concerned about pre-school identification. If the Bill goes into Committee, I would like to see it amended to incorporate some provisions about that problem. I am aware of the “Son-Rise” programme, through which pre-school children on the autistic spectrum can really benefit from receiving help long before they get into the school system.

Clause 1 deals with schools, and an important issue is the definition of such beyond just primary and secondary schools. For nursery and early-years provision, the requirement to have staff who know and understand what to look for across the whole range of SEN and other forms of disability—including deafness, for example, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield talked about—is crucial. There is a profound need to ensure that young people are identified and assessed at the earliest possible opportunity and then given all the support they need and deserve. It would be helpful if we could widen the Bill to include nursery provision and, ideally, provision at an even earlier age. Perhaps the Minister could speak to her opposite numbers in the Department of Health to discuss how a much more widespread and wide-ranging programme of early identification could be brought about. We could perhaps work towards a position where statements were issued long before a child reached primary school.

Let me move on to the other end of the problem, so to speak, by which I mean adults who may have gone right through their education without ever being assessed or given appropriate support and the opportunities it could have provided. I have a couple of quick points. First, I urge the Government to undertake some form of audit of people who were never assessed and never given support in order to establish whether any common pattern can be discerned in respect of where they lived, who their local GP was, which primary and secondary schools they went to and so forth. In other words, we need to work back to discover the opportunities missed for getting these people assessed, statemented and provided with the support they needed. I urge the Minister to discuss with her ministerial colleagues the possibility of providing such a reverse audit—not to lay blame, but to ensure that we correct the problem in the future.

Until recently, my constituency was home to the Hamilton centre for adults with special educational needs. Sadly, the centre has now closed, with the service
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re-provided in Shelton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mark Fisher). I support and help carers of a group of adults who believe that the services provided by the Hamilton centre were the most appropriate for them. Although Stoke-on-Trent city council has been good at explaining its decision on the alternative provision, with the best will in the world, it has missed the point because, as the hon. Member for Buckingham said, a range of services is needed, and for some people the Hamilton centre offers the right service. It might not be the right service in the view of social workers or some eminent professionals, but it is in the opinion of individuals and their carers. Therefore, we need to ensure that it is provided as part of a suite of services.

I agree with the extremely good argument that SENCOs should be senior members of staff. At the highest levels of governance of a school, a SENCO should be saying, “Come on, folks, this service needs to be improved,” or, “We should be celebrating what we are doing. This is really good provision.” Unless SENCOs are at the highest level of governance, they will not have the necessary clout to make changes when appropriate.

I have a few concerns—perhaps this is where the symbiotic relationship will fall down—about the need for SENCOs to be qualified teachers. Up and down the country, there are SENCOs who have done a superb job at the highest level without having a formal teaching qualification. I will avoid the obvious metaphor, but we are in danger of losing the skills and ability of some very good SENCOs who, for whatever reason, are not able or willing to go through the qualification process to become teachers. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I have discussed the issue recently, to examine the case of those SENCOs who do a superb job but are not in a position to qualify as a teacher either because of age or personal circumstances.

In an intervention, I expressed concern about other duties. Given how important it is that SENCOs do their job to the fullest of their ability, that their training is constantly updated, and that their continuing professional development is maintained to the highest standards, stretching them in myriad other directions and challenging and questioning how every hour of their time is spent is a problem. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider how schools use their SENCOs, and what other duties those schools impose on those staff.

Proposed new section 14B(5) states:

Later, in the interpretation clause, the meaning of “autism” is clarified, but, on a minor point, I wonder whether the proposed new section should include a more explicit reference to autistic spectrum disorder.

I do not know whether I am alone in this view, but I think that perhaps Ofsted inspections should take place without notice. I know that changes have been made to the arrangements, but I think that rather than a school’s being given a week or a month’s notice of an inspection, it might be better for an inspector to turn up at lunchtime on a wet Wednesday and to say “Hello there—I am your Ofsted inspector and I have come to carry out an inspection.”

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There are a number of problems with Ofsted, but one of them is the flurry of activity that takes place before an inspection to ensure that staff understand what the policy requires and are present to discuss it. I think that we may be creating a false idea of what happens during an Ofsted inspection. I must choose my words carefully here, but in years gone by it was said that members of the royal family believed that coal was white because it was always whitewashed. We are encouraging school staff to run around like mad things preparing themselves for an inspection, when it would be better to have a shapshot of what really happens at lunchtime on that wet Wednesday when the inspector calls unannounced.

We should also bear in mind the huge stress to which we subject staff in the run-up to an Ofsted inspection. It would be much better for them to know that the inspector will see them warts and all than to feel that they must be on their best behaviour as he or she observes them giving a lesson. We should take a bit of the pressure off them, so that they need not spend a month in a heightened state of frenzy.

I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider introducing SEN inspections. Specialist Ofsted inspectors would visit schools around the country simply looking at SEN provision and at pupils. They would have been trained to be able to identify pupils who had not been statemented but should have been, and the school staff could use that as a resource. If they expressed concern about, say, three or four children who had not been statemented, the inspector, or inspection team, might respond supportively by expressing surprise that the authority had not granted statements. Inspectors would be able to bring specialist knowledge to bear and to say “Best practice at the moment is to do something slightly different”, or, alternatively, “What you are doing here is best practice, and we will ensure that it is spread when we carry out further specialist inspections.”

The issue of exclusions concerns me greatly, for several reasons. We routinely exclude young people from schools when their only crime has been to have a special educational need which may manifest itself in violent behaviour in the classroom or in disobedience. That is not the problem, however. The problem is the underlying one of a special educational need that may never have been picked up. At a certain point after primary school and the early years of secondary education, frustration or one of a host of other possible triggers may cause young people with special educational needs to demonstrate behaviour that is more exaggerated. They may have managed to lose themselves in the big school until that point, but something then happens that causes them to stand out. That may lead to exclusion, although the only crime that such young people have committed is having a need that has not been recognised or met.

I should like to see a review—rather like a backwards audit—of people who have passed through the entire education system without having ever been statemented. I should also like to see an audit of exclusions to establish how many involve young people who have never been statemented but should have been. Such problems ought to be picked up early, although some young people may not demonstrate the behaviour that draws them to the attention of the school authorities and leads to an exclusion until the last year of their schooling. By that time, in some senses it is too late, but it should not be. As has been said, there is a void and an
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abyss: a child reaches school-leaving age and is abandoned. We need to make sure that we identify the problems as soon as possible.

I am also concerned about informal exclusions, when, for example, a parent might be told: “The Ofsted inspectors are due in on Monday. You’ve been talking about taking your young one for a few days away; doing that next week would be a really good idea.” Alternatively, a parent might receive a telephone call in the morning to be told: “We think it would be a good idea if you took your child home for lunch and then they come back in tomorrow.” Although they are illegal, such informal exclusions happen time and again.

John Bercow: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is giving proper scrutiny to the exclusions issue, and in particular informal and unofficial exclusions, which I agree are illegal. Is it not particularly galling, and an indictment of the schools that do it, that some schools exclude SEN and disabled children on sports day, or from visits to a theatre or a holiday camp, or, perhaps, when the school is to receive what it considers to be very important visitors? Is it not intolerable that a school might exclude such a child out of a crude sense of administrative convenience, or from a desire to avoid embarrassment?

Mr. Flello: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It is worse than intolerable; it is absolutely disgraceful—even diabolical. To return to the point about Nadia and her flurry of “bonjours”, it adds to a school if children with special educational needs are at the very heart of what it does, because that shows the quality of its care. When I visit schools, it is often the little things—I hesitate to use that phrase as it might be misunderstood—that say so much. How a school helps and supports the most vulnerable members of our society speaks volumes about the quality of the school itself.

An issue connected with speech and language was brought to my attention by some dedicated health workers in my constituency. It is to do with soothers—dummies as they were called in my day. [Interruption.] I am guided by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) that “soothers” is an American term, but it is the term that was used when the matter was raised with me. I gather that the cheapest—and therefore probably the most widely available, and the most accessible to parents on low incomes—dummies or soothers harm the early development of speech in young children, compared with the most expensive ones, which do not cause that harm. The huge raft of ongoing work on that needs to be driven forward.

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