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Mary Creagh: The issue is not only to do with how dummies or soothers can impact on the language development of a child. If anyone sees a four-year-old sitting in a pushchair with a dummy in their mouth, it is obvious that they should not have it, but parents might need more guidance in respect of younger children who are about to cry, perhaps, or are very hungry or tired, and who need or want their dummy as a comfort. The sucking of dummies can also have dental implications for children as the milk teeth come through. I have
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spoken to dentists who have told me about a dummy arc that that they can spot occurring in a child’s mouth. Does my hon. Friend agree that children’s centres and Sure Start centres should be working with parents, and giving them clear guidelines? I sometimes think that health professionals worry about giving parents clearer instructions.

Mr. Flello: My hon. Friend makes her point well, almost to the extent that I need not comment further—but I shall, if I may. She is right about the issues associated with the dental impact of soothers. We must be slightly careful to ensure that parents who are sitting at home watching this debate are not fearful of doing almost anything, having listened to what we have said. The vast majority of parents love, care for and want to do what is right for their children, and would be horrified to learn that what they think is doing the right thing for their children—giving them a soother—is having an adverse effect on them. She is right to say that Sure Start centres are very well placed to help, but primary schools can be too. A parent of a child who is in primary school may well have another child of pre-primary school age, so that is another route by which parents can be educated about why certain types of soother are less appropriate than others and why others are more appropriate. By that means, we can ensure that something is done to address a speech and language problem that is easily solvable, so that the resources and support can be concentrated on other problems, rather than on children whose difficulty is not simply down to being given the wrong sort of soother. I ask the Minister to speak to her colleagues in the Department of Health to see what be done about the use of soothers.

In conclusion, let us consider the transition from primary to secondary school. That involves the handover of responsibility and the huge gulf faced by a child who has grown up in the warm, comforting and supportive environment of a primary school and is then suddenly let loose in a high school, where the vast majority of children are bigger, brasher and more menacing—whether or not that is their intention—than that small child who has come up from primary school. We need to do a lot more to manage that transition, which could involve a system of supporting not only children with SEN, but all children who move from primary to secondary school.

Perhaps we could have a system whereby some primary teachers move through for a term, in order to carry on working in a classroom environment with those primary children who are making the transition, particularly the children with SEN. It is a good point at which to tell some children that it is time for them to have new experiences and to have somebody new working with them. It is perhaps an opportunity for them to move to another stage of their development by having a new support worker. For other children, a support worker needs to move through to ensure that the stresses of moving schools and of changing support worker are both being managed. Again, the matter needs to be looked at with a fresh pair of eyes to ensure that the range of children who are making the transition from primary to secondary education—not just children with SEN—have that support.

This morning’s debate has been extremely good, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham on introducing the Bill. He commands great authority in this House on this matter. I believe I speak for colleagues
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on both sides of this House when I say that we look to him as one of the specialists in this subject. I congratulate all those who have spoken this morning, and indeed, all those who are yet to speak, on a matter that should be on the front pages of our newspapers, not just consigned—I say this with the greatest respect—to the work of the Hansard reporters.

12.39 pm

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): I also wish to begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on the Bill. Like all the best private Members’ Bills, it sets out a clear framework and set of principles on which we can build. He has built up an enviable reputation in this area, and it is a pleasure to be able to support him. I also pay tribute to the other hon. Members who have spoken this morning. It has been an excellent debate, showing that the House of Commons can be at its best when we deal with issues on which there is a high level of consensus about how we can make progress. Like other hon. Members, I hope that, if we are not able to secure a Second Reading today, the Government will take on board many of the excellent suggestions in the Bill.

I speak with some experience on this matter, because before my election I was a secondary school teacher for 28 years, mainly in inner-city schools. For 15 of those years, I was the deputy head of a secondary school in Bradford. My experience at Yorkshire Martyrs college has coloured my understanding of special educational needs, because among its many strengths the school had an enviable reputation in Bradford for its work with children with special educational needs. One of the main lessons that I learned there is that it is not only students with a statement who have special educational needs. As other hon. Members have pointed out, up to one fifth of all school pupils have a special educational need of one kind or another. As the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said, the number of children on, for example, the autism spectrum has increased, as medical advances have improved diagnosis.

Against that background, it can be a daunting task for teachers in large schools with many pupils to ensure that the needs of every child are met. I know that that is the goal of all teachers, and we should not get hooked up concentrating only on those children with statements. Indeed, those children with statements are usually best provided for, and the problem is those who fall in the middle. They may have a support plan, but resources are often not made available. There is another postcode lottery when it comes to the level of support and provision made available for pupils by schools and local authorities. Clause 1 would begin to address that problem. I know that the Government’s code of practice sets out a clear process that schools and teachers have to adopt if they are to meet everyone’s needs, but it is a sad fact that that does not happen.

I know that teacher training now includes instruction on special educational needs provision, and how to identify that need, but many teachers never had that training. My school had a good record of such provision, but training is an ongoing process. I had a pupil with Asperger’s syndrome in my class a few years ago, and I needed appropriate training so that I could help him get the best out of his education. I was lucky: I had a fellow deputy head who could help. Incidentally, in my experience
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it can work best if schools have a deputy head who understands and has been trained in special educational needs and a SENCO, who does not always need to be part of the senior management. Margaret Christie, the deputy head, was assiduous in ensuring that all members of staff received the appropriate training when a need was identified.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his generous remarks about my own little efforts.

As we have this morning focused, among other matters, on teachers’ understanding—or lack of understanding—of the significance of special educational needs, does the hon. Gentleman agree, having just referred to Asperger’s syndrome, that it is profoundly unsatisfactory in 2009 that one can come across, as I did courtesy of TreeHouse recently, a quote from a teacher to a parent of an Asperger’s child, to wit: “I don’t believe in Asperger’s syndrome”? It is not a matter of belief, but of the established fact of the condition and how to cater to it.

Paul Rowen: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman; the condition is established. A few months ago, one hon. Member made a similar comment about dyslexia. Such expressions of ignorance do not deal with the problem. It is not our job or a teacher’s job to decide what is or is not a special need; rather, it is our job to respond to such needs.

I built a very close relationship with the mother of the young man to whom I referred. She worked as a support assistant nearby and would often come along and assist. By the time that young man left my school, he was happy and making progress. I felt that my school had done an excellent job in supporting him. The big problem is that that does not happen in every case. Sometimes, the relentless pursuit of exam results and improved gradings means that some teachers and some schools decide that certain individuals are not going to contribute to their school’s success and, unfortunately, they are asked to go elsewhere. That is wrong.

Clause 1 concentrates on training. It would make training provision a duty and a responsibility. Rightly, the clause mentions those with special educational needs and disabilities, and not only those who are statemented. We need to be able to cater for the whole range. The requirement in the clause for local authorities to publish plans for how they are going to meet those needs would go a long way towards dealing with some of the postcode lottery issues.

Any parent whose child has a special educational need going into school is presented with a vast panoply of bodies that they have to consult and with which they must involve themselves. Finding the support and help that they need can be a maze. Whether they should deal with the local PCT, education psychologists or the school itself is not clear. We all have a duty—the Bill does not prescribe it, but it does set out a means—to ensure that the process is signposted. The support and help that is given to parents needs to be clear so that they can get the help that they need.

My sister has two dyslexic boys. I remember the problems she experienced when they were in primary school. The local authority refused to arrange a test so that the boys’ dyslexia could be established. In fact, because she was able to do so, she paid for a dyslexia
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society to undertake the test, which was the only way for her to get that support. She is an articulate, very determined woman who does not take no for an answer. I am concerned that many parents do not get the support that they need, not because they do not want to push the door, but because they do not know how to push in the right direction to get what they need. Requiring local authorities to publish plans to say what will be available will go a long way. It would reinforce the Government’s statutory code of practice for special needs, which is already established. I very much welcome that proposal.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) mentioned special educational needs co-ordinators—SENCOs. They do not necessarily have to be qualified teachers. We had one in my school who was not, and she was excellent. She was widely respected in the school and did an excellent job in supporting all of us in delivering that particular service. It is right that all SENCOs should have training and, to back up what the hon. Member for Buckingham said, that someone at senior management level in the school should have responsibility for this area, and that they too should have training. That was the case in my school. We had a deputy with special training, and a SENCO. The deputy provided the support at senior management level to ensure that what was needed was actually provided.

The Government have decided this year to abolish key stage 2 tests. That provides them with a golden opportunity to use the resources that have been freed up to provide a statutory assessment for all pupils at the age of five. That is certainly my party’s policy. Rather than parents having to fight their way through a maze of different people and organisations to get an assessment, we would provide one for all young people as of right, using the resources that have been freed. That would take us a good way forward.

I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about the separation of the assessment and the provision of statements. There is often a conflict in local authorities between the available resources and the statementing process. A separation of the two functions—so that the people providing the assessment were not also the people who had to provide the funding for the statement—would help parents and pupils to get what they were entitled to. That separation is long overdue, and its implementation is certainly my party’s policy.

I support the clause requiring the management of special needs to be an integral part of a successful Ofsted appraisal. During the passage of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, the Schools Minister said that it was highly unlikely that a school would get a good Ofsted rating if that provision for special needs was not of equal standing. The provision in the hon. Gentleman’s Bill puts beyond doubt that that provision should form an integral part of any successful Ofsted. This would make it clear to all schools that such provision was as important as successful exam results, as relationships with parents and as how the school is managed. I believe that that is the right way to go.

Clause 3 deals with permanent exclusions. My experience is that they represent a failure of the system to provide an education. If the process is working properly, some
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other provision can be made long before resorting to such a measure. At my school, we had to admit on many occasions that what we were able to provide for a young person did not meet their needs. We therefore made alternative provision, often using the school’s resources to buy in expertise or to buy time elsewhere. I find it hugely tragic that a third of all statemented pupils have had a permanent exclusion. There is clearly something wrong with the system and, as the hon. Member for Buckingham has said, a statemented child is nine times more likely to be excluded, which illustrates that something is going on in the system that is not meeting the young person’s needs. Although the numbers are low—780 in the last year for which figures are available—that is 780 permanent exclusions too many. Beneath that, there will probably be a much larger number of fixed-term exclusions, which in all probability will have built up to lead to that permanent exclusion. My experience of the best schools is that before someone ever gets to that position, something has happened lower down. If the Bill is considered further, I think that that should be explored.

I was lucky in the sense that our governors always took a much stronger interest in exclusions, whether they were fixed term or permanent, and before they would agree with any exclusion for anybody who presented with a special need—not necessarily just a statement—we had to be able to demonstrate that every other avenue had been explored. Sadly, that is sometimes not the case.

In conclusion, I welcome the Bill. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Buckingham has promoted it. It will strengthen the system. It sets a framework in place from which we can build and it is not too prescriptive—in my view, that is the best way. It builds on what the Government have already done and provides a framework from which we can move forward to ensure that we get the best out of all our young people. As the Government have rightly said, every child matters. In this case, we should say that every child with special needs and every disabled child matters as much as every other child. I welcome and support the Bill.

12.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Sarah McCarthy-Fry): I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on both his success in the ballot and his speech introducing the Bill. He displayed his customary eloquence and clarity, which was all the more admirable as his speech was made without notes, and he once again demonstrated that he is a consummate parliamentarian.

This has been a very important debate, and one that I and all hon. Members present take very seriously. Although it is unfortunate that there are not as many Members in the Chamber as might have wished to be present, I am sure that they were with us in spirit as they were out campaigning on the doorsteps. I know that this issue exercises the minds of every Member.

We have had an interesting debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) is not here, but I also pay tribute to her racy and intoxicating contribution. I am sure that she will not live that description down. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who speaks for the
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Conservatives, demonstrated his experience in this field, not least as a vice-chairman of the all-party autism group. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) took early intervention to a new level—not only before children are born but before they are even conceived. Finally, the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen) brought his many years of experience as a teacher to bear in his informed remarks.

Let me return to the hon. Member for Buckingham, the promoter of the Bill. I know that the welfare of children with special educational needs and disabilities is close to his heart. He has always demonstrated a genuine concern for their best interests in ensuring that the provision in place offers the most effective support. He has a distinguished history in that respect, which is why my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Children, Schools and Families and for Health invited him in September 2007 to undertake a review of services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs, which has been referred to during the debate.

In July 2008, the hon. Gentleman produced an excellent report, clearly identifying where services needed to improve to suit the requirements of children with speech, language and communication needs. We were delighted to be able to accept his recommendations in full in our “Better Communication” action plan, published in December 2008.

We are making good progress on the hon. Gentleman’s recommendations. Among other activities outlined in the action plan, we are currently inviting local commissioners to apply to become communication needs commissioning pathfinders. Furthermore, we are tendering for the management of an unprecedented £1.5 million communication needs research programme and for support arrangements for the communication champion and communication council. The work of the champion and council will culminate in the national year of speech, language and communication in 2011-12.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I thank the Minister for giving way. I apologise for coming to the debate so late; my new grandchild was born last night, and it meant that I had to look after the other one this morning.

Is the Minister aware of that category of children who do not count as special needs children because they have high-functioning autism or Asperger’s? They can carry out tasks in class, but their communication and relationship skills are very weak and often leave them alienated. They do not count as special needs children because they do not have learning difficulties; they do not count as being in need of mental health support, because they do not have mental health disabilities. They are a sort of lost group—but a very significant one.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and congratulate her on the birth of her grandchild. She was not here for the earlier part of the debate, but I am sure that she will immediately be starting to read to her grandchild; we have heard how important that is. My first grandchild was born on Christmas day, and I have been continually reading to him, having taken the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield.

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