Nursery Schools and Special Schools

Part of Orders of the Day — EDUCATION (No. 2) BILL – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 12th February 1980.

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Photo of Mr John Hannam Mr John Hannam , Exeter 9:45 pm, 12th February 1980

I wish to follow the line taken by the right hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley), who plays an important part in the affairs of the disabled and is chairman of the All-Party Disablement Group. It is through that group that this amendment has been tabled. Hon. Members have taken part in discussions prior to this debate with the Under Secretary of State, who received us with great understanding and sympathy. I should like to capitalise on that in my contribution.

Usually, on Report, when amendments are tabled on behalf of the disabled, we find ourselves squeezed out at the end of the debate. It is unusual to find that we are opening the batting twice, in separate guillotined periods, with a better chance of debating the matter fully and giving everyone a chance to hear the Minister's reply.

I find myself in some difficulty. I cannot believe that this fearful clause is intentional. The clause must be intentional, because it discriminates against the disabled and the handicapped. No financial implication is involved. The Government cannot, therefore, be taking a defensive posture because of pressure from the Treasury. The words of the clause stating that none of the much-welcomed provisions of clauses 6, 7 and 8 shall have effect in relation to nursery schools, special schools or children in need of special educational treatment strike a fierce blow at all those concerned with progress towards greater integration of disabled people. That is the main objective, and it is the objective stated by the Minister in the previous debate.

The clause expressly withholds parental choice and information on parental preferences from parents whose children are to go to nursery schools or special schools, and from parents whose children are deemed to be in need of special educational treatment. I and other members of the All-Party Disablement Group, plus all the organisations representing the handicapped, see no reason for this, particularly when these provisions are very carefully hedged already with safeguards in the Bill.

I was very pleased to hear, in the debate on clauses 2 and 5, that my hon. Friend is planning to bring forward proposals on the Warnock report possibly in the next parliamentary year. He will obviously want to deal with many of these aspects in that legislation, but that inevitably is some way off; in fact it may never come. This Bill is with us now, in the present, and it represents discrimination in its worst form against handicapped people because it widens the gap when we should be closing it in preparation for Warnock and the fuller integration of the disabled in our society.

Clauses 6 to 8 provide for arrangements to be made for parents to express a preference for a particular school, and those responsible for admissions are required to comply with such a preference, except where to do so would prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources. There is a get-out for any local authority or local education authority. Another hedge is where it would be incompatible with admission arrangements agreed between the governors of an aided or special agreement school and a local education authority.

Another hedge is where it would be incompatible with admission arrangements based upon selection by reference to ability or aptitude. That is in clause 6. There are provisions for appeals in clause 7 and schedule 2. Clause 8 provides for information to be published for each year in terms of admissions, parental preferences and appeals, and other information required by regulations made by the Secretary of State. Parents of handicapped children are no less anxious to exercise choice in respect of the schools to which their children go than are parents of non-disabled children.

As hon. Members will know from constituency cases, parents of handicapped children often have to face very difficult arguments with local education authorities to secure what they believe is right for their children. They often have to fight, for example, to get their child into an ordinary local school, or into a special nursery school a year or so earlier than the non-handicapped child, or even into a special school specialising in a particular disability.

If the clause is enacted the position of those parents will be weakened when all other parents' rights are being strengthened. The Government really cannot believe that to be right. I know that they agree in principle with the arguments that my hon. Friends and Opposition Members are putting forward on this amendment.

It has been suggested that handicapped children's parents have been excluded from the provisions of clauses 6 to 8 because the needs of such children have to be carefully assessed and the provision that is required is often very specialised. Against this argument I would argue, first, that the expression of choice of a school for a handicapped child by the parents is in no way incompatible with careful assessment of the handicapped child's needs and the provision of what is required. There is no contradiction in agreeing that the pupils going to special schools have to be particularly assessed and still giving the parents the rights under the Bill.

Secondly, I argue that the provisions required are often not at all specialised. Sometimes it is merely a question of physical access to the school buildings.

Thirdly, in respect of many insubstantially handicapped children, I argue that the decisions about the right school for such children are not different in kind or degree from the decisions made in respect of a non-disabled child. The spectrum of disabilities of all kinds runs from the disabled at one end to the non-disabled at the other, and there is no clear dividing line between the two that could possibly justify treating the parents of handicapped children differently from the parents of non-handicapped children.

We have little time tonight to debate the matter, but I strongly entreat the Government, and the Minister when he winds up, to make a concession to all hon. Members. It is an act of discrimination that we cannot possibly tolerate.