Orders of the Day — Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:10 pm on 20th March 2001.

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Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South 9:10 pm, 20th March 2001

Like many Members, I welcome the Bill. I, too, have received a large number of representations from organisations in Scotland; they also welcome the Bill and hope that it will pass speedily through this place so that it can be enacted before a general election comes along.

I have always felt strongly about the subject of the Bill—it is very dear to my heart. Apart from my first four and a half years and the past four years since my election to this place, I have spent all my life in education. It is a pity that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) is not in his place—although perhaps I am glad. Earlier, he was jumping up and down heckling my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I spent a long time in education not because I was a slow learner, but because I became a teacher. I felt passionately about that. However, I almost did not become a teacher, because in 1973, when I applied to the college of education in Aberdeen, I was told that I could not go there. Why? Because I had an encroaching disability, and people with disabilities could not be teachers. I suffered discrimination.

Had my disability been slightly more advanced while I was at school, I might not have been able to attend a spanking new school in 1970, when I was in the fourth year of secondary school. At that time, I was still walking, although my legs were beginning to break and so on. Had I been in a wheelchair, I would riot have been able to go to that school, but would have had to go somewhere else. As I lived in a rural community, it would probably have been several miles away—possibly in Dundee, 26 miles away. Thirty years ago, that was a long distance. In 1970, no one even thought that someone in a wheelchair could attend mainstream school.

I felt passionately about the fact that education was left out of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That was a glaring omission and I am glad that the Government are putting it right.

In my comments, I had intended to concentrate on part II of the Bill, because its anti-discrimination provisions are relevant to Scotland; part I deals with special educational needs and does not apply to Scotland. However, as I have been called towards the end of the debate and shall perhaps be the last Labour Back Bencher to speak before the winding-up speeches, I want to correct some of the impressions given by Conservative Members.

I have looked carefully at the Bill. Nothing in it suggests the end of special schools, and no Labour Member has said that. I, more than most people, appreciate that, due to advances in medical science, an increasing number of babies and young children survive and live with severe disabilities who would have died in previous generations. They will need an enormous amount of support if they are to be educated. Sometimes that will be in special schools, but I find that, in Scotland, they are frequently educated in special units of mainstream schools. The situation may be different in England and Wales.

Those children do not necessarily follow a mainstream curriculum. Indeed, they may not be very integrated with the mainstream. They go through the same school gate, but they attend a specially equipped unit. They often mix with the other pupils at interval time and lunch time, but there is a special curriculum that they can access. In some cases, they mix and match: sometimes they dip into the mainstream curriculum; at other times, they are taught in the special unit. I taught at a school where there was such a unit. Nothing in the Bill outlaws any of that provision.

The Opposition want the Bill to be passed, but if their amendment is accepted, the Bill will not receive its Second Reading and it will fall. Thus many parents who want their children to receive mainstream education will be denied it, as happens now. Parents who want special education for their children will not be denied it under the Bill, but if it is not passed, plenty of children—perhaps younger versions of myself—will be denied access to the school of their choice, because the local authority or the school can say that it is too expensive to put in the necessary ramps or lift, or that it is too difficult to find a way round the barriers that exist in the school. I therefore hope that the Opposition will think again and reconsider the Bill.

I had intended to concentrate on part II, and I shall do so now. Much has been said about whether the Government listen. I can attest, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), that the Government have listened to those representing the Scottish dimension. RNIB Scotland and Children in Scotland were concerned that the model of English special educational needs provision would be used as a delivery mechanism in Scotland. They felt that that might be inappropriate if rolled out in Scotland.

The Bill is interesting because it is, I think, the first of its kind—it will put the devolution settlement to the test. We are legislating on a reserved matter—anti-discrimination legislation—but it will be applied to a devolved matter, education. The test is to find out whether the right relationships exist between the House and the Scottish Parliament, and between the officials at the Department for Education and Employment and those at the Scottish Executive.

Initially, charities in Scotland, such as Children in Scotland and RNIB Scotland, were concerned that perhaps the relationship was not right, but many of their anxieties were laid to rest after a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who has responsibilities for disabled people. They were anxious about two matters: the code of practice and the planning duties.

I shall deal first with the planning duties. The Bill states: The duty to produce an accessibility strategy or plan will not extend to Scotland. That rang alarm bells at the charities, as they thought, "Well, if the Bill is not going to extend to Scotland, LEAs will have no duty to provide proper access and auxiliary help." However, that is the devolved element of the Bill, so it will be up to the Scottish Executive to produce their version of that provision to ensure that the accessibility strategy is in place. There will not be a planning duty, because that is not how such things are done in Scotland.

It is interesting that the Scottish Minister who will be in charge of implementing those provisions is the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Aberdeen, South—a Liberal Democrat, working in a Labour-led coalition. I spoke to him yesterday, and he is very well aware of the issues. I am sure that the Scottish children's charities will be in touch with him to ensure that, if the Bill is passed, the time scale for implementation in Scotland is in line with that in England, and that that is done speedily and timeously, as I hope it will be in England.

I seek the Minister's assurance that the Government will continue to work with Ministers in the Scottish Executive and their officials. My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun has already paid tribute to the officials at the Department for Education and Employment. I should like to add my thanks to them and the Minister for listening and for taking those concerns seriously.

I appreciate that, whether in Scotland or England and Wales, there must be a rolling programme within the strategic development plan that will make schools accessible. I understand that we cannot do everything at once. We cannot suddenly make all schools accessible to every child overnight, and the needs that should be met first are those in schools with children who have real needs; they should he foremost on any plan. However, I seek an assurance from the Minister that we shall try to speed up that process to make it as rapid as possible. It is not just pupils who use schools. Parents have to visit them for parents evenings, and I hope that there are more disabled teachers than there were when 1 left the profession four short years ago. I hope that I will not have to go back into the profession—although I must say that that would not be a problem for me. I really enjoyed my time in it, but "Not just yet, please" is my plea to my constituents in Aberdeen, South.

Parents, teachers, relatives and visitors all use schools. When I was a teacher, I used to coach the debating team in my school and I had enormous problems getting into other schools when I visited them with the debating team. I would not like to tell the House how many flights of stairs I had to be carried up to reach debating halls. It was ridiculous and no teacher would have wanted that to happen, but that was often the only way in which I could get to the halls.

Matters are improving, and such problems do not exist in every school and local authority. Things have moved on dramatically in 30 years, and there are examples of good practice, but the time has come to legislate to ensure that those problems that still exist are properly addressed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun also referred to the need for a Scottish code of practice. I reiterate that point because it is important. The code of practice is not just about physical adjustments, as the example of Julia shows. She arrived in Arbroath aged 11 with her mother, having gone to special schools throughout her primary career. Her mother wanted to put her into mainstream education, so she looked for a secondary school and Julia arrived at the school in which I taught before I was elected.

Julia had severe cerebral palsy. Although she had good oral skills, she could not move much of her body. She had an electric wheelchair and, with an auxiliary, she was happy at school. Her mother told me that, for the first time in Julia's life, people would say hello to her and ask her how she was when she went down the street on a Saturday morning. She had never been part of a community before. Attending school was good for Julia and good for the other children. The worst scallywag in the class bought her a box of chocolates for her birthday. We think, but are not sure, that he bought them; they came in a brown paper parcel.

The interesting point about Julia's story is not that she went to a mainstream school, but how she ended up at the school in which I taught. There are two schools in Arbroath: the one in which I taught is a 1960s monstrosity with glass, many different levels and lots of stairs; the other is a brand-new school that is properly adapted with wheelchair access everywhere. Julia lived in the catchment area of the new school, so why did she end up at the school with worse access?

The school was not a problem for me. I was an English teacher on the ground floor and the pupils came to me, but there were problems in the school. Julia came to my school because, when her mother visited the two schools, she found that their attitudes were totally different. One said, "Oh, I'm not sure how we can cope with that; that might be quite difficult" while the other said, "Yes, I see that that might be a problem, but I am sure that we shall find a solution." It found a solution and Julia was able to get upstairs even though there was no lift. The local education authority bought a brand new, super-duper, stair-climbing wheelchair. It cost £6,000 and it belonged not to Julia but to the LEA. However, that piece of lateral thinking got Julia round the school relatively cheaply. The solution was certainly much cheaper than installing lifts. I echo the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State: that was seeing a way round the problem rather than seeing the problem.

Education is the basis for ensuring that young people are given equality of opportunity. It is crucial if we are to raise their expectations and aspirations. We must give them goals to aim for, hope for the future and the opportunity to realise their potential.

Young people with disabilities need those opportunities as much as their peer group. If the education system discriminates against them, that discrimination will follow them throughout their lives, denying them the chance to succeed and to be all that they can be Discrimination has no place in education, which is why I am pleased that the Labour Government will outlaw it. I make a last minute plea to the Opposition: please withdraw your amendment. Some matters can be argued in Committee, and it would be inappropriate to vote against Second Reading tonight.