Special Educational Needs

– in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 21 May 2002.

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Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 7:14, 21 May 2002

I beg to move,

That this House
is concerned about the provision of education for children with Special Educational Needs;
notes that last week was Autism Awareness Week;
also notes the publication of reports by the National Autistic Society which shows that two-thirds of teachers in England and Wales believe that there are more children with autism disorders now than five years ago and that one in three children in special schools has some form of autism;
notes a survey carried out by the Conservative Party showing that one quarter of special schools feel threatened with closure;
is concerned by the alarming rise in teacher vacancies in special schools;
condemns the threat to SEN services in the Education Bill;
and calls on the Government to set out clearly its plans for this sector and remove the uncertainty which harms the education of children with Special Educational Needs.

Special educational needs are not a glamorous subject; I get that feeling as the Chamber empties at their mention, which is sad. They are not a glamorous subject, but they are important. This is not an occasion for witty party political banter; it is too serious for that and, I am sure that the Minister for School Standards would agree, too sad—[Interruption.] I see that he is repeating what I said with disdain, so I shall say it again; it is too serious and too sad. The problem is the thousands of quiet, private little tragedies unfolding all over the country. I believe that the Minister genuinely wants to do his best for the many children who need special help in their education, but unfortunately he is constrained by his Government's dogmatic approach.

We all care about children with disabilities. I was tremendously annoyed whenever the word "care" was used today to hear Government Members laughing—as if Opposition Members are here for any reason other than that we care about vulnerable people in our society. That is certainly why I am here.

Children in Need, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Mencap, the National Autistic Society and many other charities do wonderful work and are brilliantly supported by millions of people throughout the country who care about the disadvantaged in our society. There is no doubt that individual teachers and learning support assistants who work in special schools or look after special needs children in mainstream schools do a remarkable job. I have recently seen many of them in action; their patience and perseverance are astounding. I could not do their job. It is no exaggeration to say that the achievements in the schools and special schools that I have visited sometimes bring a tear to the eye; those people have a difficult job and an uphill struggle, and many of them are trying hard to achieve so much. Much more, however, could be done if the Government put aside their rigid, dogmatic approach and faced the reality of the enormous challenge before them.

The Opposition have chosen to debate this subject because it is often at the bottom of the list. One goes through the topical issues in education—exams, exclusions, expenses and so on—and at the end one says, "Oh yes, what about special needs?"

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am saying exactly the opposite; it has often been said, and one cannot help but feel that it has been said by the Government for many years. Local authorities, too, often say, "Oh, but what about special educational needs?"

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Lady criticises the Government for not doing anything about special educational needs. Naturally, she is aware that funding for special educational needs has increased dramatically under the Government. We published the first comprehensive White Paper on support for special educational needs and are implementing the key principles of inclusion and partnership. To describe that as not delivering is to misrepresent the situation.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong; I did not say that that was not delivering. The last Conservative Government did a lot on special educational needs, but not enough; more still needs to be done. The hon. Gentleman talks about not delivering; I have not got to that yet, but he has correctly guessed that I am going to say that the Government are not delivering. Producing papers and having ideas are not the same as delivering, but I shall come to that later.

We want to give more prominence to the problem of providing a good education for children with special needs, because no one is more vulnerable or in need of help than a child who cannot communicate and wants to do what the other children are doing, but cannot understand—nor can his parents or teachers—why he cannot. That is what I mean by the thousands of private little tragedies unfolding throughout the country. We all know that they are taking place, but how can we try to alleviate them?

The number and proportion of special needs children is increasing all the time. We accept, and Ministers will no doubt say, that that may be partly because of better diagnosis, but it cannot be entirely a product of diagnosis. The statistics, particularly those produced recently by the Medical Research Council and by the National Autistic Society, warn us beyond doubt that educating children with special needs is not just a problem, but a growing problem. I hope that the Minister will accept that.

Knowing that the problem is growing, we are negligent if we do not heed that warning, or rather—I said that the debate was not an opportunity for party political banter—we are not negligent: Ministers are negligent if they fail to take the necessary action, having received the warning. I fear that that is what will happen.

The Secretary of State's amendment to our motion states that we should applaud

"the Government's strong record on supporting pupils with special educational needs, notably through providing a clear vision for their education and welfare".

Will the Government never learn that vision does not mean the same as action? Having a vision is fine, as Phil Hope said, and it is sometimes necessary, but publishing bits of paper does not mean that anything has been achieved.

I feel sorry for Ministers, who have it drummed into them all the time that it is what they say that matters, not what they do. But if they are led by a Prime Minister who believes that saying something three times is tantamount to having achieved it—"education, education education"—[Interruption.] The Minister for Lifelong Learning is muttering away, as usual. Is she too repeating it three times? It is time the Government recognised that merely issuing words and documents is not enough. It does not actually produce results. Let us look at the facts.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Has my hon. Friend discovered, as I often do in constituency cases, that caring parents who have a child who needs special assistance often have a good understanding of the child's problem and a clear view of which local education institution would be best at handling it, but that the council often blocks the parents' preferred choice? Often they are told that there is not sufficient Government money coming through for that purpose. Does my hon. Friend think that parental choice should be better respected, and would she want the Government to make sure that that was possible? In my view, caring parents are often the best judges of what is needed.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Unsurprisingly, my right hon. Friend is correct. In my constituency alone, I have seen so many tragic cases of parents who have spent months, and sometimes years, looking for the right educational establishment for their child, because they know their child's needs, only to find that the funding is not available or that, for some other bureaucratic reason—such as the fact that the establishment in question might be over the county boundary or in another region, or that the transport costs cannot be met—the child cannot get the best education available to him or her.

There is no doubt that this happens. If I have seen that many, many times in my constituency, I assume that the problem is multiplied by at least 650 times around the country, and those are only the cases known to us as Members of Parliament. There must be many more.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

How does the hon. Lady square her remarks with the fact that under the Conservative Government, funding per pupil fell in real terms from 1992 to 1997, whereas under the present Government, funding per pupil has increased by £200 per child? Surely that means that children now have a better chance of receiving the proper education for their special educational needs than they had in 1997?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

No—all it means is that the hon. Lady is bandying statistics. What we are talking about is people. [Interruption.] I do not see what is funny about that. It does not matter what the last Conservative Government did, and it does not really matter what the Government said they would do two or three years ago. What matters is that out there, in the real world, there are thousands and thousands of children who need more help than they are getting. If all the hon. Lady can see is some figures that she got from her Whips Office, that is very sad indeed.

I shall examine the facts, starting with the increasing problem of autism. Last week was autism awareness week. I pay tribute to the National Autistic Society, which has done so much, not just last week but throughout this year—this is autism awareness year, as I am sure hon. Members know—to bring the problems of autism into public focus.

There is no doubt that, for whatever reason, the incidence of children with autism spectrum disorders is increasing. I think the Minister for School Standards will agree with me on that point. I shall be interested to hear his comments. No matter how one looks at it, the problem is increasing. It is noticeable that the rate of autism occurring in primary schools is more than three times that in secondary schools, which is an unusual statistic, unless it means that autism is increasing exponentially, which it probably is not. That leads us to further questions, and they are difficult questions. I do not claim to have the answers, but we must consider the questions.

It is possible that there may be many more pupils in secondary schools who have an autism spectrum disorder but who have not been diagnosed, and who have therefore spent their time in education failing to achieve, failing to communicate and being classed simply as disruptive. I wonder how many of the truanting pupils about whom we argued in the earlier debate this evening are, in fact, pupils with special needs which have not been diagnosed. Should not pupil referral units have specialist expertise in special needs and, indeed, in autism spectrum disorders? That is a genuine question. I think they should, but they do not. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's comments on that.

There is, however, no doubt that all the experts and even the Government recognise the importance of early diagnosis and early intervention, because children with unsolved problems grow up to be adults with unsolved problems. That is much more difficult to deal with. The cost to society—I do not mean in financial terms—in so many ways is so very much greater if someone who could be contributing to his or her community is, instead, excluded from it, and is therefore tragically seen as a burden, rather than as the asset which he or she could have been if the right help had been there at the right time, with early diagnosis and early intervention.

Despite some good recent work by the Medical Research Council, which I accept was commissioned by the Government—not by the Minister's Department, but by the Department of Health—we still do not know the extent of the problem or the rate at which it is likely to increase.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

After 11 or 12 minutes, the hon. Lady is now making some interesting points. Does she agree that despite the importance of early identification of autism, especially mild autism, both it and conditions such as dyspraxia and dyslexia are all difficult to treat? Most children are individually different within the definition of those conditions. Trying to find educational solutions is incredibly difficult. To blame the Government or even the previous Government for that is not fair.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. The subject is extremely complex. Simple answers cannot be given to simple questions. The questions are complex, the answers are complex, and the hon. Gentleman is right. Every child who is in need of special help in his or her education needs it for a different reason. Each one is an individual, which makes it extremely difficult to deal with the problem.

I partly agree with Mr. Willis: I am not blaming the Government—I am warning them about what must be done. I am not blaming the Government for what has not been done so far; I am warning the Government that if they do not take heed of what we now know and take action now for improvement, the problem will get considerably worse. As I said, special educational needs are not a matter for party political banter. The hon. Gentleman makes a genuine point and I agree with his comments. I am sure that the Minister will proceed in the same genuine way.

The problem is real, but one of the issues is that we do not know its extent. Again, I am not blaming anyone for that. Medical science is producing new ideas and evidence all the time, but we do not know the extent of the problem. A few weeks ago, I asked Ministers what percentage of children with statements of special educational needs were categorised as autistic last year compared with 10 years ago. The Minister answered that the information was not available. I accept that this Government were not in power 10 years ago, although they were in power last year, but it seems that nobody anywhere has collected the statistics even to let us know the extent of the problem.

The statistics should be available. Whatever has happened in the past, I hope that Ministers will pledge today to continue to carry out further research. That is the pledge that I am seeking. Perhaps some of the enormous sums that are currently spent on sending out to teachers, head teachers and local authorities circulars and glossy colour brochures on a huge variety of subjects would be better spent on finding out more about the causes of the problems faced by some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Opposition Pairing Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend makes a very telling and interesting point. She and other hon. Members throughout the House will know that a very clear identification of need is critical in the statementing process if the education that is provided by special schools or in the mainstream is to be pertinent and relevant to the child's needs. If she is telling the House that this Government, perhaps like the previous one, do not know how many autistic children there are despite the statementing process, she is also leading us to suspect that they may not know how many children have various other types of special needs. That is very worrying information and the Minister must address it when he responds.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My hon. Friend is right. That is exactly what I am telling the House. Nobody knows the extent of the problem; all that we know is that it is increasing. I respect the Minister's attitude on this matter. I hope that he will pledge to find out more and put Government resources into this important research.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. It is important to point out that in the Warnock report of 1979 and the Education Act 1981—a good measure that was introduced by the Conservative Government—the emphasis of statementing was to categorise children on the basis not of their condition, but of their educational need. The principle was to try to de-stigmatise children with special needs, and it is important that we maintain it. Once we go back to identifying a condition and applying resources only in relation to that condition, we will fail to take on the essence of what the Warnock report said and the principle to which successive Governments, including the previous one, have steadfastly adhered.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. As I said earlier, and as I will always say, we must treat children with special needs as individuals and not statistics. We must not simply consider them in terms of name of the disease from which they suffer, but treat them as individuals.

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk

Mr. Willis made a very good point about children's individual characteristics and needs, but my hon. Friend is making a point about diagnosis of those needs. That is her point, and it explains the need for research to allow such needs to be diagnosed. I do not think that there is much distance between her and the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. We are trying in this debate to emphasise how much more must be done from now on. I am interested not in repercussions, but in what has to happen from now on.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make some progress. I shall give way to him later.

I suspect that the Government had no idea of the extent of the liability that they were imposing on local authorities by introducing their policy of inclusion. I forgive them for that, because the information was simply not available. None the less, although inclusion may have sounded like a fine policy when it fitted the general Labour jargon, it does not work in practice. While the Government have been relying on integration in mainstream schools for the vast majority of children with special educational needs, sadly, they have closed 167 special schools in the past five years. That seems a horrific loss of expertise and resources.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend mentioned the number of special schools that have been closed. Is she aware that in Gloucestershire, the Lib-Lab pact that runs the county council has a programme to close every single special school in the county? It is closing five schools because of the Government's policies.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

That is a disgrace. There are children who need the schools to which my hon. Friend refers and whose futures will be utterly blighted because they cannot go to them. I cannot imagine why the Government want to close those schools and put other special schools under threat of closure, creating enormous doubt in the minds of parents whose children are already taught there.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I must give way to David Taylor before Mr. McCabe, but I must then make some progress.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

The hon. Lady complains, perhaps rightly, about the paucity of the special needs statistics that might help in the development of appropriate policies. She also said that parents were best placed to know about their children's needs. Is she interested in a statistic from the National Autistic Society, which suggests that more than 75 per cent. of parents are either satisfied or very satisfied with the provision made for their children? Is that not an important base on which to build?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Yes, that is very important, but to me it means that 25 per cent. of parents are not satisfied. They are the ones about whom I am most concerned in this debate.

In talking about the policy of inclusion, I accept that in some cases involving mild autism or Asperger's syndrome, it is good for children to attend a mainstream school. Inclusion is right in many cases because it is good for social integration and allows a child to play with children of his or her own age. It is absolutely right in some cases, but not in all of them. The almost total reliance on integration has simply not been backed up with the necessary resources.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

I happen to agree with the hon. Lady, as I believe that we should keep open particular special schools, although we would be well advised to close others. Indeed, we have done some young people a service in closing some schools. Before making the charge that schools have been improperly closed—and in addition to asking for statistics about diagnosis—do we not need to know how schools that are engaged in the inclusion programme spend the special targeted resources provided in the delegated budgets? We need to know which local education authorities are spending that money appropriately and which are not. Should we not be collecting that statistic?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Yes, we should. Even if the Minister will not listen to my requests for that information—I accept that he may do so—I hope that he will listen to the hon. Gentleman. Resources are often earmarked for special needs by the education authority, given to the school and then spent on something else. We know that that happens; I know of instances in which it has occurred and so does the hon. Gentleman, and there must be hundreds more examples throughout the country. That is another problem and another area where the Government simply do not have the necessary information. Now I must make some progress.

The almost total reliance on integration has not been backed up by the necessary resources, so the issuing of a statement of special educational needs, although it theoretically confers on a child the right to a certain amount of time, expertise, therapy and care, is not implemented in practice. That is why people become cynical about politicians, and it is not surprising. No doubt Ministers see the statistics about the number of statements and the amount of money that is supposedly earmarked for their implementation. That may look good on paper, but sadly it does not work in practice.

We spend hours in Parliament having theoretical discussions about statements of special educational needs. I hardly have one constituency surgery where there is not at least one parent, often more than one, who is almost in tears of frustration from fighting the local authority to have the terms of a statement turned into action—or, indeed, to have a statement issued in the first place; for many children it takes far too long to start the ball rolling. Parents have their expectations raised by the rhetoric of the Government, then have their hopes dashed by the reality of provision that is just not there.

When one is looking after a special needs child, life is already difficult enough. The uncertainty that arises out of current policy and its piecemeal implementation makes it very much worse. What frightens me most is that the parents whom I usually see are able and articulate. They have managed to come to see their Member of Parliament, and have folders full of papers, reports, assessments and so on, many of which they have had to pay for themselves, yet even they cannot get the help that their children need. So what happens to the children of parents who are not articulate, do not know how to insist, and are so tired from looking after a disabled child that they do not have the energy to fight?

I do not know what the Minister for Lifelong Learning is sneering at. This is not a matter for sneering. I am describing—[Interruption.] It is not patronising. I am describing what I see in my own constituency. I am describing real people, and the hon. Lady is sneering at them. I have their names written down here, but I will not embarrass them by using them. The hon. Lady is sneering in a disgusting way—it is totally intolerable. [Hon. Members: "Apologise!"] She should indeed apologise. I am sure that the Minister for School Standards, who is sitting next to her, will not take that attitude.

For real people looking after children with real needs, it is a tragic situation. Getting help for one's child should not be an adversarial contest. If the Government are saying that every child has a certain right, they must set up a system whereby that right can be enforced. It does not happen like that in the real world. Parents should not have to fight year after year to get the education that their children need, deserve and, apparently, have a right to.

The fact is that the resources are not there to fulfil all the obligations to the increasing number of children who need special help. I do not suggest for a moment that the solution is simply to throw more money at the problem—we know that it is not. There are not enough specialist teachers, speech therapists, special schools, classroom support assistants or training opportunities for mainstream teachers. There is insufficient infrastructure to help all the children and their families who need help. It is not even clear to most parents where they should begin to look for assistance. Some aspects are dealt by the health authority, some by the social services department and some by the education department, and much time and energy are wasted in convening meetings of all three authorities before a decision that will actually help a child can be reached. The inequality of provision throughout the country is almost incredible. I know of one instance where two little boys who go to the same mainstream school each require about the same amount of speech therapy each week, but one gets three times more than the other because they live in different health authority areas.

What no one wants to hear from the Minister tonight is a complacent list of apparent achievements. That would be an insult to the thousands of families who are currently waiting for help. In the real world, special needs provision is in chaos. This is not a matter for party political banter, and it is very disappointing—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

No, I will not give way to the hon. Lady. It is time for others to have their chance to speak. Labour Members who keep sneering at a genuine attempt to ask genuine questions of a genuine Minister are doing their Government and the people they serve as Members of Parliament a great disservice. I am sure that the Minister will not reply in the tone that his hon. Friends who are doughnuting behind him are adopting at present. It is far too sad a situation for that, and I do not know why hon. Members are laughing. It is ridiculous to laugh or sneer. The situation matters too much to families who desperately need help.

We all want to give every child in Britain today the best possible opportunity to develop his or her talents to their fullest potential. That is much more difficult in the case of children with special needs, so much more effort must be put into helping them. I believe that the Minister has, personally, the best of intentions, and I pay every respect to him for that. But good intentions are not the same as action, and it is action that we now need from the Government.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools) 7:46, 21 May 2002

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

notes the Government's commitment to helping all pupils release their potential;
supports the development of an education service that provides equality of opportunity and raises achievement of all children, including those with special educational needs;
welcomes the Government's recognition of the important role of special schools and the forthcoming work to review and develop that role;
further welcomes the recent report by the National Autistic Society and recognises the importance of early intervention to help children with autism;
applauds the Government's strong record on supporting pupils with special educational needs, notably through providing a clear vision for their education and welfare in its 1998 Green Paper "Excellence for all children" and implementing an ambitious programme of action resulting in this House's approval of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, despite strong opposition from the other side of the House;
commends the introduction of the new SEN Code of Practice and the principles of inclusion and partnership that lie behind it;
further notes the development of national standards for specialist teachers and a range of training programmes and materials to support them;
acknowledges the substantial increases in funding through both SSA and Standards Fund to support these and other initiatives;
further notes that the Government will continue to ensure that the rights of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities are protected;
and looks forward to the forthcoming Code of Practice to reinforce the rights of pupils with disabilities.

Mrs. Laing said that she wanted to avoid party point-scoring in the debate. That was a laudable objective, but unfortunately she wavered in her determination on that score on several occasions. This is not a party issue, because there is enormous interest in special educational needs across the House, and in the other place as well. I counsel the hon. Lady against patronising some of the people we are talking about and their parents. That is a temptation that we need to avoid.

It is essential that all children, whatever their circumstances, should have the opportunity to develop to their full potential as individuals, to contribute economically to our society and to play a full part as active citizens in their communities. That is our conviction, which will be shared across the House. That is why we made it clear, right from the start of the Government's term in office, that we wanted substantially to improve provision for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities. It was not by any means at the end of any list. As my hon. Friend Phil Hope said, the Green Paper on special educational needs appeared early on—in October 1997, less than six months after the general election. It was a high priority, reflecting the importance that we attach to the whole matter.

The hon. Lady referred to the publication of the National Autistic Society's report for autism awareness week, which adds helpfully to our understanding of the developing picture on autism and raises some important issues. We are working closely with the society, which is doing important work. Several of the matters covered in the report will be addressed in the guidance to be issued by the autism working group, on which the National Autistic Society is represented. We expect that to be published in the summer.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development)

On autism, I have been horrified by the stories that I hear parents tell of the battles that they have with, in my case, Norfolk county council's education department in trying to get funding for the Lovaas scheme and the Son-Rise programme. When they get somewhere near the point of securing funding, the health authority tells them that it will not fund the health element, or that speech therapy, which is part of the statement, will not be funded by the education department. There is no attempt to co-ordinate the efforts of the health authority and the education department. Will the Minister look into that to ensure that there is proper co-ordination and joined-up government?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

The hon. Gentleman is right that some parents struggle to get satisfactory provision for their children. Anxieties about that lie behind our recent changes, to which I shall refer shortly. It is especially important that we join up the various sources of support and ensure co-operation to fulfil parents' needs. He is right to draw attention to the difficulties that many people have encountered.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The Minister agreed with Norman Lamb, and therefore with me, that many parents have a struggle. Will he acknowledge that some parents are less able to struggle than others? It is not patronising to say that; I am simply stating the facts because I want to do the best for the most vulnerable.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

We must ensure that the special educational needs of children are met, and that is the aim of our changes.

The hon. Lady referred to the policy on inclusion, which the Conservative Government initiated in some respects. I was pleased that two thirds of the respondents to the report by the National Autistic Society believed that inclusion worked for children with autistic spectrum disorders. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby said, that confirms the society's earlier findings. However, I accept that several pressing issues must be tackled.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

During the passage of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, I raised teaching the deaf. I referred to a school in my constituency that had a superb unit for the hearing impaired. Does the Minister seriously believe that it has been effective to dissipate the energy and talent in that school and spread it thinly around a group of less specialist schools in the name of inclusion?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

Those decisions should be made locally. I shall comment on special schools because the hon. Member for Epping Forest mentioned them in her speech. Support should be provided in a variety of ways, depending on the resources available in each area, and the decisions should be made locally.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister says that decisions should be made locally. He knows that the school adjudicator in the case of the first special school in Gloucestershire to close lived in Darlington. How was that decision local?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

Arrangements for dealing with such matters, including appeals to the adjudicator, are well known. In 1990, just over 99,000 pupils were enrolled in special schools; in 2001, the figure was just under 96,000. Conservative Members must bear the figures in mind. They give a different impression from Opposition Members.

After the publication of the Green Paper in 1997, we issued the SEN programme of action in the following year. That led to the publication of a new SEN code of practice in November last year. Hon. Members will recall that we debated it twice in the House. At the end of last year, we also published additional guidance in the form of the SEN toolkit, which offers advice, for example, on writing statements, encouraging effective partnership with parents, and the role of health and social services working alongside education services. The Teacher Training Agency published material to help to identify teachers' training needs. All that constitutes a large package of support for those who deal with SEN on the ground.

The new code has several key themes, which were widely welcomed in the consultation that we undertook. The first is identifying needs as soon as possible. I believe that we all agree that we have made much progress in recent years and that identification is important in ensuring that we fulfil the needs of as many children as possible. The second key requirement is improving partnership with parents and the third is taking account of the child's views. The fourth key requirement is promoting effective school-based provision and the fifth is reducing unnecessary paperwork for teachers.

The code of practice is the cornerstone of our approach to SEN: a detailed framework in which people can operate and that is designed to promote a consistent approach by placing children with special needs at the heart of the process.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

I worked in special needs for 10 years, and I was always impressed by the infinite patience of the parents of children with learning disabilities. The Green Paper in 1997 raised expectations and it was disappointing that it was ultimately resource-driven rather than needs-driven. Many parents feel bitterly let down because their expectations were raised only to be dampened because the resources were not forthcoming.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

I shall comment on resources shortly, but the code took effect in January, and I expect parents to experience the benefits of the changes as they are implemented from now on.

Our approach has been consolidated and extended through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. It strengthened, with effect from January this year, the right to a mainstream place for children with special needs when the child and the parents want one.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest wrongly described our approach to inclusion. It is pragmatic; the social and educational benefits of learning in a mainstream environment are undoubtedly significant both for the children and those around them. However, it will not be right for all children and families. In some cases, a mainstream place will not be appropriate and parents will request a specialist placement. We believe that pupils should be included in mainstream provision when their parents want that, subject to protecting the learning and safety of other children.

Schools and local education authorities need support to implement a policy of inclusion, and the statutory guidance that was published last November establishes the new statutory framework for inclusion. It includes practical advice on some steps that schools can take to include special educational needs children successfully. We published support materials and a training package, which have been well received. They set out the way in which inclusion and school improvement can go hand in hand.

The 2001 Act represents a big step forward in strengthening arrangements for collaborative working with parents. That is the key theme of the code. Hon. Members recognised that it was an important subject on which we needed to make progress. We have therefore introduced a new legal duty on local education authorities to provide parent partnership services and provision for resolving disputes when they arise. Of course, parents have a unique understanding of their children's needs and circumstances and we must give them the ability to play a key role in securing effective provision for their children and dealing with some of the frustrations that have arisen in the past.

We have worked closely with others in implementing the SEN action programme. Ofsted produced guidance and training materials on inclusion for inspectors. Schools will be required to show the effective provision that they make for all their pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. The revised national curriculum was effected from September 2000. It provides for a statutory inclusion statement, which is supported by the curriculum guidelines of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for pupils with learning difficulties. The revised P scales are the performance criteria for children who work below level 1 of the national curriculum. Again, they implement another proposal in the 1997 Green Paper. Both were issued in March last year.

Guidance on supporting children with special educational needs has also been issued for the literacy and numeracy strategies.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Is the Minister worried that the policy of inclusion and co-education for these different types of pupil is made more difficult by the regularity and persistence of academic and quasi-academic testing under this Government? Perhaps the Government have overdone the number and regularity of tests, which we now discover from some of the research are not very effective. They end up teaching the better pupils how to pass them, but we then discover that those pupils do not know very much about English or mathematics after all, while some of the other children about whom we are concerned tonight feel even more excluded because of this persistent testing.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

I do not agree with that. I advise the right hon. Gentleman to visit some of the schools that have made a huge success of implementing a policy of inclusion, while also making a great success of raising their standards as measured by the assessment process that we have in place. There are some superb examples where both are being achieved simultaneously, and I do not agree that there need be a conflict between them.

We have established the 11 SEN regional co-ordination projects to bring together LEAs, health and social services, voluntary agencies and others to share good practice, and to develop their working together as they undoubtedly need to, in this area above all. Effective joint working is of key importance to young people with special educational needs.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 is also making a big contribution to securing fair treatment for disabled young people. It extended the coverage of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to education, outlawed discrimination by disability in education for both teachers and students, and placed a duty on schools and LEAs to plan ahead for disabled pupils and to increase accessibility to schools' premises and to the curriculum. Those changes take effect from September. That is another major step forward, a further realisation of the Government's commitment to make a reality of better provision.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Before the Minister finishes this section of his speech, will he tell the House what the involvement of the Learning and Skills Council is? Whether or not we think that the Government are delivering on SEN provision for children up to the age of 16, many of us fear that when children move into further education, they do not get the same support as before, and parents do not feel that they have the same rights as before. I would be interested to know what the Minister feels about that function of the Learning and Skills Council.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that progress has been made in schools. There is still a good deal further to go, but good progress has been made. We want comparable progress in further education. The duty arising from the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 also applies to the activities of the Learning and Skills Council. We have supported that by funding and by capital, and I think that we can be optimistic that we shall see comparable progress in that sector; it may be following a little distance behind, but not very far.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

I raise this issue because I understand that the Government are now considering removing sixth forms from schools, creating sixth-form college provision throughout the country, and removing 14-to-19 provision from further education colleges. If that is the case, it is a significant change of policy, which will affect special educational needs. I would be grateful if the Minister could either scotch that rumour, confirm it, or at least tell us what the relationship between these new organisations and special needs provision is to be, when he has got his Minister's briefing.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

I am very happy to scotch that rumour. I am not sure quite what its source was, but it is certainly not in any of the proposals that we have put forward, as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had read carefully—as I would expect him to—the documents that we have provided. There will, of course, be a role for the LSC in planning, but the suggestion that we are going to take the sixth forms out of schools is entirely erroneous. Indeed, the Green Paper refers to ways in which we can simplify the expansion of sixth forms, where that is appropriate.

We have ensured that better resources are available to support the active policy of inclusion that we have introduced. This is a key part of this debate, and my hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell has referred to it already. Education spending as a share of gross domestic product fell from 6.5 per cent. in the mid-1970s to not much more than 4.5 per cent. in the mid-1990s. Last year, it was back up to 5 per cent., it will rise to 5.3 per cent. by next year, and the Chancellor has foreseen further rises beyond that in his Budget statement. The resources that we need to make a success of the policy are becoming available.

That is certainly the case with recurrent funding, and the average recurrent funding per pupil will have risen in real terms by more than £760 a year by 2003–04, compared with 1997–98. The support that we provide for SEN under the standards fund has risen year on year, and it is running at record levels, supporting expenditure of £91 million in 2002–03, which is more than five times the amount available in 1997–98.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

While I accept that many parents welcome the opportunity provided by inclusion and have seen its benefits, an increasing number do not regard it as the ideal solution to the educational needs of their children. There is a great worry that the choice of those parents will be ignored, and that they will be forced into a corner and have to accept what they consider to be the second-best method of achieving their child's full potential. Where does the Minister rank parental choice in the pecking order of priorities when placing someone in education?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

I assign to it absolutely pivotal importance in these decisions, and that is the basis for the framework that we have put in place. There is undoubtedly an enormous amount to be gained from mainstream provision for disabled children and children with special educational needs, where they can benefit from it. It is also undoubtedly the case that many young people who have not been in mainstream provision would have benefited greatly from it. We want to ensure that it will be possible for those benefits to be available in the future. But that does not apply to all children and young people by any means. There will, therefore, continue to be provision in special schools and elsewhere for those who will benefit from that. The role of the parents in contributing to those decisions is central.

Photo of Mike Hancock Mike Hancock Liberal Democrat, Portsmouth South

What would the Minister say to an LEA that believes that inclusion is the only solution for the long-term educational needs of such young people, closes special schools and denies a choice to those parents who would have liked their children to stay in special schools, the ethos of which has existed for decades and which have provided great educational benefits for children? What will happen to LEAs that deny their responsibility to provide parents with that choice?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

That option is not available to LEAs. Parents who are unhappy with a decision made by an LEA can go to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal, and the tribunal's decision will be binding. I have already referred to the parent partnership requirements that we have imposed on LEAs, and all this will ensure that parents play a key central role in contributing to these decisions.

In resourcing all this, we have also made a lot of progress on capital spending. Capital spending on schools has more than trebled since 1997–98, and it will go up again this year and next year. Within that, the schools access initiative is providing £220 million over the current three-year period. In the current financial year, £70 million is being provided to improve access to mainstream schools for pupils with disabilities. That includes lifts, ramps and disabled toilets, of course, but also carpeting and the acoustic tiling of classrooms to benefit hearing-impaired children, and the provision of blinds and paint schemes to benefit visually impaired children. These are real practical benefits that will widen opportunities for pupils, and that level of capital investment is about 10 times that of 1997.

Photo of Phil Willis Phil Willis Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

On capital investment, I have Henshaw's school for the blind in my constituency. It deals with young adults, from 16 upwards. Most are deaf-blind and come to the college from all over the country. The school is an independent charity that desperately needs to provide new facilities to meet the new Care Standards Act 2000. What access does that school, and others that offer what the Government require as alternative provision, have to capital funding to meet the requirements of another piece of legislation?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

I should be happy to look at the position of the hon. Gentleman's local school. About 10 times more capital is being invested in making the changes that we need than was the case a few years ago.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The Hampton hearing-impaired unit in my constituency was a state-of-the-art, purpose-built unit with specialist teachers, concentrated on one site but within a mainstream junior school. The effort has been dissipated, and no amount of capital will replicate all those resources in every school and the teachers to go with them. It simply does not make sense.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

Clearly, a decision has been made that the best way of providing support for the children in the hon. Gentleman's area is through the new configuration that has been introduced. I am not familiar with the circumstances there, but I emphasise the enormous benefits for children of being in mainstream education, where that is possible, and of being given the support to make a success of that. Opposition Members are losing sight of that in some of their interventions.

We are committed to ensuring that staff have the skills to recognise and address the special educational needs of their pupils. To obtain qualified teacher status, all trainee teachers must demonstrate that they can identify pupils with special educational needs, know their responsibilities as teachers under the SEN code of practice and how to seek advice from specialists. From September, all those who are awarded QTS must be able to demonstrate that they can differentiate their teaching to meet the differing needs of pupils, including those with SEN.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

I need to make some more progress, if my hon. Friend will allow me.

For teachers already in post and other staff, we are promoting the creation of new or enhanced training opportunities through two £1 million funding streams in the current financial year supporting training activity by special voluntary organisations and higher education training providers. We are intending to commission new training resources directly in a number of areas, for example, ensuring greater access for pupils with disabilities to PE and sport, and providing a training video for school governors linked to the SEN code of practice.

We have also recognised the importance of investing in the early years to make sure that children get the right help early on and have the best possible start to their education. This is a fundamental change. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, significant numbers of children are entering secondary education without their needs being met, and we do not want that to continue.

In March last year, we announced a £25 million package in support of SEN in the early years, including support for establishing SEN co-ordinators—SENCOs—in early years education settings and area SENCOs, with a target of one area SENCO for every 20 non-maintained settings by 2004.

We announced last year that we were drawing together a range of agencies to develop guidance for professionals working with children with disabilities in the birth to two age range and their families. That guidance is ready and will be issued shortly for consultation. There will be a separate but linked document on early intervention and support services for children whose hearing impairments have been identified early, and that will be produced in conjunction with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Those two sets of guidance will make a big contribution to addressing the needs of very young children and will reinforce the importance of effective partnerships with parents.

In everything that they do, schools rightly want to ensure that the work that they put in to helping all their pupils to learn is properly recognised. We are committed to supplementing the information that is already in performance tables with information about how far schools, including special schools, help their pupils to progress between the various stages of their education. The performance tables, following piloting work, will include value-added measures from 2002 for secondary schools and from 2003 for primary schools. We want to do still more in that area.

There is a great deal more to do if we are to realise our aims. Much of our work since 1997 has focused on widening access and opportunity for children with SEN through improvements to the statutory framework. We are going forward in partnership with schools, local education authorities, health and social services departments and the voluntary sector to bring about real improvements.

Photo of John Mann John Mann Labour, Bassetlaw

Statementing in my local education authority is a third of the national average. What advice, guidance or training are LEAs given in determining how to statement children?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

A good deal of guidance has been given, and I have referred to a number of elements. With the regional SEN consortiums, we are making sure that good practice is spread throughout the regions and that successful LEAs can impart the benefit of their experience to those that have not been as successful. I hope that we will increasingly see good practice being uniformly operated across the country.

We have not reached our destination yet, but we are well on the way.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Schools)

I will not give way again.

I welcome the opportunity of this debate to re-emphasise our commitment to make further progress, which, I know, reflects a high priority that is shared across the House.

Photo of Mr David Rendel Mr David Rendel Liberal Democrat, Newbury 8:16, 21 May 2002

Let us start with the good news. The good news is that society's growing awareness of special educational needs has, over the past few years, made this a much more civilised country in which to live.

One of the commonest mistakes made by people in the second half of their lives—the over-50s, to which group, sadly, I belong—is to believe that since their childhood, everything has been getting gradually worse. I do not believe that, and if there is one thing about our society that has undoubtedly improved during my lifetime, it is the way in which people who have some form of special need—whether that be intellectual, emotional, or physical—are treated.

Let me be fair and say that the Government have cause to be congratulated for contributing to this change in society's attitudes. First, they introduced their 1997 Green Paper "Excellence for All Children: Meeting Special Educational Needs" and then in 2001 came their amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Both measures were very welcome. However, before the Government get too complacent, l wish to press them on one point. Given that the target date for implementation of the measures set out in the Green Paper was 2002, I hope that the Minister winding up for the Government will take the opportunity to provide the House with an update on where they are with their objectives.

To return to my point, in our parents' days it was common practice, sadly, to shut away people with physical or mental disabilities in an institution, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Gradually, during our lifetimes, that has changed. Now, quite rightly, we accept that everyone has the right to opportunities to make the best of their talents and abilities, however great or small those may be.

The waste of talent—the waste of human lives—that used to occur is greatly reduced. Let me give an example from my constituency. Only a few years ago, a young lad with very severe congenital physical problems wanted to go to a local mainstream comprehensive school in west Berkshire. The school simply was not adapted to meet his needs, but the head teacher had the courage to fight for the funds to make the necessary structural changes and, to its credit, the local authority paid up.

The boy went to that mainstream school and was very successful. He obtained good exam results, joined in school expeditions and was popular with his schoolmates. He ended up as head boy and is now a successful university student. He, the local authority, and the head teacher who fought to enable him to be educated alongside others without his level of physical disability deserve great credit.

However, the real success of that story is what happened not to that young man, but to all the other young men and women in that school. They learned far more lessons than he did. They learned what it was like to have a disability, what help he needed, and how much they could gain from him and his companionship. They also learned that, to do that, it was sometimes necessary to give a bit in return. They had to take turns helping to push his wheelchair; they had to help him upstairs; they had to carry things that were too bulky or heavy for him to carry.

That example serves to illustrate some wider themes. First, society benefits from an inclusive education system that is right in principle. Wherever possible, the individual requirements of children with special educational needs should be met within the mainstream educational system. We all benefit from the talents unlocked as a result. Secondly, schools and teachers across the country—the front line—deserve to be congratulated on their hard work and dedication in meeting the diverse needs of the children in their care. Thirdly, they undertake that work in the context of a frequent shortage of money, and the constant development and expansion of our understanding of special educational needs.

That is not the only problem; there is also a lack of joined-up thinking across the education system as a whole. For example, what happens when SEN pupils move through the education system? Sometimes, we discover that facilities are in place to meet their requirements at primary level, but not at secondary level. The standard of provision varies widely across the country, and sometimes such pupils move across the country. As a recent Audit Commission consultative paper pointed out:

"LEAs are working towards inclusion at different paces and using a range of approaches—often without a clear and coherent strategy . . . the support and educational opportunities children with special needs get vary depending on where they live and what school they go to."

None the less, mainstream schools are not right for everyone. Sadly, however much LEAs try to include young people with special educational needs in such schools, for the foreseeable future at least, there will always be some for whom mainstream schools simply cannot provide properly. Special schools also face major problems.

According to provisional departmental figures for 2002, there are 14,900 teachers in maintained special schools, compared with 15,100 in 2000, and 15,500 in 1997. The teacher vacancy rate for maintained special schools is 2.4 per cent, which is double the rate—1.2 per cent.—for maintained secondary, primary and nursery schools. Unlike elsewhere in the maintained sector, the trend in vacancy rates in maintained special schools is upwards, not downwards.

Underlying all those difficulties is the question of funding. The medical advances of the previous century were such that many people with natural disadvantages can live happy and successful lives as never before—a development that must be welcome. Moreover, such lives often last much longer than in past centuries. It is therefore hugely important that schoolchildren in mainstream schools study alongside others with different natural disadvantages, so that they can learn how to help them and how to get the most out of such schoolmates. However, that costs money. Schools must be given the necessary resources to cope with special educational needs, especially where the pupils' needs are so great that they cannot reasonably be met in a mainstream school.

I shall illustrate these points by considering some examples. We have—sadly, I should say we did have—several excellent special schools in my constituency, but I want to contrast just three, the first of which is the well-known Mary Hare grammar school for the deaf. Anyone who visits it is struck by the outstanding results that are achieved there by some of Britain's most profoundly deaf youngsters. I have never forgotten my first visit. As I was wandering down a corridor, I suddenly heard, as if from some distant place, the beautiful sound of a solo clarinet. Ignorant as I then was of the fantastic musical abilities of many deaf children, I was amazed to discover that a school for deaf children could not only contain many talented individual musicians, but put together an entire orchestra of musicians, just like any mainstream school.

Of course, the teachers need special training and the pupils need special help, and the cost of running the school is such that the local authorities sometimes baulk at the expense. Luckily, its reputation is so high that it can still flourish, but who could blame the local authorities—constantly strapped for cash as they are, thanks to real-terms cutbacks by central Government—for hesitating to spend much more on one Mary Hare pupil than they must spend on a mainstream, comprehensive- educated pupil? That is a real dilemma for the local authorities, and it is up to the Government to help them redress it.

The second example is Priors Court school, in Chieveley, to which it is even more difficult to persuade local authorities to send autistic children, despite the good work done by the National Autistic Society. Its facilities are outstanding. For example, it has an amazing swimming pool, with lights and sounds that provide a wonderfully stimulating environment. A very high teacher-pupil ratio gives each child the individual attention that they need to enable them to play a real part in society as adults. Thanks to some generous private individuals—one in particular—some children, at least, are getting the real start in life that they probably could not get anywhere else.

Sadly, that school can be contrasted with what was Enborne Lodge school. Although situated in Newbury, it was originally an old Greater London council school. When Mrs. Thatcher—as she then was—closed down the GLC in a fit of pique, the school was transferred to Lambeth borough. It would be difficult to think of a less suitable London borough. Of course, within a few years, Lambeth's own financial problems led to the closure of the school. What a waste.

While in existence, Enborne Lodge took under its wing some of London's most difficult pupils. Some had committed terrible crimes, such as burning down schools and committing violent acts against family members and others. Such children often came from violent backgrounds. Their parents beat each other up, and sadly they often beat and abused their children as well. None the less, at Enborne Lodge those children were given a completely new start in life. The children had emotional and behavioural difficulties, and for the first time in their lives, they were valued for what they could do instead of being despised for what they could not do.

Enborne Lodge often discovered hidden talents. Some of the pupils became first-class sportsmen and sportswomen. Some took their exams and went on to university and to important jobs in the community. The head teacher believed that all of them would probably have spent most of their lives in jail if they had not been to Enborne Lodge. The cost of the school, which in the end became too much for Lambeth to bear, was far less than the cost to society had those pupils not been given a second opportunity in life and, instead, been left to rot in prison.

The costs of providing properly for those with special educational needs have to be weighed carefully against the often even greater costs of not providing for them properly. At a recent hearing of the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, which was called to discuss the closure of the dome, David James, the former executive chairman of the New Millennium Experience Company, made an interesting comment. He said that all too often the Government have such an obsession with getting the cheapest possible service available at any one time that we often end up by spending a great deal more in the long run. The Liberal Democrats have frequently said that, and I was delighted to have it confirmed by such an authoritative source. Moreover, nowhere is it truer than in special educational needs. Short-term thinking, driven by the need to reduce costs, simply results in other costs. There are costs to society, because of the talents and abilities that are wasted as a result, and there are financial costs, because other budgets are often left to pick up the pieces.

Education must be about unlocking the talents and abilities of individuals. That is what SEN provision is about, too. In contrast, league tables and testing assume that all children start their school life equal. The danger is that those with special educational needs are left by the wayside. We cannot afford to let that happen, and we must not let that happen. We must not fail those who need us most.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Labour, St Helens South 8:30, 21 May 2002

The Minister has come under something of an attack. I was surprised by that because over the years the subject of special educational needs has been a matter of consensus rather than combat. SEN policies have been criticised before. I shall remind the Minister of a speech in which it was said:

"Let me tell the Minister that we need more help in the country now. We need more residential educational facilities, and more respite for parents; we also need to provide more day provision for autistic adults. The Government must begin by reviewing the needs of the forgotten children."—[Hansard, 17 May 1995; Vol. 260, c.310.]

That is the sort of speech that Mrs. Laing might have made, but in fact those were the words of the then Member for Finchley.

Special educational needs are important. They involve a vulnerable group of people, and the House needs to be cautious when it chooses to use such people as the subject of an Opposition day debate. It is easy to make criticisms that turn vulnerable people into political footballs without providing adequate ideas about how we should deal with the problem.

Indeed, we have been dealing with the problem for a long time. The solutions evolve as we learn more about the problems of children with SEN and children with autism. The shadow Leader of the House, when he was an Education Minister in 1992, said:

"We hope to establish a consensus and to achieve the greatest possible agreement in order to identify the best ways to serve, help and support the children who deserve every support and help."—[Hansard, 3 July 1992; Vol. 210, c. 1134.]

Again, I caution the hon. Member for Epping Forest about the dangers of turning the debate into a combat rather than a matter of consensus.

The problem of a shortfall of specialist teachers is not new either. Back in 1994, it was said:

"There is a shortfall of available specialist teachers. The number completing courses in teaching pupils with severe learning difficulties fell from 200"— just 200—

"in 1989 to 80 in 1993. The number of teachers of hearing-impaired children qualifying has fallen from 150 to 110. The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf reports an average age of more than 40 for new trainees and a serious fall-off in younger teachers. Special schools and support services are having difficulty in filling appointments with qualified people."—[Hansard, 9 May 1994; Vol. 243, c. 38.]

We need to be careful of ignoring the fact that the problems are not new. They are continuing and will remain with us for as long as the problem remains with us.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

Strange as it may seem, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. This is not a matter for party political banter—as I said. He is right to say that the problems have always been with us and are still with us now. We must not look back at statistics, but forwards at what can be done. If a consensus that allows us all to work together can be achieved, let us achieve it.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Labour, St Helens South

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for saying that. However, she needs to achieve greater consensus within her party, which faces the eternal problem of how to fund policies. She talks about the importance of greater resources and more provision, but if a party is committed to reducing Government spending to 35 per cent. of GDP, it raises the fundamental question of where it is going to make the cuts. Knowing her as I do, I am sure that the hon. Lady would want to ring-fence this area. Clearly, we would wish to give her the opportunity to say so this evening.

I shall remind the hon. Lady again of the words of Mr. Lansley a couple of years ago:

"The ambition to develop special schools as centres of expertise to collaborate with and support mainstream schools is a correct aspiration".

He was absolutely right. The head teachers of special schools in my county, however, say that they have heard such ideas before. They are absolutely right—they have heard them before. They are all too well aware of the funding implications. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire continued:

"The issue is how that is to be afforded."—[Hansard, 5 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 628.]

The hon. Lady therefore needs to consult her colleagues on this issue. She also needs to bear in mind, when she puts forward this combative motion, the words of Mr. Turner, among others of her hon. Friends, who recently said:

"What goes on in the classroom and the school is only a small part of the education that the child needs. Especially in the case of a child who suffers from . . . autism".—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 9 January 2002; Vol. 377, c. 238WH.]

We must therefore see the issue in its real context.

The real criticism relates to how the problem was dealt with before 1991. The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the problem of statistics. The fact is that before 1991 we did not even count the numbers. There is real criticism to be made of those lost years, for the sake of those forgotten children—today's adults—who suffered so much. The statistics are important, and she is right to remind Ministers of the importance of continuing to collate them.

The hon. Lady referred earlier to all those tragedies, but we must also be careful to avoid talking only about tragedies. As a result of the changes in our thinking, on which Mr. Rendel and others have commented, we—including the hon. Lady's party, when in office—have achieved notable success. We must therefore be careful to avoid pointing only to what is going wrong, not to what is going right. The number of pupils with statements has increased each year since 1991, but the reason for that, of course, is that we are diagnosing those children. There are not suddenly more of them than there were before, but now we know where they are and who they are.

How are we to respond to the problem? Again, it is to the credit of the Conservative Government that the Education Act 1996 sought to give effect to the principle that pupils with special educational needs should normally be educated in mainstream schools. We must not lose sight of the importance of that decision, and the real progress that was achieved when that Government made it. As a principle of provision, the present Government have continued that policy since the election in 1997. That is right, and there have been some fantastic successes. In 1991, 165,875 children were identified as pupils with statements. That figure was up by nearly 100,000 in 1997, and today it is 269,000.

Crucially, those children have gone into mainstream education wherever possible. Let us celebrate that success. In 1991, 42 per cent. were in maintained mainstream schools; today that figure is 61 per cent. That is a good thing. In 1991, 54 per cent. were in special schools and pupil referral units; by 2000 that figure was down to 36 per cent. That is a cause for real celebration. That inclusion was achieved by the hon. Lady's party when in government, and was continued by the Labour party in government. Consensus across the House has been important in achieving that. I note the importance of caution with regard to turning the issue of children with special educational needs into an area of political combat. We have done well to keep it away from that, and we now need to be cautious about moving it into the arena as a political football.

In opposition the Labour party produced the document "Every Child is Special", which rightly drew attention to the fact that

"too high a proportion of the resources devoted to special educational needs was being spent on bureaucratic procedures", and that too much time was spent on

"confrontational relationships between parents and local authorities."

The Government were right to tackle some of that. They were also right to increase the funding in special schools, despite the fall in the overall balance by 20 per cent. We should acknowledge that that funding has gone in. We should also acknowledge the Government's success in making it possible for children in mainstream schools to have access to such funding. That is not a criticism of the previous Government, but an observation of where our priorities as a society were.

In 1996–97 the extra budget made available to help to make the mainstream accessible to disabled pupils was £10 million. In 2001 it was £50 million, and over the next three years there is a commitment to spend £220 million under the schools access initiative. That is a good record, but we can do more.

The motion draws on the document "Autism in schools: crisis or challenge?" produced by the National Autistic Society. I am proud to be involved with that organisation, and I have enjoyed helping it with fund raising. We owe the society a great debt for the work that it has done. However, let us be fair about the figures. Even the society's current report says that it is surprised by the numbers of children with autism. It points out that only 90 per cent. of all teachers are trained in the specific problems of children with autism, but it realises that catch-up inevitably has to follow diagnosis. Training of teachers will follow recognition of the problem.

Photo of Norman Lamb Norman Lamb Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development)

The Disabilities Trust makes the point about the crucial need for early diagnosis and assessment. Lost years can have a fatal effect on a child's development. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more training needs to go into early diagnosis and assessment?

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Labour, St Helens South

I agree with that, and towards the end of my remarks I shall have a suggestion for my hon. Friend the Minister that will involve a dialogue with the Treasury.

Part of the Conservative party's criticism of the Government's approach to education is that it is too centralised. However, the hon. Member for Epping Forest should look more closely at the report from the National Autistic Society that is cited in the Opposition's motion. The society wants local education authorities to receive a strong lead from the centre so that they can deal with the problem. It wants central Government to tell LEAs to direct their resources to tackling autism and to concentrate them on providing teachers with more specialist training in dealing with the problems of children with autism. That is not a question of one size fits all; those at the sharp end of dealing with autism say that a lead from the centre will bring about fundamental changes.

We have heard much talk about what has been achieved in hon. Members' constituencies, and it gives me great pleasure to refer to my constituency in St. Helens. Luckily, we have just succeeded with a bid for a new school in St. Helens for children with special educational needs. Through the work of my LEA and its successful leader, Susan Richardson, we received the top award of £5 million. The LEA is providing the extra £1.5 million, and in two years the school will open in one of the most deprived parts of my constituency. It will take 170 children, with specialist teachers and specialist training. That must be a step forward, and I am grateful to the Government for providing the money.

However, no matter what we do, the solution for some children with autism will not be found in mainstream education. As Norman Lamb said, early intervention is crucial. If we meet the children when they are two or two and a half and intervene intensively on a one-to-one basis, there is a chance that, with special help, they can be integrated into mainstream education when they are five or six. I am sure that all Members would want that.

I recently came across the case of a young boy called Toby. He was three when he was diagnosed with autism in 1996. He lives in Camden with his mother, who went to the local authority and said that she needed special help for her boy. Camden had a school for children with special educational needs, but no special provision for children with autism. The boy's mother, who is an enterprising and energetic woman and works in the theatre, got the resources together to create a project called the Treehouse school. Five or six years later, that school has 30 children of primary school age.

I have been carefully complimentary about the Government's policies, so I shall direct my next remarks to my hon. Friend the Minister. The Treehouse school wants to expand its facilities so that it can take 80 children. There is no other such facility in Camden, and all but two of its 30 pupils are paid for by LEAs.

The school is running an appeal to raise nearly £11 million for its expansion, but £2.5 million of that is for VAT, which will find its way to the Chancellor. I am sure that he will find excellent ways to redistribute that money round the country, but I ask the Minister whether it is sensible to expect the school to raise those extra funds before it can build facilities for children whose places will be paid for by an LEA. After all, we are trying to tackle the problems of children with autism and we are encouraging the charitable sector to come up with creative solutions. The school in Camden is an excellent solution, and it fulfils a need that was not previously being met. Treehouse is an excellent model. It is doing pioneering American work that is changing the treatment of autism among young people and children of primary and secondary school age. If we mean what we say, and if we are a reforming Government in every area, we may need to consider reforming VAT to help special schools to do their work.

In their motion the Conservatives call for the Government

"to set out clearly its plans for this sector".

The hon. Member for Epping Forest spoke about vision, and I have to say that not only have the Government displayed vision since their time in opposition, when they published a paper on the subject, but there has been action, in my constituency and throughout the country.

Today I asked charities, such as the one cited in the motion, what they thought of Government policy. First, they are delighted with the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Secondly, they feel that the legislation is better than ever before in enshrining the rights of every child with special educational needs. Thirdly, they commend the national autism good practice working group and the national initiative for autism screening and assessment. The people at the coal face think that the Government are doing well.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The theory that the hon. Gentleman puts forward is right, but does he not agree that there are thousands of parents who have to fight to get what is due to their children? A statement of need is issued and parents are told that the child has certain rights, but the local authority, the health authority and social services are unable to honour those rights because the necessary infrastructure does not exist.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Labour, St Helens South

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and she is making a wonderful case for championing the most vulnerable children. I only wonder, in light of what she said, why special educational needs was not a central part of the speech made by the leader of her party earlier today, in which he said that he would champion children. I have just read the press release of that speech, and I cannot find a word about children with special educational needs or autism.

I know that last week, which was national autism week, the Conservative party carried out a survey, and surveys are important in raising awareness. In the same week the party published its first important document on education—10,000 words of it, after eight months of intensive work. It is all about how we might begin to modernise education, but in 10,000 words there was not one word about autism and only half a line about special educational needs. There was not a policy or a proposal.

Photo of Shaun Woodward Shaun Woodward Labour, St Helens South

No, I am about to finish my speech.

This is an important subject, but if there is to be anything more than combat, and if the leader of the Conservative party means to champion children, he must take the most vulnerable, those who need to be championed, and include them in his speech. Of course the hon. Lady's speech in the House this evening was important, but is she saying that it was more important than that of her party's leader? Last week was national autism week, so why did the Conservative leader not refer to autism if it is important enough to dominate the party's parliamentary time? It is important to match the rhetoric with action.

In the report on education that the Conservative party produced last week, there was nothing about autism but a great deal about Gladstone. When I was at school I learned about Gladstone in the context of the 19th century being a period of reaction and reform. Gladstone was indeed a radical reformer; the problem with the motion is that it is all reaction and no reform.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. May I point out to right hon. and hon. Members that there is not a great deal of time left in this debate, so brevity would be helpful?

Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard Conservative, South West Norfolk 8:50, 21 May 2002

I am delighted to have the chance to contribute to this debate on a very important subject. I should like to start by saying that it should be absolutely evident that there is no political disagreement about the importance of special educational needs, but that is not the same as saying that there is no disagreement throughout the education system about how those needs are best met. Perhaps more than on any other issue, there is constant and vigorous debate between professionals and parents about the relative merits of special schools and supported education in mainstream schools.

I shall reply briefly to the points made by Mr. Woodward. He cannot imagine that the document published last week or the speech made today represent the Conservative party's final words on education, and we have initiated this debate to raise a number of issues, including autism.

The watchwords for this debate, as for other education issues, should be diversity and choice in so far as they can be achieved, especially in rural areas, and flexibility in the system, bearing in mind the variety and complexity of the educational needs of the children we are talking about and the fact that those needs are rarely static. To those watchwords we should add the need for the fullest possible information for, and the involvement of, parents and the best achievable co-ordination of the different responsible agencies locally.

What has been interesting about this evening—it would be equally interesting if we had more time—is the fact that we all bring our own experiences to this debate. We have heard about some moving examples from hon. Members' constituencies. I know, because I have heard him say so on many occasions, that the former Secretary of State for Education and Employment, now the Secretary of State for the Home Department, having himself attended a special school, is very much in favour of inclusiveness and educating children with special needs in mainstream schools. Although the Government of whom I was a member certainly stressed the importance of moving towards, where possible, as much inclusion as we could, my own experience of more than 30 years in education, one way and another, has influenced me to differ from the right hon. Gentleman's view.

My memory goes back to my experience of a post-war primary school in rural Norfolk, where the concept of special needs education, except for the blind and deaf, was quite unknown. As a result, in my 30-pupil primary school, children with pronounced special needs were not educated, but seated and, when possible, kept occupied next to the teacher and alongside us. That same teacher, in a two-teacher school, was also the head teacher. She was responsible for organising the work of about 15 children of all abilities between the ages of seven and 11. As a result, the special needs children got no chance at all.

When some residential special schools were opened in Norfolk in the early 1950s, the life chances of the children alongside us and their counterparts in all the other schools were transformed beyond all imagining, especially given some of their family circumstances.

In the intervening many decades since then, the pendulum of educational fashion has swung back and forth. We are currently in a phase that is worrying many heads of special schools. We heard what the Minister for School Standards had to say this evening, and I hope that we shall hear further reassurance from his colleague, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, when she makes her closing remarks. However, given the number of closures that have taken place and the examples of the LEAs' attitudes that we have heard about, there is no doubt that many head teachers of special schools feel that those schools, and the loving care and devotion that they and their staff provide, are under threat.

No one could seriously argue against the rightness of inclusion for all pupils, especially those who throughout their lives, because of their disabilities, may in any case feel excluded from mainstream life. It is a question of how best to balance the needs of any particular child at a given point in his or her life, and how best to equip that child to realise his or her full potential. That, surely, is the point of inclusiveness.

What is needed—we are not there yet, and we were not there in my time either—is the utmost flexibility between the special school system and supported education in mainstream schools. It is a pity if the dedicated work done in special schools is somehow devalued in the eyes of those who work in them because of the swing of the pendulum. We need both routes for these children, but with many crossing points between them at every stage.

Because of the need for crossing points, an essential feature of the education and continuing development of children with special needs is the closest possible co-ordination and co-operation at local level. We can all give excellent examples of that. Because of the time constraint I will not give lengthy examples from my constituency; I merely say that it is possible for a special school to work closely with a local training centre, which can in turn work closely with a further education college.

I did not agree with what was said by Mr. Willis, who is not here now, about what went on in FE colleges. In my experience at any rate, the work of FE colleges has been one of the great unsung successes of our age. The excitement and satisfaction gained by young people from their status as students is an object lesson in real inclusiveness, which I hope will not be adversely affected by the new regime of training and skills councils.

The main difficulty is coping with the anxieties of parents. They need to know their rights with regard to statements, and they need the greatest possible reassurance at all times. In no area is collaboration between all relevant agencies more vital. Like every other Member, I find that the most distressing letters in my postbag have come from parents who know that something is wrong with their children but are having to put up with delays and, sometimes, failure to communicate on the part of the various agencies. They feel that they are being pushed around through various kinds of bureaucracy, while having to cope with the appalling uncertainty involved in suspecting that their children may be different from others.

Many such parents are reassured by the knowledge that their children will be catered for by the specialised skills of a special school. Despite the best will in the world, a child inappropriately placed in mainstream education, even with support, may be a source of continuing worry and uncertainty for parents. Parents worry about whether the next class teacher will be as understanding as the present one, whether the child is being mocked or bullied and is not telling anyone, whether the support assistant will stay in her job, and whether the hours of support will be reduced.

That is not to denigrate the excellent work done in mainstream education for children with special needs. Clearly the appropriateness of a child's placement is the most important issue; but the parents' interests and peace of mind should not be overlooked, and nor should their responsibilities to the other members of the family. I think that a special school placement can help a whole family to survive, providing support that comes not least from other parents of children at the school.

It has been a privilege to speak in the debate. Let me end by saying that there is no one right route. There is a variety of routes, which can be opened through facilitation of the links between the two main pathways. We did not achieve that, and the present Government are not achieving it yet, but that is the direction in which we must go.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet 8:59, 21 May 2002

I do not usually take part in Opposition day debates, because they tend to be choreographed rituals. First, the Opposition spokesman has to describe all the problems of the world as though they started on 2 May 1997 and everything went downhill from then. Then the Government Front-Bench spokesman has to respond by saying that we are actually making steady progress towards some nirvana, and so it goes on.

The beginning of the contribution made by Mrs. Laing did nothing to lift my depression. Although she said that she did not want to turn the debate into a party political football, she did everything she could to make it so during the first 10 minutes of her speech when she spoke in party political language. However, her contribution improved thereafter and she raised some serious questions that I hope we can air presently.

Mrs. Shephard also raised serious concerns and made some important points. However, the Opposition seem to have overlooked at least some of the Government's achievements. They should recognise our achievements. As my hon. Friend Phil Hope said, the Government have increased spending on education for children with special needs by 20 per cent. in real terms. That is not nothing—it should at least be acknowledged.

The Opposition seem completely to have forgotten what has been achieved by the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. It has put parents' preferences first in the legal framework for decisions about a child. Those provisions might not yet be working effectively and that is a legitimate subject for debate, but parents now have the legal right to insist on a mainstream place for their child if they want it. That is in addition to their previous and continuing legal right to insist on a special school place.

Greater inclusion in mainstream education means that local education authorities must constantly review special school provision in their area. I can understand why the Conservative survey found that 25 per cent. of special schools felt threatened. How many of those schools were in Conservative authorities? Conveniently, that information was not included in the Conservative motion.

We all have a responsibility to monitor the provision available in different education authority areas and to make decisions accordingly. It is sad that special schools feel threatened. Many of them—including those in my constituency—are doing a fabulous job, and it would be a tragedy if we lost them. It is up to us, as Members of Parliament, to make that case to our local education authorities; we must make sure that they realise the importance of the work of those schools.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Gentleman speaks with some pride of the 2001 Act; but I and some others had some quarrel with it. The Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, in my constituency, also takes children from his constituency. Is he proud of the fact that, under the Act, the Royal School, which is not a state school, and other members of the national association for special schools, suffer discrimination? Should not they, too, be given the state help that they deserve?

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

The hon. Gentleman raises points that are not covered by the Act. The Act gives parents the legal right to insist on a mainstream school place and puts a duty on schools to provide access for disabled people and people with special needs. It discriminates against special schools only in the sense that they no longer have a captive market of children to attend them. In any case, a good local authority will make sure that it works with special schools to preserve their provision.

The Government are doing exactly that. A school in my constituency, but run by Wandsworth education authority, has just received £3 million for rebuilding work to provide for the needs of its pupils. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench are doing good work and we should acknowledge it.

I have exchanged the ritual abuse with Members on the Opposition Benches. I have fawned appropriately on my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, so I hope that now I can turn to the constructive part of my contribution and talk about the issues raised by the motions. I want especially to talk about autism because, as Members know, I am chairman of the all-party autism group.

There has been discussion today of consensus on autism. The all-party group has 150 members from both Houses and all parties, and I am willing to bet that there is consensus among them on the need for provision for autistic people. There is probably some consensus on the progress that this Government have made, and probably consensus too on where there is still more work to do. It is important that we strive for consensus. I am sure that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench recognise where they are failing and where they need to do more. We need to give them credit for what they have done already.

So, in a spirit of constructive criticism, and knowing how interested the Government are in standard assessment tests, I have decided to mark my autism scorecard against their performance. I am pretty sure that there will be consensus among members of the all-party group on the provision that I describe, although there may be differences of opinion on how well the Government are doing.

The first thing that I would require of the Government is to improve planning for autistic people and special educational needs. The basis of planning is of course good data—knowing how many people for whom services are to be provided. The report published last week by the National Autistic Society said that one in 86 people has been identified by teachers as somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I point out for accuracy—this has not been mentioned in the debate so far—that the society also acknowledged that only one in 152 people has been formally diagnosed and that its own estimate remains at one in 110, and that the Medical Research Council's estimate of the number of autistic people under the age of eight is one in 166.

What can we deduce from those data? We should first acknowledge that we should not get too hung up on data. The level of variation shows how uncertain we are of our figures. One of the things that I first did when I became interested in autism was to ask in a parliamentary question how many people have autism. The Government answered that they did not know. When I challenged a Minister on that later that day and said that it was terrible, I was told that things were worse than I had feared, as the Government did not know that they did not know until I had asked the question. The Government should be given credit for acknowledging the fact that they did not know, and for trying to work out how many people have autism spectrum disorders. Having said that, we still do not have accurate figures.

The report of the all-party group, "The Rising Challenge", identified that 87 per cent. of local education authorities believe that the number of such people is increasing—whether that is through better diagnosis or whether it is a real increase is debatable. So, we should acknowledge that we need to plan for greater provision. I give the Government five out of 10 for recognising that they need better data, but only one out of 10 on top of that for progress so far. That totals six out of 10 for data collection and planning.

Secondly, we need to recognise the variability of needs. Autism spectrum disorders range from people who are high-functioning, who can probably do well with the right help in a mainstream school, to those who have very serious disorders, who could not possibly survive in a mainstream school. There are many special schools and many specialist support units in mainstream schools, so we have the range of provision, but not sufficient quantity of it.

I shall cite an example from Kent, although I do not do so because Kent is any worse than anywhere else. There are 32 specialist unit places for autistic children in mainstream secondary schools in Kent—two units of 16 places—and we have 12,000 autistic people in the county. I am not by any means saying that they all have the same needs and that it would be appropriate to send them all to such units, but those figures show the imbalance between provision and need. So, on the range of schools and support provided, and efforts to boost numbers, we can give the Government seven out of 10.

As my hon. Friend Mr. Woodward mentioned, we need to assess children at an early age, as that helps us to gather data and provide individuals with intensive support. The Government have recognised the need to identify autistic people at an early age, for which we can give them 10 out of 10, as they are the first Government to do so. The Department of Health has supported a national initiative on autism screening and assessment, and a working party is trying to establish best practice in identifying autism. We can therefore give the Government five out of 10 for supporting that initiative, and they will gain the remaining five marks if and when they roll it out across the country.

We need an autism-aware teacher in every school. I have told the House before of a case often cited by the National Autistic Society. A little girl was disruptive in class during literacy hour, when she had to sit in a circle with her schoolmates. An autism-aware teacher realised that she was disruptive because she was not sitting in the same place every time. A coloured carpet tile was provided, and the little girl knows that that is where she sits during literacy hour. The problem was solved with a nice, cheap solution because there was an autism-aware teacher in that school. The Government have provided £82 million for improved teacher training, which is an excellent step forward, but is not enough; we give them five out of 10.

Earlier, I spoke about the primacy of parental concerns in legislation. We ought to acknowledge that and give the Government 10 out of 10 for recognising it.

Intensive therapy was mentioned by the Liberal Democrat spokesman. It is important that we recognise the need to provide such therapy, but there is a lot of dispute about whether that should be done through education or health provision. Many parents have to fight, as the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, to get intensive therapy. In my early days as an MP, I championed the cause of a family who wanted the Lovaas technique for their child; we could not convince the local education authority, and the family had to provide it at their own expense. The child has prospered and will soon be back in a mainstream school at the cost, however, of the parents becoming bankrupt and the break-up of their marriage. Not providing that need when required involves an emotional cost, so the Government score three out of 10 for that.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I shall try to raise something on which we probably agree. Much has been said tonight about schools. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that when parents get their children into a special needs school or a mainstream school, it is tremendously sad that provision is for term time only? During the holidays, provision is cut; the children go back about four paces and have to start at that point the next term.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

The hon. Gentleman is right; he and I agree on that important aspect of provision. However, we must acknowledge that extending provision would add to costs. I am also championing the case of a child who does not have an autistic spectrum disorder but needs special school provision; the provision identified as meeting his needs covers 52 weeks a year and will cost £170,000 a year. The local education authority told me that that would pay for four special teachers, so a significant judgment and a difficult decision have to be made. I therefore award the Government three out of 10 for the provision of intensive therapy.

Finally, the Minister for School Standards did not mention the national service framework for children, which is being championed largely by the Department of Health, but has close ties with the Department for Education and Skills. If it provides a one-stop shop from the point where a child is identified as having special needs to the fulfilment of those needs in education and health, and given that the Government have talked about using autism as an exemplar, we can give them nine out of 10 because the initiative will bring about the most dramatic improvement to the lives of autistic children in a generation. We will give them 10 out of 10 when the final framework is in place and we can make sure it is as good as promised.

That is a total score of 55 out of 80, or 68 per cent. We can give the Government a B and the comment "Room for improvement", as my school reports always used to say. I was always quite pleased to take a mark of 68 per cent. home to my dad. At least I knew that I was not in trouble at home. In the spirit of an Opposition day debate, I can say that that is certainly better than the C-minus of the Conservatives prior to 1997. The Government get a B, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning will acknowledge that although progress has been made, a heck of a lot of progress remains to be made.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:15, 21 May 2002

I shall focus on a particular aspect of the autism spectrum—the problems and education of children who are hyperactive. I raise the matter because of a number of distressing constituency cases which have come to my attention over the past year involving children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and its awful consequences for their families and schools.

In two cases that come to mind, the children are young boys approaching their early teens. It is no surprise that they are young boys, as four out of five children who suffer from hyperactivity are male. The children in those two cases are violent and aggressive towards their parents and teachers, they threaten their siblings in the most frightening ways, they damage their own homes, and their schools cannot handle them. That has been a matter of awful concern to me. Hyperactive children fall between the stools within the local authority. Neither the education department nor the social services department is fully equipped to deal with such cases.

I have looked around to try and find the most appropriate help. It was a joy to find a small organisation based near Chichester called the Hyperactive Children's Support Group, a small charity run by a remarkable lady named Sally Bunday, who set it up because of her own problems more than 30 years ago with her own son, who suffered in the same way. The group's main conclusion is that a link can be drawn between hyperactivity and diet—deficiencies of certain products or excesses of other products.

That probably comes as no surprise to parents. We all know from our own experience or from that of other families about cases of a child being given a red or a blue Smartie or some other food containing colouring, and then exploding moments later. We can see a direct link in our families or our friends' families between those substances and the activities of such children. We need to focus on the awful knock-on effects when that happens while the child is at school.

There are even children's vitamins which are sold to help the child to be active during the day, but which themselves contain colouring. Parents may think that they are sending their child off to school boosted with the energy that he or she requires for the day, but in fact they are sending into the classroom a little time bomb that can go off at any time.

My hon. Friend Mrs. Laing spoke about the lack of statistics. Just last week I asked the Minister of State, Department of Health, Jacqui Smith, how many children were diagnosed with ADHD. I was told that the information requested is not collected centrally, but the reply went on:

"The prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder of all types is estimated at around 5 per cent. of school-aged children, approximately 345,000 six to 16-year-olds in England."—[Hansard, 16 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 872w.]

That means that there are, on average, 500 hyperactive children in each of our constituencies—a frighteningly high level. The problem must be addressed urgently.

There are different approaches, of course. Some suggest prescribing Ritalin, but there is an increasing tendency to look at more natural approaches, such as cutting out colourings and artificial additives. The UK still allows more colourings and additives than any other country in Europe. Perhaps the time has come for labelling to show clearly that the product contains elements which could adversely affect some children and make them subject to hyperactivity. Further work is needed in that direction. We must look at combating mineral deficiency and using products such as evening primrose oil.

It has become clear from the debate that every case is different, so the solution to every case will be different. We must be creative in our approach. We need to work with schools to identify the problem and deal with it. There was a fascinating experiment at a small school in Cornwall, the Tywardeath primary school, where the headmaster, Gordon Walker, asked parents to stop their children eating 21 particular additives. All the parents were happy to take part. As a result, more than half of the 140 students behaved better and were able to concentrate more on their school work. The experiment produced nothing definitive, but evidence of how the problem can be addressed.

The Hyperactive Children's Support Group has also carried out its own survey in which people have followed the Feingold diet, which is based on work pioneered by Dr. Feingold in the United States. The survey found that three quarters of children showed a good response to the diet and that about three quarters of the boys surveyed and more than half the girls had zinc levels that were below normal—a direct contributory factor to hyperactivity.

Only last week, The Independent reported on a study carried out by Dr. Madelaine Portwood, a senior educational psychologist at Durham county council, who asked schools in her area to give supplements of fish and plant extracts so that the effect could be monitored. The report states:

"Analysis at the halfway stage of the study shows remarkable advantages among children taking the supplements . . . One child's reading skills improved by the equivalent of four years after only 12 weeks of taking the supplements."

The report goes on to quote Andrew Westerman, one school's headmaster, as saying:

"It's like lights being switched on."

That is the sort of evidence that we must take into account. Dr. Portwood said:

"Why are there so many more children with developmental problems? The most significant change in the last 20 years has been the diet of children, and that is why we are exploring the use of food supplements."

Those are a number of ways in which schools can help in investigating special educational needs. I hope that we can find a number of schools around the country that are prepared to consider conducting pilot projects that will allow us further to explore these issues, and that the Government will make funding available. They have a healthy eating programme for which they give additional funds to county councils. Perhaps they could use that programme to fund some pilot projects to enable us to find out where the science is correct. There is a strong divergence of views among scientists and we must make an assessment. Even if we asked for children to undergo a nutritional assessment so we could decide and identify deficiencies and find out whether there was a correlation in relation to children with behavioural problems, we would make a significant advance. Every parent knows that a link exists and we must address it more seriously as part of the work of the House.

I should like briefly to mention one other matter that relates directly to autism. Last week, I visited a group in my constituency called Step-by-Step. The group has been set up by parents and grandparents of children who have autism. They want to establish a specialist school in Crowborough. The model on which they have chosen to base the school is the Treehouse school, to which Mr. Woodward referred—one of three schools that are currently adopting an approach called applied behaviour analysis. When Nick Hornby, himself the father of an autistic son, addressed that issue in a recent article in The Observer, he asked:

"How are we going to educate all these autistic kids, when there are currently 76,000 of them fighting for 3,000 specialist school places, and when we know from experts that it is only specialist education that can make any difference?"

Of course, wonderful work is done in mainstream education. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said, we must all pay tribute to the patience and perseverance of people who work in these very difficult cases, but different cases need different solutions. She was also correct to say that inclusion is not right in all cases. I also agreed with the Minister, who said that parents have a unique understanding of their children's circumstances. He told us that two thirds of cases were working satisfactorily, which means that one third are not. We were told by David Taylor that 75 per cent. of families with autistic children are happy with the education that they are getting, but that means that 25 per cent. are not happy. In other words, between 20,000 and 25,000 families are not getting the support that they believe they need.

I hope that the Government will find a way of assisting schools such as the Step-by-Step school that is planned for my constituency. The project is imaginative and creative, and tries to use a system that the families believe will work best for their children. I hope that the Minister will give us some encouraging words.

Photo of Phil Hope Phil Hope Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 9:24, 21 May 2002

I welcome the chance to contribute, however briefly, to this debate.

Mr. Hendry made some interesting points about the possible causes of some special educational needs and offered one or two observations about activities that might deal with them. I have to say, however, that this Opposition day debate has been characterised by an absence of Conservative party policy on what we should be doing to meet the needs of children with special educational needs.

I want to give a local example of a strategy—not just a one-off contribution that is a particularly good way of responding, but a complete strategy that is in accordance with the Government's policy and demonstrates how to deliver special education in a whole area. I am talking about the county of Northamptonshire, where the Labour county council has a reputation for having a very high-quality special educational needs policy. Indeed, a recent Ofsted report described the local education authority's strategy on special educational needs as excellent and as reflecting the national agenda, with a key commitment to the principle of inclusion. Interestingly, Opposition Members talked about watchwords of choice and diversity, but failed to use the word "inclusion" as a key principle in approaching the question of developing education for children with special educational needs.

The local education authority is in the top quartile of performance indicators for carrying out assessments within 18 weeks, at some 90 per cent. The parent partnership scheme that it funds is well developed and provides valuable support to parents through the education system. The Ofsted report said that the fact that parents were so well assisted by that system contributed to a reduction in the number of appeals having to reach tribunal stage.

I have practical experience of the situation in Northamptonshire. Studfall junior school in my constituency has achieved the full integration of children with special educational needs. To pick up a point made by Mr. Gale, that includes children with hearing impairments. I witnessed fantastic educational opportunities during a Christmas event, when the whole school—a group of deaf children with hearing children—sang "Silent Night" using sign language. That was astonishing, because the hearing children were doing the signing. Both deaf and hearing children benefit from that kind of inclusiveness in our education system. To include is to provide opportunities for all our children, not just those with special educational needs.

Although Northamptonshire has been recommended by Ofsted as having an excellent system, it wants to go further and is now considering the Government's agenda to decide how better to go forward. It has drawn up a series of principles that will underpin a major review of its provision. Those principles comprise a model that we might wish to apply elsewhere. They hold that the needs of pupils must be paramount; that there must be early identification and intervention for all pupils with special educational needs; and vitally and interestingly, that every pupil with a statement, wherever they are placed, must be put on the register of a local mainstream school. So even a pupil with a statement who attends a special school will be registered with a mainstream school—in effect, they are dual registered. That is a practical step towards linking together the needs of children in the mainstream and special school systems to ensure that those needs are met.

In Northamptonshire, the council is going to create a continuum of special education provision. To support an inclusive educational system, it will create a network of specialist centres with an agreed specification of expertise. Those centres will be directly linked to mainstream local schools so that the geographical distance is minimised to allow for ease of movement of pupils and teachers between them and mainstream schools. New partnerships of training, management, professional advice and expertise will be established, so that instead of isolated silos that children cannot move between, there will be an integrated network of specialist centres, mainstream schools and designated special provision—that is, a mainstream school with a designated special unit on site—that provides a real, multi-agency network of support within the school system. That will mean that young people can move freely and are not pigeonholed, boxed up and left uninspired in a place that cannot take them forward.

Of course, other children in mainstream schools will also have opportunities—the traffic is not one way. The provision in specialist centres is available to mainstream school children if they need it, and special needs children can use the mainstream school. Outside that, there will be a proper system of quality monitoring and control to ensure that the facilities meet the needs of all children.

I mentioned those principles because they will inform a radical review of provision in Northamptonshire. It will not be easy. Parents and providers will have fears and anxieties about what it means in practice. The principles that underpin the review and the reorganisation will create confidence that diversity will exist and be rooted in inclusiveness. That is the crucial new direction in which the Government are leading us.

I want to mention two examples of excellent practice that underpin the changes. It is vital that parents should be at the centre of the debate. My hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and others have emphasised that. In 1994, we created Parents in Partnership in Northamptonshire. This afternoon, I spoke to the founder member of the organisation, which is now called SNIP—Special Needs in Partnership. It is a funded organisation that is run by volunteers and covers all children up to the age of 19. When a parent contacts it and says, "I'm not sure whether there's something wrong with my child; something is not quite right," a response is received in 24 hours. In days, someone from the organisation visits the family to talk through their problems, needs and worries.

The family may already have a child with special educational needs, or may be trying to get a child statemented. The parent may simply be worried. The service means that parents can have an advocate or mentor beside them—someone who understands the system and can draw on other resources, such as the voluntary organisations and specialist groups that were mentioned earlier—to be with the family. It is a fantastic service which is core funded by the county council. I am talking not about funny money but about real, sustainable money. There are paid and volunteer staff. This is a model of good practice that integrates the community, the voluntary sector and the local authority in providing parents with the support that they need.

Support for very young children is vital. No hon. Member has mentioned the portage service. Children with special educational needs that are identified early are visited by a portage home visitor, and a family with very small babies benefits from a tightly prescribed method for helping their child. The parents are shown what to do and, over a fortnight, they undertake activities every day with the child and keep a record. The volunteer from the portage service visits them again, assesses what has happened and describes the next series of activities. Consequently, the parents do not wonder what to do or feel isolated and the child does not get worse through lack of support.

The child is thus actively and practically supported by the parent, as the first educator, through the expertise and support of the service. The local education authority funds the service, but 50 volunteers provide it across the county. It is the largest service of its kind in the country, and many people could learn from it.

Time is not on our side, but I hope that I have shown that we have a good track record in Northamptonshire of providing services. We have new principles on which to base a reorganisation of those excellent services so as to be in tune with the Government's core aims of partnership with parents and inclusiveness for all children in our communities.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban Conservative, Fareham 9:33, 21 May 2002

My remarks will, of necessity, be brief. I pay tribute to some of the mainstream schools in my constituency that have pursued inclusion successfully. There is a hearing impairment unit at Wallisdean junior school attached to the mainstream school. Hearing impaired children there can thus receive additional support to help them integrate more fully into the mainstream school. Many physical changes are being made to Park Gate school to enable children with wheelchairs to have access to the mainstream curriculum.

We should pay tribute to the staff, pupils and heads of mainstream schools for their efforts to integrate children with special educational needs into their schools. They have done a terrific job, and everybody in the schools has benefited enormously from their actions.

As well as the recurrent theme of encouraging inclusion in schools in my constituency, another theme has run through meetings and conversations with head teachers. That is the issue of whether children with special educational needs should always be included in mainstream schools. I shall cite a couple of examples, because we need to stop and think about how far this agenda should go, and about what action we should take in consequence.

One head teacher has cited the situation in which an included child can absorb more resources than are funded by the local authority. As a consequence of that child's needs not being met by the additional funding, the classroom assistant or the teacher has to devote disproportionate time to that child's education, to the detriment of the other children in the class. There is concern that the education of other children suffers when there are insufficient resources available, and that the education of the child with special educational needs is not being fully supported in the way that we believe it should be. As a consequence, that child will not get the full chances in life that we all think he is entitled to.

The other example that I have come across in my constituency is one in which the support given to a child, and that child's ability to access the mainstream curriculum, is so limited that, although he is being educated in a classroom alongside his peers, the isolation is such that it would be unfair to say that he was being included. It would be more accurate to say that he was being co-located with his peers. The interests of that child are not being properly considered if he is simply being educated alongside a class, rather than as part of it.

The long-term consequences of pushing a short-term inclusion agenda will cause difficulties for children in that situation, because they need more care and educational support—probably in the form of the more supportive surroundings of a special school—than they are getting by being part of a mainstream school. We need to ensure, in providing the special education that children need, that we think carefully about their needs, in terms of the LEA, the parents and those who provide support and guidance to parents.

I am conscious that we are reaching the time when we shall start to get letters from constituents about statements and the needs that are specified in them, and about the support and help that children need. We should look to LEAs and voluntary groups to work more closely with parents to ensure that the statement of need produced as part of this process is really supportive of the long-term needs of the child, and not driven simply by the need either to cut costs or to pursue an inclusion agenda.

Last year, in my first year as a Member of Parliament, I came across many issues involving the inclusion of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. The fact that there are fewer special schools means that, when such a school is recommended to parents, transport costs can become an issue for the county council, which has to decide how to fund them and determine what impact that will have on other children's education.

Other methods of special education, which LEAs do not fund, exist outside the school structure. In my constituency, the Rainbow Centre provides conductive education for children with cerebral palsy from across the south-east of England. The centre is not funded by the Government, and I ask the Minister to look carefully at that issue. At present, the centre's valuable work is funded entirely by the tremendous efforts of volunteers, many of whom have put much effort into providing this form of education. I ask the Government to consider funding educational methods that are used outside the mainstream education system funded by the LEAs. I also hope that the inclusion agenda will not be pushed to such an extent that it works against the interests of the very children whom we hope to protect and support in the years ahead.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 9:39, 21 May 2002

This has been an interesting debate, well conducted on both sides. As always, it has been enriched by the personal knowledge of colleagues who take a particular interest in this matter in their constituencies. It is appropriate to pay tribute to the parents of the children we have been speaking about, to the many organisations and charities that work with them, and to those who work very hard in local education authorities, including my own in Bedfordshire, through their own schools and through Shaftesbury schools in my constituency such as Hinwick Hall. I also pay tribute to the children themselves, who achieve so much. It was right to pay tribute to some of the achievements of those children in the debate. I shall come back to that in a moment.

Mr. Rendel reminded us, quite properly, of where we had come from over the years. The issue of special needs is seen quite differently from how it was seen a generation ago. From my experience as Minister for Disabled People, I have a sense of a continually improving ratchet in relation to disability. Things steadily improve—we are not always where we want to be, but it is always better than how it was. Long may that continue.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke movingly about one of the schools in his constituency—now closed, sadly—which treated the most difficult of pupils. One can well understand the difficulties in that sort of school and how much good it did the pupils whom it was trying to support.

We had a rare sighting of Mr. Woodward. He spent the first few minutes of his speech talking about Conservatives—something is repressed there, I suspect. He spoke knowledgeably about them, and then spoke properly about autism and his constituency. He spoke well, and his remaining remarks were in tune with the rest of the debate.

My right hon. Friend Mrs. Shephard, in a commanding, authoritative and brief speech, reminded us why she was such an exceptionally good Secretary of State for Education. She discussed the importance of flexibility in relation to special needs and how the system had to accommodate individuals, despite a general sense of inclusion that we all share. She made the point about entry into the system in a variety of different ways and at different times and the need to be properly flexible in providing that system. She also mentioned further education, which I will come to in a moment.

Dr. Ladyman, as chairman of the all-party group on autism, referred to autism week. He gave the Government a score of 68 per cent. and said how pleased his dad would have been if he had gone home with that mark. I do not necessarily concur with the mark of 68 per cent., but I agree that taking home 68 per cent. to one's dad was pretty good. I say that tonight because it is my dad's birthday, and I hope that he gives me 68 per cent. for this speech. [Interruption.] We do not often get this sort of chance, so I am not going to miss it. It is a special birthday for my dad.

My hon. Friend Mr. Hendry made a significant speech about the impact of additives and diet on the diagnosis of those with behavioural problems. He produced a number of interesting points of evidence. There is much further work to be done in relation to that. Our diagnosis of special needs is improving, and the relationship between diet and special needs is of interest to a number of Members, as my hon. Friend reminded the House.

Phil Hope spoke about the portage service. I pay tribute to that; I had one in my previous constituency, and know how important it was for early diagnosis and early support. He also spoke movingly about children signing. As a Minister who signed at the special Christmas service for the Royal School for the Deaf in St. Margarets, I understand how overwhelmingly significant that is and the way it makes one feel in relation to those who have hearing disabilities. When children sign while they are singing, it is really very special. The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to that.

My hon. Friend Mr. Hoban paid tribute to local schools in his constituency, and mentioned conductive education at the Rainbow Centre. In doing so, he made a proper and valid contribution to the debate.

I want to pick up on what my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk said about further education. We have spent most of our time today talking about special needs in schools, but for two reasons it is terribly important to discuss how they are dealt with in further and higher education. First, we should not forget that knowing that they can leave school and enter further and higher education provides an extraordinary role model for those with disabilities. Secondly, we must pay genuine tribute to those who have worked so hard in further and higher education to enable special needs provision to come on in leaps and bounds in the past decade or so.

Further education colleges are proud of their provision. They already cope with a wide variety of students, as the Minister knows full well. The Association of Colleges for Further and Higher Education has produced a toolkit that includes a range of measures to help colleges with the practicalities of providing beneficial places for those with special learning needs. This afternoon, I spoke to Sue Spencer and others at Walsall college, which does particularly well with the deaf and the deaf-blind. I mention this example to give hon. Members a sense of the extent of further education provision for those with disabilities. Walsall college has some 80 students. Four are deaf-blind, and their ages range from 16 to 87. The 87-year-old man, who is deaf-blind, is on a computer course and has already finished courses in mathematics and English. A full range of courses are studied by those with special learning needs. Some go on to university, some to work, and others to different courses.

The keys to success include highly qualified teachers who continually top up their skills, good support systems—including educational interpreters who can offer assistance—along with other elements that the Minister might consider at some stage. As she knows, there is an acute national shortage of signers. The implication of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is that the need for signers, particularly in education, has increased markedly. There is a chronic need to examine that issue, and to consider the way in which British sign language is handled for examination purposes.

What is happening in higher education is remarkable, and universities are doing ever more. About 7 per cent. of students at Leeds university, which I contacted this afternoon, have some form of special need or disability—a figure that is rather higher than the national average. In 1991, about 1 per cent. of all students had some form of disability, but the national average is now some 5 per cent., a figure which reflects society at large. That shows how far we have come in a decade. Leeds university has many students with dyslexia; indeed, the numbers have increased by 25 per cent. in a year. It also has students with cerebral palsy, and with speech and movement difficulties, who are following full higher education courses. It also has quadriplegics, tetraplegics, and sufferers of muscular dystrophy and trauma injuries.

The greatest difficulties relate to mental health. Given the nature of the illness, it is rather harder for those with mental health problems to participate in higher education, given the concentration required. Moreover, when one examines the destinations of such students, it is noticeable that they are also the most difficult to place. In considering what measures might be adopted, the Minister should note that insufficient research has been undertaken into the destinations of students with learning difficulties. It is difficult to place them with smaller employers, who often imagine that the reality is rather harder to deal with than it actually is. That leads to some frustration, but all in all good things are being done.

Although there is considerable agreement among hon. Members on this issue, several of the points raised by my hon. Friends and in our motion illustrate that certain difficulties exist. The differences between us, and between the motions before us, are sufficient to warrant our dividing the House this evening.

We want greater joined-up support for the various services that look after people with autism. Many hon. Members spoke about those problems. Whereas there is general support for the principle of inclusion, there is also great support for special schools. My hon. Friend Mr. Robertson mentioned the special schools in his area that are being closed. Parents there are not being provided with a choice. The Government cannot truly be content to sit on the sidelines and not comment on that. My hon. Friend Mr. Gale also spoke about the problems of ending special provision in Margate.

We need greater research. There is concern about the overlap of support between social services and education. Social services have immense funding problems. The vast majority of directors of social services plead that they are in difficulties because they have to provide more and more for the elderly. As a result, money has been removed from those who need it in other services, which has affected those with special needs in particular. Despite the score card mentioned by the hon. Member for South Thanet, our score card would reveal rather more for the Government to do. Although the Minister may address our concerns, I suspect that we may still want to divide the House.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education) 9:51, 21 May 2002

I am grateful to Conservative Members for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. I agree with Mrs. Laing that we do not often focus our discussions in the Chamber on those pupils whose needs may be greatest because they have special needs.

Many powerful speeches were made, reflecting a genuine commitment to the large number of complex issues and challenges that we face in trying to give the best possible start in life to children with special educational needs. I pay tribute, as did Alistair Burt, to all those involved. One of the most fulfilling periods in my life was when I worked with people in the disability and special educational needs world as we worked on legislation.

The hon. Gentleman's contribution was in stark contrast to the opening remarks by the hon. Member for Epping Forest. She may have been surprised at our reaction. When she describes children with special educational needs and disabilities as sad, disadvantaged, little tragic cases—

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)


When the hon. Lady says those things and talks about the liability that such children are imposing on LEAs because of inclusion, she displays a patronising attitude and devalues the worth of the individual children whose interest she is claiming to promote.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

I hope that hon. Lady is not raising a point of order because the Minister is not giving way. That is not really a point of order, is it?

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My point of order, Mr. Speaker, is that the hon. Lady is impugning me for something that I have not said. It cannot possibly be in order for her to do so.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

That is a matter for debate. One day the hon. Lady will have an opportunity to rebut the case that the Minister is making.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education)

She will also have the opportunity to look at the Hansard record.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest and many other hon. Members mentioned autism. My hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman gave us a score of 68 per cent. I think that five years into a Labour Government, that is good progress. I also accept, however, that there is much left to do. I agree about the need to have better information. In July 2001, we carried out a pilot study, involving 200 schools, to assess the feasibility of collecting data on the broad range of special educational needs. We are considering whether we should introduce a requirement for all schools and LEAs to provide that information from 2004. It is likely to include data on autism. My hon. Friend mentioned other important matters, and we will return to those.

The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire said that further education is important. FE probably has the best record in responding to inclusive education for young people and older people with special educational needs and disabilities. I take on board the issues that he raised about British sign language. One reason why students are doing so much better in an inclusive environment in higher education is that we introduced the non-means tested disabled students allowance. We heard a thoughtful contribution from Mr. Rendel. My hon. Friend Mr. Woodward raised the issue of VAT, which I raise constantly with my colleagues in the Treasury, and I shall do so again following tonight's debate.

Mr. Hendry raised some interesting issues about diet in relation to hyperactive children. Sharing that sort of information in the House can do nothing but add to our knowledge. My hon. Friend Phil Hope and the hon. Member for Newbury both talked about the importance of inclusion—supporting not just children with special educational needs but contributing to the experience of all children in the mainstream environment. I was particularly interested to hear about what is happening in Northamptonshire, where specialist centres are being linked to mainstream schools.

Mrs. Shephard talked about diversity and choice and trying to provide flexibility between special schools and mainstream schools. I agree with her on that. I would fail in my public duty, however, were I not to remind the House of the Conservative party's record in office in relation to special schools. In the last four years of the Tory Government, 83 special schools were closed. That is 50 per cent. more than were closed in the first four years of this Government. We are working with the special schools to ensure a positive future for them. Far from leaving them to the insecurity of the market, as the Tories did, we want to give them the security that comes from sensible planning and strong partnership.

That is why my noble Friend Baroness Ashton has set up a working group to consider the future role of special schools in the wider context of our strategy on inclusion. That group will focus on practical mechanisms that would help special schools to work more effectively. Subjects that it will consider will include: how best to secure regional provision to meet the requirements of those with low-incidence special educational needs; systems, which could include funding, that would enable special schools to deliver outreach support more effectively; how best to use the inspection team to celebrate the achievements of special schools; and provision for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. I hope that the hon. Member for Epping Forest will accept that that sort of work, leading to a report in the autumn, will ensure that we have proper inter-linking between special schools and the mainstream.

We have considerable achievements under our belt, although we have a long way to go. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 is on the statute book, and we have introduced the new SEN code of practice, which has been in force since January. All LEAs now have parent partnership services. We have placed a duty on LEAs to provide informal arrangements to prevent and resolve disagreements before they reach the tribunal stage. We have supported massive increases in funding in education in general and to respond specifically to the requirements of children with special educational needs. The standards fund is now five times larger than when we came into office, and we have introduced the £220 million access initiative into schools. Early years intervention, with special co-ordinators in each setting, is also an attempt to make progress.

I recognise, as have other hon. Members tonight, that we must continue to do more. There will continue to be major challenges in raising the quality and improving the outcomes for children with special educational needs. It is still a fact that a child with a special educational needs statement is seven times more likely to be excluded than a child without a statement. We need to tackle that. It is also still a fact that we need to get better at identifying a child's needs earlier and responding more quickly to them. That is why our guidance on working with children under the age of two will be so important. We hope to issue that guidance shortly. We need to get better at working across the disciplines—between health, social services and education. The special educational needs partnerships are a start in that work.

We need to build a stronger, professional work force to cater for the needs that we identify. Again, progress is being made, with more speech and language therapists, for example, but we want to ensure—

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Opposition Chief Whip (Commons)

rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.

Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 129, Noes 357.

Division number 249 Special Educational Needs

Aye: 128 MPs

No: 356 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Abstained: 1 MP

Abstained: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments):—

The House divided: Ayes 310, Noes 167.

Division number 250 Special Educational Needs

Aye: 310 MPs

No: 166 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly agreed to.

Mr. Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House notes the Government's commitment to helping all pupils release their potential; supports the development of an education service that provides equality of opportunity and raises achievement of all children, including those with special educational needs; welcomes the Government's recognition of the important role of special schools and the forthcoming work to review and develop that role; further welcomes the recent report by the National Autistic Society and recognises the importance of early intervention to help children with autism; applauds the Government's strong record on supporting pupils with special educational needs, notably through providing a clear vision for their education and welfare in its 1998 Green Paper "Excellence for all children" and implementing an ambitious programme of action resulting in this House's approval of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, despite strong opposition from the other side of the House; commends the introduction of the new SEN Code of Practice and the principles of inclusion and partnership that lie behind it; further notes the development of national standards for specialist teachers and a range of training programmes and materials to support them; acknowledges the substantial increases in funding through both SSA and Standards Fund to support these and other initiatives; further notes that the Government will continue to ensure that the rights of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities are protected; and looks forward to the forthcoming Code of Practice to reinforce the rights of pupils with disabilities.