Special Schools

Oral Answers to Questions — Education and Skills – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 24th March 2005.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs) 11:30 am, 24th March 2005

How many special schools have closed since 1997; and if she will make a statement.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

In January 1997, there were 1,171 maintained special schools in England. In January 2004, there were 1,078—a reduction of 93. In the seven years preceding 1997, there were 146 closures.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

I thank the Minister for her answer. Does she understand that many parents, including those of children at Queen's Croft special needs school in Lichfield and throughout Staffordshire and the rest of the country, believe that mainstream schools are not necessarily the best solution for their children? They feel that their children might be bullied, embarrassed and would not do as well or thrive as they do in special needs schools. Because of that, will she please reverse the policy that her Government implemented in 2001 and leave the choice of which school children go to to the parents and not to the Government?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that every child should have the opportunity to learn in a school that meets their needs and is their parents' choice. That is the policy of this Government. We have no policy whatever to close special schools. On the other hand, the Conservative party has a policy—

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions and Welfare Reform, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Further to the Minister's somewhat truncated reply, while I join her in accepting that for many pupils with special educational needs their inclusion in mainstream education is appropriate and often successful, will she acknowledge that some parents believe that their children need special education? Does she appreciate that that requires an adequate network of special schools to meet their needs and that those special schools can function not only to serve the children but as a centre of excellence for the inclusion of children in mainstream schools?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

Of course I accept everything that the hon. Gentleman said, which precisely reflects the Government's policy. I draw his attention to the fact that 88 special schools closed when he was a member of the education team in government in 1991. That is almost the same number that have closed throughout this Government's period in office. If a voucher followed children, how would that meet the cost of a child being educated in a special school where the cost far exceeds the £5,500 value of the voucher?

Photo of Mrs Valerie Davey Mrs Valerie Davey Labour, Bristol West

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that when a special school such as Claremont school in my constituency is on the same site as mainstream schooling, that offers a rich environment? Would she congratulate the head of that school, Bob Coburn—he has been congratulated by Ofsted for his inspired leadership—and all the staff for all they do in conjunction with mainstream schooling on that site?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I do congratulate the school in my hon. Friend's constituency. One of the policy developments that we wish to see is that the specialist knowledge, training and experience that exists among staff in special schools should be shared with colleagues who are educating children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. The appropriate co-location of two schools in her constituency is absolutely the direction in which we wish to go. The fact that we have announced the first 12 specialist special schools demonstrates again the way in which we wish to share expertise from the special school sector with the mainstream sector for all children, but particularly children with special educational needs.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Although three special schools in Burnley will close soon, is it not good and exciting news that we will spend £30 million on new special schools to serve Burnley and Pendle? Last week, Lancashire county council and the Government confirmed five brand new schools for Burnley and a new sixth form. That is an exciting vision and an opportunity for Burnley, which we never had from the Conservative Government.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend's words and congratulate all those in Burnley who are using the resources being made available to them for the benefit of Burnley families and Burnley children. A number of the special schools that are closing will reorganise themselves into new schools with up-to-date, 21st-century facilities to provide individualised learning that is particularly appropriate for children with special educational needs.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I do not think that the children of Alderman Knight school in my constituency, whose closure has been announced this morning, or the children of Belmont school in Cheltenham will be too impressed by the Minister's platitudes this morning. Why did she not mention those schools when she gave her inadequate answers? What will happen to the children of those schools, many of whom are physically disabled? The Minister's answer this morning was not only inadequate, it was dishonest. She misled the House.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am here to represent my constituents. I will not withdraw that remark.

Photo of Ann Cryer Ann Cryer Labour, Keighley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the two special schools in Keighley, Braithwaite and Branshaw, are in an extremely seedy condition? They have been neglected by both the local authority and Education Bradford. I have been given assurances that they will be repaired and improved, but it will be another two or three years before we have two new schools. The new schools will be on shared sites with an upper school and a primary school. I am pleased to hear what my hon. Friend Valerie Davey has said about shared sites, but a number of parents are very concerned about their children attending a shared site because of the possibility of bullying.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

I completely understand the issues that have been raised. I, too, have faced a reorganisation of special schools in my constituency and change is undoubtedly difficult for everybody, but especially for the parents and children who are currently in those schools. I hope that my hon. Friend's local authority will handle that change sensitively, but I am sure that when the new schools are built and the new facilities available, the opportunities for all children in that area, including those who need or want to attend a special school, will be enhanced. The work that can take place between the special school and the mainstream school will add value to the experience of every child involved.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Shadow Minister (Education)

The Government's ideological obsession with inclusion has led to the closure of 70 special schools since 1997. The NASUWT says that the resources are not there for individual teachers in mainstream schools to deal with individual special needs pupils. The spectrum of special needs is very wide and parents should be free to choose between a mainstream and a special school setting for their children. The Conservatives value the expertise and skills of special schools and we will impose a moratorium on closures. Will the Minister give the same guarantee, including the two additional special school closures that were announced today in Gloucestershire, one in Cirencester and one in Cheltenham, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Robertson?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Education and Skills) (Children)

For our part, we believe in providing real choice, both for children and for their parents. An ideological obsession, either pro-closure or anti-closure, inhibits that choice for every individual child and family. I share some of the views expressed by the hon. Lady, but I cannot accept from her the claim that she would give freedom to local authorities and local communities but would also impose a ban on any closure of a special school, regardless of whether it had unfilled places, or was needed or wanted locally. I cannot understand her idea that parents would have the freedom to choose if she would ensure that only £5,500 would be available for each child. How can she explain—