I beg to move,
That this House
believes that special schools play a vital role in meeting the needs of children with learning difficulties, and that parents should have more choice between special and mainstream schools;
further believes that the Government should hold a proper review of the provision of special educational needs to cover concerns about the statementing process, the continued closure of special schools, concerns about bias in the law and central government pressure to pursue policies of inclusion when they are not always appropriate;
and calls for a moratorium on special school closures until such a review has been published and properly debated.
How we provide education and opportunity for those with complex needs is incredibly important. Those children include some of the most disadvantaged in the country and their families often face enormous stresses and strains in trying to bring them up and in getting what they need.
There is much common ground on both sides of the House about what we should be trying to do. Last week, the Minister for Children and Families, who is not present today, said:
"We need to ensure that the system can deliver as easily and accessibly as possible what individual parents want."—[Hansard, 16 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 381.]
I agree with that point, but it is not actually happening.
My argument is not with what the Government say about that issue, but with what they do and with what they are allowing to happen up and down this country: special schools are closing, mainstream schools are not coping and statementing has become incredibly bureaucratic and far too much of a battle for all concerned. Inclusion has gone too far and we badly need to stop, think and get this right.
There is concern on both sides of the House on the issue. At last week's Education and Skills questions, Mr. Mudie warned that parents' wishes are being completely ignored, saying:
"The private company that a past Secretary of State put in to run education is closing the "special school, threatening governors and taking no notice of parents".—[Hansard, 16 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 378.]
How much more serious could the situation be? I am sure that we will hear more concerns today about what is happening on the ground.
The Conservative approach is clear. We are not saying that inclusion is wrong—for many children, it is right and works well—and we are not saying that the concept of statements is wrong. We need a system that recognises and meets needs. However, the Government must recognise three things. First, the inclusion agenda has gone too far. A movement that was about redressing a balance is going beyond achieving that and is now being applied in many cases where it harms rather than helps. Secondly, the statementing system now has serious problems resulting in many children not getting the education and services that they need. Thirdly, as a result, we believe that the whole sector needs to be fundamentally reviewed.
The Government's approach to these issues is simply inadequate and the audit of special schools that is under way is typical of that approach. The Labour election manifesto "Britain forward, not back"—as always, no verbs, but catchy title—said:
"We will undertake an audit of special school provision to give better comparative information to local authorities, head teachers and school governors as they plan future . . . provision."
My hon. Friend will know that I entirely endorse the case that he is presenting. Will he give a categorical assurance that no further special schools will close as far as the Conservative and Unionist party is concerned, and that there will be a proper audit of the resources given to them? The Park Lane special school in my constituency, which is 100 per cent. supported by local people and by parents, is being deprived of the resources that it needs to provide the level of education that these very vulnerable young people require.
As I will explain, our policy is for a moratorium on the closure of special schools because we believe that the policy is biased, as is the guidance, and that is why so many schools are threatened with closure.
Manor Park special school in my constituency is about to be closed and the pupils dispersed to Rose Hill and Thornton House special schools. Would the hon. Gentleman describe that as the closure of a special school or as a reconfiguration of the system? In trying to be helpful to him—I know that he wants to win friends and influence people over the next few months—I should point out that Worcestershire local education authority is Conservative-controlled.
If one has a moratorium, so that one can stop and think and get the Government policy right, then one can stop the closures. The reason why so many authorities are considering closing schools is because of the guidance that goes out from the Government, which I have here. It is called "Inclusive Schooling"—the title is a bit of a giveaway—and says on the front page that it "must not be ignored". On page 9, it says:
"The starting point is always that children who have statements will receive mainstream education."
That is the guidance and that is why we have these problems.
Hang on; let me go on about Worcestershire for a moment. I have a list of cases from Worcestershire. Here is one:
"John, aged 6, has moderate learning difficulties. He spends most of the school day sat at a desk outside the classroom so he doesn't upset or distract the other children. Mum is now pushing for John to attend a special school for moderate learning difficulty children."
Yet it is moderate learning difficulty schools that are being closed and that the Government's audit does not cover.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this important issue, but can he quote the educational research that proves his argument that moderate learning difficulty children do better if they are segregated in special schools?
There is plenty of evidence that special schools lead to very good outcomes. The hon. Gentleman should do what I did in his county of Gloucestershire—get himself to the Alderman Knight school in Tewkesbury. That is a moderate learning disability school that does a fantastic job for the parents and children, with real intimacy and small classrooms, and it is much valued. A Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled council was going to close it but, because the Conservatives won in May, it will be saved.
We are discussing special schools. If there is an underspend, clearly the council will have more money available to spend on special needs. I hope that it will spend it carefully—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked the question, so he might as well wait for the answer. It would probably spend it better if the Government had a less biased law and did not put out biased guidance.
That is exactly what I am about to explain. In my view, the 2001 Act does not recognise balance. True balance is about giving parents a choice, with full information, between special schools and mainstream schools. If the hon. Lady is patient, she will find out about it shortly, when I set it out in great detail.
The Government's audit is very limited, even though they told us in their manifesto that it would be a general audit. The Minister for Children and Families told us last week that
"it is a specific audit . . . for the relatively small number of children who have high and complicated needs".—[Hansard, 16 June 2005; Vol. 435, c. 379.]
Why did not they say that in their manifesto? They gave a completely false impression. The audit covers only those schools that deal with the most severe needs, yet it is schools for those with moderate learning difficulties that are closing. The Government's approach is in danger of being both flawed and complacent. It is the anniversary of Nelson's death, and my worry is that the Government are putting the telescope up to their blind eye and saying, "We see no problems; we see no closures." They have to focus on this issue.
I want to do three things: set out the evidence that inclusion has gone too far, explain why that has happened—I shall come on to the bias in the law—and suggest what the Government should do about it.
The hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to point out to the House that, since Labour came into power, around 13 special schools a year have indeed been closed. Would he also like to put on the record that, during the last 10 years of the Conservative Government, some 27 special schools a year were closed? He wants local people to make local decisions on special education, but is not a moratorium on closure the antithesis of that?
This is rather sad. I am making a speech about the future—about getting it right for the most needy children in our country. The hon. Gentleman is right. Ninety schools have closed since this Government came to power. That is wrong and regrettable, and the fact that we have lost 6,000 places is a problem. I am going to make some suggestions about what should be done about it and if he is patient he will hear them.
There is an overt closure programme, with schools threatened explicitly by the authorities. The Government cannot deny that because the Minister for Children and Families said last week that, if the closures were stopped, as we suggest, there would be "chaos" and "gridlock". We maintain that the closure of these centres of excellence is causing the chaos and that is what the Government need to learn.
There is also closure by slow strangulation, whereby parents are not told about the special schools, fewer children are sent to them, and head teachers are told, "Your rolls are falling and your future's uncertain." Many Members, from Gloucestershire and elsewhere, will be able to tell us about such cases.
The experience of mainstream schools adds to the mounting evidence that inclusion is being taken too far. Many are not coping with the new approach. As the Disability Rights Commission put it:
"Many parents of disabled children have little confidence that mainstream schools will provide a safe environment where their children can reach their true potential."
We should listen to that.
I fully endorse what my hon. Friend is saying about the policy of inclusion, which is forcing parents to put their children into mainstream schools. In my area, special needs schools have falling rolls. That places local councils in an impossible position if they wish to continue providing special needs access in the long term as well as the short term. [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall tell hon. Members who are shouting, "Who controls the council?", what councils have to plough through. They have to read "Removing Barriers to Achievement"—the Government strategy that is forcing inclusion on them—and the report of the special schools working group, which is doing the same. That is why I am asking the Government for a proper audit and a proper review.
In a previous life, I was a council cabinet member for education in Sheffield, where we embarked on a programme of consolidation and rebuilding for good special schools. We stopped the closure of three schools because we listened to the parents and the professionals and realised that those schools had a longer life. Will the hon. Gentleman recommend that Leeds, a Tory authority, does the same?
I have made my position clear. If there is a moratorium, all the closures will stop and there will be time to think again in the sensible way that the hon. Lady describes. I believe that she said in Question Time last Thursday that the problem in many areas is that local authorities do not listen to the views of special needs teachers in special schools who know the problems so well. I agree with her, which is why I made the point that hon. Members of all parties are concerned about how the law is working and what is happening on the ground.
I am keen to give others time to speak in the debate, so I shall make progress.
When left in mainstream schools, where they are often not dealt with properly, children with special needs can become disruptive. That is not in the interests of the student with special needs, the rest of the class, the teacher or the school. In many cases, parents recognise that that form of inclusion is not working and they vote with their feet. In 2003, more than 5,000 children with statements transferred from mainstream schools to special schools, while only 1,200 went in the other direction.
As hon. Members know, in some cases when children stay in mainstream schools, the schools cannot cope and disaster ensues. One can see that in the figures for exclusions. Two thirds of all exclusions involve students with special needs. One in five people of school age affected by autism is expelled from school and never returns. Those are individual tragedies.
Our view that inclusion has gone too far has received significant support from the words of Lady Warnock. The second Warnock report is a remarkable document. Anybody who is interested in the subject should read it. It is a stunning recantation of the first Warnock report, which began the inclusion campaign. In my view, Lady Warnock deserves credit for candour. She refers to the policy of inclusion as the "most disastrous" legacy of her original report. She says:
"the failure to distinguish between various kinds of need has been disastrous for many children."
The report could not be clearer about current Government policy. It says that
"there is increasing evidence that the ideal of inclusion, if this means that all but those with the most severe disabilities will be in mainstream schools, is not working."
The Government simply cannot ignore such a significant report by so respected a figure. It is no good saying, "But that is not our policy"—I will go on to show that that is precisely the Government's policy. Baroness Warnock understands exactly what the Government's policy is and she says that it is wrong.
Does not Baroness Warnock also say that some of the special schools are inadequate and need to be reorganised? Does the hon. Gentleman support special schools reorganisation when it is sensible?
Yes, absolutely. Baroness Warnock has some interesting things to say. My point is that we should have a moratorium to get the Government policy right. Until we get rid of the document entitled, "Inclusive Schooling", we will not get anywhere. Once the policy is right, there is much more that we can do. In my constituency, there is a combined special school and mainstream school. Springfield school and Madley Brook school are next door to each other. They form two horseshoes, with the special school inside the mainstream school. That is a model for others to follow. However, we must get the law and the guidance right first.
I want to make progress because the debate is time limited.
I want to consider why we are in the current position and why I believe that it will continue. My next point directly answers the question that the Under-Secretary asked earlier. There is a bias in the law on special educational needs as it stands. The 2001 Act states that, if a statement is maintained, a child must be educated in a mainstream school unless that is incompatible with the wishes of his parent or the provision of efficient education for other children. However, in many cases parents are not told about the existence of special schools. That is not balance. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary should listen instead of chuntering. Balance means offering parents the choice of a place in either a mainstream or a special school and providing plenty of information and help to make that choice. The Government should conduct a review.
The guidance, as well as the law, is biased. I have referred to "Inclusive Schooling", but the same goes for the document that the Minister for Children and Families mentioned last Thursday, "Removing the Barriers to Achievement". The strategy states:
"The proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time".
That is the Government's approach. The guidance goes on to stress that only a
"small number of children . . . have severe and complex needs that will continue to require special provision."
Perhaps the Minister will claim that I am somehow misinterpreting the guidance, but it is not only my view. In her new report, Mary Warnock states:
"Government thinking is set on immovable tracks. Special schools are a place of last resort, only, we are told, for children with severe and complex disabilities. But for other children we must keep them out of special schools by hook or by crook to educate them in mainstream schools."
The Government need to be aware of what is happening. Local authorities are interpreting Government policy in a particular way because special schools are expensive. Class sizes are small—indeed, it is that sense of intimacy that often enables them to get so much done. The equipment all costs money. An alliance is therefore being formed between those who favour inclusion on ideological grounds and those who want to achieve it on financial grounds. If Ministers do not realise that that is happening, they are not in touch with what is going on on the ground.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so graciously. On the point that he has just made and the interpretation of Lady Warnock's report, does he agree that special schools are not only schools for the pupils who happen to be in them at any particular time, but centres of excellence that help teachers in mainstream schools who need to learn about special education for those with mild learning difficulties who can benefit from inclusion? We must not lose those centres of excellence.
I suspect that my hon. Friend would expect me to say that I agreed with her anyway, but I genuinely agree with her. Baroness Warnock says that Ministers are partly responsible for the rather condescending view that people have of special schools. My hon. Friend is right that we should view them as centres of excellence.
I want to be positive. We need a full audit of special schools, which must cover every special school in every part of the country and take account of the views of parents, which are often ignored. It must examine the law, which restricts choice and inculcates a bias against special schools. At least until the audit is completed, published and discussed, there should be a moratorium on the closure of special schools.
The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way, for which I am grateful. Is he in favour of repealing the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001?
No. I have said that it should be reviewed to provide balance. I shall not redraft the Act at the Dispatch Box, but the minimum for which it should provide is giving parents of special needs children a choice between a mainstream or a special school, and the support and information that they need. That is balance.
The hon. Gentleman should examine the law and the way in which it is drafted, talk to parents who have not been told about special schools and read the guidance. He will then realise that I am right and he is wrong.
Does my hon. Friend accept that part of the problem is that the Government want it both ways? They want to close special schools and deny mainstream education the necessary resources to make a success of integration. Does my hon. Friend know that a primary school in my constituency faces the indignity of pupils with special needs having to use the school staff room from which the staff are turfed out, while the Government claim that provision is reasonable. Is not there a mismatch between the definition of "reasonable" by the Department for Education and Skills and that which would appear sensible to most reasonable people?
My hon. Friend puts it extremely well. I do not believe that the Government are acting with malice aforethought. They do not follow the policy because they do not care. They simply have not thought it through. When they examine the policy carefully, they will find that many children with special needs are excluded from school and stuck in pupil referral units. I have examples of pupils who are meant to be there for only a few weeks yet end up there for a few months because of the bias against special schools.
At the heart of this debate are the children whom none of us want to see left behind. I have criticisms of the Government, and I have made them, but I have also made constructive suggestions, and I want us to achieve consensus where we can. It does not matter who does these things, it just matters that they get done. There is a simple point at issue: different children have different needs. Trying to meet them all in the same way in the same class in the same school can be, and all too often has been, a cruel deception for many children. Mary Warnock has seen the light and admitted that she got it wrong.
We are asking the Government to think again. These are people's children, not guinea pigs in some giant social experiment. Real inclusion involves understanding that different needs require different, and often special, treatment. The closure of special schools must be stopped while the Government think again. I would say to any Member from any party who shares this view, and who knows that real compassion means understanding our differences, should join us in the Lobby and vote for our motion today.
I beg to move, To leave out from "difficulties" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:
"acknowledges that parents may want mainstream or special schools for their children and notes that under the current statutory framework they have the right to express a preference for either;
welcomes the Government's commitment to improving the range and quality of provision for children with special educational needs through its special educational needs strategy, Removing Barriers to Achievement, which followed wide consultation and a separate review of the role of special schools;
rejects the call for further reviews and a moratorium on closures of special schools, since this would stifle reorganisation of local provision to meet changing patterns of need and halt the development of effective collaboration between mainstream and special schools;
welcomes the Government's audit of provision for low incidence needs since it will contribute to more effective planning;
and welcomes its determination to ensure that all children with SEN are able to realise their potential, wherever they are taught.".
I very much welcome the interest of the Opposition in special educational needs and the future of special schools. I also welcome the emphasis that Mr. Cameron has placed on the perspective of parents. Many of us will bring our experiences as parents to the debate; some of us will even bring our experience of state education. Despite such a gap in the hon. Gentleman's experience, however, he is doing a reasonable job. He is also doing a reasonable job of promoting his leadership ambitions, and I wish him well in that regard. In fact, I think that the Conservatives would be wise to go for a leader from the progressive left of their party.
I shall turn to the important issues of the debate. There is a fundamental flaw in the hon. Gentleman's approach to this matter. I am disappointed with what appears to be an ongoing fixation with buildings and institutions. Furthermore, the Opposition are expending all their energy on criticising a policy that simply does not exist. Contrary to the impression that the Conservatives would like to give, the Government do not have a policy of closing special schools.
I should like to bring the debate back down to the real level. Jack McMurray is a beautiful little eight-year-old boy in my constituency, and he has autism. As a result of inclusion, he is in fact excluded from school. This little boy, who needs education the most, has none. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss Jack's case, because his parents are on the edge of despair?
My concern is for little boys such as Jack, and for children with special needs, and others, throughout the whole country. Of course, if it would be helpful to discuss these issues, my ministerial colleagues and I would be more than willing to meet with Members from either side of the House.
While my right hon. Friend is looking at what is going on up and down the country, will she take a special look at Cheshire, where there is a massive underspend in the area of expenditure that we are discussing, as well as a threat of an £8 million underspend in the Sure Start budget? This is outrageous. We have allocated money, and it is vital that, when it has been allocated, the Conservative council should not be allowed to divert it to other projects. It must be spent in these important areas.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are increasing investment in schools, and it is the responsibility of local authorities to ensure that that investment gets to where it will make a difference for our pupils and schools.
As we are talking about terrible Tory councils, does my right hon. Friend agree with certain observations in yesterday's Evening Standard? She might be aware that two Members of this House are also councillors in the London borough of Wandsworth: Mr. Walker and I. The Evening Standard said that the use by the Conservative council of the term "reorganisation" was a
"weasel phrase to preserve its flagship status as a low-rate Tory borough".
Does my right hon. Friend agree?
I shall touch on that issue in a moment. My hon. Friend has identified a fundamental problem in the Conservatives' approach, which argues for decentralisation of decision making, but for centralisation when those decisions are not the ones that they want.
My right hon. Friend will know, from when we served on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill together, that I passionately believe that special schools have a place, especially for those children who are best served in those schools. There are such categories of children. Is not the key to all this, however, to get the statement right in the first place, and to agree a policy whereby the right education can be provided and properly resourced for that individual child? Parents with a child with special needs want support, which they often get from parent partnerships, to help them to reach the best decision for their child, who will, after all, have to live in an inclusive world after they leave school—
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend makes a crucial point about the importance of parents and of an individual's needs in the system, and I shall expand on that in a moment. I should now like to make a little progress.
I disagree with the Opposition, in that I do not believe that we should focus on buildings and institutions. It would be more useful to set down the guiding principles of the system, then design and reform it to meet those principles, rather than making the maintenance of the status quo the guiding principle, which is the Conservative—in all senses of the word—approach. I do not believe that that will enable us to deliver for the needs of individual children. Our focus is on meeting the needs of all children, on extending parental choice, and on securing the highest possible standards and the best possible outcomes for children, young people and families.
Those are ambitious goals, but rightly so. The task of achieving them is changing over time, as new challenges arise. For example, we have seen a significant increase in the number of children identified with autistic spectrum disorders over the past few years, as our health system becomes better at supporting very young children and babies. We are also seeing increasing numbers of children with profound and complex impairments and with learning difficulties. Because we are faced with that wide and evolving range of needs, it is important that we have a flexible range of provision that is able to meet those needs. That is what we are seeking to achieve.
Has my right hon. Friend read the response of the National Autistic Society to Baroness Warnock's report? Its conclusion is that we should not abandon the policy of inclusion, but that it needs training and resources to make it work. Local authorities such as Derbyshire are putting extra resources into specialist autism centres as well as into enhanced units in mainstream schools, which represents the way forward to allow parents the necessary choice.
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and with the National Autistic Society. Previous work by the society and by the all-party group on autism has shown that about 80 per cent. of parents with autistic children in mainstream education felt that they were getting very good support. My hon. Friend has made precisely the point that I wanted to make, which is that the quality of education is dependent on the investment and resources that are put into the schools.
If it is okay with hon. Members, I should like to make a little more progress, as there is a time restriction on Back-Bench speeches.
Parental views on where a child should be educated and the support that they should receive are extremely important. We must remember that it was not that long ago that many parents were denied that choice by a system that prevented many children with special educational needs from being educated in a mainstream school and joining other children in that way. That is why we introduced the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. Contrary to the claims made by the Opposition, that Act removed barriers that were placed in the way of parents who wanted their children to attend mainstream schools but were denied the opportunity.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not just a question of buildings; it is a question of the support that we offer to families and parents. Is my hon. Friend not amazed that the Conservatives have made no mention of, for example, the education maintenance allowance, from which thousands of children with special educational needs are benefiting?
As my hon. Friend implies, Conservative Members are to an extent in a state of flux. A policy response that is solely about reviews fails to recognise the real needs of our children.
Does the Minister agree that even if the present system of statementing is well intentioned, it does not work in practice? Can she tell us how many children to whom statements have been issued when it has been accepted that they need a certain level of support do not receive it in practice? In practice, parental choice and statementing do not work.
Of course we need a process that enables us to determine where resources should be allocated to reach the children with the most severe special needs. That is the function of statements. We also need—and have—a robust system of appeals. In the most recent year the number of appeals to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal fell slightly, but it is important that such appeals are possible. I agree that we need to make improvements to deal with the bureaucracy surrounding statements, and we shall do so.
A few moments ago the right hon. Lady was airily dismissive of buildings, but the facilities in buildings are of the essence. Does she accept that, as a matter of principle, it is simply wrong that, for example, girls with physical disabilities should have to share loos with male staff? That is currently happening in a mainstream school in my constituency.
I am never dismissive, airily or otherwise, of points made by the hon. Gentleman. I do consider that situation unacceptable. The Government's schools access initiative, which includes investment of £300 million over the next three years, is making a crucial contribution to ensuring that mainstream schools really are accessible. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman supports that extra investment.
I was talking about parents. We must ensure that an appropriate balance is struck. When any parent of a child with special needs states a preference for a special school, there is no presumption of inclusion in a mainstream school. Instead, the local authority must recommend the placement on the basis of the usual criteria: the child's needs, the needs of other children and the issue of resources.
I agree with the hon. Member for Witney: parents should, by regulation, be given information about mainstream and special schools when a statement is being considered. Through the 2001 Act, we have ensured further support for parents with the requirement that every local authority must have a parent partnership service. What parents really want is an assurance that their children can achieve their full potential, and are supported by well trained staff with the resources that they need to make the most of the opportunities that a school and curriculum can offer. That does not come about by accident. It does not exist only in special schools or in mainstream schools. It comes about because a Government are willing to invest in capacity to ensure that it happens.
The timing of the hon. Lady's intervention is lucky, as I am coming to precisely that point. She is right: the proof of the system, the evidence of success, must lie in improving outcomes and raising attainment for children with special educational needs. We have done well in that regard. The Ofsted report shows that the proportion of pupils with special educational needs who are judged to be making good progress in mainstream primary and secondary schools has grown significantly in recent years—from 54 per cent. to 73 per cent. in primary schools between 2000 and 2003, and from 43 per cent. to 71 per cent. in secondary schools over the same period. We know that there has been progress, but we also know that there is more to be made.
Does the Minister acknowledge the concern expressed by Conservative Members earlier about the lack of training available to teachers in mainstream schools? Grangewood school in my constituency has set itself up, on its own initiative, as a centre of excellence offering training to all schools in the borough of Hillingdon. It has been swamped with demand. The headmaster says that it has only been able to scratch the surface of that demand, while at the same time having to deal with the real challenge of a falling roll as a result of the government's policy. Should we not be supporting such centres of excellence rather than undermining them?
Yes, we should, and I shall explain how we are doing so.
As I have said, we are making progress but we need to make more. That is why we are working, through the national strategies and through our response to the Tomlinson report, to encourage schools to personalise the curriculum. It must be accessible to all children, so that it provides all children with the best possible learning. That is why we are investing in our children, and not simply through the additional £1,300 per pupil that will have been invested between 1997 and 2007–08. This year there has been a 7.8 per cent. increase in local authority spending on special needs. That is why—here I come to the point made by the hon. Gentleman—we need to build capacity in the teaching and education work force.
We recently commissioned the Teacher Training Agency to produce a £1.1 million package of work to improve quality and choice in special educational needs training for teachers. We are working to provide a more effective continuous professional development and career path for teachers and special educational needs co-ordinators, and for heads. There are already many good, indeed inspirational, teachers working in the special needs field, and we need to ensure that their expertise feeds through to others. We have made an important start by providing 135 advanced-skills teachers who specialise in special educational needs to advise and support less experienced colleagues, 50 of whom are based in special schools.
Many of us acknowledge the increased investment in special needs, but according to the head teacher of a special school in my constituency—Penmaes school—because of the Tory Government's lack of investment in training special needs teachers and other specialists such as therapists, it is very difficult to secure the skills and deliver on statements.
The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, be pleased to learn that there has been an increase of nearly 35 per cent. in the number of speech and language therapists since 1997. Even more significant, the number of training places has increased by the same amount.
I thank the Minister for finally giving way to me. Is she aware of a report by Committee D of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, on which I serve? The report, which was published this week, deals with special educational needs provision throughout the British Isles, including the Republic of Ireland. May I ask the Minister to study it in detail? It contains excellent recommendations, particularly on special educational needs provision for children with autism. I think that she would find it useful in the context of this debate.
I assure my hon. Friend that I will look in detail at that matter and that we will respond to that report. From my preliminary reading of it, it contains some important points about how the health and education sectors work together to ensure provision for autistic children. I am sure that he will welcome the focus on autism in the national service framework for children as a particular example of how we can achieve more.
I promised to respond to hon. Members about how we are investing in schools themselves, including special schools. We have made it clear that special schools continue to have a vital role in catering for children with the most complex needs and in working more closely with mainstream schools to share their expertise. Mrs. Laing, who is not in her place at the moment, made an important point in that regard. Some in the debate want to characterise special schools and mainstream schools as being poles apart—as two ends of the spectrum. In fact, they should be two sides of the same coin, working in partnership. Beaumont Hill school and technology college in Darlington provides outreach services to mainstream schools for children with autistic spectrum disorders and severe learning difficulties, and has an advanced skills teacher working with other schools across the authority, making provision for children with behavioural, social and emotional difficulties, supporting children and providing a local alternative for mainstream schools.
The right hon. Lady has repeated what is in the document "Removing Barriers to Achievement", which says that we only want to see special schools providing education for children with the most severe and complex needs. Is she saying that schools for children with moderate learning difficulties do not have a future?
I was spelling out precisely what that future should be. Schools should work in partnership to ensure that children increasingly benefit from being in mainstream schools. There is an important role for special schools working in partnership, sharing expertise and making a base for good-quality provision. I was explaining not only how that is an aspiration but how, through our investment, we are ensuring that that happens.
We are ensuring, for example, that the benefits and contribution of the specialist school programme are extended to special schools. In December, we announced the setting up of 12 trailblazer special schools with specialist status to act as centres of excellence for just that purpose. We have also announced—this relates to the point that was made by John Bercow—that, under our building schools for the future programme to provide 21st century buildings and facilities for all secondary-age pupils, we will provide an additional £66 million this year for special schools alone. That is part of £284 million over the next three years. That is evidence of this Government's commitment—
That is evidence of this Government's commitment to the continuing role of special schools. The fact is, as we have heard, that when the Opposition were in power, there were 234 closures between 1986 and 1997, an average of 27 a year. Since then, there have been 93 closures, an average of 13 a year. The percentage of children in special schools has increased over that time, which seems to suggest not only that we are supporting both mainstream and special schools, but that we are ensuring that parents are able to choose between them.
The Minister has just mentioned the sum of money that is set aside for building new special schools. How much of that money is for building special schools to deal with children with moderate learning difficulties?
That money is set aside not simply for building new schools but to ensure that those schools that are in existence get the sort of resources that they need. That, of course, includes special schools for moderate learning difficulties where that is the priority—[Interruption.] I know that the theme of Conservative Members today is that Whitehall should decide all, but this is a decision for local education authorities, given the decisions that they are making within the building schools for the future programme.
The other theme of this debate and of the approach of the hon. Member for Witney is that we need a review. In recent years, there have been major reports on special educational needs from both the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission, which sought the views of parents. We have consulted widely on the development of our special educational needs strategy in the context of those reports. We carried out a separate review of the role of special schools, again with input from parents. The special schools working group made the specific recommendation for the audit.
The hon. Gentleman was slightly dismissive of the special schools working group. Perhaps he would have been less dismissive if he had understood that, out of the 15 members on that group, nine were special school representatives and parents. This Government listened to the recommendation that they made. The recommendation was for the audit and we are taking that forward.
Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the comments by Baroness Warnock in her report are a shock to the system to anyone looking at the matter from outside—I say that as someone who does not have great expertise in special educational needs? It is a shock to the system that someone of that esteem in this area, the author of an original report, has made such a change in her assessment.
Baroness Warnock has made an important contribution to the debate in this area over the years, both in her original report and in the latest one. One of the crucial points that she makes is that, in order for us to meet the individual needs of pupils, in whatever setting they are in, we need to ensure that the resources, the staff and the individual flexible provision are there for them. That is what the Government have been focusing on and will continue to focus on.
The Opposition's call for a new review suggests that they are asking us to ignore all the work that has been done up until this point. What new evidence do they think that that would produce? I know that this is a period of navel gazing for the Conservative party, but surely the time is right to get on with making further improvements in what children and parents need, not to start another review.
What is happening in practice is that local authorities are reorganising their provision to meet changing patterns of need. While some special schools may be closing, others are opening. Specially resourced provision is being developed within and alongside mainstream schools. Through the excellent able autism unit in Kingsley college in my constituency, students get the opportunity both to join national curriculum lessons where that is appropriate and to have the particular resources that they need.
A moratorium on the closure of special schools would prevent local authorities from redeveloping their special educational needs provision to provide such win-win solutions. That is perhaps one of the reasons why local authorities such as Wandsworth, Essex and Dorset are not heeding the call by the hon. Member for Witney for a moratorium. He will need to ensure that his policy proposals are more influential in his own party if he is going to be anything like a convincing leader.
The Government want to move forward, not backwards and we have the right building blocks in place. Our removing barriers to achievement strategy sets out a long-term programme of action to improve early intervention for children with special educational needs, to build the capacity of our schools and staff who work in them, to meet the wide range of needs in today's classrooms, and to promote much closer working between education, health and social services, so that children and their families get the help that they need in a joined-up way, rather than having to tell their stories to a range of different people.
Is not the flaw in the Opposition's argument that, by simultaneously calling for a review while determining that inclusion has gone too far, they have prejudged the outcome of any review? By determining that inclusion has gone too far, they are restricting the very flexibility and choice for parents that they claim to support.
My hon. Friend has ably pointed out the incoherence of, and inconsistency in, the Opposition's approach. In my view, we need now to get the management of special educational needs right at local authority level, so that needs are met, parents have real choices and standards are improved. We have put a team of SEN advisers in place to help local authorities to build capacity and to implement best practice. Our SEN regional partnerships are bringing local authorities together to improve provision in every single English region, and we are making available the investment and capacity to ensure that that happens.
I commend our amendment to the House, and I hope that all colleagues will join me in seeking to improve outcomes for children with special educational needs and their families.
I welcome the fact that we are debating the important issue of special educational needs, which is not debated often enough in this Chamber. I am pleased that the Minister has broadened the debate to cover all aspects of SEN, and not just existing buildings. That was an important move, and I hope that my remarks will continue in that vein. At the end of her speech, she mentioned the percentage of children in special schools, and if I heard her correctly, she said that the number has increased. Perhaps I am talking about a different period from the one that she referred to, but according to her 10-year strategy, the percentage has gone down: from 1.5 per cent. in 1983 to 1.1 per cent. in 2004. Perhaps her ministerial colleague can clarify that for the record later on.
In my first speech as education and skills spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, I need to pay a short tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). He brought to that role 20 years of experience and understanding, as a former headmaster of secondary schools in Yorkshire. Indeed, he brought far more than that. He brought passion about education and made a real contribution to the education debate in this House. I know that he will continue to do so, and I am grateful to him for his advice and for his policy legacy.
I would have liked to congratulate the Secretary of State for Education and Skills—if she were here—on her reappointment. We did in fact know each other before we entered this House, and we have discussed many policy issues in the past. I was also the student of her new ministerial colleague from No. 10, Lord Adonis. I gently advise her and other Education Ministers to challenge his latest theories and allegiances, as he has a tendency to change sides mid-way.
I am not sure how long Mr. Cameron, the latest Notting Hill star pupil, will be in the class to learn—he has "head boy" elections to participate in. I did not expect him to start canvassing today, but he has. To be fair to him, he has done the House a service today. He introduced an important subject and spoke with balance, sincerity, conviction and understanding, and with the feeling that comes from his own experience. That was helpful.
Has the hon. Gentleman had the benefit of reading a recent article in The Independent, in which a contender for the Conservative leadership talked about his party being a compassionate party that believes in parent power? He also said that he will support parents whose SEN schools are being closed down. In the light of that, is the hon. Gentleman surprised that the current Conservative leader has offered no messages of solidarity with those schools in Wandsworth that are being closed down by its Conservative-run council?
Not particularly, but I will deal with that point in due course.
Whatever our disagreements on policy—we will doubtless have many—I want to acknowledge that the hon. Member for Witney has helped to put this subject on the political agenda, which is quite an achievement. He talked about the problems in the system and about the human side, on which he was right to focus. For many years, there has been a huge and unmet need for such provision, and some disturbing statistics suggest that that need is growing. The hon. Gentleman pointed to the strategy paper, which suggests that the Government think that numbers will decline as more such children go into mainstream schools. However, the demographics suggest that the need for SEN provision is increasing.
Of course, the existing state system does provide excellent provision for many—indeed, in some cases it is superb, innovative and cutting edge—but many others experience huge frustration in trying to deal with it. I shall name three such problems, the first of which is the delays that parents experience in getting the initial assessment for their child. The Government's strategy in recent years talks about early intervention, but that is a bit of joke, given that it can take months—sometimes years—to get an assessment. When such statements do come, increasingly, they are worded imprecisely, so that the local education authority and any other providers can wriggle out of their legal duties. That gives cause for concern, and even when there is a precise statement based on a decent assessment, parents often find it difficult to enforce those rights. So the system is not working.
There are inherent problems in dealing with this challenging issue, given the extreme variety of special educational needs. As the volte-face by Baroness Warnock has shown, one can have a change of heart, and people can have different opinions on this issue. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the debate concerning special schools versus inclusion is something of a false debate. We need both, and we need to reach a consensus on that point. We need to explore the different forms of inclusion and of special schools. We need a continuum of provision, involving co-location and special units, for example.
I am sure that all of us sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's comments about parents and their relationship with statements; indeed, we learn of such problems from our postbags every day. But does he not agree that bodies such as parent partnerships already exist precisely to tell parents that they are not alone, that they need not reinvent the wheel, and that they do have friends when it comes to understanding and implementing statements?
I am grateful for that intervention. I was about to explain how I have come to understand a little of how the system works, not as a parent, but as a constituency MP. I am familiar with such parent partnerships. Sometimes they work, but often, they do not. In my first few years as a Member of this House, many parents—angry mothers, in the main—asked me to help them with their case. Trying to help was frustrating, because we came up against the brick wall of bureaucracy, which was strengthened even by the parent partnerships. The frustration was so great that I decided to get the parents to help themselves, and we set up a support group in the constituency called the Kingston special needs project, whose website I recommend. That group helps parents to get through the minefield of the system. It provides extra support, and parents regard it as more independent than parent partnerships. I acknowledge that such partnerships suit many parents, but many others do not benefit from them. We need to look at other ways of helping them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, given that he has spent much of his allotted time talking about old friends. Does he agree that although parent partnerships and the support networks do a very good job, they do nothing to help children who are being statemented to get the places in special schools that they need? In fact, some authorities are minimising the problems that such children have, in the knowledge that once they are statemented at a certain level, there is nowhere for them to go.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention and I am coming to that issue. My experience in working with such parents and in setting up the self-help group showed me that there are two systemic problems. First, the system is adversarial. It creates hostility, and for some of the reasons that the hon. Lady alluded to, there is lack of trust. Secondly, links between education, health and social services still do not really exist. Ministers will say—as the Minister did in her opening speech—that the 10-year strategy, "Removing Barriers to Achievement", will tackle all these problems, and that the rather narrow audit will add something to the process. But on reading that strategy and examining how the audit has been set up, I doubt whether those policies will address the system's adversarial nature and the need to link services together.
The adversarial system is, by and large, built around the statementing process. In law, the statement is supposed to provide the rights. Parents battle for statements, and LEAs battle against them to avoid the expenditure that they involve. Appeals are made, solicitors are engaged and experts are consulted. It is probably a familiar, if rather depressing, story for many Members, and certainly for many parents.
The strategy, it seems, is a gradual one: the Government want to create a parallel system where there are some children on statements, but many others taken off or denied statements. The Government are also trying to adopt other policies, such as early intervention, to persuade parents that their children do not need statements, so that they do not need to go through the process. If they can convince parents and win back their trust, that might be reasonable, but the policy has one basic flaw: what happens about the manifest problems of the statementing process in the interim, before new Labour has built the new Jerusalem of perfect SEN provision without a plethora of statements? There is already a problem now, as there seems to be a set of unannounced policies that are undermining the statementing system even before we reach the new Jerusalem.
It is becoming a widely held view that SEN tribunals have been got at and that the Department is increasingly reluctant to put pressure on local authorities to investigate complaints against LEAs that are not performing their legal duties. It is almost as though Ministers want to act as if the statement system has already gone or its terms reduced, but that is not good enough. Ministers are doing little or nothing to improve the statementing system because they want to see it wither on the vine.
There may be another unannounced policy—to create a chaotic system for the training and professional development of educational psychologists. In due course, that will result in there not being the requisite skilled professionals to do the job in the first place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Ministers must tackle these problems. It is their duty to set the national policy framework, but I believe that they are undermining it. I am afraid that they must recognise the problems that LEAs are facing. Spending on special needs is rocketing and the type of spending that councils adopt is difficult to control because some special needs provision comes unexpectedly and cannot be planned for. A family moves to a particular local authority area and overnight there may be a huge increase in expenditure requirements. That is what creates the tension and that is where the hostility and frustration lie. Faced with budget pressure, we all know what LEAs will do: they will build in a culture of saying no, of creating delays and of trying to undermine parents' ability to get statements.
Rhondda Cynon Taff LEA gave a presentation to the all-party group on autism. It runs an inclusion policy for children with autism spectrum disorders across the board and there is virtually no statement. Statements provide a lever for parents to try to secure provision. What the Government are trying to and will do, I believe, is to create the capacity and invest the resources so that provision is there. The Government are right to do it that way round and to meet the needs of parents in that way, rather than push desperate parents through a statementing process. I admit that it takes time, but it is happening in some parts of the country.
I acknowledge that it is happening, as the hon. Lady says, in some parts of the country, but in many other parts of the country it is not. In those circumstances, statementing is the only thing that parents have to look after their children now, here, today when they need special education. What the hon. Lady says is not an excuse for the Government failing to take action to improve the statementing system.
The articulate and determined parents know that the law is there and some of them have the cash to help their children get statements, but what about the parents who do not know about the law and who do not have the cash? What about their children? By putting our heads in the sand about the statementing process now, we are denying the rights to education of a generation of children, which is simply not good enough. Ministers cannot ignore those problems and sit around waiting for the 10-year strategy to work—if, indeed, it does work.
So what is the solution? Let me be honest: I have been in this job for just over four weeks, as has the hon. Member for Witney. I have just a few gut instincts about where the solutions lie; I do not have a blueprint. We put forward our policies at the election—smaller class sizes, more investment in teacher training, promoting special schools as centres of excellence. Those are all in place and I believe that they would all help. Nevertheless, as I read the Government strategy and talk to parents, I become convinced that more is needed. That is why we think that a comprehensive review is required. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not have a soundbite answer about a moratorium, but I shall put forward some of my first thoughts now and I hope that the Minister will respond to them in kind and with kindness as there may be quite a few flaws—but here they are.
First, should not the assessment process for a statement be managed by an independent organisation—independent of local government, independent of national Government and independent of any of the providers? Preferably, it would be managed by a multi-discipline assessment centre with health and education professionals sitting around the table, working together and conducting the necessary tests in one or just a few days. The independence would remove the conflict of interests for the LEA and restore parents' trust. The one-stop centre approach would cut the horrendous delays and facilitate the early intervention that, to be fair, is at the heart of removing barriers to achievement.
Parents will still want to challenge independent assessors through existing mechanisms, but there would surely be far fewer challenges, which would cut down on the bureaucracy of appeals and all the waste of time and money that goes with it. I would genuinely welcome the Minister's response to that idea and in a spirit of open debate I would be pleased to hear the downsides of the proposal.
My second instinct on getting solutions is that we should look more carefully at the expensive side of special needs provision, as the Government are doing in the audit. We have heard a lot about that today and I welcome it. High costs are one of the key factors driving the hostility in the system, as local bureaucrats are worried that a statement may lead to an expensive provision. Ministers will doubtless say that the audit will look into best practice and seek ways of avoiding duplication and pooling resources. That is all well and good, but we must ensure that decisions reached by the audit can be questioned and not just taken by unaccountable quangos. The SEN partnerships want to ensure that any decisions coming from the audit are accountable.
My idea is that the audit could be broadened. Could it not consider the idea that the costs of the very needy and expensive cases be transferred from the local authority's budget to the Department's budget? That would be a small centralisation, I accept, but an acceptable one because it is potentially liberating for local authorities and would enable them to plan their budgets more effectively. I do not know whether that would work. We would need to ensure that it was not a recipe for the councils passing the buck, which is where my idea for an independent assessment would kick in. National funding would be triggered only by an independent assessment that judged a child's needs as being above a certain threshold. There would be a real prize in that local authorities could focus on the needs of the less severe special needs children, which they should then be able to manage because of their greater certainty about the budget. There would also be much less friction with, and distrust by, the parents. Again, I hope that the Minister will respond positively.
I mentioned a second systemic problem with statementing. To be fair, the 10-year strategy begins to address, but does not solve it. I am talking about the importance of multi-agency working. I accept that it is happening on the ground. In my own constituency, Kingston council set up with other partners a joint system for children with disabilities, but I have to say that it is slow, particularly in getting health providers around the table. One of the reasons for that lies in Whitehall, because Whitehall has not told the local health providers to make the joined-up approach a priority. I am not one for too many targets—I am not keen on the NHS target culture—but it seems that Health Ministers are developing targets for health providers without giving them a target for this particular aspect. I believe that Education Ministers should have a word with Health Ministers to join up the approach in Whitehall.
That is what I said, if the hon. Lady was listening, but my point was that the people working at the grass roots to make that happen are being prevented from doing so because the Government in Whitehall are not joining up their actions, targets and policies. That is what local agencies are telling me.
There are many other issues in the SEN debate that could be mentioned—the need for more specialist teachers, the need for more teachers in mainstream schools to be trained on special needs and so forth—but I need to focus on the core issues raised by the hon. Gentleman, since it is his debate. Above all, I want to concentrate on his call for a moratorium on the closure of special schools. I confess that, initially, I was much attracted to that idea, which has the virtue of simplicity. It also has the good political virtue of promising much but delivering little. I do not know whether those are virtues that the hon. Gentleman prizes—perhaps we shall see—but the debate has shown already that this non-policy is unwinding fast.
To start with, we have heard many examples of Tory authorities closing special schools, both now and in the recent past, despite that party's so-called national policy. My list includes some of the schools that have been mentioned, and it turns out that many Conservative councils do not agree with their national spokesman. We have heard about Worcestershire, but what about East Sussex? In the constituency of my hon. Friend Norman Baker, the Tories are closing St. Anne's school. What about Tory-run Wandsworth, where Chartfield school in Putney and The Vines school in Battersea are being closed? What about Tory-run Hampshire, where the Hawthorns school in Basingstoke is being closed?
Does the hon. Gentleman have an answer to those questions? Before he gets up, I advise him that I will be looking at his answer to see whether he is able to ride those two horses successfully. At one stage in his speech he pointed to Gloucestershire, where the Tory authority has been able to keep schools open, or reopen them. On the other hand, however, he defended Conservative councils and said that the problem was all the fault of national Government. Which is it?
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good speech, and I agree with much of what he has said about statementing. However, he said that it is worth considering taking statementing away from LEAs and that we need to widen the audit of special schools. I think that he accepts that some of the guidance that I have quoted is not right, so would not it be better to have a moratorium until we have sorted the matter out?
No, for a whole set of reasons. The hon. Gentleman demonstrated his inconsistency on this point when I challenged him earlier in the debate. I asked whether he agreed with Baroness Warnock that some special schools were failing and needed to be reorganised, and he said that he did. Is he saying that if he were a Minister he would impose a national moratorium from Westminster? That would stop sensible reorganisations that improve education, that have been widely consulted on and which have the support of parents. The hon. Gentleman's contention is absolute nonsense.
The hon. Gentleman poses as a moderniser and reformer. Those Conservative Members on the Back Benches who support him talk about decentralisation and a relaxation of the grip of national Government, but then he shoots off in the other direction and says that he wants Whitehall to interfere. That does not wash, and he has been found out.
We must remember that the whole point of this debate is to raise standards. Ofsted has found that some special schools are failing. The figures show that special schools are three times more likely to require special measures. That should worry us. There are many brilliant special schools, and I have three in my constituency—St. Phillip's in Chessington, Dysart in Surbiton and Bedelsford in Kingston—but other colleagues tell me that they have special schools in their constituencies that are not working so well. I think that the moratorium idea would get in the way of sensible local decision making, and that it would therefore be a mistake.
The hon. Gentleman has missed a huge opportunity by going for the soundbite policy. He could have joined me in criticising the Government about things for which they really are responsible—for example, the "Department for Learning and Skills" itself. I and many others believe that the Department is not fulfilling its role in investigating complaints against LEAs about their conduct of their SEN duties, and that it is not enforcing the law.
Section 497 of the Education Act 1996 provides that people can make formal complaints to the Secretary of State when they believe that an LEA is acting illegally, and that the Secretary of State can intervene in such matters. However, the section of the Department that deals with such complaints is woefully understaffed, judging by the time taken for investigations and by the inability to enforce the law. That is why our amendment calls for a National Audit Office investigation, so that we can ask an independent body to look at what is really going on. Failing that, I hope that the Select Committee will address the matter.
The hon. Gentleman also failed to set out positive policies for special schools in his speech. We Liberal Democrats have shown our commitment to special schools, as our policy is to build them up as resource centres to support local schools in their specialist provision. We think that special schools could be linked to university research departments, so that they could benefit directly from—and be involved with—the latest research in special education. That model has been used in America very successfully.
Perhaps we should excuse the flaws in the policy espoused by the hon. Gentleman, partly because we all know that he is a man in a hurry. More charitably, we could say that he has helped catapult the issue of special needs up the agenda, and I pay tribute to him for that.
When the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Maria Eagle, winds up the debate, I hope that she will not be complacent and make yet more attempts to claim that all the problems have been dealt with in the strategy. They have not, and it is time that the Government thought again.
Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has placed an eight-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches. That limit applies from now on.
The debate has been most interesting and informative. That is due in part to its subject, and in part to the fact that the general election is now in the past. Education debates are inevitably rather partisan and nasty in the run-up to an election, but today's debate has been good.
I welcome Mr. Davey to his post. I thought that his speech was very good, and my only slight resentment is that he gets three times as long as someone who has been chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Skills for quite some time and who aspires to do that job again. However, I have eight minutes and I will try to use them well.
I begin by confessing my relevant ignorance of this subject. In my time as Chairman, the Select Committee has not looked at special educational needs or special schools. Those matters were on our list but we have not got around to them, as other pressing topics demanded our attention. However, Baroness Warnock's speech and new paper lead me to believe that, if I have anything to do with it, the Select Committee must make this matter a very high priority.
Sometimes I wish that parliamentarians had more confidence in their own institutions. Select Committees provide a very good vehicle for cross-party investigation of matters such as this. Mr. Cameron called for independent reviews by the NAO and for Government intervention, and even Baroness Warnock said that there should be an independent element. One gets a little tired of that, as matters such as this are perfect for investigation by the Select Committee, which always provides high-quality reports.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on choosing this topic for today's debate, and I know that he has a great interest in it personally, as do I. However, if I were to be critical I would say that his speech was spoiled by his determination to find a gimmick. In this case, his gimmick was his call for a moratorium. The hon. Gentleman is quite a sensible man, and wants to lead that dreadful bunch over there—a possible contradiction in terms.
Imposing a moratorium would stop what we are doing in Kirklees. Some of our special schools were housed in pretty awful buildings, with bad accessibility. I would not want any child to be educated in those circumstances. We are closing some of those schools and providing buildings that offer the same capacity but which are modern and pleasant and with a nice environment for being taught in. I would hate that process to be stopped. Many local authorities around the country are undertaking similar improvements.
Labour authorities have closed quite a few schools, although Conservative ones have closed more. However, authorities of all parties have closed schools for very good reasons. There has been a history of neglect in special school provision, and the ethos was that Victorian buildings were good enough for such schools. The priority was always to provide modern buildings for the other types of school. Although I think that the moratorium proposal is wrong, I applaud the fact that this matter has been drawn to the attention of the House and that it now has a higher profile.
I have done a little bit of homework on this matter, mainly by reading Warnock, old and new. I also looked at what Ofsted said about special schools, and determined how much attention the Department paid to the matter in its most recent annual report. I remind the House of what Ofsted reported in respect of SEN provision and inclusive schools. It concluded that the proportion of SEN students in mainstream schools has not been affected by the inclusion framework, and that there were real difficulties in integrating pupils with social and behavioural problems. It added that there was a real conflict between meeting individual educational needs and "efficient education" for other children.
The Ofsted report also found that between 2001 and 2003 there had been a 25 per cent. increase in the number of pupils in referral units—that is, units to which children can be removed from mainstream classes. It reported a wide variation in the quality of teaching offered to pupils with SEN, and that mainstream and special schools remained far too isolated from one another. That seems to make a pretty good case for the Select Committee considering the issue forensically. The DFES's 2004 departmental report contained a section on SEN, but this year's report includes only two passing references—so the Department needs our help, and I hope that we will be able to give it.
In the short time available, I want to put such things in context. We are all guilty—are we not?—in education, as in any other policy area, of being victims of fashion. We get swayed by a fashion, and when a fashion is really pervasive and even pernicious, we do not even know that we are part of it. I remember naming our first daughter Lucy, without realising that the world and their wife were also choosing the same name at the same time. One year, the name "Lucy" did not figure at all in the "most favourite" list in The Times; the next year, the Perks in "The Archers" called their daughter Lucy. Hon. Members will notice that all my other children have very strange names.
When we are part of a fashion, we are pushed this way and that by it. Every party in the House was swayed by the fashion of inclusion, of which the original Warnock view was part, and it has continued to be a very strong fashion. It is partly based on the truth that many of the people who come to me as their Member of Parliament are terrified that their children will be designated as different in any way. They want their children to go to a regular school, in a regular class, and they do not want any statement or any label to be put on their children.
Another group of people come to see us as Members of Parliament, and they desperately want special attention, desperately want a statement and desperately want their children to go to special school if that is appropriate. That is the truth of the matter, and I do not know which sort of parent will turn up when I hold a constituency surgery; but, normally, one or other of them does.
We have got to get the balance right, and enough evidence can be found in the reports that have already been written to say that there is a real worry about special schools and a real concern about statementing. How many of us do not know that there is a long wait for statements? There is a long wait to see an educational psychologist—and people do not even dream of seeing a clinical psychologist. If the problems are really deep, people can wait 14 months in Kirklees. I do not know how long the wait is in other areas. So there is a problem, but it is not one that should divide the parties or politicians. We should put our hand very quickly to holding a good Select Committee inquiry, to which all parties can give evidence.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Sheerman. I urge the Government Whips to set up the Select Committees as early as possible. I would certainly be very pleased if the Opposition Whips allowed me to serve on the Select Committee on Education and Skills, and I would have great pleasure in voting for the hon. Gentleman as its Chairman.
I share something with the hon. Gentleman: I was not very knowledgeable about the subject until I became a candidate in the Forest of Dean, where it was a prominent local issue. We had two special schools—Dean Hall and Oakdene—that were closed by the former administration in Gloucestershire. There was a consultation exercise, although it appeared to be consultation in name rather than reality, and during that process I met a huge number of parents who spoke eloquently at public meetings in arguing the case for proper provision for their children. One thing that struck me was being told that there were 16,000 children with some kind of special need in Gloucestershire, 15,000 of whom were already being educated in mainstream schools. That seemed a pretty good record of inclusion, with 1,000 pupils being educated in some kind of special school.
The administration wanted to go further by pretty much getting rid of moderate learning difficulty provision and moving all those children into mainstream education, whether or not that suited them. To an outside observer, that process appeared to be driven by ideology, rather than by looking at the evidence. The head teachers at both the special and mainstream schools opposed the policy, as did the teachers and parents. Even some children spoke up against the policy at those meetings. The former administration in Gloucestershire refused to listen.
The most shameful thing was that the then portfolio holder for education took the decision to close those schools without even having the courtesy to visit them while they were in operation or to meet the teachers and pupils to see them in action. That is a lesson for politicians. If we are taking such decisions, we have an obligation to visit institutions before doing so. The same decision might still have been taken, but at least it would have been done in full possession of the facts.
In the Forest of Dean, the two special schools—Oakdene and Dean Hall—will be closed in September. A new special school—the Heart of the Forest community special school—is under construction and will start operating in September. It is specifically designed to cater for children with severe learning difficulties, profound multiple learning difficulties and complex needs. I am sure that it will provide an excellent education for those children, and it has my full support.
The problem is that there will be a gap in provision for those children who have moderate learning difficulties and who were previously supported at Dean Hall special school. They will have no option but to go into the mainstream. Many have tried the mainstream before, and they have been failed. A lot of the children at Dean Hall special school—this is one of the key points made by their parents—have tried mainstream education before and it has failed them, and their parents have therefore sought special school provision. I am concerned that, come the autumn, those children will have no other option.
The Minister for Schools said that Conservative Members were fixated on buildings and institutions. I do not think that that is right. I was struck very powerfully by the fact that, although both the schools to which I refer had relatively poor-quality accommodation, the essence of the school was shown by the head teacher's leadership, the quality of the staff and a lot of the voluntary work done by the parents. That is what makes the school. Clearly, it is much better if the quality of buildings and physical equipment is high; but that, in itself, cannot compensate for a lack of high-quality teaching or high-quality leadership by the head teacher.
Another thing that struck me was the fact that because most children with moderate learning difficulties are already in mainstream education, as evidenced by the figures that I gave earlier—15,000 out of 16,000 children with special needs—those children with moderate learning difficulties who remain in special schools are likely to be at the more challenging end of the spectrum. They are likely to have needs that are more difficult to meet, and they are therefore unlikely to be successful in mainstream schools.
A further point worth mentioning is that we talk about inclusion, by which we often mean inclusion in mainstream schooling. It is also worth thinking about what happens to children after they finish their education and how well they are included in society. One advantage of special schools is that, because they are much smaller, they can give much more personal attention to children in their last few years at school and to how they get those children into higher education, further education or meaningful employment.
I was struck at Dean Hall by how children in their last couple of years of education received personal attention from the staff, who looked for a proper route out of that school for the children, whether into local further education provision or work with a local company, or by moving to Gloucester to attend Gloscat—Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology—or another education institute. Secondary schools may be much larger—perhaps with 1,000 or 1,500 pupils—and my experience of mainstream schooling suggests that that type of inclusion in society will not be as successful as specialist provision.
Some of Baroness Warnock's statements have been mentioned already, and I was also struck by some of them. On
"a large number of children with special needs who will never flourish in mainstream schools."
I agree. She has proposed a system of special schools that can serve a wider variety of needs than just those of pupils with severe learning difficulties. She wants to include autistic children and to ensure that those schools would be small enough to provide a reassuring and personal environment for emotionally vulnerable pupils. I support her in that case, too.
Finally, it is important that we listen to parents. They have to care for their children 24 hours a day—that is especially true for the parents of children with severe learning difficulties—and they know their children best. During the consultation in my area, I realised that those parents have enough on their hands without having to fight a battle to get their child into a special school and then to keep that school open. We should fight that battle for them in the House, and that is why I commend the motion.
The whole House welcomes the opportunity to debate this issue, and it is good that Mr. Cameron has raised it. We all know that he has a deep personal interest in the issue and commitment to it.
On the other hand, it is a pity that the House will divide on the motion. I suppose that as it is an Opposition day motion, there is not much option, but it seems irrational to divide on the point about a moratorium. A blanket decision imposed on local authorities by central Government would go against the spirit of greater local independence and decision making, to which everyone in the House aspires. It is also irrational because we have no reasonable grounds for saying that there should be a moratorium. Some school closures may have to proceed for good reasons. Nor is there any reason for thinking that the Government are intent on closure per se, so that is an unfortunate point on which to divide the House.
The hon. Gentleman seemed puzzled about the number of school closures. The figures for the 10 years before 1997 and the eight years since do not mean much in themselves, and they show no predisposition to closure. I think the figures are 27 a year during the last 10 years of Conservative Government and 13 during eight years of Labour Government. They show no particular trend.
I want to refer to the situation in Coventry, the city I represent. My fellow MP for the city, my hon. Friend Mr. Cunningham is in the Chamber today. There are local proposals for the wholesale reorganisation of SEN arrangements in the city. When the council introduced the proposals, it pointed out that by law the guidance in the code must not be ignored. It is only guidance, however, and the important thing is how it is interpreted in practice. The guidance refers to "a stronger right" for children with SEN to be educated in mainstream schools. I have difficulty with the use of the word "right" in that statement because it suggests an overriding inclination, irrespective of anything else, to increase inclusion in mainstream schools. As a general point of principle and guidance, I do not argue against that objective but the presumption of a right makes it an obligation for local authorities to achieve it, which could override other considerations. The same pressure, allied to another to which I shall refer later, led the council to propose reorganisation. It stated that the ambition over the next few years was to replace all existing special needs schools with brand new purpose-built schools collocated on the sites of neighbourhood schools. That may be a good idea, but the presumption that there is only one way to proceed implies that a blueprint will be imposed locally, irrespective of the existing organisation and provision of services.
The proposals are radical. They are out for consultation—although as we all know, things are seldom if ever changed as a result. It is proposed that 11 schools will be reduced to seven and that the capacity for children with special needs will be reduced from 850 to 600. Those are radical shifts. When I spoke to the local director of education, he told me not to worry because there was nothing too dramatic about the proposals and that they would be introduced gradually. I replied that a 30 per cent. reduction in capacity and in the number of schools was considerable by any standards. He then said, "But three of those will go into one school". I said, "Have you any idea of the problems that will cause for head teachers, teachers, and specialist staff in the schools?". He said, "Don't worry, we're not going to get rid of any staff", to which I replied that that would make things even more complicated.
My appeal to the director of education is the same as my plea to the Government. Officials and the Government have become obsessed with structural reorganisation as an end in itself. That applies to foundation hospitals and primary care trusts. Every time we reorganise something we think it will be better but we never leave things in place long enough to judge the results before we move on to another reorganisation. I regret to say that that applied as much to the Conservative Government when they were in power, eons ago, as it does now. There is a continuum of obsession among the officials who administer our affairs.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in Coventry we seem to be in a state of perpetual reorganisation and that, given the special cases that he has just mentioned, we should be careful how we go about things?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who has great experience as he was a distinguished leader of Coventry council for many years before he joined us in this place.
My appeal is not that we start with a new blueprint but that we consider what exists already and build on it, consistent with the principles and good guidance that the Government have given us. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman; the guidance itself is not wrong.
Two things have occurred since we embarked on the reorganisation in Coventry. First, we have heard Baroness Warnock's new views, which cannot be ignored, although she seems to be going from one clear-cut set of principles, which led us too far in one direction, to another position where she almost seems to be saying that what we did then was no good. Clearly, however, much good came from her first report.
Secondly, a national audit is under way of the situation in local government. That will provide a wealth of information about what is good and what is working. We shall then be able to consider how to improve provision in future. We need to take stock. We need not a moratorium but a period to reflect on where we have done well—as we have done in many aspects. We need to see what is working and to examine the work of specialist teams and how—short of direct inclusion—the relationship between special needs schools and mainstream schools can be improved. All that work could be brought to bear on the reorganisation on which Coventry seems hell bent.
When I put that point to the director of education in Coventry, he again told me not to worry because the authority had anticipated Baroness Warnock's report and had already adjusted its plans. He said that their proposals were bang in line with the views of Lady Warnock. When I asked him, "What about the National Audit Office?" he said that there was not even an audit for what was happening in Coventry. I assured him that I would not criticise the council but that I wanted to ensure that what was done corresponded to what was needed.
Another thing that drives the obsession for reorganisation is the crock of gold made available by one of the Minister's predecessors, who told us that over the next 10 years there would be a complete rebuild of all secondary schools. Local authorities want to seize that crock of gold and build new schools, so the whole reorganisation process is about building. Building is important but it is not the only thing. We need a clear statement from the Government that refurbishment where necessary and appropriate will also qualify for the money. Like extensions and expansions, refurbishment should be part of the programme.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak, and I urge the Government to be clear in their guidance about the form in which the money will be made available and the purposes for which it is to be used, so that there will not be misconceived presumptions in local government that the money should be spent only on new buildings.
I am delighted to be able to participate in this important debate on special schools and special educational needs. We have had a high-quality debate. I enjoyed the comments made by Mr. Sheerman, as I always did was when I was previously a Member of the House. My hon. Friend Mr. Harper made an excellent speech. I am pleased to support the motion moved by my hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, who made a rational and moderate speech. I welcomed his analysis of the situation and his suggestions about how we should approach such an important aspect of education.
I am worried about the Government guidelines on inclusion and their consequences. I was also disappointed by the opening remarks of the Minister for Schools. Much of this Government gives good talk but not an awful lot of action on the ground, when it matters. It was especially telling that the Minister failed to acknowledge the worth of special schools that cater for pupils with moderate learning difficulties or to address their future. The main thing that came out of her speech was the fact that she would not acknowledge that those schools do a wonderful job and are relevant. Conservative Members wish to develop such schools further.
Education was a major issue during the election. People in my constituency with children with special educational needs, statements or special school places were worried about where this aspect of education is going. Much of the debate on education is about aspects of education other than this one, so I welcome the fact that we are debating such an important subject today.
In my years out of the House, I worked as a lecturer in a further education college. That, together with the fact that I am a governor of both St. Paulinus Church of England primary school in Crayford and Townley grammar school for girls in Bexleyheath, has kept me in touch with statements and special needs in mainstream schools. I have subsequently learned quite a lot about the special schools in my borough: Woodside school, Shenstone school and Marlborough school. All do a fantastic job for their pupils, so the teachers, governors and parents must be congratulated on the hard work that they do. My borough is fortunate to have a wide cross-section of different schools offering different provision.
A fact that has not been emphasised enough today, except by my hon. Friend, is that it is pupils who matter most. We have had a lot of debate about buildings and finance, but we must never lose sight of the fact that we are talking about pupils with special needs who need to be developed so that they can have rich and fulfilling lives. We should put the needs of children first. Children are all different, which is why Conservative Members say that we cannot have one size for everyone because we believe in choice and diversity. Despite the good intentions of educationists, when they produce theories they sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are talking about the needs of children and what their parents want.
There has of course been a move towards inclusion for special needs children, which is right and welcome for children who can benefit from such mainstream education. If we can provide extra resources so that they can have a rich and fulfilling education in a mainstream school, that is really welcome because it is excellent news for both parents and children. However, if inclusion is just a politically motivated approach, it is not right. Including children in the mainstream when that is not in their interest is not good for parents, teachers, schools, other children in the establishments or, ultimately, the children themselves. If they do not get the advantages that they need, such as extra-curricular activities, extra provision or different provision, they will suffer.
If the hon. Gentleman's analysis that the Government are forcing children into mainstream schools is correct, how does he explain the fact that the number of children in special schools has remained roughly consistent over the past eight years and the percentage of children in special schools has risen in the past two years?
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point, but I do not think that he is correct. If he looks at the figures, I think that he will find that there are now 6,000 fewer places in special schools. Special schools have been closed while others are threatened with closure.
No, we must give other hon. Members the opportunity to speak.
The Government exert pressure to encourage inclusion by trying to get more children into mainstream schools. That is good in some cases, but we must analyse the current situation. We must determine what we think is best, where the resources can be used best and, ultimately, what is best for children. I am worried that children with severe or complex learning difficulties are being gradually moved into mainstream schools that are not appropriate for their needs.
During the election campaign, parents told me that their interests were not being taken into account. They want a voice on what is going on with special educational needs, and they want a say in special schools. They raised with me on several occasions the process of statementing, which Mr. Davey highlighted earlier in an interesting part of his speech. The statementing process often takes too long. It is often too bureaucratic, and it has not achieved what parents want, which is the best for their children. We thus want the process to be examined.
If inclusion is to be the theme of special needs provision, parents should be much more involved in the process. They deserve choice because they know what is best for their children. They should consult with the experts, rather than just being told what is happening. The Minister for Schools omitted to say that she wanted to involve parents in the process to a greater extent, look after children's interests and ensure that the best outcome is found for all, so I hope that the Under-Secretary will address that point.
I hope that the Government will take on board several of the ideas put forward in the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend. They should take parents' views into account and examine the law that currently restricts choice—I think that it is biased against special schools. The current audit should cover all special schools; not just schools dealing with severe learning difficulties, but those dealing with moderate learning difficulties. There has been some banter about the word "moratorium", but if we are going to conduct a serious study, it would be useful to stop where we are at the moment instead of carrying on and finding that the study's findings come too late. A moratorium would thus be a good thing.
I am worried about this aspect of education, but I am afraid that nothing that the Minister for Schools said gave me any confidence that the Government are considering it constructively and with an open mind. Parents and choice should be the top priority, but I am worried that there is a bias against special schools. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take on board some of the genuine concerns of Conservative Members and act accordingly.
Any debate about children with special educational needs is bound to be emotive. We are talking about real children and real families and there are many parents in my constituency whom I admire enormously for their dedication to their children and for the support that they give to the school that their child attends—it does not matter whether it is a mainstream school or a special school.
It is important that we continue to provide special school education, but there has been a growing recognition among parents, teachers and society as a whole that mainstream education can deliver the same support as a special school, and that not only do the children with special needs benefit, but the mainstream school and the children who attend it also benefit, and all children learn that we are not all the same and that children with special needs should not be hidden away but are all part of an inclusive community where we can demonstrate that everyone makes a valuable contribution.
As more and more parents have seen the benefits of mainstream education, more and more of them are making that choice, and that is why we have seen falling rolls at special schools. Parents of special needs children are naturally very protective of them, but most of them want their children to be independent, both when they are at school and when they grow up. That is possible only in an inclusive society that recognises difference but values everyone. In my constituency, the local education authority has identified 26 different and diverse groups that have special needs, including learning difficulties, sensory impairments and physical disabilities. The LEA is striving to ensure that special educational needs provisions meet everyone's needs.
I want parents to be able to make informed decisions about their preferences. To make that decision, parents need to be reassured that the same level of specialist support is available in mainstream schools as in special schools. I am sure that the national audit of SEN specialist services, support and provision that is under way will be an enormous help in assessing needs and provision.
It is important that such decisions are made locally. LEAs, in partnerships with parents and schools, are closest to their communities and best placed to meet their educational needs. Although the number of parents opting for special schools in my constituency has declined, mainstream schools are not suitable for some children. That applies even to specialist units within mainstream schools, but with more parents opting for mainstream schooling, we have to consider the viability of smaller special schools with falling rolls.
My constituency falls within the Portsmouth LEA, and there are two particular special schools with falling rolls. One of the schools is in my constituency and the other is in Portsmouth, South. One is housed in a building that has difficulty in meeting the needs of access, mobility and health and safety. The other is on a limited site that is not suitable for expansion. Both schools have their own ethos and culture and both are fiercely proud of ownership. There is a fierce pride among parents, staff and pupils, who are prepared to defend their school to the hilt.
Portsmouth LEA received £5 million targeted capital fund allocation for special needs allocation, and it was decided that the best way to meet the difficulties of the two schools was to close them both and build a new school. Inevitably, when the proposal was first mooted there was fierce resistance. Parents saw only what was happening to their school and were worried about how their children would manage. We all know that children with special educational needs need stability. The parents were worried about the effect that the change would have on the education of their children, along with the disruption that would inevitably occur.
Parents want their special needs children to live as independent a life as possible. If the numbers in a school fall too far, there will be fewer teachers, so teachers have to hold responsibility for two or more subjects, as well as a similar number of whole-school aspects such as assessment. That means that they would be spending a great deal of time preparing schemes of work and moderating the work of their colleagues, which could mean little time left for out-of-school activities. Very small schools find it more difficult to offer the depth and breadth of subjects expected by Ofsted, which I think should be an entitlement of all pupils, whether in mainstream or special schools.
As the consultation process moved forward, people began to see the benefits that would accrue from a brand-new purpose-built building housing the full range of facilities best to serve the curriculum and learning needs of children with severe and complex learning difficulties and disabilities while meeting the highest specifications of access and mobility.
The ethos and culture of a school do not come from its buildings, but from the staff and leadership of the school. In Portsmouth, the staff and leadership will come together in the new school. From September 2006, out of the closure of two special schools will come a better facility in a purpose-built building delivering a curriculum and out-of-school activities that are designed to give these special needs pupils the tools and experiences that they will need so that, as adults, when they leave school, they can live as independent a life as possible. Surely, that is what special needs education is all about. I am concerned that, if the Opposition had their way and there were a moratorium on the closure of special schools, those children in my constituency would be denied their brand-new school and all the opportunities that go with it.
I do not wish to make them appear vulnerable, but a number of Members, mostly from the Government, have said that this debate should not be conducted in an atmosphere of acrimony and point scoring. I can assure the House that I do not intend to speak in that way today, although I hope to have an opportunity to do so another time. I do not have any party interest in the squabble between the Labour party, which does not stand in Northern Ireland, and the Conservative party, which does stand, even though it is hardly worth while to do so in some constituencies. This is an important issue, as many people with youngsters who have a difficult time in school because of a learning disability would like genuine improvement in the system rather than point scoring by the two parties.
I shall look at a number of issues that need to be addressed. However—and this is the only political point that I shall score today—it was incredible that the Minister should say that there was no policy of closure only to admit that nearly 100 schools had been closed during the period in which the Administration has been in charge of education. To me, that seems like a policy of closure. The first thing to do is look at changing the balance. There is an undoubted bias towards mainstreaming, and thus a bias against special schools. Indeed, Baroness Warnock accepted that when she was honest about the disastrous nature of the policy. In a damning indictment, she said that "a disastrous legacy" had created
"confusion of which children are the casualties".
For a number of years now, many families have come to realise that their youngsters have not received the education that they deserve. There is increasing awareness that social inclusion does not always mean educational inclusion. Sometimes, for youngsters' own protection, it is important to remove them from the rough and tumble of mainstream schools and give them the opportunity to be taught in a different environment. The policy that provides the right to mainstream schooling has sent out the wrong signal. The Minister cited the report by the chief inspector of schools and said that there had been an improvement in standards, but the Ofsted report said that there remains uncertainty about what constitutes adequate progress for pupils with SEN. If Ofsted finds it difficult to know what constitutes progress, it is incredible that the Minister should say that progress has taken place.
The Ofsted report was less than glowing about provision in mainstream schools. It said that a minority of mainstream schools meet special needs requirements very well but that admission to mainstream schools of pupils with social and behavioural difficulties—let us not forget, such difficulties constitute the biggest increase in SEN—has proved to be the hardest test of the inclusion framework. Inspectors have all pointed out that even the most committed headmasters have reservations when asked to admit pupils with high levels of need, especially when those children have previously attended mainstream schools without success. The chief inspector's report suggested that mainstreaming is not always the most preferable route.
A variety of provision is needed. The Minister announced this week an extra £3.5 million for special needs provision in education in Northern Ireland. That is very welcome, given the pressure that there was. I have spoken to a number of teachers in special needs schools in Northern Ireland. They feel devalued by the emphasis on mainstreaming. They see that as a slight on special needs schools which, as other speakers have acknowledged, often provide the expertise that mainstream schools draw on, and provide an opportunity for youngsters who are not suited to mainstream schools.
We have a number of mainstream schools in Northern Ireland where special units have been introduced, sometimes because it was an easy way when there was spare capacity. In some cases that has worked out well and in some cases not so well. It is ironic that, in my constituency, where I met the Minister last week, a school that has a special unit within it, where the youngsters have separate opportunities to be educated and join the mainstream youngsters for certain activities, is to be closed. It is a model that seems to have worked well.
The Minister spoke of capacity building in mainstream schools. That could have an important effect on statementing. Members have spoken about the delay in obtaining statements. A third of educational psychologists' time is taken up drawing up statements, each of which costs about £2,500, and still many people have to wait a long time before they get a statement. There is also an equality issue. The situation in Northern Ireland is no different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom—middle-class parents seem to have more access to statements than parents from less well-off backgrounds. They have more skills and know the system better. That needs to be addressed.
We would need fewer statements, though not as few as Baroness Warnock imagined—2 per cent. of youngsters statemented—if there was provision and capacity building in mainstream schools, where youngsters with moderate learning difficulties could quickly be taken in and given some help, rather than parents feeling that they have to use statementing as the only way to get the extra provision. Capacity building has an important role to play in reducing the demand for statements.
There are many other issues, but time will beat me. The subject is important, given that, in Northern Ireland alone, there are 10,600 youngsters with statements and across the United Kingdom many hundreds of thousands—
In Amber Valley, the proportion of pupils in maintained special schools is the same now as in 1997. I want to praise the skills and dedication of teachers and other staff in those schools and of those working with pupils with special needs in mainstream schools. Parents rightly want the choice of what is right for their child.
I have sat in the station buffet in Derby watching young people have an animated conversation through the glass doors. They had come from the Royal School for the Deaf. I have also been in a Committee Room in the House seeing staff from Aldercar infants school in my constituency receive a national training award for their work with deaf children who are integrated into their school. Even the taxi drivers get training in sign language and parents who got involved now have national vocational qualifications in social care and special needs.
National policies are carried out by local authorities. If Labour had an agenda to close special schools and to limit choice, we would see it in Labour Derbyshire. Labour does not have that agenda. I shall give some examples. Derbyshire county council has had excellent ratings three times running in the comprehensive performance assessments. Ofsted says it is a good LEA and it has above average performance on special needs. Derbyshire's principal educational psychologist has nearly finished an 18-month review of all special needs, including special schools. Derbyshire's cabinet member for education said to me yesterday, "This review is not to close special schools, but to provide a mixed pattern of education to meet the needs of children and parents." Do the Opposition really want to take away Derbyshire's right to assess local needs?
Let us examine the case of a special school that did close in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend Liz Blackman. Two schools amalgamated because the number of children with moderate disabilities seeking places fell, which left spare places. It made sense to close one school to ensure proper provision for those pupils who needed it, and parents were consulted and extra resources obtained. Some of the children at the school had severe physical disabilities, but their cognitive abilities required a fuller curriculum than that provided in that special school, so an enhanced resources provision unit was set up at Aldercar school.
I recently visited that unit, which has excellent facilities, and met Louise, who has cerebral palsy and uses an augmentative electronic communications system, which it was amazing to see her use. I met Robert, who has severe cerebral palsy. He used to go to a residential school out of the county, but his parents became concerned because he withdrew into himself and did not enjoy the residential experience, and they asked for him to come to Aldercar school. Those children spend time in the special unit when they need special help, but they also spend a lot of time in the mainstream school, which has to amend the curriculum accordingly. That allows Louise to do PE and Carl, who wants to study the performing arts, to work on his BTEC with other pupils.
Aldercar school takes pupils other than those in that unit, including the most severely autistic child in Derbyshire in mainstream education. Her parents asked for her to go to the school because they wanted her to experience mainstream education, and they are delighted by her progress. When she does funny things, such as quacking, the other children say, "Oh, that is Emily"—she is part of the school. In September, the school will take a child with multiple problems with muscular dystrophy, and, again, his parents want him to attend the school. Those parents had a choice and asked for their child to go to that school, which is the important point. We need provision that suits children's needs and that is right for individual children.
The children whom I have mentioned attend a mainstream school with special provision, but other children attend special schools. Last year, I visited a special school in Alfreton in my constituency, which was very concerned about staffing and resources. Derbyshire county council has generally been underfunded in comparison with southern counties, and although the gap has been closing, it still lags behind on special school provision, resources, funding and staffing. As well as putting money into mainstream schools, the county council has halved the gap between current special needs provision in Derbyshire and average special needs provision around the country, and it hopes to close that gap completely. Does that sound like Labour closing special schools?
My hon. Friend is discussing the experiences of parents in Labour-controlled Derbyshire. Will she comment on the experience of parents in Conservative-controlled Wandsworth? The parent of a child whose school closed has said:
"I can vouch for the fact that the Tory council were ruthless in their determination to close the school".
That is shameful, and it shows the contrast between what happens in some Conservative authorities and what happens in my Labour-controlled authority. The Opposition are plain wrong to suggest that closing special schools is Labour policy, when we are seeking to provide choice and to examine need.
In my constituency, the Holbrook autism centre, which has skilled staff and good resources, caters for severely autistic children. Derbyshire county council has allocated the centre an extra £1.3 million to allow it to take 12 extra students, but it has also developed enhanced resources provision for autistic children in three other mainstream schools in the north of the county and at a school near Aldercar school. Aldercar, incidentally, does not just cater for middle-class children—it is in the most deprived part of my constituency and does good things for children of all abilities.
Derbyshire is providing extra help and resources not only for a specialist autism centre in my constituency but for autistic children in mainstream schools. How on earth can one say that that sounds like Labour refusing to allow parents choice? That is simply not the case.
Such decisions are not easy. A woman came to see me with her child, who had Asperger's. She was completely torn. The experts were suggesting that he should go to mainstream school to make the most of his educational abilities, but she wondered whether he should go to a special residential school to help him with the problems that Asperger's children have with their social skills.
This morning, before the debate, when I was checking some of the facts with the head of special needs in Derbyshire, he told me: "We are more concerned with outcomes than with any dogma. We are concerned with pupils making progress and with meeting parents' and pupils' wishes and needs." That is what we are trying to do, with considerable difficulty, in Labour Derbyshire. Please do not let us put Derbyshire into a straitjacket based on dogma or, as my hon. Friend Mr. Sheerman, who is the former, and possibly future, Chair of the Education and Skills Committee, said, on gimmicks. It is not helpful to lurch from one view to another. As Baroness Warnock rightly reminded us, some children need to go into special schools; we need to consider her report carefully. I am sorry to say that we should not engage in Tory leadership battles, no matter how sympathetic we are about the personal experience and family situation of Mr. Cameron.
These are difficult and complex decisions, and parents and LEAs agonise over them in the best interests of their children. Let us not allow them to become a political football—they deserve better.
This has been a very interesting debate, and I commend Members on both sides of the House for their contributions. I shall deal with some of the points made by Judy Mallaber in a moment.
I want to talk about two schools in my constituency whose circumstances inform any debate on special schools or special educational needs. Mary Hare school for the deaf is a non-maintained special school with places funded by more than 100 local education authorities from around the country. It caters for some of the 20 per cent. of profoundly deaf children who cannot be educated in the mainstream. It is much appreciated and lauded by the Minister's Department in several ways. It has been invited to become a specialist trailblazer school; it tops the league under the Department's value-added table; and it has, in recent years, achieved training school status. Indeed, it has just had a £300,000 grant for a new performing arts centre. One can therefore tell that it is much appreciated by the Minister.
Members will be able to tell that there is a big "but" coming. That "but" relates to the way in which the school has to deal with special educational needs tribunals. Even hard-core advocates of inclusion have always accepted that extreme cases of deafness and visual impairment are exceptions to the inclusion agenda and benefit from specialist school education. But the head teacher of Mary Hare school, Tony Shaw, spends 40 per cent. of his time preparing for and fighting special educational needs tribunals on behalf of pupils and parents. Last year, he won 17 out of 18 of those cases; the remaining one is being appealed at the High Court. This year, he is assisting 15 families appealing these tribunals.
It is worth examining what is going on here. Unless schools take time to represent these families, in the vast majority of cases they do not have a prayer when they get to the tribunal. The tribunals follow a legal framework, which most parents cannot be qualified to fight. A tribunal requires copious details of a child's case, and the parents have to prove at length why the local education authority provision is inadequate. It requires an enormous amount of work and understanding of how the system operates.
There is a prejudice in the educational establishment against special schools and it means that children suffer. The decision by Mary Hare school, like many others, to put its head above the parapet and take on what some hon. Members have described in the past as the inclusion police, was hard to make because it has been trying to build relationships over the years with local education authorities. However, by taking on the tribunals, it has secured a good education and the best prospects for many children. It has done that not only for the children whom it represents at the tribunals but for the other children at the school. It has managed to keep the school roll up, thus securing its future. As my hon. Friend Mr. Cameron said earlier, the LEAs are working to an agenda of inclusion that has been pushed in recent years, and it causes great unhappiness when cases go to tribunal.
I shall briefly refer to another paradox for the Mary Hare school. The Under-Secretary cannot deal with it, but perhaps she can put some pressure on the Chancellor. In receiving the £300,000 grant for the new building—for which it is very grateful—the school will probably also face a VAT bill of more than £400,000 for the same project. A maintained special school would not receive such a bill; it could claw back the VAT. That anomaly must be resolved. What the Government appear to give with one hand, they take away with the other.
I want to consider another school in my constituency, the Castle school in Donnington. It is an LEA-maintained community special school, which encompasses the range of special needs. It is a uniquely wonderful place to visit. It has children with genuine problems and it faces an interesting challenge that enables me to be constructive about the future of inclusion. The school buildings are reaching the end of their natural life. It is on a site that is away from the centre of town and children have to be bussed to Newbury when they want to carry out other activities. It has successfully co-located its infants school with a mainstream school in the town. The decision that the school must make has to be sensitive to the passionate loyalty of parents, pupils, teachers and governors. However, it is moving towards deciding to co-locate the school with another secondary school in the LEA. I pay tribute to the way in which the school, the governors and the LEA have handled the matter. If it is done right, everybody wins.
The co-location would be based on the model of Springfield school in Witney, which my hon. Friend the Member for Witney described, where inclusion can work to everybody's gain. A properly co-located school can be appropriate for different children. Some can share certain classes, whereas for others, it is not appropriate to share any classes. However, they can share facilities such as catering and sports facilities.
Children in the mainstream school also benefit. My education was divorced entirely from that of those with special needs—I expect that that applies to many in my generation. I went into adult life practically never having met a child with special needs. I believe that inclusion, when done properly and limited, is right for children for whom it is appropriate. In those circumstances, co-location is a way forward. We cannot hermetically seal children with special needs away from those in the mainstream.
In short, I hope that the Government will hear the pleas of parents who know what is best for their children, and the pleas of special schools. I hope that they will also listen to the words of Baroness Warnock. This is an important debate, involving the most vulnerable people in our society. I commend the motion to the House.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate, which should have at its heart the experiences and needs of children, their parents and their carers. All too often, parents feel alienated from the very processes designed to support them. They frequently feel ignored or dismissed, or that their views are of the smallest importance when it comes to determining what support should be offered and how it should be organised. It is fair to say, however, that not every parent's experience is like that. Most children's needs are quickly identified, so that the appropriate support can be put in place. However, there are too many cases in which that just does not happen.
When the delays start to occur, they are often accompanied by a feeling on the part of the parents that their views on their child's needs are being ignored. Indeed, it often seems as though the professionals respond to an assertive parent by digging in, by entrenching themselves in their position, and by weaving a web of dialogue around the parent. This makes things much worse for parents, who often have mixed feelings about the whole process anyway. Some parents feel uncertain about allowing their child to be labelled as different in any way. In that context, it is distressing for them to learn that the process itself is often complicated and fraught with tensions and disagreements. Time delays and cancelled appointments undermine confidence in the process, making parents feel that their child is just a name on numerous files, a faceless entity filed away somewhere for action at some future date.
Only last week, I went to meet the parents of an autistic child in my constituency. They want their son to enjoy an extra year at primary school because of the failure to diagnose his autism at an early stage. They have the support of professionals such as the educational psychologist and the consultant community paediatrician. However, the local education authority's response to their request has not been particularly positive, and the matter will go before a panel meeting tomorrow. As far as Mr. and Mrs. Houghton are concerned, the whole process is tense and difficult, and it follows what they have described as a distant and bureaucratic relationship with the special educational needs service. To give an example of what that relationship has been like, I shall tell the House about an event that took place last week. When Mr. and Mrs. Houghton rang the LEA to ask about the date of the panel hearing, they were told quite categorically that it had not yet been determined. I phoned the LEA the following day to inquire about the case, and was given the date immediately. It is appalling that an MP can be given such information when it has been denied to the parents involved.
I acknowledge, however, that there are no easy ways to improve the services provided to parents and children with special needs, but improve them we must. The key to improvement is surely to focus not on buildings, moratoriums and so on, but on the better co-ordination of services for children, and on putting parents at the heart of the process. The introduction of integrated children's services is one of the ways in which we can improve the work between professionals, their relationships with parents, and the service. I have already told professionals in Sheffield that, for me, the test of children's services will be how much SEN services improve, and how much less parents complain about it. That is the key for children's services.
What provision do we need? In Sheffield, we have a spectrum of provision. We have special schools, as well as integrated resources in the mainstream. Children with a low incidence of need are fully integrated into the mainstream, and we also have an opt-out provision for children who need to be taken out of their mainstream school for a few short weeks and given intensive support. That is the way forward. There is nothing in the Government's policy about either closure or total inclusion. A spectrum of provision is the recommended way forward, and it is based on four principles.
The first is collaboration between special schools and the mainstream, to ensure that expertise is there at every point in provision for all children. The second is flexible provision, which allows children to transfer from special to mainstream schools if necessary, and vice versa, with no delay. Thirdly, the system must give parents choice. Fourthly, as I have said before, it must be led by professionals working in schools who know best how to improve the service and introduce innovations.
I consider the proposed moratorium totally inappropriate. We need flexibility. Some closures are necessary. In Sheffield two new schools are opening in September, after three old special schools have been rebuilt. Parents welcome that, and it has led to an expansion in the number of places available. More closures are in the pipeline, agreed to by parents because the schools are being rebuilt. I appeal to Members not to vote for a moratorium that would stop Sheffield getting its new schools.
A further programme of closure and rebuilding is not appropriate. What is appropriate is for decisions on how provision should be shaped to be made locally. A nationally imposed moratorium would be an example of centralised control that could damage SEN education rather than improving it. I suggest that if there are problems with provision across the country, local government reform is what is needed. We should not have a go at SEN provision when the problem lies with authorities—sometimes Tory-controlled—that do not know how to handle relationships with parents and SEN professionals.
Order. The winding-up speeches must begin at 4.15 pm. Three Back Benchers are trying to catch my eye. Perhaps they will do the maths for themselves if they wish to be helpful to their colleagues.
I will be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
This has been a fascinating afternoon. I find it interesting that there is a fair amount of agreement in the House. I am a new Member, but I would love it if someone set out his or her ideas and then said, "Hands up those who agree with this." I think we would turn out to be in agreement on many issues.
One thing on which we definitely agree is that inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools is a worthy ideal, and I think that for many it is the best option. Inclusion of all children, however, is not the right idea. It is generating a huge amount of fear and mistrust among teachers at the moment: they do not feel that they will be able to cope. I have seen teachers in tears because they are desperate. They say, "I went into mainstream education because that is what I feel I can do. I do not feel that I have the skills to meet the requirements of children with special needs."
I think that there is a problem with perception. Labour Members seem to believe that a moratorium will somehow stop everything, that we are going to go backwards, and that we think inclusion is a bad idea. That is not the case. We are saying what a Labour Member said earlier: we are saying, "Let us stop for a minute and take stock." This is a hugely complicated issue.
My constituency contains some brilliant schools for children with special needs. Gosden House school deals with children with moderate learning difficulties. We also have Pond Meadow, which is to co-locate with a secondary school, and Thornchace, which is a very special school for girls with emotional and behavioural disorders. Many of the girls are looked after, many have been excluded from mainstream schools, and many have already failed in pupil referral units. That school faces closure, which is devastating for staff, pupils and parents, because they know that they have something special to give to very special girls, which is to be taken away from them.
The local education authorities do not want prescriptive messages from Government. They think that they have to pursue inclusion with all their might, which is why we are seeing special schools close. Often, aspirational theory translates into poorly conceived practice and that is what we are seeing now.
We have heard lots of talk of joined-up thinking and partnership working. It makes me so angry, because it does not necessarily translate into something that works on the ground. Ministers can say all the words they want, but what parents and children want to know is: is it working on the ground? A moratorium is the right answer because we need to take stock. There is too much uncertainty out there about how to meet the needs of children with special needs for us to continue. We need to say, "Hang on a minute, what do we agree on, what is right?" and examine the whole sector.
I am happy to support my hon. Friend Mr. Cameron on this important subject, which I am delighted he has given us the opportunity to debate. It has been a very interesting debate. We nearly all agree that there is a problem—I was a bit concerned that the Minister started off by saying that there is not a problem. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have said that there are problems—even Labour Members have highlighted them.
The Government cannot have it both ways. They say that there is not a problem and then, when people say that there is, they say that it is not their problem, but local authorities'. It would be worth while for the Government to acknowledge that there is a problem. I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing the matter to the House's attention.
I may be able to be constructive for the Government in some respects. There are local authorities that want to improve their provision for special needs but they need the Government's help. Bradford council has some innovative and ambitious plans to improve special needs education and to increase the number of special schools in the district, but it needs the Government's help. I hope that the Minister will look favourably upon Bradford council when it requires some help to improve provision in its area.
The council's plans involve opening three new secondary special schools. It also has ambitious plans to introduce three new primary special schools. That is being funded from the council's own resources because it sees it as a priority. It wants to improve the available provision. I hope that the Government will help it to deliver that.
All those schools will be co-located with other schools. My hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and for Witney pointed out that the model of co-locating a special school with a mainstream school can work. That is what Bradford council intends to do.
There are some areas where the Government could help local authorities. One is through the funding of therapies, including speech and language therapy and physiotherapy, which are grossly underfunded in the Bradford district. Demand is higher than supply and the council needs about £420,000 to meet that demand. I hope that the Government will help it with that provision, which is so needed in the Bradford district.
There is a gap between what is offered to people while they are at special schools and what is offered when they leave. Post-school life, little appears to be done; there is a dearth of provision and facilities both for the people leaving and for their carers or parents. Some capital and revenue funding to help with that would be worth while and meet a real need.
What I have in mind is co-located living and training accommodation. People could be accommodated and trained there both while they are at school and after they finish school. That would give them the independence that they crave but currently do not possess.
My concern is that the Government's agenda involves trying to force children into mainstream schools in cases where doing so is not appropriate. I do not know what led to that idea. My fear is that this agenda is based not on what is in the best interests of the children—of the people who need these facilities—but on forcing people into mainstream schools as part of a politically correct process of social engineering. The idea seems to be that, so long as everybody gets the same education, that is fine. However, what people want is diversity in education. Children should go to the school that is right for them.
It is important that people understand that where co-location takes place, the children are not necessarily educated together. Although they might be integrated socially, they are not mixed with others in a mainstream education setting. They are not totally segregated, but they are not forced into participating in lessons that would be totally inappropriate for them. Such participation would be inappropriate not only for them, but for the other children in the mainstream school.
The Government can help by providing extra special needs places throughout the country and particularly in the Bradford district. We have heard today from Members in all parts of the House that there is a problem. I hope that the Government will acknowledge that fact, and that they do have a role to play in helping local authorities to develop the best possible strategies. Bradford council—Conservative-led—has some innovative and ambitious plans, and I hope that the Government will support its efforts to increase special needs provision.
I begin by congratulating those Members who have taken part in this excellent debate, with Members drawing on their constituency experience of special education. In particular, I want to congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), for Guildford (Anne Milton), and for Shipley (Philip Davies). My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has perhaps presented the Government with a challenge. If they are saying that there is no bias in favour of inclusion—that there is no bias against special schools—they should be prepared to look at Bradford council's plan to expand the number of places in special schools at both primary and secondary level. That will be a test of their special educational needs policy.
Mr. Sheerman, the former Chairman of the Education and Skills Committee, was right to suggest that the first topic for the re-formed Committee should be special educational needs. We also heard from the hon. Members for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), and for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), who is my constituency neighbour, as well as from the hon. Members for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). They demonstrated that the problems that we face span all parts of our nation.
I want to tackle three fundamental propositions that are at the heart of this debate. First, children with special educational needs require a proper assessment to establish how much additional support and help is needed to enable them to realise their full potential. Secondly, although for many children such support can come in the form of a mainstream school place, it is not the answer for every child. Parents need choice, as the hon. Member for Amber Valley said. Thirdly, if we are to give children the right support, it is vital that no options be closed to them.
Let us consider first the need for a proper assessment of children's needs, and in particular the statementing process. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough pointed out, the statementing process is far from perfect. Many parents do not consider it fair. A recent survey by the Down's Syndrome Association pointed out that many local education authorities
"are accused by parents of cynically manipulating the statementing process to deny adequate support to all but the most vocal."
Mr. Davey referred to the adversarial nature of the process. Parents are pitted against LEAs and expensive advisers are employed by both sides, so that parents can argue the case for the support that their children need.
Many parents believe that the level of provision is not just about meeting the child's needs, but about responding to the pressures on LEA budgets. A recent report by PACE—Parents Autism Campaign for Education—noted:
"Parents' perception of their LEA was generally negative."
Many parents expressed concerns about their LEA's competence and about the fact that LEAs were less concerned with the education of their children than with budgets. The conflict of interest within LEAs—between their role as funder of special education and their role as assessor of needs—has led many parents to doubt the reliability with which authorities go about the statementing process.
I was pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman agrees with us that we should look further into the possibility of having independent assessment of special educational needs. When parents look around the country, they see huge variations in the proportion of children statemented in different LEAs. In Nottinghamshire, only 1 per cent. of children are statemented, while in Halton it is 4.6 per cent. How can parents have confidence in a system that produces such variable outcomes across the country? Despite parents' frustration with statementing, they also see it as vital, for it establishes a guarantee of entitlement, without which they fear that their child's support could be taken away at a moment's notice. We need to increase parents' trust in the process.
It is not just parents who find statementing to be an unsatisfactory process. County councillors have also expressed their concern that the statementing process is too bureaucratic. It is time consuming and frustrating for them, as well as for parents. Until trust in the statementing process is established, parents will also see it as a battle to get the best resources for their children—an adversarial system that is time consuming and wasteful, yet vital if they are to get the guarantee of help that they need.
If we are to ensure that children achieve their full potential, we must ensure that the support that they get is tailored to their needs. There is a consensus across the House about the importance of early intervention. I have seen for myself the excellent work that the Elizabeth Foundation does with young children born with a hearing impairment. It tries to support children at an early age so that they can continue in full-time mainstream schools rather than have to go to a school for the deaf or a unit for children with hearing impairment.
Earlier this year, I went to the Battledown early years centre, which was faced with closure by the Lib-Lab alliance on Gloucestershire county council—the same people who proposed to close two moderate learning difficulties schools in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean. Battledown did everything that we ask from such a centre: it assessed the needs of children early and provided them with the support intervention that they needed so that, where possible, they could go to a mainstream school. Without that early assessment and intervention, those children were being set up to fail in mainstream schools. Thankfully, in that case, the centre was reprieved by the adjudicator. If we believe in early intervention, we cannot afford to lose centres such as Battledown, which help to tackle special needs when children are young.
Members on both sides of the House have argued that it is wrong to adopt a doctrinaire approach either that only mainstream is right or that only special schools are right. We need to get the provision right for all children. I fear that what we have seen over recent years is a dogmatic belief in the importance of inclusion. Yet the evidence tells us that mainstream does not always benefit all children. The Ofsted report "Special educational needs and disability: towards inclusive schools" found:
"Few schools evaluate their provision for pupils with SEN systematically so that they establish how effective the provision is . . . A minority of mainstream schools meet special educational needs very well . . . The teaching seen of pupils with SEN was of varying quality".
Clearly, there is an issue about the quality of educational provision for children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.
Whenever I visit special schools, I meet children who have been written off in mainstream schools, but who are flourishing, thanks to the expertise and care available in special schools. I visited the Mary Hare grammar school for the deaf in Newbury, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury referred, earlier this year. I met a young man there who had been written off as a failure by his mainstream school. He was stuck at the back of class and could not participate in lessons, but he is now heading off to university because of the expertise and skills of the Mary Hare school. Special schools are very important. Indeed, the Mary Hare school is also a training centre for teachers seeking a post-graduate qualification in teaching the deaf. If we lose those schools, we lose that expertise, and the opportunity to share it with other schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Witney used two statistics in his speech to illustrate how mainstream schools do not always work. He said that a child with a statement is far more likely to be excluded from school than one without, and that many more children with statements switch from mainstream education to special schools than the other way around.
I make those points not to argue that inclusion is invariably wrong, because it is not. Inclusion can be right and it can work, but not always. Alternative provision needs to be available, so that children can get the support that they need. We must be able to maintain choice. Parents should be able to decide, where appropriate, whether a child with special educational needs should attend a mainstream or a special school. Closing special schools removes that choice.
That choice is also constrained by the presumption in favour of mainstream in the Education Act 2001. I refer again to the Department's guidance on this matter. My hon. Friend mentioned it before, but the House needs to remember that it has an impact on what happens in LEAs and on how they respond to the needs of children with SEN.
No, as the hon. Lady spoke earlier. Time is short and many points arose in the debate that remain to be covered.
The Department published the document "Inclusive Schooling" in November 2001. It states that the starting point is always that children who have statements will receive mainstream education. That sets the direction of travel for LEAs, which make mainstream education the first choice for parents and often limit the information available to them about special schools. As a result, parental choice in the matter is restricted.
Why do parents want that choice? For some, the principle is important, but other parents' experiences of mainstream education have been unsatisfactory. In its brief for today's debate, the Special Educational Consortium pointed out that the mainstream does not offer a ready welcome to a child or understand a child's impairments and educational needs. It says that parents have difficulty in securing appropriate provision in mainstream schools, and that there are problems with getting appropriate support from other sources.
Parents choose special schools because they believe that they can meet their children's needs better than mainstream schools. Yet they are often under pressure to accept a place in a mainstream school because that is what the legislation and the guidance say that they should be offered.
Most under threat are the choices available for parents of children with moderate learning difficulties. The Government recognise that special schools have a role for children with a severe impairment, but there is a lot of concern about the fate of schools dealing with moderate learning difficulties. As my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean pointed out, two MLD schools were closed in Gloucestershire. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney challenged the Minister for Schools at the start of the debate about the role and future of MLD schools. He asked her directly for her view of what the future held for such schools, but she ducked the question and hid in generalities.
The Minister's response made it clear that MLD schools have little future under this Government, as the terms of reference for the audit of special schools also indicate. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, when she responds to the debate, will correct that impression, and that she will give parents of children attending schools specialising in moderate learning difficulties an assurance that their future is safe under this Government.
We also need to understand what help is available, and what is effective. The Opposition believe that we need a review of special educational needs provision to ensure that children's needs are met. In the meantime, we must ensure that there is a moratorium on the closure of special schools. Those schools need to remain open while the review is conducted. Until we clear up the uncertainty and understand what is happening in the sector, we cannot move forward with the closure of special schools.
The debate presents us with a real choice. Do we listen to the concerns of parents, teachers and children in special schools that they are being denied the ability to choose between mainstream and special schools? I believe that supporting the motion will send out a clear message to parents, children and teachers that we care about the education available to children and believe that there is a proper role for special schools. In contrast, the Government are in danger of letting down children with special educational needs.
It is a pleasure to respond to the debate and to follow Mr. Hoban. I am not sure how much else we will agree on, but I agree that this has been an excellent debate. I very much welcome the interest of all hon. Members who have participated today. I congratulate Mr. Cameron on raising this important subject, which I should be happy to talk about as often as the House wishes.
The Government have a commitment to improve the life chances of disabled people and to ensure that the enormous extension of disability civil rights legislation that we have implemented during the past eight years results in real improvements in outcomes for disabled people. That commitment extends to educational opportunity and to disabled children, as well as to disabled adults, as it clearly should.
We all know that a good education is key to enhancing life chances, and the Government have recognised that by extending to education the operation of the right for disabled people not to be discriminated against on the grounds of their disability—something that the original Disability Discrimination Act 1995 did not do. That is the purpose of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. It is not, and was not intended to be, some kind of lurch into political correctness—a phrase to which Philip Davies unfortunately referred in his remarks.
The 2001 Act is intended to provide a way to deal with the fact that society is increasingly realising the importance of not writing people off, and ensuring that all our citizens have the opportunity to develop to their full potential and to participate in all aspects of life. For disabled children, society has come to realise—it did not always do so in the past—that we must aspire for them as much as we do for any children, that we must nurture their potential and ambition and that we must remove the physical and attitudinal barriers that still too often get in the way of their being the best that they can be and participating fully in all aspects of life in our society.
That is the context in which we hold our debate today, and I hope that the hon. Member for Witney and I can agree about that. We are asking how, not whether, we can do the best that we can to support disabled children. I welcome this development; it is big a change in society's attitudes to disability over those displayed in previous decades. It is something that we as a nation should be proud of, and we should be trying to improve on it.
The hon. Gentleman raised some specific issues, particularly in relation to schools and inclusion. Before I deal with those points and do my best in the time available to deal with some points made by other hon. Members, I should reiterate the context in which we are taking such action. Progress has been made. According to Ofsted, between 2000 and 2003, the proportion of children with special educational needs judged to be making good progress grew from 54 to 73 per cent. in primary schools and from 43 to 71 per cent. in secondary schools. I doubt whether we could identify any other period when such rapid and significant improvements have been made by such children.
We should all welcome those improvements, which are the result of sustained focus, sustained action and increased resources being put into the sector in recognition of the importance of improving outcomes for those children. The Government have been responsible for some of that, but local education is organised locally, and many local education authorities and dedicated people in localities have also been responsible for making such progress.
The hon. Gentleman accepts that progress has been made. He said so in a debate in Westminster Hall last year. Although he was not concentrating on that aspect today, I am glad that he has acknowledged it. He is nodding now, which is good. He says that the Government's policy is one of inclusion at any cost and that, as a result, special schools are being closed. The Government's policy is one not of inclusion at any cost, but of choice for parents, so that they can choose either mainstream education where they want it and where it is appropriate—many of them make that choice, and it is appropriate—or specialist provision where that is more suitable.
It is categorically not the Government's policy to close special schools and enforce inclusion whether or not it is right for the individual child. Indeed, since the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 Ministers have not had the power to make decisions on school reorganisations and closures; those decisions are made locally. Nor was there any opposition from the Conservatives to devolving that responsibility to localities at the time. Furthermore, figures show that the rate of closure of special schools has halved since the change was made. Between 1986 and 1997, some 234 special schools closed. I gently remind the Opposition that it was their Ministers who made those decisions. Since 1997, some 93 special schools have closed, but on the basis of local decisions.
Many Members have powerfully pointed out that parents are concerned about the closure of any local school, but particularly special schools, which parents often feel they want to defend because they know and understand the quality of the provision there. I fully understand those concerns but make two points in response. First, local authorities have a duty to secure sufficient schools for the children in their area and must have particular regard to the need for SEN provision. When setting out how they will undertake that provision, they must listen to the views of parents. When closure is proposed, consultation with parents must occur. If there is a dispute, an independent adjudicator makes the decision. Some Members have pointed out that that process sometimes results in a change, and many Members will be aware of cases where plans have changed, sometimes out of all recognition, as a result of the consultation process.
That is not to argue, and I do not, that the process always results in the outcome that parents want. In Wandsworth, to refer to a recent example, many parents were dissatisfied with the outcome of the process, so I do not argue that it always results in perfection. Nor do I argue that SEN provision is perfect, but it is better than it was and we are determined to improve it.
The hon. Gentleman asked for a moratorium on closures, as did many of his hon. Friends. That might look good in a speech or a press release but I have major doubts as to its efficacy. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in her opening remarks that the hon. Gentleman was from the progressive left of the Conservative party. I think I would describe him as being from the statist left because he is actually arguing for the re-nationalisation of decision making on school reorganisation. He will be going into the leadership contest with the battle cry, "The civil servant in Whitehall knows best." I wish him luck in his quest. He is a brave man.
A moratorium would require primary legislation, so it will not be a swift option. Such a move would blight many excellent reorganisations, whether or not there was local controversy, for an indeterminate length of time.
The hon. Lady makes me intervene. She says that I pretend that civil servants in Whitehall know best. Is not she aware that her guidance, "Inclusive Schooling", which she has not mentioned, states:
"This guidance . . . must not be ignored"?
That is the man in Whitehall. The guidance also states:
"The starting point is always that children who have statements will receive mainstream education."
That guidance is causing the problem, so why will not she withdraw it?
I appear to have hit a raw nerve. I was considering the hon. Gentleman's policy of a moratorium, which would be centrally imposed and against the wishes of many local authorities. The hon. Member for Shipley talked about collocation of schools, as did Mr. Benyon, but that could not be done if there were a moratorium. The House and the Government would be imposing the moratorium from the centre, so that prescription would not be as efficacious as the hon. Member for Witney appears to think.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the national audit of low incident SEN support services and provision. He asked in particular why the audit was not wider in scope, a point made by several Members, including Mr. Davey. There has been an exhaustive review of special schools, which reported as recently as March 2003. The findings of that independent working group were incorporated in our strategy for SEN, "Removing Barriers to Achievement", published a year later, following extensive consultation. In my previous role in the Government, I was a signatory to that document. There has been extensive consultation before and since with teachers, schools, pupils, parents, local authorities, the voluntary sector and others, although my officials tell me that Conservative Members did not contribute. Perhaps they should have done, because we could then have heard some of their ideas at the time at which the review for which they now call was actually going on.
The Audit Commission raised its views on statementing and the success, or otherwise, of special education in its 2002 report. Work has been ongoing, so I am glad that the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats have decided that it is about time that we had a review, albeit belatedly. However, work has been going on over the years and we have come up with our strategy, which we are now implementing.
We can all agree that it is a priority to ensure that all children reach their full potential and that the education system is a key determinant of our success in reaching such a goal. We can all agree that there is an emerging consensus that disabled children must have the same expectation of success and the same aspirations to develop to their full potential as any other children. If we do not ensure that that happens, we will be failing those people as a nation. We want them to take their rightful place in our society as the valuable citizens we all know them to be.
The Government are investing substantial additional resources in education—some £1,300 extra per pupil, or a 45 per cent. increase in real terms between 1998 and 2008. We want things to work for disabled children just as much as for their non-disabled peers. We are determined to ensure that the progress identified by Ofsted continues, so I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support us in that endeavour.
Question accordingly negatived.
Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to
Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House believes that special schools play a vital role in meeting the needs of children with learning difficulties, acknowledges that parents may want mainstream or special schools for their children and notes that under the current statutory framework they have the right to express a preference for either; welcomes the Government's commitment to improving the range and quality of provision for children with special educational needs through its special educational needs strategy, Removing Barriers to Achievement, which followed wide consultation and a separate review of the role of special schools; rejects the call for further reviews and a moratorium on closures of special schools, since this would stifle reorganisation of local provision to meet changing patterns of need and halt the development of effective collaboration between mainstream and special schools; welcomes the Government's audit of provision for low incidence needs since it will contribute to more effective planning; and welcomes its determination to ensure that all children with SEN are able to realise their potential, wherever they are taught.