Society can be judged by the quality of the provision it makes for its most vulnerable members. I therefore welcome this opportunity to raise the situation of vulnerable people in my constituency, particularly those who have special educational needs.
Last week, the consultation ended on Wiltshire Council’s plans for a dramatic change to the provision for children with SEN in the county, and I would like to begin by highly commending Wiltshire Council for prioritising special needs and for being prepared to pledge serious money—£20 million—on a root-and-branch upgrade to provision for children who have complex and severe learning and physical disabilities. That does Wiltshire Council a great deal of credit, and I pay tribute to the councillors and officials involved in trying to makes things better for some of my most vulnerable constituents.
However, the edge was taken off that for me when I was summoned at the end of last year to hear precisely what the council was planning to do with the money it wants to spend. I wish to take some time this evening discussing that and impressing upon the Minister how important it is that the council thinks again. Survey data shows just how unpopular the council’s approach is, closing, as it does, two well-loved schools that are at the very heart of their communities in order to create a very big one in a relatively remote location. I hope the local authority will listen to concerns expressed and adopt a different model for my most vulnerable young constituents that retains at least one of the threatened schools.
I want the Minister to help, because the Government have already been quite helpful: they have helped with £350 million in new funding for SEN announced in December; they have helped through the dedicated schools grant, with an 11% uplift in real terms for high needs between 2014-15 and 2019-20; and they have helped through the Children and Families Act 2014.
A key feature of that legislation was the SEN “local offer” that local authorities are now required to make. The offer has to be developed in partnership with the children and young people involved, their families and the relevant professionals. The attached code of practice is clear: it expects the local offer, from birth to age 25, to be developed and revised over time through regular review and consultation. Indeed, that collaborative, consultative approach runs through the legislation like a vein through granite. It is mandated; it is not an optional extra; it does not mean the local authority making up its mind and presenting users with faits accomplis. It suggests a collaborative, consultative approach that does not waste public money on working up a case that is so clearly contrary to the wishes of its intended beneficiaries.
Wiltshire Council has for some time wanted to close smaller special schools. We got wind of a warming-up exercise last year, when a member of the council made some adverse remarks about the inadequacy of hoists at Larkrise School in Trowbridge—claims that were incorrect and had to be retracted. It all runs contrary to the approach encouraged by the 2014 Act and its associated code of practice. Wiltshire Council’s vision for special education in Wiltshire is in many ways an exemplary document—it says all the right things—but at its heart it would close two schools, one in my constituency and one in that of my hon. Friend Michelle Donelan: Larkrise in Trowbridge and St Nicholas in Chippenham.