Special Educational Needs: Wiltshire

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:41 pm on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee 6:41 pm, 6th March 2019

I am particularly grateful for my hon. Friend’s presence here today, and the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham. I join my hon. Friend James Gray in welcoming the extra money that is going into special educational needs, and I commend the council for that, but it is counterintuitive to suppose that the replacement of effectively three schools with one at Rowdeford would reduce travel times.

It has been a constant throughout my 18 years as a Member of Parliament that transport is the overwhelming preoccupation of parents with children at special needs schools. It is difficult for many of us who do not have direct contact with children with special education needs to understand how important it is. For the parents of a mainstream schoolchild, getting their child to school may be difficult, but for the parents of a child with special educational needs, it can be a preoccupation. It can be the cause of anxiety, distress and behavioural difficulties, and it can be the key focus of the parents’ day. Sometimes we forget how vital it is to ensure that the impact of travel-to-school times is minimised in order to enhance the quality of these young people’s school experience. That is why the council needs to think again about the plan to replace the three schools with one school, as it seems intuitive that that will increase the trauma that travel to school causes.

The council has made great play of getting more therapists into the proposed new school, and it is right to want to improve the level of service for children in school, but it is not clear how that will happen, since the principal difficulty with therapists right now, as I am sure my hon. Friends will agree, is a county-wide shortage of suitably trained staff. How will the council magic up physios, occupational therapists, and speech and language specialists at the new establishment when it cannot at existing schools? To what extent has it taken into account the disincentive introduced by increased travel-to-work times for them? As a rule, therapists are not wealthy people. They tend not to live in premium price market towns such as Devizes and associated villages. They do live in larger settlements such as Trowbridge and Chippenham.

Local campaigners have produced a helpful map to evidence precisely that. Wiltshire Council is rightly concerned about the number of SEN out-of-county placements and the cost, but it is not clear that the new mega-school will help. By the council’s own figures, it will be inadequate to satisfy demand. The council has not published evidence that it has consulted with other local authorities to see whether a model based on collaboration might be possible given that the administrative borders hold very little interest for a mum or dad trying to get their child to school.

In many ways, Wiltshire Council has been showing the way. It has grasped the 2014 Act imaginatively and worked on its version of the local offer, from birth to 25, all the way to placement in the community. I applaud it for that—I really do—but I also believe that it has temporarily lost its sense of direction. Its plans to close Larkrise School and for a new super-school are plain wrong. Its action and its conduct in this matter is wholly out of character. I expect the council to respond to the consultation fully and openly—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)