Clause 1 - Education in mainstream schools of children with special educational needs

Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 27th March 2001.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment) 10:45 am, 27th March 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 9, at end insert—

`(1A)For each such child the Secretary of State has a duty to make arrangements to secure that the educational needs of that child are paramount.'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this, it will be convenient to consider the following: amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 14, leave out from `parent' to end of line 15.

New clause 1—Duty of education providers—

`.—It shall be the duty of all providers of education under the provisions of this Act and of all professions and ancillary agencies providing services in connection with special educational needs to have regard to—

(a) the educational needs of the particular child; and

(b) the need for partnership working in order to ensure efficient and appropriate educational outcomes.'.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

We now come to the meat of the Bill. It may not have been appropriate to mention it when discussing the programming motion, but I welcome the Minister's announcement this morning of additional supportive software and equipment for children in school. I have taken some interest in that area and, as occasionally happens, without making a public fuss about it, I have corresponded with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who deals with technology, about some especially interesting material that I came across. There is a huge opportunity in that area, and I hope that we shall continue to exploit and develop those opportunities collectively, whoever is returned to government in due course.

In moving amendment No. 1, with which in your wisdom, Mr. O'Brien, we are considering amendment No. 2 and new clause 1, I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I reverse the order. I said that we have a dream team on the Conservative Benches. The exigencies of time and numbers—and, indeed, the Opposition's size—have on this occasion not permitted the selection of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), who is a tremendous contributor on education matters and did us a great deal of good and amused us on the Committee considering the Learning and Skills Act 2000. If he were here, he would no doubt say, in the best classical tradition, that I was making a preposterous suggestion—putting the cart before the horse—by starting with the new clause. However, I should like to refine, from some general considerations, the single issue that we regard as the central piece of unfinished business in the Bill: the rights of the child.

I want to draw out two matters from the new clause. First, it would create a duty on education providers, whether in the maintained or non-maintained sectors, and on all those associated with providing SEN services to have regard to

``(a) the educational needs of the particular child; and

(b) the need for partnership working in order to ensure efficient and appropriate educational outcomes.''

I shall pause on that point for a moment, because it would add another element to the Bill. The Government say that they are strong on joined-up government, and partnership and co-operation. Oddly enough, I am not against any of those. That may be because I am, as I occasionally point out, one of the relatively few Members who was born on a co-operative farm, although it was not a Co-operative Wholesale Society farm.

More seriously, we do not always have the special educational needs provision that we want. I have no direct experience of being a parent of a child with special needs, but many of us know constituents or others who have such experience. Those parents face many difficulties, as was well put to me not long ago in a meeting in Essex, which as the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Barking, knows is my native county. At that meeting, a parent of a child with SEN, who was at a special school, said that such parents were not worried by and could cope with the disability or impairment, and that their problem was with the second round—the wrestling with the local education authority to obtain the required resources. We have no immediate solutions. In our hearts, we all know that that is a continuing problem. We want to ease it and find ways round it.

If I may be allowed an algebraic illustration, I shall call one of the ways in which the issue arises the Venn diagram problem. Apart from speech therapists and educational psychologists, others may be called in on physical disabilities that are not specifically the special educational need, but are associated with it. Those people have a tangential or peripheral interest in the subject. There is often a shortage of resources. For example, speech therapy services are under pressure, as they are required not only at the paediatric end, but for stroke victims and others. Such resources need to be commissioned and put in place, and we must try to fit provisions together. There should be a proper assessment of the special needs of the child in question, and how they should best be met and provided for. If appropriate, a statement or some other understanding should be issued.

The subject is complex, and no one would contend with the idea that it is sensitive for the parents. The problem is to join up the various bits. I hope that there will be good and constructive relationships with the LEA and its special needs team, and between the school or education provider and the special needs co-ordinator and education team in each school. However, even if that is the case, for the want of a nail the battle can be lost—some other essential factor may not be in place. Someone else might have some budget that does not enter into the equation because it is not committed to the problem.

As constituency Members of Parliament, many of us will be familiar with such Venn diagram situations, in which two interests come together. We have to write letters—often to chief executives, in an attempt to scare—saying that we do not mind who sorts the problem out, but that social services and the health authority should be brought together to do so. Often on special needs provision, we must ensure that the bits work together. There should not be lip service about partnership working, but a positive commitment to its delivery. That does not always happen.

The problem is not limited to what might be termed a responsive approach to the needs of a particular child, although our new clause 1(a) requires an obligation to consider that. A more general point is set out in new clause 1(b), which is that we need to consider the importance of partnership working as a natural and proactive activity. In my experience of the official world, at local authority or agency level as well as nationally, people do not try deliberately to subvert children's interests—that would be absurd, inappropriate and unfair. None the less, agencies have their own agendas, and a catalyst is often required to bring them together in the interests of the child. It is the child who matters most, and we must ensure that all parts of the equation fit together to produce the right outcome, rather than resulting in a series of ragged ends, with parts that do not function properly or deliver the right service.

In a sense, this is code and circular territory, and we shall need to discuss at a later stage how it will all work. I invite the Minister to take my remarks as general aspirations, and to tell the Committee what she would like to happen as good practice. I also invite her to reflect specifically on whether including such a provision in statute—even if it breaks her no amendment rule—would at least encourage the various players to get into the habit of working together.

Amendment No. 2 might surprise Committee members. The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) has already twitted us about our position on Second Reading, but if he seriously thought that our reasoned amendment would be accepted on Second Reading, he must hold a particular view about the current situation in the House of Commons. Perhaps he knows his hon. Friends better than I do, or perhaps he anticipated a revolt. I notice that the Government Whip is out of the Room, so all bets may be off.

While I am on the subject of Whips, and if I may briefly depart monstrously from order, I should like to say how sorry I was to hear of the death of Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, reported in this morning's press. He was a good friend—even Whips are human.

It was important to register our concerns on Second Reading, although it was unlikely that they would pull down the Bill. If they had, a new Conservative Government would reintroduce the legislation briskly and early to ensure that it went on to the statute book in better shape than the Bill is in.

As I have said, people might be surprised by our proposal in amendment No. 2 to delete one of the two remaining caveats in section 316—I apologise to new visitors for using such technical language. The amendment would leave out the caveat relating to

``the provision of efficient education for other children.''

Some of my colleagues may wish to say more about that. I also want to say something about the paramountcy of the education of the child, but mine is a probing amendment, tabled in the hope that the Government will explain why they believe it necessary to retain the caveat. I understand—indeed, for the avoidance of doubt, I warmly support—the other caveat about parental choice. That is an essential human right. Were we not constrained by time, we could debate whether parents adequately represent the interests of their children, an interesting question that was touched on in another place.

I want to highlight two areas. One is the impact of one child on another in a mainstream setting, to which the entitlement is extended by the removal of other caveats. The second is the question of resources. At present, although I do not promise that I shall not feel an amendment coming on—that may well depend on the Minister's response—no specific amendment has yet been tabled with respect to resources. Still, there is a heavy commitment.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 11:00 am, 27th March 2001

Before my hon. Friend leaves the point about resources, does he accept that some local education authorities see the Bill as a means of saving money, rather than as a way to ensure that the money from special schools follows the child?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

We may well want to put our heads together on the margins of the Committee to consider an amendment. My hon. Friend will remember the delegation from Alderman Knight school to whom I and other hon. Members spoke only last week. Its members were concerned about the situation in Gloucestershire and somewhat concerned, to put it mildly, about the attitude of the local education authority. I do not come from that area, though my hon. Friend does and may want to make a contribution on the matter. Undoubtedly, behind the unexceptionable objectives of the Bill—the wish, that we all share, to do right by children with special needs—there is an undercurrent of concern about resources. Within the debate there is an undercurrent of concern about how local authorities may seek to dispose of, or allocate, the relevant resources.

I want to deal first with the behavioural side of the matter, or, rather, to give a personal, potted and undoubtedly not comprehensive view of the kinds of disability and impairment that are relevant and their impact in the matter of inclusion. In a strange way, physical impairment is the easiest matter to tackle without affecting the efficient education of other children. The Committee needs to understand clearly that a main impairment may be accompanied by other impairments that may be contributory factors in, or bring about alterations to, the appropriate provision. With respect to physical impairment, matters can be accommodated.

I have vividly in mind visits that I recently paid in one morning to two schools in my constituency that are fairly close to each other. They are different types of school, though both are primary schools. In the first, the former head teacher's daughter had a serious physical disability, from which, I believe, she has since, sadly, died. A sensible and sensitive set of solutions had been found to the physical mobility problem, although the school is not modern and has a number of estate and buildings problems. No doubt the head teacher perceived the need, and representations were made to the local authority. Ramps were put in, and stairs could be coped with. That course of action is neither easy nor cheap, but it is not impossible, and it was carried out for that example of special needs. The school is now irreversibly equipped and will not need to provide those facilities again.

The issue of learning difficulties gives rise to greater sensitivities, but I have no problem in principle with inclusion. In a relatively small rural primary school in my constituency, I saw a boy with Down's syndrome, who was perfectly happy and well integrated and central to the school. The approach, in the context, was exemplary, and I have no problem with it. My only caveat is that the teachers said that as he grew older—he was in year 5—a growing gap was appearing in educational attainment, and that what had been easier was in some senses becoming less so. The children were seen to be growing away from each other; but even that can be handled.

East Hunsbury school, on the edge of Northampton, is in a suburban setting in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Clarke). It has recently imported a new head teacher—Mrs. Angela Shaw, for whom I have the highest regard—from a school in my constituency, and it still takes a significant number of children from my constituency. Apart from a general need to inform myself, I visited that school because parents of children there, including constituents of mine, were most anxious that the quality of the education provisions that the children had enjoyed at primary school should be continued at secondary school. They did not wish their children to receive secondary education in a special school, or did not like the special school that seemed to be the follow-on option. Incidentally, my LEA is reviewing its special education provision. Nothing has been settled, but it wanted to make its point early.

I report what I saw at Hunsbury school because it is useful to have hands-on experience. It is a large primary school in a suburban setting with fairly modern housing, but children from elsewhere attend it. Its dedicated special provisions are excellent. The children go in and out of their dedicated education; they join their form mates in a variety of activities and return to dedicated provision for other activities. To me—it is also the strong view of the teachers and governors—that arrangement is exemplary.

I stress that the Opposition have no objection in principle to inclusion, if it is conducted properly, the parents are happy and the children are successful. In a sense, that assists with the caveat, which the Government are keeping in place, on the provision of efficient education for other children. I agree with the comment made on Second Reading that well-conducted inclusion policies can benefit the other children in the school as well as those with special needs; it may create a social context in which they feel comfortable. It should not be forgotten that they will need inclusion in the adult world. I think, for example, of the role of Mencap, which created its own employment agency to get people out into the world. Those people are terrific employees, which is great, as I am sure that both sides agree. However, the biggest problem—I emphasise that these are broad rather than precise conclusions—is with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Frankly, it is possible for botched inclusion policies to be inappropriate for the child in question and extremely disruptive to other children. The Minister needs to respond on some of those matters.

I have previously mentioned a worry that I touched upon on Second Reading—it was referred to at the meeting that I attended in Essex—which is that inclusion is often not done properly.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

What the hon. Gentleman is asking for is already dealt with. The Bill provides both for the parents' wishes to be taken into account and for the efficient education of other children. The Bill makes provision for one child who is disruptive of the education of those around him.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. My purpose in moving the amendment was not to subvert that provision, but to try to discover the Government's reasoning and whether it might create a problem. The Committee will know that some disruptive children can make a nuisance of themselves. Wider problems exist—I will not stray too far—in the Government's overall policies and the mismatch between targets for exclusion and penalties for exclusion. Those penalties might loosely be termed the stick—talking of which, I notice that the Government Whip has now returned to assist the Committee—if the carrot is how best to deal with the child. Many head teachers, including those who were at a meeting I attended not long ago in Essex, are worried about losing their effective right to exclude—after consultation with the governors—and about finding themselves pilloried or losing financial resources if they exclude.

It is possible for one child to have a disruptive effect on the education of 29 or so other children, even without his necessarily being formally statemented, or having recognised special educational needs. If the Government's intention in providing the safeguard is to acknowledge that—and I think that it is—they should explain that that is what they have in mind.

The issue of resources keeps recurring throughout the Committee as a sort of leitmotif, to borrow a Wagnerian phrase. Whether we discuss it in terms, or whether you, Mr. O'Brien, would select an amendment on the subject, is perhaps something to be decided later. We are not considering an ideal world in which children are nearly always included, there is wonderful provision and everybody is happy. We live in a world where resources are stretched, where LEAs are trying to do their best and where head teachers have to get along with what they have. Two issues arise, both of which concern resources. One is the head teacher's right—or otherwise—to refuse a child if the package of resources is inadequate. When a child has difficulties, whether physical—that is not ruled out—or with learning or behaviour, the school will be under pressure if the resources are not made available. That has to do with what I call inclusion on the cheap. The school must to make do and, because resources are not available, it cannot manage properly. It cannot do as good a job as it would wish. That has an effect not only on the children concerned but on the others around them.

The Minister should explain the mechanisms that ensure that money is derived properly, initially within the standard spending assessment and the allocation to individual authorities under the present arrangements—we shall discuss alternative arrangements later. He should also explain how it is devolved through the local authority to the school, and how there is transparency in funding. We may not see eye to eye with the Special Educational Consortium over every issue, including the timing of the Bill and what will happen to it. I know that the consortium is keen that it should not be lost, but it has expressed concern at a number of meetings that we should all know more clearly where the money is, how it is paid out and whether it is used to achieve good value.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Special Educational Consortium because I understand that neither that body nor its members support the amendment. Can he tell us which organisations in the special needs field do support it?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

If I table amendments they are for the purpose of the Committee's discussions. I have sole responsibility for them and for making the arguments in their favour, just as the Minister has sole responsibility for replying to them. I notice that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who has now joined us, is nodding vigorously, and I look forward to his contribution. We shall make our point. We have discussed constructively with the Special Educational Consortium how they feel about it. I am sure that, if there are differences between us, they are essentially of tactics rather than principle. I agree with the hon. Member for High Peak about that: we are arguing not about the theology, as it were, but about how best to deliver the service. There is a specific problem for the child if the resources do not arrive, and there is also a specific problem for the system of trying to work out the most efficient way of using those resources.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 11:15 am, 27th March 2001

The hon. Gentleman referred to tactics as the subject of our debate. On Second Reading, I asked the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) whether clauses to address the needs of the child were necessary, because that is already covered by existing legislation and overarching duties. Some people suggest that a clause covering the needs of the child may be counterproductive and work against the child's best interest. I did not receive a response to that intervention; will the hon. Gentleman address that point?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I can genuinely reassure the hon. Gentleman. I fear that this point is taking some time, but it will be a keynote of our debates, and I shall come to precisely those matters. I assure him that I am not trying to fob him off: I want to deal with those issues because they are important.

As I recall, the Minister made much of the capital spend programme to provide access, which would eventually, over some years, total about £625 million—I have not rechecked the figure, but it was a substantial sum. I do not know whether the Department has a conventional multiplier—I never found one myself—for the likely revenue consequences of a capital spend of a certain order. If we spend a pound in capital, is revenue spend likely to increase by one or two pounds in consequence? My gut feeling is that the multiplier is probably about two; whatever the capital sum, it has revenue consequences. To put it at its most simple, even ramps have to be maintained and kept safe. Educational equipment and software, about which we have already spoken, needs updating, renewing and replacing, which bears costs; it requires people's time to be trained on it and to use it in the classroom.

Policies based on inclusion, however commendable, are likely to be more expensive. My noble Friend Lord Baker of Dorking made the point extensively in the other place that the Bill will be expensive. Many of us may feel that that is money well spent, but there is no point saying that it has no consequences or that they will all come out in the wash. If money is to be spent in that area, it will deprive other areas of potential spend. We must be clear about the likely implications. At present, the Government are somewhat coy about that, even in areas such as further and higher education, which are more within my day-to-day expertise and remit.

Having put down those markers about efficient education, I turn to the general issue of the rights of the child, as the hon. Member for St. Ives invited me to do. That is addressed by amendment No. 1, to which we attach the greatest importance. Of course, that was debated extensively in the other place. My noble Friend's drafting is much more elegant than mine, but I am a simple man and I thought that I should present as simple a proposition as I could, for debate by the Committee. If the Government like the sentiment but not the wording, that is no skin off my nose, and I am sure that ingenuity could be applied to it, even in the truncated timetable available to us.

Essentially, amendment No. 1 would give the Secretary of State, rather than the educational provider,

``a duty to make arrangements to secure that the educational needs'' of a child are paramount. They should come first. However, by implication, that amendment would also bind educational providers. Why does that matter? One way to approach that question is to consider contemporary discussion of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. A document that thumped on my desk yesterday, with the signatures of the Secretary of State for International Development and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that no child should be left behind. A further special debate on children and their rights is to be held in the United Nations General Assembly in the autumn.

As I said on Second Reading, excluding children from the legislation seems an odd way of asserting the rights of the child. For about 40 years, since I was a student, I have been troubled by one of the college library rules—I think it was rule 6. It said that no person should mark, deface or otherwise alter any book or other property of the library. Alongside it, someone had inked in, very neatly, ``Hear, hear.'' For 40 years I have worried about who was in the right in that matter—those who asserted the rule or those who broke it in confirming it.

We accept that children have rights, and we want the Bill to uphold those rights. We want a sensible means of doing that. Perhaps I may avail myself of a brief indulgence and say that such an interest in children has a long pedigree. I am fond of quoting the Roman educationist Quintilian—this is not a classicist's ego trip—who said that in education maximum reverence should be owed to the child. He used the word ``reverentia'' as if it were almost a religious duty to follow his advice. That thinking runs through Piaget, child-centred education and the things that some of us learned in the 1960s. There is nothing wrong with that at all. It is an entirely proper human function and interest to put the child first. In educational terms, there is currently no contest on that.

How we put that way of thinking into practice may be another matter. Whether we need to legislate should be another matter. One of the few things that I learned as a student—apart from my worry about the library rules—was the important distinction between a good thing and something for which there is a need to legislate. When is there a need for a general provision? There is an historical aspect to this question. Declaratory legislation has been around for some years. I encountered my first example not long after my student days when I came to this place as a very junior researcher. It was in the late 1960s and we spent quite a lot of time thinking about foot and mouth then, too. In 1968, a general duties provision in agriculture legislation stated that, in pursuing their policies, Ministers had various duties that were wider in scope than just paying farmers lots of money. I shall not caricature that measure further. Since then, a pattern of declaratory legislation has developed. Clauses of Bills or sections of Acts set out the Government's priorities and what they think should come first. Our amendment is part of that process. What we think should come first—what the Secretary of State should promote above all--are the rights of the child in this matter. I shall return to the practicalities of that in a moment. I do not think that anybody would disagree with that. There was no sign of such disagreement on Second Reading, in the discussions in the other place or in the representations made by interested parties. We want to make progress on that.

Local education authority special needs officers have a terrible job in balancing resources. If they do not give statements and try to dither along, it is often because they are under pressure and are trying to do the best they can with the limited resources available. It is not because they are trying to subvert the individual parent, although that is how it can appear, and that is often how the parent sees it.

Do we need to have a commitment to such general principles enshrined in law? Would it help? Given that we are discussing an amendment to section 316 of the Education Act 1996, we should recall that some education authorities and some educationists have an agenda of forced inclusion. We have discussed that with Ministers, and the Secretary of State spoke about it on Second Reading, saying that he saw a need for balance. There are concerns, such as that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) with respect to the local education authority in his constituency, that people are trying to push inclusion in mainstream through, either on what might loosely be called accountancy grounds or on educational theology grounds. We know that inclusion in mainstream does not make sense unless it is done properly, and so we return, as we always will, to the issue of resources.

Generally speaking, we are in favour of inclusion—not forced, but as an option. That is what the Education Act 1996 was about, and that is what the Bill seeks to develop further, by relaxing some of the caveats. Ministers execute logical shifts on that issue from time to time, for their own reasons. I was interested to read a document from the children's and young people's unit. The Minister responsible for the unit now attaches himself to the Department for Education and Employment in order to lead it, and it is primarily, though not exclusively, a DFEE unit. There was not—and this is not, I am afraid, untypical of Government papers these days—a great deal of substance in the document. There were, however, a lot of words, and there was one phrase that I found particularly interesting, which I will share with the Committee. The document states:

``Our special educational needs strategy, an integral part of our overall education strategy, aims to develop skills for key workers in education to help deliver a service which focuses on Inclusivity for pupils of all ages.''

That, in itself, is unexceptionable, and I am not saying that there is anything wrong with it. However, there is a difference between saying that we are not against inclusion or we would like people to be included and saying that the only way of including people is by putting them into mainstream schools. That is a shift too far.

We then come to the questions that have properly been raised by the hon. Member for St. Ives. No doubt Governments are, like Alice, required to believe three impossible things before breakfast, but in this case the Government are attempting to sustain two contrary, if not formally contradictory, propositions at the same time. The first proposition--we anticipate that the Minister will respond on the matter in due course--is that it is not necessary to restate the paramountcy of the educational interests of the child, because they are secured elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman's point is that Ministers must clearly explain where that is secured. Various documents, including the United Nations convention, which, I understand, is not part of our law, the European human rights convention, which is part of our law, and other legislation relating to education and children, refer to the interests of the child. However, it is unclear to me whether a provision such as the one in the amendment is included in any law, and will leap off the page to help parents argue with a local authority about the rights of their child. I shall return to that central issue in a moment.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central 11:30 am, 27th March 2001

Will the hon. Gentleman explain the circumstances in which the best educational interests of the child would not be covered by the express wishes of the parents? Does not the Bill provide sufficient safeguard by requiring that the wishes of the parents must be given the fullest possible consideration, and does that not accommodate the hon. Gentleman's argument?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

One can argue that point in two ways. Indeed, it was touched on in the other place. The child, especially an older child, may have views of his own, which should be canvassed and discussed. I understand that the hon. Gentleman's point is sincerely made, but by arguing that the parents' wishes mark the end of the matter, a local authority could absolve itself from even considering the matter. I am not saying that the local education authority is right or wrong, and I do not worship professionals, but that aspect should be considered.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I do not imagine that I will be able to slip references to both Gilbert and Sullivan and Wagner into my intervention—I am sure that you would not allow me to do so, Mr. O'Brien. Good practice in this area is about achieving a balance between a studied analysis of the child's needs and the parents' or child's wishes. We want to reinforce that balance of elements in making the right provision.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

My hon. Friend makes a helpful intervention, as I knew that he would. Parents may bring their personal commitment to bear on the situation. It is important to achieve a blend of the cool professional opinion and the committed parental view. In my constituency, I sometimes have to correspond with the county education officer saying, ``I think that the parents want this, but I believe that there is a hidden agenda.'' Sometimes, there are even tensions between the parents about the child's education. One may be right to say to the education officer, ``This child is unable to do what the parents think he can do and has a problem that the parents have not acknowledged.'' However, that must be balanced by the right of the parents to express strong feelings about a matter. I often say to parents who visit my surgeries, ``Thank goodness that you have come. The most important thing is that you are committed to your child.'' My hon. Friend had the music of this right.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Is there not a grey area regarding parental wishes in new section 316(2)? That subsection says:

``If no statement is maintained ... he must be educated in a mainstream school.''

Does that not mean that if the LEA did not maintain a statement, the parents' wishes could be totally overridden?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

That is another point to which we need a response. There are several safeguards, including the parents' right to educate in the private sector, but not everyone has an open cheque book. I am sure that we all know of parents who have gone to great lengths and expense, if they have been unable to get a statement, to put their child into the school that they believe is appropriate and to have the child dealt with appropriately there. In some such cases, the LEA has eventually produced a statement.

Prompted by the intervention of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), I shall indulge in one more anecdote. Foot and mouth permitting, I am a breeder of South Devon cattle. I do not come from either Devon or Cornwall—the hon. Gentleman will know that Cornwall is strong in the South Devon breed—but the rules at important agricultural shows usually allow for a Devon judge, a Cornwall judge and an umpire to decide which of them is right. If the right of the child is paramount, clause 1 is rather like an umpire clause, because it allows us to balance the interests of the parents against the properly cool concern of the professionals. I shall return in a moment to the question whether such a right is necessary. The second question is whether the clause would have a perverse effect.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Would the hon. Gentleman clarify his thoughts? Is he saying that the Secretary of State, through the LEA, is the best arbiter of the most appropriate education of a statemented child? If so, is he prepared to say that a non-statemented child's education is best determined by the LEA and not the parents? Can that be applied more widely? Why is he saying that only statemented children are appropriate for such treatment?

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the clause, which is about children with special educational needs. The amendment would come after subsection (1), which applies to

``a child with special educational needs who should be educated in a school.''

It is not tied to statements. Of course, given the resources available to the Opposition, we are putting forward a general proposition that may need tying in. I shall return to the point when considering whether the clause would have a perverse effect, but we must first consider general local authority practice. We must also remember that the tribunal is, thank goodness, independent of the Secretary of State. The logical extension of the question posed by the hon. Gentleman is whether the Secretary of State should sort matters all out when little Johnny in Newlyn or Beccles has a problem and his parents do not like what the LEA is doing, and whether he should issue a diktat saying that the child should be moved from X school to Y school, despite it having nothing whatever to do with SEN. I can see the constraints on that approach, but the basic principle that we should put the child first is central.

Photo of Mr Win Griffiths Mr Win Griffiths Labour, Bridgend

Do not our exchanges over the past 10 minutes confirm the incredible difficulty of such definitions? I have seen professionals form very different opinions on the needs of children, but which of them is right? Is there not a difference between what might be perceived as the professional's view of the needs of the child and the wishes of the child? Records show that the wishes of the child are sometimes ignored when the children might have been better served in mainstream schools than in special education institutions—or even vice versa.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. They are sensitive issues. There are genuine disagreements between professionals—that is, before they say, ``We can't afford it even if we should do it''. There are also differences between parents—who may be separated or experiencing marital difficulties and trying to use the child as a weapon or pawn in the game. There may be differences between the parents and the child. All those issues are complicated. I am feeling my way towards the ultimate tribunal being the educational interests of the child.

I turn from those interventions, which have been helpful to the debate, to the argument that has been put to us that including a general provision for the rights of the child would have perverse effects. The Minister did not do an especially good job on that point on Second Reading. In fairness, I realise that time was constrained, but it is less constrained in Committee. The Minister must explain more clearly than she—or even, dare I say it, the Special Educational Consortium briefing—has yet done why including the caveat that is in the Education Act 1996, or the more general provision in the amendment, would damage the rights of the child.

The implied argument is that LEAs, being good at both reaching professional decisions and, dare I say, covering their tracks if they want to obscure a difficulty, may say to Mr. and Mrs. X, ``We don't care. You think that your child should go to a certain special school in another county, but our professional judgment is that they should go here.'' There would then be an argument with professionals about that. In my view, that issue is properly resolved by the tribunal. On Second Reading, the case cited by the Minister made our point. She said that the case had to go to tribunal. Precisely. At the tribunal, it was overturned under existing legislation in the interest of the child and the parents. In other words, provision was made.We need a little more flesh on the argument that creating a right for the child is perverse—that it will somehow result in children losing their rights. I have yet to be convinced of that.

We all know that the child should come first. We all know that, in an imperfect world, resources are not always available, and the provisions do not suit everybody. The system must do the best job that it can. Including a right in the Bill would strengthen the rights of the child; removing the existing caveat would weaken the rights of the child. We have discussed last resorts, umpires and so forth. Under our amendment, the Secretary of State would ultimately be under a duty to satisfy himself that the child's interests were protected above all. That is what we want; no one argues about that. I may not have the wording quite right—we have tried it from different angles—but the principle is important and incontestable: to put the child first and make the system fit the needs of the child, not to drop those needs and rights and say that the system will do the best for the child that it can. Only if there is that ultimate sanction, so that everyone is under a legal duty that can be tried in court if necessary, will the child be told, ``You are entitled to that. That is what you need, and that is what you will get.'' The amdts have been tabled for that reason and in that spirit.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton 11:45 am, 27th March 2001

Before I proceed, I remind the Committee that there is a financial resolution in connection with the Bill, and that copies are available on the Table. I remind hon. Members also that adequate notice should be given of amendments. As a general rule, my co-Chairman and I do not intend to call starred amendments.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I am disappointed to have been delayed by train, taxi and traffic, for two reasons. First, I can only now and belatedly welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. Secondly, I missed the Programming Sub-Committee resolution debate and all the excitement that that implies. I was pleased, though, to catch the last 60 minutes of the 61-minute speech by the hon. Member for Daventry. I caught almost all that he had to say and shall be a little briefer in dealing with the two issues that we face.

The first issue is the needs or best interests of the child. There has, unintentionally, been too much interchange between the terms ``best interests'' or ``needs'', which can be said to be equivalent, and the separate ideas of the wishes or rights of the child. When the hon. Member for Daventry, upon whose every word I hung, reads the record of his speech, he will see that he used some of those terms interchangeably. It might have been useful if he had not done that in a speech that was thoughtful and thought-provoking. It is important to identify correctly what one is talking about.

Complying with a child's wishes may be in his or her best interests, and one would hope that it often would be. However, sometimes complying with the wishes of children—or adults, but this debate is about children—is not in their best interests. That is why children do not have rights to autonomy equal to those of adults, but gradually gain rights as they gain capacity. We could debate at length the capacity of children, with or without special needs, to want what is congruent with their best interests. The rights of children are not necessarily congruent with their wishes, and they do not necessarily involve their best interests or needs. Those important concepts should not be conflated.

My second point is about what should be paramount. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives pointed out, it cannot be that two things are paramount. The Bill implies that in a conflict the wishes of the parents will in most circumstances be paramount. It would be difficult to superimpose the idea that the wishes, best interests or needs of the child should be paramount. In accepting the wording in the Bill the Liberal Democrats accept, first, that the needs of the child are already taken into account—I shall come on to that issue—and, secondly, that we can almost always accept parents as the best guarantors of the needs of the child. Removing that status would suggest that we do not trust parents. No doubt, that is not what the hon. Member for Daventry intends, but we should examine the logical consequences of what is proposed.

I do not mean to say that the voice of the child should not be heard. Many of us have received an interesting brief, and had interesting conversations, with a group that is keen to make us aware that in some cases parents do not speak in the best interests of their children. At the wishes of parents, children are forced into special schools through lack of information, lack of interest or even sadder circumstances. They do not want to be there and are miserable, and their needs are not met as best they might be. That is why, before the amendment is rejected, it will be important for the Minister to make it clear that those issues are covered elsewhere in the legislation.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I do not want the Committee to be under any illusion about our intentions. The amendment is specifically about the educational needs of the child. For the most part—invariably, in fact—those needs coincide with parents' and children's wishes. As the hon. Gentleman rightly suggests, there will be exceptions. However, in suggesting that there is an implicit conflict, he is perhaps not drawing on his experience of such matters. He should apply that experience to his reading of our intentions and of the effect of the amendment.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that he used the word ``invariably''. He did not say ``almost invariably''. Invariably means with no variation. Elsewhere in his intervention, he accepted that there would be variation from the norm. It is important to recognise that there might be conflict in some cases—it is not invariable that there will not be conflict—so a balance should be struck. As I shall say in more detail in a moment, the legislation should be based on the needs of the child. That is why we are here; it is what the Bill is about. So long as the Government make that clear, there will be no need to accept the amendment. That point was made in an intervention by the hon. Member for Leeds, Central, who is no longer in his place.

The Special Educational Consortium tends to back my position. I disagree with the hon. Member for High Peak, who suggested that there must therefore be something wrong with the amendment. I do not want to demean or diminish the amendment. We table amendments to challenge issues and accepted practices on which we are lobbied. I dissociate myself from the implication that an amendment is devalued simply because an important and authoritative lobby group disagrees with it.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

I certainly was not trying to imply that there was anything wrong with our debate or the principles of the amendment. Many of us would argue that its principles are embodied in the Bill. I simply wanted to ask the hon. Member for Daventry if any representative organisation supported the amendment.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I am happy that that clarification is on the record, but I question the hon. Gentleman's argument. In other debates, he supported proposals on reform of the structure of community health councils that no organisation backed. We must ensure that we consider the issues.

The hon. Gentleman may have been implying that we must pay special attention to the points made by the Special Educational Consortium because it is representative of a wide group and has great expertise. It has made two points that might satisfy the hon. Member for Daventry. First, it says that the condition that would be introduced by amendment No. 1 has been used to deny a mainstream place to children. There is no getting away from that.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I am carefully following the hon. Gentleman's constructive contribution, in which he is making some proper corrections and qualifications to the points that I made. However, so far as I know, there has never been an explicit duty on the Secretary of State to secure educational needs. There is an issue about whether we are trying to involve the Secretary of State because individual LEAs have been derelict in their duties and have not met their obligations within the existing legislative framework.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I am making a general point raised by the Special Educational Consortium. One can always say that there are bad local authorities, but there are good local authorities that, faced with other exigencies, might cite the provision in support of a proposal to go against the parents' wishes, when those wishes have a good basis and are in the best interests of the child.

The Bill removes two of the caveats in section 316, one of which defines a situation in which education in a mainstream school could be deemed—``deemed'' is my word—incompatible with a child receiving the special educational provision that his learning difficulty calls for, as well as with the efficient use of resources. People have been concerned about that caveat being used to support a move to deny places in the mainstream. It could work both ways—against parents' wishes and against the real best interests of children. That might come about because of dereliction of duty or pressure on resources, or because of a misunderstanding.

The second point raised by the Special Educational Consortium was that statutory protection for the best interests of the child already exists. I would not be making these points if I were not satisfied on that. My noble Friend Baroness Sharp would not have accepted that argument, after careful consideration in the House of Lords, had we not been convinced that statutory protection for the best interests of the child is provided by sections 323 and 324 of the Education Act 1996, with schedules 26 and 27, which deal with how statements are made, as well as the SEN regulations and the code of practice.

Finally, I would like to draw the attention of the hon. Member for Daventry—I say this as politely as I can, using no classical allegories at all—to a philosophical question that we must face. His party has traditionally supported selection by schools. That implies less choice for parents, and certainly less choice for children. It is important philosophically, and it would help us in the rest of our consideration of the Bill if his party clarified whether it wants, where possible, more choice for children and their parents, or more choice for schools, which is what selection implies.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I rise merely to give the hon. Gentleman notice that that is a matter to which we may wish to return during consideration of another amendment. In the spirit in which I answered the hon. Member for St. Ives, I shall do my best to clarify that point then, rather than return after a lengthy speech to make yet another explication of the amendment.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I thank the hon. Gentleman. While I am on a roll, I should point out that perhaps the Government should answer the same question, given their predilection for allowing more selection by schools.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to stay on his roll for too long, because the logic of his argument is flawed. If our education system provides for diversity—of selective schools as well as non-selective schools—surely the choice of school available to parents and children is widened, not narrowed.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

Of course not. If the system does not select a child, that child's choice is meaningless. I am conscious that this discussion is in danger of not being directly relevant to clause 1, and I look forward to our future debate on the subject.

I would like to make one more point to the Conservatives. In a Committee Room very close to this one, they considered the best interests, the wishes and the rights of the child in relation to access to health education on and the promotion of emergency contraception. They were flatly opposed to granting access to those who were mature enough to require it, saying that parents' rights must come first. For the sake of consistency, it is again important that the Conservative party should clarify whether it will pick and choose which rights of children it seeks to make paramount, and which it does not. The Opposition were more wrong in that case than in this, though I disagree with them on this one, too.

Amendment No. 2 deals with the caveat of

``efficient education for other children.''

Again, that is difficult for us; we were worried about that and had to be persuaded in another place. Part of that persuasion was an undertaking by the Government to monitor the use of the provision. It would be of grave concern if it were used unnecessarily to exclude children with special educational needs, which is a subjective judgment.

It is interesting that the word ``efficient'' is inherited from previous legislation, because I should have thought that ``effective'' might have been better understood to separate the issue from that of resources, which otherwise hangs over our discussions like a shadow. We are talking about effective education, and it appears reasonable, a priori, to say that we must not interfere too much in favour of one child over the need of other children to be effectively educated. The use of ``efficient'' by definition implies resources, which is why many people are concerned. Will the Minister explain why she rejected ``effective''? It is close in the dictionary to ``efficient'', and I am sure, given her hours of study preparing the Bill and the long time that it took for even the draft Bill to be published, that there must be a reason why ``efficient'' was chosen over ``effective''.

The point made by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury about resources is allowed by the term ``efficient'', and must therefore be dealt with. I do not claim detailed knowledge of who makes the decisions in Gloucestershire, but I remember a fascinating debate in Westminster Hall in which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Daventry spoke. It is clear that local authorities are under pressure, so where resources are tight and new duties are placed on them, something must give. I doubt that any local authority will see the Bill as an excuse to make cuts, but when faced with new duties, budgets legally must balance, and when raising resources, Gloucestershire has been subject to capping legislation that the hon. Member for Tewkesbury supported.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 12:00 pm, 27th March 2001

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it has certainly been in the minds of certain people in Gloucestershire that closing special schools is a way of saving money. The then director of education, Mr. Roger Crouch, said in front of Labour members that he was ``doing his damnedest'' to save money through the SEN programme in Gloucestershire.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I do not want to get into the specifics of Gloucestershire, because I do not have the information, but speaking generally, when local authorities face new duties, such as those provided by the Bill, there are pressures. If those cost pressures, when quantified, exceed available resources, something must give. It is a question of terminology whether we interpret that as an opportunity to make cuts for their own sake or recognise that, given the under-resourcing of local authorities and their inability to raise the resources that local people may want them to raise because they are capped, they are forced into an invidious position. That is why we are worried about the resources attached to the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will make it clear that although there may be perceived effects of inclusion on the efficient education of other children, authorities should, before they decide that that means that provision must end, put into the balance the benefit to the broad education of the other children of inclusion—even of children with especially challenging behaviour and significant needs. Guidance is needed to ensure that schools do not just consider efficient education in direct and financial terms, but look more widely at the benefits of inclusion. We will want to see how the provision works if the Bill is unamended. If our attention is drawn to cases in which the clause is used unnecessarily and inappropriately—I accept that those terms are subjective, but they reflect the wording of a later amendment—to exclude children with special needs on grounds of efficiency, we would want the Government of the day to reconsider the matter.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

When I spoke on Second Reading, I referred, perhaps rather unkindly, to the Bill as a triumph of theory over reality. That is certainly true of the first clause, and I said it because I feel that there is an element of political correctness running through the Bill. One of my main concerns is that there seems to be a presumption in favour of inclusion. Hon. Members may say that that is desirable, but we have not achieved full inclusion throughout the education system.

On Second Reading, I spoke about my education, which did not take long because there was not much of it. I did not successfully negotiate the 11-plus, whereas my sister, with whom I discussed the matter over dinner last night, did. We went to the same primary school and sixth form, but we went to different schools in between. She went to a grammar school and I went to a secondary modern. I would not change that for one minute.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

How many pupils at the secondary modern had severe physical disabilities? I suspect that the answer is none, because they were excluded from such education. The hon. Gentleman's example is not relevant because it relates to mainstream education, from which large sections of the disabled population have been excluded until now.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Many children with physical disabilities do not want to go to mainstream schools. I accept that the opposite is also true, but the purpose of my example is to emphasise that there were grammar schools and secondary modern schools, and as one hon. Member has already said, the Government have done nothing to bring about the end of grammar schools. They have made a half-hearted attempt to encourage the demolition of grammar schools, but in this Parliament, they have not ended that system or the independent school system—

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

Order. We are discussing the amendment, not the abolition of grammar schools. I ask the hon. Gentleman to keep to the amendment.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I take that advice, Mr. O'Brien. My point is that we must be careful about what ``inclusion'' means. The Government have done nothing to bring about greater inclusion by narrowing the types of school, each with a different ethos, that provide different forms of education.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

I should, perhaps, declare something of an interest in that I taught in comprehensive schools in Gloucester for 10 years. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that special needs teachers and others in Gloucestershire comprehensive schools are doing some excellent work on inclusion.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I certainly would not dispute that. Many children in Gloucestershire are included in mainstream schools. I do not know how recently the hon. Gentleman taught in Gloucestershire—

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

Before I was there. Certainly, many head teachers, teachers, governors and pupils are very nervous about the Government's policy on inclusion and how it is being interpreted by Gloucestershire county council. Some 32,000 people have signed a petition in protest against the closure of special schools in the county. That is about 5,000 or 6,000 in each constituency.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

I think that the hon. Gentleman is misleading the Committee by generalising from a specific example of one local authority's problems in order to deny children and young people access to mainstream education. They should have that access by right. No one is saying that parents should not have the choice of sending their child to a special school, and nothing in the Bill suggests that that choice will be taken away. However, if the hon. Gentleman's line of argument is followed through, those with special educational needs and disabilities will not have the option of going to the mainstream school of their choice. It does not happen now; but it should.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

The hon. Lady is snapping at my ankles like a terrier. I am willing to accept that some children are excluded from mainstream schools. I made that clear on Second Reading, and I thought that I had made it clear this morning. However, it also happens the other way round. I have had school pupils come to the House—my hon. Friends have met them—begging and pleading for their special schools to be kept open because they know that they will not be able to cope at mainstream schools. I hope that the hon. Lady will not deny that.

Miss Begg indicated assent.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

She suggests that she would not deny it. I am grateful.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

Further to the hon. Lady's intervention, what really matters to parents is that they may be denied a choice between special and mainstream provision. If the arrangement is not working as it should, we should not miss the opportunity to redress the problem.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

My hon. Friend is right. I am rather uncomfortable about clause 1 for the reasons given by my hon. Friend, which is why I support the amendment. I make no apology for discussing Gloucestershire. As a Member of Parliament, I am paid to represent a constituency there. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) suggested that the authority was not carrying out its duties properly, if that is an accurate summary of her words. That was the effect of the Green Paper. I cannot blame the Bill, as it has not yet been enacted. It is wise to consider the effects of the Green Paper.

The closure of Burnham Park school, Stroud, has already been proposed. The schools organisation committee was not unanimous about that decision, so the adjudicator must decide the school's future. That is not theory; it is the reality of what is happening in Gloucestershire. The Minister wrote to me—I thank her for the letter—saying that such decisions are now being made locally. However, letters to the adjudicator have to be sent not to Gloucestershire but to Darlington. I am not sure how that means that such decisions are made locally, but that is slightly off the point. Given the county council's policy, allowing that school to close would surely give a green light to closure of other special schools in Gloucestershire. I should explain that the county council is not controlled by the Conservative party, as the Secretary of State once made the mistake of thinking; it is controlled by an unholy alliance of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has told us of the political make-up of Gloucestershire county council. I share his opinion of the Green Paper; a similar thing happened in Kirklees. Would he not accept that following consultation on the Green Paper, the proposals changed substantially? Some councillors, perhaps including those in Gloucestershire, may have taken pre-emptive action; but they should study the Bill and should review any decisions that were based on the Green Paper. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is more than able to deal with his local authority and tackle that problem.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 12:15 pm, 27th March 2001

The hon. Lady makes a good point, but there are no signs of a change so far, although it may be different when the Bill is enacted. The proposal to close Burnham Park school in Stroud is still before the adjudicator, and he will make a decision one way or the other. She is right in theory, but this is another case of theory over reality, and, in reality, the decision will not be reversed. The decision could be reversed if the make-up of the county council in Gloucestershire changed, if the Prime Minister had the nerve to hold elections in May. That is the only way in which the special schools in Gloucestershire will remain open.

We are talking about parental choice and what is best for the child. I shall put a genuine question to the Minister in all innocence: if there are no special schools left in Gloucestershire, where is parental choice? Does she have responsibility, in this Bill or existing Acts, to ensure that the county has special schools? Parents, teachers, pupils and even the LEA would have no choice whatever if there were no special schools.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

I am enjoying the nostalgia, as I used to live about 400 yards from Burnham Park school. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that about 300 special schools closed in this country between 1987 and 1997? Would he care to hazard a guess as to how many of them closed due to falling demand or places not being provided in the right areas? Is he aware that the number of special schools opening is increasing? It went up from three in 1997 to 13 last year.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I do not know of those figures, but I am more than happy to accept them.

It is curious how the figures on the closure of special schools because of demand or lack of it can be manipulated—not, of course, by the hon. Gentleman, but by LEAs. The Bill will make that problem worse. If an LEA does not statement a child, that child will have to go to a mainstream school. That could reduce the numbers in special schools. We have all seen schools closed by stealth before. An LEA puts it about that a school might be in danger, so parents do not send their children there. That means falling numbers, so the LEA says that the school is unsustainable.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I want to correct the record again. The rate of closure of special schools has been steady and continuing since 1997. It has not changed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that the hon. Member for High Peak was right to say that there were closures before 1997, but there has been no let-up in them. In that context, my hon. Friend might like to consider the number of children with statements and the demand for special education, which seems as inexorable as the closure programme.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point well.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the trauma of closure of any school, special or otherwise, is greater than the benefit of the creation and opening of a new school? Simply to say that special schools have been replaced by others elsewhere does not take away the concern that parents feel in such circumstances.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making another powerful point. The issue creates a great deal of emotion. My hon. Friend was kind enough to come to the Jubilee Room last week to meet parents, pupils and governors of, and local councillors connected to, Alderman Knight school in my constituency. The school feels that it is under great threat. We shall have to wait to see what happens. The first decision to be made in Gloucestershire is about Burnham Park school, but there is great fear as to what the knock-on effect will be on Alderman Knight school.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

The hon. Gentleman could use the Bill to make the case for the retention of the school that he so wants to save in his constituency. My local authority—and I know that this part of the Bill does not apply in Scotland—proposes to close a school for children with severe behavioural problems and to integrate them into one of the local secondary schools. I shall be at a meeting on Thursday night supporting the community against that proposal, and I shall quote the Bill in my favour. Labour Members are not saying that all integration is right and that it must happen regardless of the wishes of parents or of the provision of efficient education for other children. Caveats have been put into the Bill, and the hon. Gentleman should use them with his local authority.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I wish the hon. Lady every success in trying to save her school. I do not know why it is under pressure. I only know why schools are under pressure in my area, where the Green Paper was seen as a green light for closure. I accept the argument of other hon. Members that that should not be the case, but it is the case.

I shall finish soon. I did not want to make a long speech—in fact, I have made a short one, but the interventions have made it long. However, I should like the Minister to address first my point. What happens if there are no special schools in an area? What will happen to parental choice in Gloucestershire if that is the case? That is the scenario that we face.

My second point is that all hon. Members should ask parents and, particularly, pupils who are involved with special schools what they think. Many will have done so already. Some will not. Such pupils overwhelmingly believe in the role of the special school. They know that, in many cases, they cannot cope in mainstream schools. They know that they would suffer in such schools, and a number of people attached to mainstream schools know that the pupils in those schools would suffer as well. We can all quote examples. There should not be an over-presumption on inclusion. Every decision should be based on the needs of the child. I should like to repeat the quote that I gave on Second Reading from a young girl—I think that she was aged about 15 or 16—who spoke at the Jubilee Room last week, very bravely, in front of 50 or 60 people. She just said:

``No-one is listening to us.''

It is a very sad comment on the political process if a young girl feels that. I ask the Minister to make sure that that is not the case.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) for raising the concerns of those involved with special schools. My wife is a governor of a special school in my constituency, Godsen House, which has had two Ofsted inspections in recent years, both of which resulted in excellent reports. The commitment to education, and the knowledge and expertise of the teachers who work in that school is truly impressive. They will tell anyone who cares to listen how many more children could benefit from a period in their school.

When discussion takes place about whether children should be in the maintained sector or in special schools, the notion seems to be lost that a period in a special school—the investment of new and additional educational vision in their development—can be of lasting benefit when they return to the maintained sector. Many special schools see it as their primary role not to maintain the children outside mainstream society, but to give them the building blocks to go back into the mainstream, more effectively and more successfully than they could have done before. Too much of the discussion about putting such children into mainstream schools misses the point. Part of the rationale behind the amendments is to ensure that the additional provision is available to children when they need it, promptly and effectively, so that they then go back into the mainstream. One of our fears is that the Bill will mean that too many kids will fail to receive the extra provision that would give them strength to deal with the maintained sector in the future. Instead, they will be put in the mainstream from day one, and will never perform quite as well as they might have done.

A few hard facts about the current system need to be spelled out. They come from the most recent annual Ofsted report. It is alarming that Ofsted tells us that one third of the LEAs inspected were judged less than satisfactory. The institutional mechanisms that surround the children whom we are discussing are not performing as well as they might. The overview of last year includes something even more alarming. Page 82 of the report states that support for SEN is often the weakest aspect of the work of LEAs, and that almost half have no adequate SEN strategy. In fact, the report states that 45 per cent. of authorities have unsatisfactory strategies for SEN support.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will be aware that, according to the notes provided with the Bill, about 20 per cent. of children will have some form of special educational need at some time. Given the number of pupils affected, is it not terrible if LEAs lack the relevant provision?

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

I am sorry to alarm my hon. Friend further, but I am afraid that things get worse. Not only do 45 per cent. of LEAs fail to operate a satisfactory SEN strategy, but 35 per cent. fail to offer value for money in their SEN provision. I suppose that the two factors are connected. A great deal of education authority resources seem, according to Ofsted, to be misapplied. Paragraph 358 of the report states:

``Support for special education needs continues often to be the weakest aspect of the work of LEAs, with little sign of improvement.''

Ofsted states that ``only one in five'' authorities is any good at discharging its statutory functions. That is pretty serious, given that the Bill deals with statutory functions, particularly those of local education authorities.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

My hon. Friend is deploying some shocking figures. I think that we were all uneasily aware of them, but it is useful to have the stout facts on the record. In the light of those figures, and given the fact that many local education authorities may not fulfil existing legal requirements, as well as the fact that the new law on disability discrimination is embodied in the Act, will not the matters in question increasingly be the subject of legal challenge, to the detriment of the public good? The lawyers will arrive to do what LEAs are unready or unwilling to do themselves.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

When the Government came to power, they told us that they would provide many more resources for special educational needs, by cutting out bureaucracy and time spent in court and in disputes. The money used on those activities would be rediverted to the educational needs of children. That sounded like a halcyon prospect, but as we change the law, we need to recognise that there are already failures in the system. Perhaps the Minister will correct me, but as far as I am aware, the amount being spent on disputes, over statements, for example, has not significantly reduced during the term of this Government. Will the Minister give the Committee the figures, on a like-for-like basis, for spending on disputes in the year to 1997 and subsequent years? We need to know how disputes mechanisms are being handled before we can get to grips, in our debate on the amendments, with the future operation of those mechanisms.

The point of treating the needs of the child as paramount is partly that, if that is the starting point, the likelihood of legal dispute between parents and children on one hand and LEAs on the other will be diminished. Clearly, the parents and the child will start from the view that the child's needs are paramount. If they feel that the starting point of the professionals involved in the complex debate about the child's future and specific needs is different, conflict is likely to arise and the parents and the child are unlikely to trust the professionals' instincts.

Often, there is a serious battle about resources. To send a child outside the mainstream sector can easily cost between five and 10 times more than the standard spending assessment of a child in a mainstream school. In some cases, it costs as much as 30 times more. The battle over resources can be acute, and if the parents and the child feel that officials do not come from the same standpoint as them—that the needs of the child are paramount—that will be a recipe for many more legal disputes in future. If that is taken together with the failure of LEAs to discharge their current functions and duties, a red light should be flashing in the Minister's office. Not only did Ofsted find that barely one in five LEAs was good at discharging its statutory duties, it found that 14 per cent.—one in seven—were unsatisfactory.

Photo of Mr Win Griffiths Mr Win Griffiths Labour, Bridgend 12:30 pm, 27th March 2001

Is not the burden of the hon. Gentleman's argument that there can be huge differences in professional opinions about what are the needs of the child? The burden of his argument is not about the educational needs of the child being paramount, but concerns the availability of resources to meet the perceived needs of all the parties involved in any one case. Legislation already exists to say that the needs of children are paramount. What makes the process so complex and the amendments so unnecessary is the need to balance all the issues at stake—the needs and desires of the parents and the child; the availability of resources; and the different professional opinions that may exist on any case.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

I do not think that that is the route that I am going down. Of course we all recognise that resources are limited, but we are more likely to reach a consensus between the parents and the child on one hand and the officials judging what provision should be made for the child on the other if everyone agrees on their starting point. The Bill fails to make clear that everyone is coming from the same starting point, and that it is therefore a question of how we use existing resources and what tactics we follow, because the strategy is to answer the needs of the child.

To answer a point raised by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, there is no conflict between judging the wishes of the parents and the paramountcy of the child's needs, because one need of the child is to follow the wishes of the parent. A strategy that goes against the wishes of the parent is unlikely to succeed. If it does not have their confidence, that lack of confidence will be transmitted to the child, diminishing the likelihood of a successful outcome. We shall shortly come to my amendment about the needs of children in care. Not enough has yet been said—I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments—about how we deal with children who do not have parents to bat for them against the system. I look forward to debating that issue later.

Another issue about which I am especially concerned, and to which new clause 1 would provide a better answer, is the role of independent schools, where provision can be bought to support a child's needs. I regret that one result of the way in which the Government have framed the legislation will be to bear down on the role of independent schools, although there are not many of them because LEAs are reconsidering the provision that they offer. Not long ago, one such school in my constituency closed. For smaller LEAs, the opportunity to buy provision from independent schools is an important part of the array of options that they can offer to parents and children.

We had an interesting diversion from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon on the issue of selective schools. In discussing provision for those with special educational needs, we only ever address the needs of half those kids—the 2 per cent. who have acute difficulties. We never address the needs of the 2 per cent. who have intense abilities. The Select Committee, on which the h G and I serve, debated at length whether statementing should apply not only to those with acute learning difficulties but to those who are highly able in one or more subjects, for whom mainstream education may not be able to provide. Some children with special educational needs turn out to have high ability.

For all those reasons, making available a broader range of provision, including selective and independent schools outside the mainstream and maintained sectors, should form part of a sensible strategy, because the peculiar needs of children at the ends of the spectrum are more likely to be met by a diversity of schools. The lack of that diversity will be a weakness of the system. New clause 1 would make it easier for education authorities, who recognise the need for as wide a range of provision as possible, to justify expenditure on such provision.

Another flaw in the Government's argument about moving children with disabilities and special educational needs into mainstream education is the effect that it has on mainstream education. A school in my constituency was in serious difficulties. It was a wonderful school in many ways. It accepted many children with special educational needs and disabilities, but the number of mainstream children who applied to that school was only one third of the number that it had the capacity to take. The school was, in the parlance, ``a failing school'', as the Ofsted report confirmed. That was very upsetting for all those involved. We took a radical approach and brought in the private sector to turn around that school. The success of that Conservative policy was so dramatic that it was endorsed even by the Prime Minister in a recent Green Paper. We welcome that cross-party support for our initiative.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Government Whip

Which county was that?

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene, since I did not hear his sedentary intervention? No, he does not.

That school was a mainstream school, but was characterised by some in the town as the school to which those with special educational needs and disabilities were sent. Although it had the nomenclature of a mainstream school, it was regarded as some sort of special school. There is a danger in the Government's approach that that will happen. I see the Minister shaking her head. I do not want that to happen, and I am sure that nor does she. Perhaps she could explain how she will ensure that such problems are avoided if more kids come out of special schools and are given provision within the mainstream.

If there are problems of behaviour—that was one of the acute difficulties of this particular school—and there is a lack of resources in the mainstream schools to deal with them, schools that otherwise have a good reputation may develop a reputation for being disruptive. Such a school might develop a reputation as the sort of place where kids who want to get on with their work are distracted, or unable to do so, because teachers have to devote so much of their time to dealing with difficult pupils.

I do not want to stigmatise those pupils or ignore their needs, but we must ensure that if more children with demanding requirements come into the mainstream, certain mainstream schools do not become stigmatised in popular opinion as being somehow different and therefore less desirable for parents to send their children to.

I will move on to the issue of children in care later. New clause 1 covers somewhat the same ground as a later amendment, so I will reserve my remarks until we debate that amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I do not wish to detain the Committee. As I said earlier, I will not be able to draw on the literary metaphors and allusions with which my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry was able to punctuate his speech. However, it is important to tackle the issues that are implicit in the amendments in more detail than we have done thus far, in three or four particular respects.

First, there is the matter of the educational interests of the child. The discussion on that has been appropriate, and I understand the desire of Members, particularly Liberal Democrat Members, to get to the bottom of why we consider this to be so vital. Let me put it in plain terms: I take the view that our concerns are shared more widely than might generally be thought. It is clear from meetings of the all-party disablement group and from discussions that my hon. Friend and I have had with the main disability organisations, that those organisations generally take the view that getting the Bill through the House and on to the statute book is of such great importance that anything that endangers that process is undesirable.

There are concerns about the absence from the Bill of an explicit reference to the educational needs of the child. Those concerns may not be as profound as ours, but they exist. I do not want to go into great detail and cause embarrassment, but we are sure from our discussions that those concerns exist. However, there is a fear that, if we make too much of them and debate the Bill at too great a length, then because the Bill has been introduced so late in this Parliament, it will not become law. We no longer know for certain whether it is late in this Parliament—but let us say that it is popularly considered to be so.

No draft Bill was published, and the Government are guilty in that regard because that would have allowed an exploration of important matters at greater length. They could have been discussed and talked through, and we could have come to a better resolution earlier.

Other issues arose as a result of the Green Paper. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) was right to say that the Green Paper had a destructive effect on special education, because it was seized upon by some local authorities as a green light to close special schools, and sent shock waves around the community that includes disabled organisations, disabled people, people with special needs, parents, teachers and others. In my constituency, a street stall was dedicated to a petition against the Green Paper because feeling ran so high. For all those reasons, the legitimate debate about the Bill identifying the educational needs of the child has to some extent been suppressed.

I believe that that debate should be an important aspect of our consideration of the legislation. Without desiring to repeat myself unnecessarily, I say again that I support the Bill in broad terms for three reasons. The first can be illustrated by the entirely well intentioned words used by Baroness Blackstone when she introduced the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry talked about the theology of the matter, but we are more concerned with the liturgy. Baroness Blackstone said that the

``commitment to inclusion has been strong and constant...The potential social, moral and educational benefits are significant.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 December 2000; Vol. 360, c. 635.]

That is certainly true. However, the order in which she put those benefits is most interesting. We are concerned about the social, moral and cultural interests of people with learning difficulties, but their educational needs will at times be more significant than any cultural or social benefit that might derive to them, their contemporaries or their schools.

There are good grounds for arguing that social and cultural benefits are derived by whole schools from the inclusion of special needs children into mainstream education. I acknowledge such arguments fully and without reservation. However, there can never be a stronger argument for Conservative Members than the specific educational needs of the child concerned.

It is unfortunate that some people have a bourgeois-liberal view of such matters, although I would not want to accuse any member of the Committee of falling into that category. They say that to educate everyone in one place would be cosy and culturally desirable—one might say comprehensive, if that were still a fashionable word, which it certainly is not.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I hear my hon. Friend, but do not want to go down that path.

That view may prevail at dinner parties in Islington and elsewhere, but it is not about the specific educational needs of the child. The important word of our amendment is ``educational''. I am dubious about those social and cultural arguments, strong though they may be, replacing the specific educational arguments.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

I agree that educational requirements should be paramount. Does my hon. Friend also accept that the social requirements are not met when the child does not successfully integrate into a mainstream school? In fact, the reverse is true.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

The social requirements may be met for other children, but not for the child concerned. There is a balance of advantage. The optimum is when children are included in a mainstream school, prosper, do well educationally, socially and culturally, and when the children who mix with them and become their friends benefit as well. That is often the happy result of integration into the mainstream.

There are many other permutations, however. Sometimes other children benefit, but the educational progress of the individual child is not as great as it would have been if he or she had had the advantages of a special education. Sometimes the child is not happy in the new environment. Sometimes parental wishes do not coincide with the process. Many issues must be taken into account.

Earlier, I intervened on the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats. Two considerations cannot both be paramount. Incidentally, I said ``almost invariably''. [Interruption.] I have been asked to turn around, Mr. O'Brien, because I was not speaking through you. Heaven forbid that I should break with protocol.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon was right that only one consideration can be paramount. The educational needs of the child are, indeed, paramount. We know from experience that the educational interests of children will usually—if the hon. Gentleman does not like the term ``almost invariably'', I shall use the word ``usually''—coincide with their wishes and those of their parents. However, parents may take different views—many parents are separated or divorced—or there could be differences between child and parent. In those cases, the educational needs of the child should be pre-eminent. The Bill establishes a structure to deal with disputes, so it should also take those other factors into account.

No one has yet mentioned the pro-inclusion zealots—perhaps we are too polite—but some people would include children in mainstream at all costs. Some people have a positive distaste for special education. That does not apply to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, or to the Minister, who takes a typically moderate and balanced view.

Mr. Boswell rose—

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend is about to tell us that he is not typically moderate or balanced.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

I am happy to be bracketed with the Minister as a moderate and non-ideologue. Would my hon. Friend not agree that one of the difficulties is that inclusion could result in a progressive spectrum of costs and a diminishing level of benefit? As special needs increase, so the task of inclusion becomes progressively more difficult and more expensive. I do not preclude the need to examine inclusion and pursue it whenever possible, but I acknowledge the reality that it may not be possible to allow inclusion for 100 per cent. of the population.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I did not fully understand that intervention, Mr. O'Brien. I therefore remind my hon. Friend of the words of Arthur Balfour, a former distinguished Member of the House and Prime Minister. He said that he did not much mind being praised and that he was not terribly concerned about being criticised, but that he shuddered when people tried to explain him. Perhaps my hon. Friend was trying to explain me; it certainly sent a shudder through me, as I found his comments almost incomprehensible.

I shall flesh out that second point a little more fully. The inclusion zealots seem to have a hidden agenda, which is that all children should be integrated regardless of need. I acknowledge that the Bill provides certain safeguards, but my experience of such matters, which stretches back 15 or 20 years, is that even though special education has been available in most parts of the country—I shall return to that point in a moment, because provision is patchy—the presumption has long been held that children should be integrated.

Photo of Jacqui Smith Jacqui Smith Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Employment

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's view of pro-inclusion zealots. Does he not agree that they would fall in behind the amendment, so what he is saying is therefore slightly contradictory?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend the M for Daventry has already spoken about the perverse effect of the amendment. It could be used to force children into the mainstream, or protect them from it. I acknowledge the problem that arises over how such a provision in the Bill would be used and interpreted. I suspect that that would need to be tested first in tribunals and, ultimately, in law. However, the danger of not including such a provision in the Bill is that local authorities with a rather less moderate, balanced and reasonable view of matters would put children into mainstream education whether or not they or their parents wanted it. That practice has been going on for some time.

Fifteen years ago, when I was a county councillor, a member of an LEA and shadow chairman of education in Nottinghamshire, I worked with parents in just that position. They were bamboozled by the system, and felt that not enough account was taken of their child's needs and their opinions. Other people wanted to put those children into mainstream schools, and special school education was made more difficult to obtain. I am thinking particularly of out-of-county provision and even out-of-country provision, which, as hon. Members will know, has been a feature of certain local education authorities. However, the same thing applies within counties when children in mainstream schools struggle and, despite desperately wanting to return to special education, find it very hard to do so because of the local authority regime.

Local authority records in this regard are very variable. Many local authorities do a splendid job in dealing with special educational needs, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) pointed out, that is by no means universal. The universal quality of provision that we all want has not really existed under Governments of either party. I know that my hon. Friend is scrupulously honest about such matters, but if he were to discuss what happened before 1997, he would no doubt readily acknowledge that, even in those halcyon days of Conservative rule, special educational needs provision was patchy. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) tries from a sedentary position to cast doubt on my analysis. I find that surprising.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

The difference between the Ofsted reports for this year and those from our time in government is that we fought a battle for many years to improve education provision across the board. We were winning that handsomely. The new report states that there is little evidence of improvement in the performance of LEAs in this respect. It is the lack of improvement that we should all find particularly depressing about the Government's performance in the past year.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

My hon. Friend is robustly partisan and none the worse for that. I am a moderate, particularly when elections are in prospect. Although my hon. Friend may be right, and performance may have deteriorated since 1997—certainly there has been no improvement—my experience of the 1980s was that provision was patchy.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

On what does the hon. Gentleman base his analysis? Does he recall when Ofsted began its involvement in special educational needs? Can he draw any conclusions from that?

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools)

I am drawing on my direct involvement in special education as a member of a local education authority. I first took an interest in the issue at about the time of Warnock and the Education Act 1981. Throughout the 1980s, I worked with a number of parents whose children were not receiving the education that they needed to allow them to fulfil their potential. Most usually, though not exclusively, that was because they were denied a place in an establishment providing special education, whether within the county, out-of-county or even out-of-country.

To be fair, I also dealt with cases of children who wanted a mainstream place and could not get it. I have encountered such cases since and I expect that other members of the Committee have, too. That cuts both ways. As the Committee seems to be strongly in favour of integration, it is important to point out that many parents and children are quite fearful that the further closure of special schools will remove the quite proper choice of a special education for the children most likely to fulfil their potential through such provision.

It being One o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Four o'clock.