Clause 125

Education and Skills Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 28th February 2008.

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Function of approving schools transferred to Chief Inspector

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

I beg to move amendment No. 154, in clause 125, page 69, line 4, leave out subsection (2).

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 155, in clause 127, page 69, line 33, after ‘Inspector’, insert ‘or the Secretary of State’.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

We now have an inordinate length of time to discuss the amendments. The clock is only at 10 to 3.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

We have only one hour and eight minutes.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

Indeed, Mr. Bayley. I would not want the whole of it, but an hour or so might be reasonable. The Minister might feel that that is appropriate when he hears the gist of my proposal.

Clause 125 amends section 342 of the Education Act 1996 and transfers the function of approving non-maintained special schools in England from the Secretary of State to the chief inspector. The amendment would remove the transfer effected by clause 125(1).

According to the latest departmental figures that I have, there are 70 non-maintained special schools in England. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of pupils at those schools declined from 5,000 in 2003 to about 4,720 in 2007.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The hon. Gentleman says that, according to departmental statistics, there are 70 non-maintained special schools. In response to an intervention in, I think, the Committee’s third sitting, I said that there are 74. My aim is to ensure that the facts are correct, and it may help the Committee to know that I am now reliably informed—after considerable checking—that the figure is between the two, at 72. I apologise if the Committee feels that it was misled at any point.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

As that is halfway between the Minister’s original assertion and my figure, that seems a pretty good deal. It is a balanced figure, and it is reassuring to know that, with all the resources available to them,  Ministers can get such figures wrong by two, while my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and I, with limited resources, were only two out as well.

Conservative Members have long had an interest in special educational needs provision and we have a strong commitment to the principle of special schools. I first became involved when, as a county councillor in Nottinghamshire in the 1980s, I was a fierce opponent of the Warnock report and the Act that followed it—passed by a Conservative Government I hasten to add. That Act encouraged the wholesale integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools. I understand that the present Government remain committed to a policy of including as many children as possible in mainstream schools. Partly as a result of that, about 93 special schools have closed since 1997.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I shall not rehearse the statistics that show that more special schools closed under the previous Government than under the present one. Such decisions are made by local authorities. It is not our policy to ensure that as many children as possible are educated in maintained schools. The hon. Gentleman must understand that we are opening new special schools all the time and that we want to ensure that pupils get the provision that is appropriate to their needs.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

The Minister might be right to say that there has been something of a change of heart in recent years. However, when I held the job of my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton as the shadow Schools Minister, I remember fighting a very fierce battle to ensure that children with special educational needs were adequately dealt with in the mainstream. Too often, in the specifics and the quantum of the provision made there, education for such children is found wanting. I remain concerned that in particular parts of the country there is an erosion of special educational provision, which is critical for those children. In some areas there is a mix of provision and parents can chose between placing their child in a special school or integrating them into mainstream education; but that option does not exist in many places in Britain.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Something I gleaned from the many years that I worked in a special school is that there needs to be flexibility between mainstream schools and special schools. Some pupils who fail in mainstream schools will flourish in a special school and there are children in special schools who would like to try to survive in a mainstream school. There must be flexibility in the system to provide for those circumstances.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

Even mindful of your generosity, Mr. Bayley, I do not want to stray too far from the specifics before us. However, my hon. Friend is right because there is often a misconception that special educational needs are static. In fact, they are dynamic because of the changing educational circumstances of the child and because of their difficulties. Their disability may be a dynamic one and their learning difficulties may change over time. It is therefore  important that there is a lot of fluidity in the system. For some children, mainstream provision will be more appropriate some of the time and at other times in their educational life special provision will be more appropriate. That point is not often made and certainly not made as well as it was by my hon. Friend.

I remain concerned about the erosion of special education. Even Baroness Warnock, whom I mentioned earlier and whose report in 1978 started the process of inclusion, said that her policy has backfired, leaving, in her words, “a disastrous legacy”. According to a survey for The Times Educational Supplement in 2005, teachers believe that up to 25,000 children in mainstream education in England and Wales would be better off in special schools. The survey also found that four out of five teachers and head teachers favour an end to special school closures.

That survey and others also reveal the paucity of training for most teachers in mainstream schools, although they may well have an interface with children with special needs. Too frequently, teachers are ill equipped to deal with the challenges that we offer them.

I have three excellent special schools in my constituency: the Garth school, the Priory school and Gosberton House school, of which I am immensely proud. I make no apologies for, once again, through the amendment, elevating the importance of special schools and championing the case of special needs children. I hope that the Minister will say a word to reassure those of us who believe that the education of children with special needs must be and deserves to be a high priority for the Government and this House, and should play a central part in the provisions of the Bill.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 3:00 pm, 28th February 2008

Although, in moving the amendment, Mr. Hayes made a fairly broad speech, I remind members of the Committee that the clause relates to the approval of non-maintained special schools. We cannot have a wide-ranging debate about the Government’s policy on special schools as a whole.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am mindful of your words, Mr. Bayley. I am mildly frustrated that that constrains me in responding properly to the hon. Gentleman and reminding him, for example, that funding for all pupils has increased by £1,440 per pupil since 1997 and that there has been a real-terms increase in funding for special educational needs pupils of 66 per cent., or of other such facts such as that 18,000 children are taught in specially resourced provision within or attached to mainstream schools, and that we have built or re-built more than 100 new special schools in the past 10 years. However, I shall address myself to the amendment to stay within the advice that you have given us, Mr. Bayley, and resist any interventions that might divert me further into responding generally on special educational needs provision.

It may help to explain to the Committee why we are proposing to transfer the responsibility for the approval of non-maintained special schools to the chief inspector. Non-maintained special schools are inspected on an ongoing basis, under exactly the same arrangements that apply to maintained special schools. The chief  inspector is responsible for the ongoing inspection of all maintained and non-maintained special schools. She is also responsible for determining whether a school meets the required standards for notifying the Department where intervention action is required, and for monitoring schools requiring intervention to ensure that improvements are made and required standards are met. Given the wide and expert role that Ofsted has built up in relation to special schools, it is entirely sensible that she should also have responsibility for the approval of non-maintained special schools under section 342 of the 1996 Act.

Our consultation shows that the main organisation representing non-maintained special schools agrees with our proposals. The National Association of Independent and Non-Maintained Special Schools states:

“Given that it is current DCSF practice to refer most decisions on registration and monitoring to Ofsted, the proposal does make logical sense.”

Amendment No. 154 would reject the transfer of the general approval function to the chief inspector, but continue with the transfer of approving school-specific arrangements. It would split approvals between the Secretary of State and the chief inspector, creating a much more complicated system than either that currently in place or that proposed in this chapter of the Bill. The intention is that the chief inspector will have responsibility for the general approval where a school meets the required standards and responsibility for approving the school-specific arrangements. Those arrangements will put functions where the expertise exists and ensure that institutions need only deal with one body.

Amendment No. 155 would allow regulations made under clause 127 to provide for the Secretary of State, in addition to the chief inspector, to apply to a justice of the peace for an order to close a school in an urgent case. As I have said, the aim of the chapter is to simplify the regulatory regime, concentrating the powers of intervention, monitoring and inspection of non-maintained special schools where the expertise lies.

The amendment would confuse that process and would be counter-productive for two reasons. First, a two-tier approach may delay proceedings. The rationale for having the provision to make emergency orders is to act quickly. Providing for the Secretary of State to apply for an order would dilute the clarity of functions that the Bill introduces and potentially delay an order being made because of confusion as to which body should act. Secondly, it would be the chief inspector who possesses the necessary evidence to support an application to the justice of the peace, and it is therefore logical that she should have that power on her own.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

Clearly, the point of amendment No. 155, which I did not speak to because I felt it spoke for itself, is that it provides a degree of parliamentary accountability and scrutiny. How will that be provided if it is not added to the Bill?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The chief inspector and Ofsted are accountable to Parliament through the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. The chief inspector also responds to parliamentary questions through me, in writing, and I have never received any complaints,  given that I look at those responses as they go out, as to how that system operates. I think that there is sufficient accountability for Her Majesty’s chief inspector, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

The Minister has given a plausible explanation for the policy, and I was able—with your indulgence, Mr. Bayley, for which I am grateful—to make another appeal for special needs education and special schools. With regard to amendment No. 155, I think that there is an issue about parliamentary accountability, which the Minister might reflect on and perhaps consider making some kind of report on to Parliament. On balance, given what we have heard, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 125 ordered to stand part of the Bill.