Clause 1

Special Educational Needs (Information) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 12 March 2008.

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Information about children with special educational needs

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

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

‘(1A) Information secured by the Secretary of State under subsection (1) shall include reports, made in each calendar year, by all providers awarding Qualified teacher status, containing information on the content and breadth of their qualification programmes, in relation to special educational needs.’.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 2, in clause 1, page 1, line 9, at end insert—

‘(1A) Information secured by the Secretary of State under subsection (1) shall include reports, made in each calendar year, by the Training and Development Agency for Schools, containing information on—

(a) the extent of provision,

(b) rates of participation, and

(c) rates of completion, of courses, accredited programmes, and continuous professional development for teachers, teaching assistants, special educational needs co-ordinators and other school staff, in relation to special educational needs.’.

No. 3, in clause 1, page 1, line 9, at end insert—

‘(1A) For the purposes of subsection (1), the information shall include (but not be limited to)—

(a) the number of teachers and classroom assistants who have received training to identify and support children with special educational needs—

(i) in the past calendar year, and

(ii) at any time since first becoming a teacher,

(b) the nature of training received under paragraph (a),

(c) the nature and content of special educational needs-related courses received by persons training to become a teacher or classroom assistant,

(d) the number of persons receiving training under paragraph (c),

(e) the nature of each child’s special educational need, and

(f) for children for whom a statement of special educational need has been made, the length of time between the date of first application and the date the statement was made.’.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

The purpose of the amendments is to touch on a core area of the debate on Second Reading. In fact, if we counted the number of words that dealt with teacher training that were uttered in that debate, they would probably outweigh many of the other issues. It is something that hon. Members feel strongly about. The UK has seen a move to inclusion. We have seen the development of excellent practice, in pockets, in respect of educational needs, but the training of teachers has not moved apace with the developments and needs in our schools today. It is well known that even teachers on a four-year training course, for example, might only spend a matter of hours on special educational needs, and that is just not adequate.

The purpose behind amendment No. 1 is not only to debate training within the four-year course, but also to cover all routes to teaching. I cannot claim that it actually will do what I want it to do, as I am not the world’s best at drafting amendments. I was thinking  about school-centred initial teacher training and the “Teach First” programme, in which high-flying graduates go straight into teaching. Whatever route is taken into teaching—the four-year course, a one-year postgraduate course, such as the one I took which, at that time, included nothing whatever on special educational needs, or other courses that involve much more training on the job—the intention of the amendment is to highlight the fact that we need to monitor how much training is taking place for special educational needs.

It is difficult to know how the Bill will operate. I assume that accompanying regulations will probably spell out some of the things I am talking about—I should be happy for them to be picked up in regulations. However, our only clue as to what lies behind the two major clauses in the Bill is that information could assist in improving “well-being” and that the mechanisms could include

“allowing the Secretary of State, local authorities and schools to monitor and evaluate whether policies and programmes were effective and thus inform any policy changes...enabling local authorities to plan better for provision to meet the needs of children with special educational needs; and...enabling local authorities which are improving well-being or planning effectively to be identified and to spread good practice”.

I agree with all those examples, but there is no mention whatever of teacher training, which is why I wanted to flag it up. I feel that in some form or other it must be covered—probably not in the Bill, but in regulations. Guidelines would not be sufficient. That is the purpose of my amendment. I want my contribution to the Bill to achieve real outcomes for children. Every aspect is important—information gathering, spreading good practice within schools, better provision by local authorities, the Government knowing what is going on at each local authority level and individual records on the child and the teacher picking up on them. Underlying all that, however, teacher training is absolutely vital. My amendment No. 1 addresses that particular issue and I hope that we can come to a consensus that it must be picked up in one way or another.

Amendment No. 2 relates to existing teachers, and is intended to be as comprehensive as possible on continuing professional development. It is not enough just to be aware of what courses have been on offer. We need to know the rates of course completion. We need a pretty good breakdown, going right down to local authority and school level, to know exactly what courses teachers have undertaken.

We have all received a representation from the British Dyslexia Association, which has been calling for at least one specialist teacher for dyslexia in a school. That suggestion could be picked up within my proposals. We need knowledge about specific conditions. Things have moved on greatly with dyslexia, but I am sure that we could still go into schools and find poor practice; long-standing teachers may still deny that dyslexia exists. I have certainly found that in the last few years.

Similarly, many teachers do not seem to have an appreciation of some of the most common characteristics of autism. When I was in a school recently a teacher expressed surprise that a child with autism did not like going out to the playground. Although, obviously, every condition is different, most of us are aware that it is fairly common for children with autism not to like loud  noises and things like that. Such basic training is needed throughout the whole school. I have mentioned teaching assistants, who are very important, because they will obviously be giving direct support to many children, but other school staff, such as the school secretary, need to understand as well. I could have included the drivers of school transport, because children have particular behaviour patterns; for example, they are not being awkward when they wish to alight from the school bus in a particular way. Understanding is needed.

I hope that we can present these provisions in a positive light. They cover areas that need to be addressed sooner rather than later because there has been a lack of training for far too long.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West on securing the debate. Any debate on special educational needs helps push the issue up the agenda so that people will take notice of the importance of delivering not just words, but real action. The premise behind my amendments is to ensure that the provisions are not just words written on a piece of paper, but that they result in action at school level.

Many children who have special educational needs do not realise their potential in school. That is brought into stark light by GCSE results. In England, 54 per cent. of children gain five good GCSEs including English and maths. The figure is significantly and dramatically lower for children involved in school action and school action-plus. About 13 per cent. of children in school action achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, and the figure is just 9 per cent. for those in school action-plus. The situation for statemented children is of even greater concern. We are discussing the introduction of a mechanism that will help parents, children and teachers to ensure that such children achieve their potential.

I was concerned to read in the Royal National Institute for Deaf People briefing to the Committee that the achievement levels of children with deafness are also impaired by the current system. Among children who have no learning difficulty, just an impairment in hearing, only 32.9 per cent. achieve five good GCSEs, which should give us all cause for concern when compared with the other figures I have given.

It is only sensible that we gauge whether the support that children need is in place. We have all read the 2004 Ofsted report, which notes that only one in four local education authorities has strong strategic management of special educational needs and that the majority have weak evaluation systems. High-quality information is critical in ensuring that children meet their objectives.

Amendment No. 3 covers similar ground to the amendments tabled by the Liberals. I want to press the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West on the specificity of the Bill to ensure that it will be a useful and valuable addition to our legislative format for special educational needs. Amendment No. 3 deals in particular with the diversity of the problems that children face. It would ensure that we have the levels of training in special educational needs that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole outlined earlier. It would introduce monitoring of the timeliness of the statementing process, about which  many of my constituents in Basingstoke have great concerns, despite the fact that they live in an education authority that is deemed excellent in its delivery in that regard.

I pay tribute to the work of TreeHouse on the background of the Bill. It did a great deal of work in establishing the fact that there was a lack of information, particularly with regard to autism. The Bill hints at the sort of information that might be required, and amendment No. 3 is probing to see if that point can be taken a little further. I am trying to ensure that the Bill is the effective document that it needs to be.

On levels of training, we must ensure that there is continuing professional development. In my county of Hampshire, there is a very developed CPD programme that teachers can access on a regular basis. However, no information is available about which schools in my constituency or throughout the county are taking up that good-quality professional development training. Parents of children with special educational needs would be most interested to read about that.

Dealing with special educational needs is part of every teacher’s daily life, and compelling statistics from the National Union of Teachers show that there are massive gaps in teacher training, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole hinted. The NUT’s survey found that only 16 per cent. of teachers had specific special educational needs qualifications. That might be understandable, because those teachers who are going to work in special schools might be the ones who want to go forward and take those specific qualifications. However, 86 per cent. of teachers have not received any continuing professional development training in the area of moderate learning difficulties, and only a quarter have received professional development training on behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.

Teachers face these issues in the classroom every day of the week, and we are simply not giving them the tools to deal with them. The figures show that more needs to be done to support teachers in the classroom, and we should be able to look regularly at whether that is being achieved, because the vast majority of teachers want to receive such training and support.

There is a particular problem in the areas of dyslexia and autism. Many teachers lack confidence in not only supporting those children affected, but identifying needs. I know that that area is of particular interest to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and that it is one of the reasons why we are here today discussing the Bill. Xtraordinary People, which is an organisation that does a great deal of work in this area, estimates that three quarters of the children with whom it is involved are being taught by those who have not been trained to deal with dyslexia or other specific learning difficulties. That reiterates the scale of the problem and the need for us to be able to monitor it more closely.

I will briefly address the aspects of the amendment that deal with the diversity of children’s special educational needs. The number of different needs that a child might have, and how those might be dealt with, are currently  looked at in some way within the school census, but that does not go into the sort of detail that would ensure effectively that the training provided to teachers is of sufficient quality. There is still confusion about the level of special educational needs in our schools, particularly when we consider an area such as autism. The Medical Research Council says that around one in 166 under-eights is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, whereas teachers say that that figure is significantly different—as high as one in 80. A provision in the Bill to address the diversity of children’s needs would enable us to clarify the situation.

Finally, with regard to the statementing process, many parents are greatly concerned that local authorities are in a difficult position because, in many ways, they must act as both poacher and gamekeeper by assessing needs, granting statements and also providing budgets. There is thus the potential for a conflict of interest. In 2006, the Education and Skills Committee looked at that in some detail and called for a completely fresh approach. It stated:

“The Government’s failure to even consider the current statementing process is a real missed opportunity.”

While this debate is not about the statementing process, or indeed to call for changes, monitoring the timelines for when statements are put in place might shed a little more light on several of the problems experienced by parents in some parts of the country when trying to get the sort of support that their children need.

The Conservative special educational needs commission, led by Sir Bob Balchin, recommended that statements should be replaced by special needs profiles that would be drawn up by an independent and accredited profile assessor and that funding should come from a national funding agency, thus removing the need for unnecessary adversarial appeals and the apparent conflict of interest in local authorities. That is a practical way in which we could change the system, and within the Bill there is a practical way in which we could monitor the grave concern experienced by many parents due to an unnecessarily long statementing process.

Photo of Anne Snelgrove Anne Snelgrove PPS (Rt Hon Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State), Department for Transport 9:45, 12 March 2008

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West on doing an excellent job of bringing the Bill into Committee. I look forward to it becoming law.

I have great sympathy with the amendments, but I want to comment on the focus of the Bill. Its focus is on publishing information on children with special educational needs to improve their well-being so that we can diagnose whether we can take the right action or whether the right action is being taken for them. On Second Reading, I spoke about the issues of teacher training that have been discussed eloquently today by Opposition spokespeople. Although they are of great relevance, they are not the primary purpose of the Bill. We need to be careful not to move the focus of the Bill from children to teachers. Too much legislation focuses on what teachers do, rather than on outcomes for young people.

We have heard about the training of teachers and the length of courses. There is a variety of courses, but it would be difficult to equate a half-day course run in a local authority to a full year’s course—perhaps with  day release—for a teacher who is studying special needs. We need to be careful not to put something forward that would be cumbersome for local education authorities and that would shift the balance of the Bill away from children’s needs and towards the needs of teachers and teacher training in schools. However, I hope that the Minister has taken great note of what has been said. It is an important point, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families needs to pay attention to what is going on in special educational needs and to do the work itself. I am not convinced that we should lay that on local authorities. We should be asking local authorities to concentrate on what they are doing for children so that parents can be convinced, through the data that are collected, that right and appropriate action is being taken on behalf of their children.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I reiterate our appreciation to the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West for bringing forward the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole talked about routes into teaching. I was going to resist the temptation to be anecdotal, but there were lots of anecdotes flying around the Chamber on Second Reading. I was a teacher for 12 years, and I should declare an interest in that I am still a member of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers. I took the route of the postgraduate certificate in education. It was a valuable course and I gained much from it, but the special educational needs provision was lamentable. I will not name the institution because no doubt improvements have been made since, and I am not in the business of denigrating specific institutions. There is good practice but, as my hon. Friend said, it is patchy.

My course lasted for a year. The special educational needs component was condensed into a series of professional development seminars that lasted eight hours in total. I was looking back through my old notes—one day they might be useful again—and studies of dyslexia, autistic spectrum disorders, and provision for the severely deaf were not a feature of those seminars. Unless one had experience of working with such children on school placements—of which there were three—one might not have encountered special educational needs, other than as an aspect of the broad issues of differentiation and access to the curriculum. In my first teaching post, I met the challenge of being summoned to the head teacher’s office to be told that later that week a child with an autistic spectrum disorder would be coming into my classroom and that I would be working with that child, although I had no background whatsoever in assisting that child. Local education authority courses were not particularly available. We were blessed with some experienced teachers in the school who could assist and advise, but I was denied that most fundamental training.

Of course, the hon. Member for South Swindon is quite right that the debate is essentially about children, but it is also about the confidence of parents and teachers. On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Stourbridge talked about attrition in the teaching profession and the despondency of teachers who feel  ill-equipped to deal with the conditions. It is not as if those conditions are isolated or incidental. We have heard the statistics: one in five children in our schools have special educational needs.

While I appreciate the diversity of the challenge, I do not think that it should be an excuse for inaction. The Government have undertaken some good pilot projects on dyslexia and have provided additional resources. I commend them for that, but unless we make information on special educational needs available to the Secretary of State, particularly regarding initial teacher training and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, continuing professional development, we will fall at the first hurdle. Such information is the key to getting things right.

I cite the evidence in the Education and Skills Committee’s report, which discussed mandatory initial teacher training in special educational needs. I know that we are not going to pursue that particular line today, but I support it. The figures that the hon. Member for Basingstoke cited from the NUT about teachers’ lack of confidence are, frankly, terrible. The Bill is about making information available to the Secretary of State and looking at the courses that our institutions are offering. It is not, I hope, about a heavy-handed approach to higher education institutions, which will defend their independence rigorously, but about putting a spotlight on their work so that children can benefit as we all want them to.

I absolutely applaud the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West for the Bill, which is very important. I cannot emphasise enough the feeling of inadequacy that many of our teachers face. I once had a class—as the hon. Member for Stourbridge did, no doubt, on many occasions—of 36 children, 17 of whom were on the special educational needs register. That was an awesome challenge for a teacher. We need to give teachers the tools to deal with such challenges, and that is what the debate is all about.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I am glad that we are here and not in the middle of Hexham, where at the moment it is a little windy.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, as the Bill is an enormous step forward. As was encompassed by the Minister’s words, the information on this subject is not really available, and so often the reply that we, as MPs, get about SEN is that the information cannot be collated. That goes right across the spectrum. I find it interesting that even Ofsted, in 2004, said that too little was known by schools about the attainment of pupils with SEN. That surely encompasses the whole matter.

I will give a practical example. As some hon. Members will know, I am now chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties. The British Dyslexia Association launched a dyslexia-friendly schools scheme throughout the United Kingdom. To my county’s eternal shame, it cheated. The BDA wanted to increase teacher awareness—all the things that we have been talking about today—so that teachers had a benchmark to work to, thereby allowing  the children to achieve more, within the framework of a charity. Unfortunately, Somerset cheated. The whole scheme has been withdrawn and the BDA has had to collapse it.

Before the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West gets palpitations, I will tell her that Somerset county council is not controlled by either my party or hers. I do not accuse anyone of doing anything particularly wrong, but people were simply trying to be too clever by half. One of the things that came out when I asked questions about where the £40 million of special educational needs money goes in Somerset, I was told, “We do not know.” When I pushed harder, I was told that it also includes school meals. That cannot be right. I asked the Government and they said, quite rightly, “We don’t actually know.” We do not know because the organic system of checking is not there, and it has ever been thus. The importance of the measure is to bring that issue forward. Empowering special educational needs co-ordinators and teachers creates a benchmark all the way through for unitaries, counties and everybody else to look at, most importantly, the parents.

I asked how many people were statemented in Somerset. I declare an interest: my daughter is statemented; she has severe dyslexia. I was expecting that the figure would be about 10 per cent. of the school population. I do not know quite how many school children there are in Somerset, but there are many thousands as it is a big county. Only 1,000 people are statemented. I asked why, and was told, “Well, we don’t need to statement because it’s all there within the schools so that teachers are empowered to do the job.” Privately, teachers will say, “Absolute rubbish! We are desperately clinging on to what we’ve got.”

I suspect that the example of the 17 children in a classroom that the hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned is the norm; I do not think that that is unusual. What worries me more is that when I then went to my local tertiary college, Bridgwater college, it was able to give me firm figures on what it was doing within SEN. We have a terrible gap between the child going into school, at any age, and their going on to tertiary education, university or whatever.

Teaching is important, but what is much more important, as the hon. Member for South Swindon said, is that we must have the information to work with in the first place. As Members, I am sure that we have all taken up cases. I am appearing at a tribunal in two weeks on behalf of one of my constituents, who has autism and other problems, because I feel so strongly about this issue. It cannot be right that, as Members, we cannot get the background to what is going on. I am not saying that that is because people are trying to mislead, but it worries me that every single authority that I have been in touch with—I have asked Dyslexia Action, the BDA and Xtraordinary People to ask questions—has come back with different answers, because every single authority works in a different way.

There is no set way of doing this and I am sure that those members of the Committee who were teachers, who probably went to different schools, will have seen  that within schools. I get the feeling that that is also the case within school systems themselves.

A lot of head teachers do not want to admit that SEN is a problem because it brings them down the ladder. Although I do not have too many rough areas in my constituency, unlike some hon. Members, such as those in Cardiff—

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

Cardiff, West.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab) rose—

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would use the word “disadvantaged”, rather than “rough”.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

The hon. Gentleman brings me to the quick, as usual. He is my moral conscience in more ways than one. We sit on the same Select Committee, and sit next to each other. He prods me when I advertently use the word “chav” and a few others that he dislikes, and rightly so.

Even in my area, which is fairly genteel and nice, there are too many variations and it is too difficult to know what is going on. I implore the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and the Minister: if the Bill makes it to the statute book, we as parliamentarians, and certainly the Government, must push the issue as fast as we can.

The Bill will break the log-jam. It will allow parliamentarians, local authorities and the Government to understand exactly what the issue is. Some 75 per cent. of all prisoners in this country have educational problems. That is endemic at the start of their education and all the way through. We cannot solve anything today in that respect, but we can get a better understanding of where we are going from here.

I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that we should praise all the groups that have been involved in SEN—they are phenomenal. We had a raft of papers from various organisations and they are superb at what they do. What has been so nice about this Committee is that it has been very factual and straightforward. I do not think that anybody outside the House would disagree that the Bill is fundamental legislation that we must get on to the statute book as soon as possible, so that we can empower the Government to go out and do the job that they should do—that is, get out to these places and find out exactly what is going on, so that we can take up matters on behalf of our constituents and there are no more secrets.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I shall try to stick closely to the amendments, although I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to get away with describing his own constituency, compared with mine, as though it were the Garden of Eden. I am reminded that that is where original sin was invented.

Photo of Anne Snelgrove Anne Snelgrove PPS (Rt Hon Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State), Department for Transport

The hon. Member for Bridgwater needs to be careful, or we shall have to explain the meaning of the phrase “normal for Bridgwater”.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I shall test your patience no further, Mr. Atkinson, apart from inviting everyone to Cardiff next Saturday to watch Wales win the grand slam.

As many hon. Members have said, this is a significant Bill. There is a great deal of consensus on that. It is sensible—this is typical of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West—to formalise the Secretary of State’s consideration of children with special educational needs when gathering and publishing data. That is why the Bill has been so widely welcomed on both sides of the House and on both sides of the Committee this morning.

The problem with the three amendments is not uncommon and is probably recognised by the hon. Member for Basingstoke, as they fall into the usual category of probing amendments. In other words, they are suggestions that perhaps are not suitable to be included in a Bill, but they deal with matters that need to be considered with regard to regulation and guidance relating to the Bill.

A general principle that has been followed for many years by Governments of both colours is that primary legislation is not the place in which specific requirements are made of the Secretary of State in respect of specific information, because of the inflexibility that that creates in responding to events. The details of the data that the Secretary of State collects through the powers in, for example, the Education Act 1996 are set out in regulations. That allows for the obvious flexibility that is required in practice in data collection arrangements; it allows for change better to meet any new circumstances.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West has set it out, the Bill ensures that SEN is a high priority when the Secretary of State changes the data collection arrangements—with, in many cases, the assistance of Parliament in introducing any new regulations as required. Any new information collection requirements should follow careful consideration of the burdens that they place on people. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon pointed that out well.

We need to consider carefully the burden placed on schools, local authorities and all other data providers, and their ability to provide meaningful and useful information. We need to ensure that the information collected is of the highest quality and that, as was suggested, the collection requirement does not distract those who should be focusing on helping children to succeed.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

The Minister characterises elements of the amendments as burdens. Does that mean that he thinks that those are not matters that should be monitored? I would find that slightly concerning, given the information that has been so forthcoming from teachers themselves.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

If I may say so, that is a rhetorical rather than a substantive point. Of course I do not think that. The point I am making is very different and is, and has been for many years, well recognised by those in government.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 3 would require specific information on the content of courses related to SEN taken by people training to be teachers. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, in her characteristically candid way, that she was not sure that the amendment would achieve what she intended. I shall go on to suggest why it is better not to include it in the Bill. Nevertheless, I take on board the sincerity of her point about the necessity to weave such training into teacher training. I shall make some remarks later on how that is being achieved.

Having to collect the information would place a significant burden on providers of teacher training, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon suggested. Let me make it clear that training to teach pupils with SEN and disabilities should be interwoven throughout initial teacher training courses. Things have moved on since the hon. Member for Ceredigion and I, both superannuated teachers, did our teacher training courses many years ago. Such training should be woven into the initial teacher training course—into subject-specific and general professional studies, as well as direct experience during school-based training.

It is hard meaningfully to quantify the breadth of training in relation to data collection, which is what we are talking about. The Bill is intended to result in meaningful data collection to help children with special educational needs, but unpicking in the way proposed the specific SEN elements from the interwoven practice that should take place would be an extremely burdensome and not necessarily very meaningful method of data collection.

Amendment No. 3 also proposes that the Secretary of State collect information on the nature of the need of every child in special educational needs, and on the time taken to prepare statements of special educational need. On the first point, I agree that our information on type of need is limited, as it does not include children who receive provision at school action level. That type of need collection was introduced to school centres in 2004, and it was then recognised that there is no external moderation for a school’s judgment on type of need with relation to pupils at school action—unlike those at school action-plus, or where the state or external bodies are involved with the child’s provision.

The concern is that such need information at school action level may be of low quality. The Government recognise that such information would be useful to local and national planning and evaluation, so I have asked officials to look again at whether it would be appropriate and, most importantly, feasible to collect it. In doing so, and before taking a final decision, we must carefully consider the additional financial and administrative burden that it might place on schools. However, there is a long lead-in period—the time required for changes to the school census means that the earliest that such a change could take place is 2011, but we are looking into the matter seriously.

On the second point, the national indicator set for local government will be introduced in 2008-09. It includes an indication of the proportion of statements issued within the statutory requirement of 26 weeks from the request for an assessment. That will allow local authorities to be held to account, locally and nationally, for the time taken to perform statutory assessments and to issue statements. Therefore, that  part of the amendment is unnecessary because we will not only publish that information, as would be required by the amendment, but monitor it and follow it up.

Finally, I have a further point on the issue of teacher training and continuing professional development. The inclusion development programme will cover communication and dyslexia this year, autism next year and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties in 2010, for all early years and the schools work force. It will be monitored, including looking at take-up by schools, and there will be an independent evaluation of its impact.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

That is extremely good news for the next three years. Will the figures be available in readable form, and will they be collated separately to the average county, unitary or education authority?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I undertake to get back to the hon. Gentleman on the detail, but I can guarantee that the figures will be in readable form. I may need to check on exactly how they are broken down, and perhaps await divine inspiration to see whether I can meet the point. However, I hope that Opposition Members will consider withdrawing the amendment. The Government’s position is that such measures are not necessary.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

I appreciate the aims and intentions behind the amendment. In many ways, I share them, but I do not feel that, as they stand, they could work in the Bill. Taken together, the amendments prescribe what information should be recorded under the legislation, particularly with regard to the training of teachers. Conventionally, such decisions usually result from regulations and guidelines issued by the Government.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned such measures, and hoped that they would be regulations rather than guidelines. I hope that the Minister has heard that, and that he will take it on board. The hon. Lady was also correct in mentioning two areas of the Bill that relate to information. However, she did not mention the importance of the outcomes that are spelled out in the legislation. She also mentioned dyslexia. That is very important, and hon. Members will be aware that I have a personal interest in it.

Although amendment No. 2 covers training, it would not necessarily ensure that there was a specialist in every school, which is one of the objectives that we are all pushing for continually. Again, that could be covered in guidelines from the Secretary of State; it does not need to be in the Bill.

The amendments are clearly well intentioned. I could have no argument with the notion that better recording of information on the training received by teachers, both at the commencement of their careers and through ongoing professional development, would help to paint a picture of how provision for children with SEN is developing throughout the education system. However, I do not think that we need to set out in this piece of primary legislation what should be collected  and what should not. Thanks to the hard work of all involved in campaigning, SEN provision is constantly shifting. As I have said before, information gives us only a snapshot of developments, which does not always reveal the breadth of the changes taking place in the system.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke mentioned that she had worked with Xtraordinary People, which is one of the organisations involved in campaigning. The hon. Member for Bridgwater mentioned various organisations, too. I have worked with Xtraordinary People and I must mention some of the others. The Special Educational Consortium has been a fantastic support to me and to everyone concerned with the Bill. In particular, Brian Lamb, its chair, has been of sterling help to me during the course of the Bill. He has also been asked by the Secretary of State to carry out a review into parental confidence in the statementing system. That cannot come soon enough.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke referred to TreeHouse. It has been a huge support and has done sterling campaigning, as have Dyslexia Action, the British Dyslexia Association and the RNID. I apologise to the other organisations that I have not mentioned.

When considering new data collection requirements, we must take care that we do not unduly burden teachers with extra paperwork. It is also imperative that any data that are routinely collected are robust enough to stand up to scrutiny. Amendment No. 3 would require a breakdown of the special educational needs of every child. As we know, many children do not simply fit into one category of SEN, but have multiple needs. On Second Reading I made clear my desire to see the collection of data on pupils with SEN extended to school action level. However, that is not for primary legislation but instead requires changes to the school census, which is at the discretion of the Secretary of State.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 3 would require specific information about the content of courses undertaken by teachers in the area of SEN. It is my understanding that the scope of such training courses is extremely wide and the provision of such training is dynamic in its methods of delivery. Teachers can undertake a half-day course or a half-year programme. The courses cannot be easily categorised and in my opinion an attempt to do so would lead to their being pigeonholed, which would be detrimental to overall teacher development because some courses would be perceived as better than others.

If there is a desire to know the content of every syllabus in the land relating to teaching SEN, it is already achievable through direct contact with learning institutions, so I see no benefit in all that information being held centrally in a Department. It might be preferable to put pressure on providers to meet the demand for a work force skilled in supporting SEN. We are all concerned about that.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion, as a former teacher, gave testament to the fact that we need to give teachers the tools. He spoke about there being up to 17 pupils with SEN in a class. In those circumstances, I cannot see how any teacher with, at best, only a couple of hours of brief oversight into SEN, could be expected to deal with such a diverse range of SEN in one class. We have to take our hats off to teachers for coping in such  circumstances. The Government must ensure that teachers are given the tools to deal with the situation and that they are not left to struggle.

One way of monitoring skills within the work force will be through the work force census, which takes place in 2010. It will record the substantive qualifications held by all teachers. I have stated my hope that the funding being directed at the masters level qualification announced by the Secretary of State in the children’s plan will lead to increased uptake of SEN-related postgraduate courses. I hope that will start to be seen as the census rolls out. As the census is at its inception, tweaks at this stage may not be possible. However, I hope that over time it will be possible to evaluate how it could be used better to support SEN pupils.

Amendment No. 3 will require the Secretary of State to collect information on how long the statementing process takes. The hon. Member for Basingstoke paid particular attention to that process in her contribution. However, monitoring the time that it takes to obtain a statement will not solve issues such as who is given a statement or the efficiency of the appeals process. Given that a requirement to list the proportion of statements issued within the 26-week time limit is due to come into force, I do not feel that such a measure is a necessary addition to the Bill.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families) 10:15, 12 March 2008

May I say something before my hon. Friend finishes her remarks? As a point of information on an earlier intervention, I can now tell the Committee that monitoring arrangements in relation to the development programme are being put in place. Local authorities will report on schools’ take-up of national strategies. An independent evaluation will be commissioned over the next few months, and further details will be available in the summer. I hope that is of help to my hon. Friend and the rest of the Committee.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

That information certainly is helpful. I cannot stress strongly enough that it is only through the improved training of teachers that we will be able to lift the level of SEN provision. I speak from personal experience. I know how my son’s teachers struggled because they lacked the necessary skills. However, I must thank one teacher from my son Joseph’s school, Hatfeild primary in Morden, Surrey. I wish I had thanked her on Second Reading, but I will take the opportunity to do so now. Mrs. James fought for Joseph and saw him through the statementing process. I have a lot to thank her for, as does my son, and I am pleased to put that on record.

We need not only to put more training in place, but to focus our resources on improving it. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon said that one important issue in the Bill concerns the outcomes as stated in Every Child Matters and its impact on a child’s well-being. I hope that aspect will bear fruit if the Bill becomes law.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater mentioned Ofsted, and said that little is known about the achievements of children with SEN. Again, that is an issue that we want to be addressed in the Bill. He also mentioned the number of prisoners who have SEN, particularly dyslexia. In years to come, I hope that we can measure the outcomes and monitor prisoners. I hope that the  prison population will come down anyway, and that the number of prisoners with SEN, and dyslexia in particular, will come down as well. Clearly, work needs to be done in that area.

The Minister mentioned the financial and administrative burden on schools in collecting new data and dealing with changes to the school census. I appreciate that the provisions will increase the administrative burden, and that the Government will have to pay close attention to the costs. I was pleased by the commitment in the children’s plan for better data to be collected on children with SEN and for the information to be made available. The Secretary of State must, therefore, have put some money aside.

Photo of Barbara Keeley Barbara Keeley PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC (Minister for Women)), Leader of the House of Commons

I want to touch briefly on the issue of deaf children, which I spoke about on Second Reading.

My hon. Friend is focusing on outcomes. In 2006, the screening programme for children with deafness was rolled out for the first time. On extra data, one of the key things is that children born in 2006 will be the first to be properly diagnosed, so we could set targets now. The National Deaf Children’s Society has pointed out that we could start to work on closing the attainment gap for that cohort of deaf children, which will be the first to be properly fully screened and diagnosed, if we put the right interventions in place, collect proper data and monitor the children’s progress.

Like everyone else, I congratulate my hon. Friend on her Bill. However, perhaps we in Parliament could campaign for the other things needed for deaf children, which the information and monitoring of outcomes will enable us to address. Parents of deaf children, like parents of all children with SEN, need good information and support as well as a diagnosis. We should encourage our local authorities to ensure that they provide the necessary specialist support. Happily, my local authority does so; it has a very good school for deaf children. We could probably also encourage our health colleagues—the Minister might provide a link—to invest more in audiology services, which deaf children need.

We are taking two big steps. First, the screening programme and, secondly, my hon. Friend’s Bill. If we had those things too we could—

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

My hon. Friend makes a good point; she made a good contribution on Second Reading on behalf of deaf children, who are often the least mentioned of the SEN community. There is a strong dyslexia lobby and campaign group, as there is for autism and other SENs, so I am pleased about my hon. Friend’s contribution on behalf of deaf children.

As I said, the children’s plan has, we hope, put money to one side to help fund the collection of data and to ease the extra admin burden. Although I support the intention of the amendments, I ask hon. Members not to press them to a Division.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I very much welcome the Minister’s positive response to elements of amendment No. 3, particularly the necessity to understand better the diversity of need. He indicated that the Government are doing  some work on work force training. I am not clear about that, so it would be useful if he were to write to us on the matter.

The hon. Member for South Swindon and the Minister referred to the burden on schools and local authorities. I feel strongly that we put a burden on thousands of children up and down the country because of how the present system works. I understand the points made by those hon. Members, but we should look at lifting the latter burden first and foremost in the actions that we take.

Amendment No. 3 was probing, so I am happy not to press it to a Division. As the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West said, teachers need to be given a toolkit. I hope the Minister agrees, because we need to ensure that comes to fruition throughout the training process.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and the Minister for their comments.

I continue to stress the point about teacher training, although I shall withdraw the amendment in due course. We have a programme of more and more inclusion, which I support. However, it is shameful that it was introduced without addressing teacher training needs. It is pleasing to hear that at long last there will be monitoring, but I emphasise my earlier point: we have let the situation go on too long, especially given the fact that we are learning more about complex conditions. It is not good enough merely to have an audit of the qualifications teachers hold.

My daughter completed a top-up special educational needs qualification about eight years ago. I do not suppose that it is up to date. The continuing side of development is very important.

The demands of amendments Nos. 1 and 2 would fall on organisations that awarded qualified teacher status and on the Training and Development Agency for Schools. Those bodies play an important part in this issue, but Ofsted also has a role to play. There will be a big Ofsted report on special educational needs in 2009, but there is no reason why it should not check up on the courses completed by individual staff in the sample surveys.

With those few words, which I hope will be taken on board, I am happy to withdraw the amendment. We did not envisage it being included in the Bill, but we want action on the important issues that have been raised. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I beg to move amendment No. 4, in clause 1, page 2, line 4, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

‘(1A) Information published under subsection (1) shall be broken down by—

(a) individual school, and

(b) individual local education authority, in England, provided that the name of the child or children to whom the information relates is not included.

(1B) The Secretary of State shall provide the information published under subsection (1) to each school and local education authority in England.’.

Thank you for selecting the amendment, Mr. Atkinson. It covers another important point of debate. I reassure the hon. Member for South Swindon that the duty under the amendment would be placed firmly on the Secretary of State, not on schools. It is down to the Secretary of State how information is collated and used. For reasons that we have already discussed, the Bill says little on how the collected information would be presented and used.

School and local authority level information that highlights local levels of provision and areas of concern to be addressed must be published in the report. Such information would be pivotal in identifying and spreading best practice between different areas. We must have a breakdown of information at local level to monitor pupil progress and ensure that they achieve their potential.

The Bill must not, for the sake of it, simply create information that gathers dust on our shelves and the shelves of others. Information needs to be usable at grass-roots level. We have heard today about the need to ensure that Bills are flexible. Perhaps we are here because we allow our legislation be interpreted too flexibly and do not put what we want to achieve at its core. By putting a little more specificity in Bills such as this, perhaps we would address some issues before they rose to prominence.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole rightly said that levels of inclusion have been expanded without addressing issues such as teacher training. The amendment would ensure that the available data were collected in such a way that school governors, teachers and head teachers could use them to ensure that shortfalls in areas such as teacher training were addressed before they became critical problems.

The amendment would provide for the publication of data at school and local authority levels to help schools, head teachers, governing bodies and other appropriate persons to identify and address problems locally. We have heard that many local authorities are falling short in this area. The amendment would help them to identify gaps in “continuous professional development” or in their recruitment at local level.

The Minister talked about announcements on Government developments in this area. I hope that he will comment on how those announcements might help to address the issues identified in the amendment. Ensuring that there is better information, presented in a usable format, should be an important part of the Bill.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

Obviously, the Department is always looking at how we can make the data that we publish more relevant and usable. Clearly, we want to publish those data in the most useful form. We will continue to do that, and look at the content of the annually published statistical first release on SEN and other forums for the publication of data, to consider how we can develop them further.

There are problems with the hon. Lady’s amendment, in what she is asking for. Even where we hold information at school level—which is not always the case, but is, perhaps, the assumption in the amendment—the Data Protection Act 1998 requires us to protect the privacy of  children. That goes beyond the requirement not to publish names, which is the formulation used in the amendment.

Where there are few children with a given characteristic at a school or within a local authority, information about that characteristic is suppressed in our published statistics, so that those children cannot be identified. For example, in many local authorities, there are fewer than five children in a cohort at school action-plus level or with a statement who have a hearing impairment as their primary type of need. Publishing attainment information about a group of that size at local authority, let alone school, level would give personal information about a small, identifiable group of children. Therefore, we do not believe it appropriate for all the data we hold to be published at school or local authority level.

As I said, the Department is, however, always looking at how we can make the data that we publish more relevant and useful. We will also look at what other avenues we can use to ensure that people have access as possible to as much of the data related to SEN that we hold. In particular, we have asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector to undertake a review of SEN provision in 2009-10, and that review will include the collection and use of data to support the improvement of provision. We will of course look at our SEN data publications, as well as whether changes are necessary to the SEN framework and our information-gathering arrangements, in the light of the recommendations of Her Majesty’s chief inspector.

The second part of the amendment says that we should provide schools and local authorities with the information that we publish. The Department already ensures that published information is available to schools and local authorities, and much of it has been provided directly by them through the school census and the SEN2 survey. In that sense, the amendment is otiose.

We continue to look at how we can encourage schools and local authorities to make use of their data to improve planning and evaluate provision. For example, during 2007, the national strategies SEN team, working with local authorities and the Department, developed a self-evaluation framework to help local authorities to benchmark their own performance across a range of indicators and, most importantly, to identify areas for review and action to bring about further improvement. I hope that those remarks are of assistance to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West and to the Committee.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

A wide range of data is already collected on SEN. I hope that the Bill will increase the quantity and quality of the data, which I hope to see published by local authority area if the Bill becomes law. That would be dealt with under regulations and guidelines issued by the Secretary of State. My main concern with the amendment is that publishing data at the level of individual schools would mean that we could not ensure the anonymity of pupils, as is the obligation of the Government under the Data Protection Act, as outlined in detail by the Minister.

Hon. Members who have read the comments that I made in the House and in the media will know that I sincerely hope that one consequence of the Bill would  be to place a spotlight on the performance of local authorities, which would enable us to identify and roll out best practice. I believe that there are plans afoot to review the information contained in the statistical first release on SEN, as the Minister mentioned, as a result of the Bill’s possible implementation.

In addition, it remains my hope that the Government will use the Ofsted review of SEN, due to take place in 2009-10, fundamentally to review current practice concerning the collection of data. I was heartened that the Minister said that that will be the case. Clearly, a data deficit is holding back the development of SEN provision and the ability of the general public and of elected representatives to scrutinise progress through such mechanisms as written questions.

We can all bear witness to having received answers stating that those “data are not collected centrally”. The TreeHouse study highlighted that as well. I hope that, within the framework set out in the Bill, the Government will work to ensure that best practice is identified and implemented to improve SEN outcomes, particularly at local authority level. It is my understanding, and my hope, that data will be published at local authority level unless the data sets recovered are few in number. However, bearing it in mind that under the amendment we could not ensure that the Government met their statutory data protection requirements, I hope that the Opposition will withdraw it.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I thank hon. Members for their responses. The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West talked about a data deficit. We have heard today that there is a particular data deficit in teacher training, and in understanding what has been made available to teachers to support their training needs. There are a lot of data available, but not in certain important areas, and those areas do not impinge on the privacy issues outlined by the Minister.

There is a need to be much more open with parents about what schools can and cannot deliver. Parents expect, quite rightly, that when their children go to school, that school should be able to meet their needs. Parents need to be sure that they are furnished with the necessary information to be able to assess whether that is happening day to day in the classroom.

I will not press the amendment, but I hope that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, as she presses forward with the Bill, takes on board the need to ensure that any information made available is in a format that parents can use, and broken down in a way that enables them to evaluate whether their child’s school is meeting the child’s needs. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I beg to move amendment No. 7, in clause 1, page 2, line 10, at end insert—

‘(4) The Secretary of State shall, in each calendar year following that in which this Act is passed, lay before both Houses of Parliament a report including published information secured under section 332C(2)(c), and, within 7 days of laying that report, make a motion in both Houses expressing approval of the Government’s policy on children with special educational needs.’.

The amendment is simple: it requests that special educational needs gets the voice it needs in Parliament.  I have been a Member of Parliament since 2005. Many parents have come along my surgeries to talk about the problems that they have in ensuring that their children with special educational needs receive the support that they need day to day. More parents have come to see me than I had envisaged; the constituency has relatively good provision for that type of need.

All too often, we debate things as and when they come along, and perhaps some issues need to be reviewed regularly. Special educational needs falls into that category. It has been a Cinderella issue for too long. Perhaps some of today’s responses, though supportive and encouraging, indicate that there is still a small desire to push this one under the carpet and hope that it does not raise its head too regularly. I hope that regular debate will mean that the Government—whatever their political colour—are held to account on this important issue.

This Government—along with every other one, in perpetuity—have been promising an improvement on special educational needs. Members of the Committee can cast their minds back to the first lot of data that I went through today, which showed a yawning achievement gap between children with and without special educational needs. That gap is driven by many and varied factors, including, perhaps, lack of aspiration among those who support the children, lack of access to the right support in school and lack of support for parents. Regularly to throw a spotlight on the issue would be an important addition to the Bill, and particularly valued by parents.

There are examples of reports and documents being regularly laid before Parliament, some of which—with the greatest respect—are not as important as in this case. The Animal Health Act 1981 calls for an annual report of expenditure under the Act to be submitted to Parliament. That reporting is important, and I am sure it was important when the Bill went through Parliament. We could all support debating special educational needs annually and regard that as a positive way to move forward such an important debate.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 10:45, 12 March 2008

I have some sympathy with the amendment, because whatever my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West does with her Bill, and whatever the Government might accept, it is important to focus each year on special educational needs. It became clear on Second Reading that there is a range of special educational needs and each of us has different experiences of them. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bridgwater referred to the problem of a local authority not doing well on special educational needs. A focus on such matters, probably based on a report in Parliament each year when such problems could be debated, would be helpful. The debates would not need to be long.

The ability to put pressure on local authorities would also be helpful. In the past, I have had problems with my local authority not doing what I thought it should do for children with special educational needs. Information is vital, and the Bill is extremely valuable in that respect. We need a focus once a year when we can put pressure on local authorities if they are not  measuring up to certain standards and when we can express special concerns that have arisen in our constituencies.

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Basingstoke will press her amendment to a Division, but I have sympathy with her argument. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, who has presented such an excellent Bill, will take account of what has been said.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

We have sympathy for the idea behind the amendment, but I am not convinced that it is the proper route to take. It is relevant to note that, following an Opposition day debate, the Chairman of the former Education and Skills Committee suddenly became aware of the fact that there had not been an investigation into special educational needs for a long time. That is where my sympathy lies, because it is something that we can lose sight of in Parliament, so the idea of publishing an annual report is important. I shall listen with interest to the responses to the debate because the concept is certainly right, but how we go about it is important.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater

The Minister said eloquently that one of the ways in which such matters will be dealt with is by taking a broad-brush approach, and that we cannot go to certain levels because of the need for anonymity of children. That is absolutely right, but the problem, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole said, is that we have no mechanism for dealing with such matters in the longer term. I have asked constantly for debates on dyslexia, as have other hon. Members. It is always difficult, given time constraints, for the Minister to give a meaningful reply that will cover the United Kingdom because between 15 and 20 per cent. of all schools have some experience of dyslexia, dyspraxia or autistic difficulty. It is a massive problem.

The Minister said earlier that a lot of action will be taken by the counties, the unitaries and the educational authorities in self-administered programmes. In other words, they will consider what each school needs and how to go about it. That means that unless we can question the counties—we must have a relationship with the education authority—we shall not get to the bottom of what is happening. As Members of Parliament, we can only ask questions of the education authority, and if it said that the data did not exist or that they were in a certain form because of certain matters or if it hid behind the statement, “Sorry, we cannot tell you because the Government said that it is going down to too low a level”, which I appreciate, we would not be able to do anything.

It is important that we can question the Minister of the day on how matters are reported, even down to our personal situations. My hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke is right. Parents come to us constantly—I am sure they contact the Minister, too—because they cannot find what they require elsewhere. It is difficult for us to arrive at a benchmark, but this is the place, the forum and the right location to get the message across. I support my hon. Friend’s amendment.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

I have sympathy with the idea of debating special educational needs at any time in the House. Indeed, a number of such debates have been  held in the past couple of years. I give credit not only to Labour Members but to those on the Opposition Benches for raising such issues, which is entirely appropriate. It is always beguiling to be sympathetic to suggestions that we should lay down in primary legislation that Parliament should do certain things at certain times. Clearly that has happened before, as the hon. Lady for Basingstoke has pointed out.

However, I am not convinced that the best way to retain a spotlight on special educational needs is by having a set-piece, ritual, annual debate, which would soon become a routine type of debate on special educational needs, when there is already flexibility in the system for the Opposition, the Government or other hon. Members to raise debates in the House at any time. We also have the opportunity at Question Time and in Select Committees to raise issues about special educational needs in a timely and appropriate way.

As a general principle, it would be easy to extend considerably the number of such debates without necessarily producing the impact we want, but we can make that impact when we debate specific measures and specific problems in relation to special educational needs.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

But set-piece debates are exactly the way that we push issues up the agenda in this place; they are a known, tried and trusted mechanism. Gender equality, which includes women’s issues, is very important. We hold a debate on international women’s day, which has become exactly what the Minister described—a set-piece debate—and it works very well in making sure that those issues are debated on a regular basis. Does the Minister not feel that there is room for a similar set-piece debate on SEN?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

As I have already made clear to the Committee, I do not think that is the best way forward in relation to special educational needs. I very much welcome the increased priority that is being placed on special educational needs by hon. Members and they are a very high priority for the Government. It is good to see that there is a growing and strong consensus across the House in relation to those needs.

However, in relation to parliamentary time, hon. Members already have regular opportunities to challenge the Government on their record, through written and oral questions and all sorts of other related debates. I do not think that it is appropriate in the Bill to commit to a set-piece annual debate that may or may not be held when it is appropriate or necessary. I know that the hon. Member for Basingstoke feels strongly about the issue, but my sense is that we could make better progress if we worked together across the House to ensure that we keep special educational needs on the agenda and keep a spotlight on the issue throughout the parliamentary year, rather than relegating it to a particular annual slot.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

Will the Minister consider publishing an annual report, because the matter is so nebulous that we need to see what it will actually mean in practice? Then there might be a mechanism to deal with it through a Select Committee, which could go on to a debate. I am obviously making this up on the spot, so I do not expect a strongly affirmative answer, but I would be interested in hearing the Minister’s views.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Children, Young People and Families)

It is the hon. Lady’s privilege to make things up on the spot, although obviously, as a Minister, it is not mine. However, I will undertake to consider her suggestion carefully, to see if it is an appropriate way forward. During the later stages of the Bill, there may be an opportunity for us to return to that idea and have a little look at it. I make that undertaking, but in the meantime I ask the hon. Member for Basingstoke to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

As those who were present will testify, we had an excellent debate on the Bill on Second Reading. In addition, looking back through the records it seems that there have been six debates in which SEN has been discussed in the last three and a half years, which amounts to more than one debate a year. We must balance the need for debate with the need for action. Hundreds of issues jockey for inclusion in the parliamentary timetable and it is the job of the Leader of the House to decide what hits the Floor of the House and when.

Although I obviously support any attempt to ensure that SEN issues are debated in Parliament, I do not believe it is right that we use the Bill to force debates on the Floor of the House. I am sure that the Minister agrees that there are plenty of opportunities for hon. Members to hold the Government’s SEN policy to account. That is why we have regular departmental questions and written parliamentary questions. However, I add the caveat that I hope the Bill will ensure that those mechanisms prove more fruitful in future. All hon. Members can apply for Westminster Hall and Adjournment debates on SEN, or request that one of the new topical debates is on SEN. In addition, the Opposition can secure—and have done so—Opposition day debates on SEN.

Parliament is often criticised for being a talking shop that generates a lot of hot air but does little. We all know that is not the case—far from it—but the amendment would further the cause of those who propagate such arguments. I know from my work on the Bill and from my conversations before the ballot that most of us are fully aware of the issues at stake. We also know what needs to be done to improve the situation, and we all work hard to pursue that cause. Debate will continue behind the scenes at varying degrees of ferocity, and I welcome that. It is not necessary for us to restrict ourselves to one annual debate, because we are getting a better deal without such a statutory requirement.

The hon. Member for Basingstoke said that SEN is a major concern, especially among parents who are affected. It has a huge impact on their lives, and that is when they, rightly, seek the help of their MP to support them through it. My case load consists of some heart-rending cases in which parents have come to me as a last resort. In such cases, MPs can have some success in putting pressure on local authorities. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North said that an annual report and debate would give us the chance to put pressure on local authorities, but we should do that all the time, not just once a year.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I have some sympathy with the amendment, but I do not propose to vote for it should it be pressed to a Division. Above all, we should ensure that the Bill becomes law, and we should not put it at  risk by inserting things that the Government might not be too keen on. I would vote with my hon. Friend on this, even though I hope that we have serious debates—more than one a year—on SEN. As I said on Second Reading, it is a major problem in our educational system.

Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

I agree. I hope that we have at least one such debate a year, and perhaps more. One good aspect that we can take from this debate is that we should all work together, on both sides of the House, to ensure that we secure plenty of opportunity for SEN to be debated through the instruments at our disposal. Clever cross-party working could achieve such results. [Hon. Members: “All-party groups.”] Yes; between us, we are members of various all-party groups that relate to SEN issues. We could secure all sorts of advances through those groups.

In my opening remarks, I did not thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater for his help with the Bill’s inception. He is the chair of the all-party group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties, and we spoke about SEN early on, when I was drawn in the private Member’s Bill ballot. He supported me enormously through those early stages, and I want to place on record my thanks to him.

Given my comments, I hope that the hon. Member for Basingstoke will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families) 11:00, 12 March 2008

The debate has been useful. Sometimes the amendments that one feels are of less consequence draw out deep-seated concerns from hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. We heard from not only my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, but the hon. Member for Luton, North. Even the Minister said that he has some sympathy for what we are discussing. I will of course not forget to mention the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, who was speaking for the Liberal Democrats.

I think that there is a grain of concern in all parts of the Committee that the issue of special educational needs does not always get the focus that it requires and that the information that would be generated as a result of the Bill being passed needs to be presented in the form that is most usable. As has been mentioned, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families found it difficult to look at the issue regularly, perhaps because there are so many education issues that it has to investigate at the moment.

Perhaps the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West will consider today’s discussion further and see whether it resonates with her a little more between now and consideration on Report. However, I do not want to jeopardise this important Bill and will withdraw the amendment, although I hope that she has time to reflect on the debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.