One challenge that I found as a new MP is that, even if a policy is a good one, getting the delivery right on the ground is another thing. A simple phrasing of words need not negate the opportunity to apply what I would call common-sense thinking. If a school is happy to pay into the levy pot but happens to have an apprentice, it does not mean it should be excluded from the programme. I hope that will be resolved at a local level rather than be considered an impossible, insoluble problem, because that would never have been the intention of the policy.
Speaking as a member of the Public Accounts Committee—the report we published yesterday highlights some of the challenges of how money for free schools is being spent—there is an enormous amount of good work going on. In Berwick-upon-Tweed, we are looking to apply for a free school to create an autism school, because there is an enormous gap across the north-east, particularly in rural areas, in provision for our autistic children. I will revert to mentioning my computer-geek son again, who has Asperger’s and gets mentioned more often than he likes in Hansard. We have been fortunate enough to get by in mainstream schools with the extraordinary support of individual teachers, but the reality is that far too many families across the north-east need access to the different levels of teaching that autistic children across the spectrum require. We hope to be able to create a free school through the free school network. The scheme will allow us to do that. It gives flexibility, freedom and support for parents and teachers who understand special needs provision. We hope to reach out across the region to support families whose children have enormous potential, particularly in the IT and engineering spheres, which are and have always been key skill sets of north-east businesses—they continue to grow. We need to ensure we harness all those talents, including those of a growing number of autistic children.
There is a fascinating statistic. The science is as yet not entirely defined, but the more engineers you put together, the more autistic children you have. There is a spectrum and we create more of these young people—they are mostly young men but there are some young women—for whom a different learning pattern is required. If we get that right, we get extraordinary individuals whose great skills we can use for our economy. I therefore encourage the Minister to continue with the free schools system.