HC Deb 15 February 1977 vol 926 cc459-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. Ann Taylor.]

1.32 a.m.

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the problem of special education in my constituency and within the metropolitan borough of Tameside. Whenever education in Tameside is mentioned these days one immediately expects a controversial debate. I can assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that on this occasion all those within Tameside are at one with me in raising this subject.

It is good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks)—the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—on the Government Front Bench. I am sure that beneath his ministerial cloak beats a sympathetic heart tonight.

Tameside is well known to be a metropolitan district of Greater Manchester which inherited portions of Cheshire and Lancashire at the time of its birth in 1974. In Chester and Lancashire the authorities, when dealing with special education provision, planned matters on an authority basis. As bad luck would have it, very little of that provision fell within the area of Tameside. Within today's Tame-side the total number of schoolchildren on the register of handicapped people kept by the local area health authority is 2.75 per cent., whereas the national figure is 2.3 per cent. Already there is a gap of 20 per cent. Yet in the old Cheshire part of Tameside there was not proper provision for children of the kind that we are talking about except for two 15 place units available for ESN children.

In the old Lancashire part of Tameside there was one ESN moderate school, which in 1968 was considered by the authority to be inadequate for the needs of the authority. This school has 140 places for the whole of Tameside. At the moment there is a waiting list of 46 children, and 28 of them have no chance of an admission before September 1978. By that time, in addition to that number there will be 200 more on the waiting list.

Tameside, in its determination to provide an adequate service for these children, has employed a full establishment of seven psychologists, who are catching up on the backlog, which extends to the period before local government reorganisation. It is estimated that with the present rate of diagnosis and referrals, together with calamitous cut in the building programme, Tameside will be unable to deal with needs of over two-thirds of its ESN moderate children. An area that has more than its fair share of deprived groups in the population, which, by definition, provide children in this category, is well below the national average in terms of provision for these children. The percentage of ESN moderate places for Tameside now stands at 0.42 per cent. as against the national average of 1.5 per cent. Therefore, it will be seen again that Tameside has a level of about 25 per cent. of the national average provision.

Tameside also has a quarter of the ESN schools that are available to the average local education authority of comparable size. There is no provision for maladjusted children, other than 42 places in Ashton, although 149 are registered as maladjusted. At the moment, there are 21 children in residential schools for outside maladjusted children, and the others are in ordinary schools. The average cost of tuition and board is £3,000. There are also 18 children on the waiting list, and, here again, it is likely that there will be an increase in diagnosis with the full squad of psychologists in post.

A significant number of maladjusted pupils on the waiting list will not get into residential schools outside the Tameside authority because part of their maladjustment is exhibitionism and antisocial or violent behavioural traits, and naturally schools outside the authority will pick and choose and prefer what I will call "nice" maladjusted pupils. If Tameside had its own establishment, however, it would as a matter of policy give children with severe emotional handicaps rather more than a fair chance of better educational experience.

In special education generally, Tame-side has to farm out 238 children within the North-West and 37 children as far afield as Devonshire in the south and Aberdeen in the north. There is a waiting list of 77 more. In the 1977–78 budget, this provision will cost £454,380, which is 50 per cent. of the total expenditure on special education. Thus Tame-side will give away 50 per cent. of its revenue account to the private sector or other authorities, spread over a wide area.

Beside the financial disadvantages to the people of Tameside we also need to examine the social and emotional damage that results to the children and their families. Often, very young children have to face long and tiring journeys to day schools in neighbouring authorities, which places great strain and worry on the parents either in taking and collecting the children themselves or ensuring that they are, safely ensconced in the transport provided. If, however, there is weekly or even termly separation of the children from their families, it means a great deal of expense to parents who wish to make visits.

Whilst recognising that it would not be economically viable for every authority to have schools for each of the officially recognised categories of handicap, I believe that ideally, each authority should have its own schools to provide for such handicaps as educational subnormality and maladjustment, which are present in larger numbers of children. Tameside and authorities like it would then not be dependent upon neighbouring authorities or the private sector for the education of these children, with all the disadvantages that this entails for the parents and for the children themselves.

In its determination to provide an adequate education for these children, Tameside had proposed to go ahead in 1976–77 to go ahead with four building projects—two major and two minor. The Department of Education and Science had agreed to their inclusion in the special building programme for that year.

The first was adaptations and extensions to Mottram Old Hall, in my constituency, to provide a large residential school for 40 children aged from 7 to 16, of whom a maximum of 24 could be on a residential basis. The net saving to the authority on the cost of placing maladjusted children would be about £20,000 a year. That would not only have met a crying need but would have made economic sense in times of limited economic resources. The cost of this project would have been £210,000.

Second, in my constituency, at Stalybridge Mereside, a 210-place ESN school was planned for children in the 5–16 age group. That was to supplement the existing provision, which is limited to the 140-place school that I mentioned earlier, which at present caters for all the needs of Tameside. The estimated cost of Mereside would have been £200,000.

The third and fourth projects concerned probably the silliest savings of all in the current year's programme. The proposal was to carry out adaptations to two schools—Moss View, in Ashton, and Werneth Grange, in Hyde, which were tied in with the new Cromwell ESN (Severe) Senior School, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. That school is being built now and is due to open in September this year.

The adaptations are essential to provide facilities for very young children from two years of age upwards and to improve their special facilities. There is an urgent need to deal with the mentally handicapped children as soon as possible in view of the extent of their handicap when compared, for example, with the slow learning or retarded child. The estimated cost is £20,000 for each school.

The total block allocation for Tame-side next year will be a miserly £108,000, a massive drop from last year's allocation, which began at £807,000, and, following the Chancellor's statement in December, was cut to £334,000. Tame-side is already committed to spending £52,000 for essential work on health and safety at work and on fire precaution requirements. The remaining £56,000 would be almost entirely swallowed up in the projects at Moss View and Werneth Grange, if they were completed by then. Surely, on reflection, the Minister is not really suggesting this course.

In the situation that I have described, a moratorium for the remainder of 1976–77, plus a standstill for 1977–78, hits the Tamesides of this world hardest. When they are already badly deprived of so many basic social necessities, they will be badly hit by the toughness of these proposals. I understand that for the current year the major building programme for special schools has been cut from £11 million to £3 million. I recognise that all that £11 million would have been considered necessary and important by the authorities concerned, but I wonder how many are in quite the same category as my authority.

I hope that the Minister is listening to me. I hope that she will spell out where the £3 million has gone—to which authorities—and on what criteria the allocation was made. We could then judge whether her Department is really in tune with the plight of the "have-not" authorities, such as Tameside. I hope that she will take issue with the powers that be and fight to ensure that there will be some easement of the situation of special education as soon as possible. I trust that my plea will not fall on deaf ears.

1.44 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Miss Margaret Jackson)

I fully share the dismay of my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) and that of many people in his local area at the effect of the public expenditure cuts on special education—both those cuts that he has described and those that fall elsewhere—although I realise that it is not much consolation to him to know that I sympathise with him in his plight.

As my hon. Friend indicated, the Tameside authority was allocated four projects in the 1976–77 special schools building programme—a new school for educationally subnormal children who are moderately handicapped, adaptations to two schools for severely subnormal children, and adaptations of Mottram Old Hall as a school for maladjusted children. The estimated cost of these four projects was about £400,000.

Last December, as a result of the economic measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the original programme for special school building, revised to £11 million at 1976 survey prices, was re- duced by £8 million, leaving a total of £3 million, including £1 million in respect of projects which had already started. My Department has had the invidious task of trying to pare the programme down to this much lower figure.

As it happened, the Tameside authority had notified us in October, two months before the economy measures were announced, that because of unforeseen difficulties it was unlikely to start the Mottram Old Hall adaptation in 1976–77. It asked instead that it should be a candidate for the 1977–78 programme. In the ordinary way my Department would have been happy to try to meet the authority's wishes, but the Chancellor's economy measures also meant that the 1977–78 special schools programme had to be cancelled altogether.

In January the authority wrote to protest at the cancellation of its programme and to press for the reinstatement in the 1976–77 programme of the three ESN projects. As I have indicated, my Department had to reduce this programme by over 70 per cent. In reviewing what projects to retain, it decided to concentrate on projects for children of compulsory school age who are severely subnormal or maladjusted. Despite all that has been provided in recent building programmes, there is still a very great need for new accommodation for these children. I am not, of course, saying that other work is not urgent. All the projects in the original 1976–77 programme are badly needed, but we are dealing here with priorities within priorities, and there is no chance of adding any further projects to the 1976–77 programme.

I think, in the circumstances, that my Department's policy that the very limited resources available should be directed towards those categories of handicapped pupils—the ESN severely handicapped and the maladjusted—who cannot be catered for in ordinary schools, is the right one. Had it been clear when the economies were being applied that the Mottram Old Hall project was ready to start, it would obviously have been considered under these stringent criteria, but the question, unhappily, did not arise.

The authority's two ESN severely handicapped projects are for the adaptation of existing special schools, and are designed principally to enable provision to be made for pupils of nursery school age. Important and desirable as these improvements are, I cannot agree that they must take precedence over accommodation for children of statutory school age. If the authority wishes, it will be open to it—although I recognise the problems outlined by my hon. Friend—to consider the possibility of undertaking some small improvement jobs within its lump sum allocation for school building. The two schools will in any case have some relief when their senior pupils transfer to the new Cromwell ESN severely handicapped school, which I understand is nearing completion, but I understand the difficulties.

In explaining these decisions, which have been dictated by hard economic facts that affect school building as much as other aspects of national capital investment, I hope that I have made clear that I do not underrate the problems facing the Tameside authority in this field. I know that it has a full share of children with special needs and that it has made a careful study of the facilities required to provide the opportunities to which those children are entitled. I realise, too, that although these problems are matched in other industrial and urban areas it is of no help to my hon. Friend or his constituents to point out that other people are suffering as they are.

The only glimmer of light that I see—the only prospect of a more constructive approach to this difficulty—lies in the Education Act 1976, which includes, in Section 10, a provision to the effect that authorities, in making their arrangements for special education, should so far as possible provide for the education of handicapped pupils in ordinary schools rather than in special schools.

Clearly there will always be some handicapped children, especially those with severe or multiple handicaps, whose needs can be met only in special schools. But the new law, which comes into play on a day to be appointed by my right hon. Friend, intends that significantly larger numbers of handicapped pupils will in future be educated together with the non-handicapped in primary and secondary schools.

My right hon. Friend has stressed the importance of very careful preparation in full consultation with local authorities, teachers and others before the law is activated, and we are going ahead with that. It may be that authorities with special school projects in the pipeline will wish to review their plans, especially in relation to ESN moderate pupils, so as to achieve progressively the optimum degree of integration within ordinary schools. Seen in this context, our present difficulties can be turned to some advantage in ensuring that no opportunity is lost for making integrated provision.

My hon. Friend asked me for details of how the remaining building programme is being spent. Projects already started totalled £1.1 million, and £200,000 was allocated for projects in Wales while £400,000 was allocated to non-maintained school projects in England to which we were committed before cuts were announced. That left, for local authority education projects of the sort that my hon. Friend is describing, only £1.3 million for the whole of England. I have a list of the schools on which it is proposed to spend that money. They are in nine different authorities. If my hon. Friend wishes, I shall supply him with the list. I shall not detain the House by reading it now.

I assure my hon. Friend that we are satisfied that all the projects we have selected are urgently needed, although we recognise that the projects we have had to exclude are equally urgent. If they had not all been of the highest priority they would not have been included in the 1976–77 building programme in the first place, which was itself somewhat small. We have concentrated on children in the ESN severe schools partly, as I have already explained, because these are the children who will be the hardest to integrate under any circumstances and because since LEAs took over responsibility for their education in 1971 there is still a substantial number of such children in deplorably overcrowded and unsatisfactory buildings.

On integration, we are awaiting the findings of the Warnock Committee, which is studying the implications of all these matters within its general review of special education. It is expected to report early next year. We are on the threshold of a new approach to the education of handicapped children and the rôle of special schools. Although I cannot at present offer my hon. Friend the increased resources that he speaks of to improve special schools in his constituency, I hope that he will feel able to agree, at least after some consideration, that the overall long-term picture is not one of unrelieved gloom.

Finally, I assure my hon. Friend that I shall most carefully examine all the statistics that he has presented. I shall measure them against the decisions that we propose for this allocation. I must warn my hon. Friend that I doubt whether we shall be able to help him. As I have said, the cases involved all concern schools where there is urgent and desperate need, which, alas, we are unable to satisfy at present.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Two o'clock.