HC Deb 10 June 1981 vol 6 cc521-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooke.]

11.51 pm
Mr. Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)

I wish to raise the subject of special education facilities for children with speaking and learning difficulties, which is connected with the proposed closure of Greenside special school, Wombwell.

British education aims to develop fully the abilities of individuals both young and old. It seeks to do so not only for their benefit but for that of society as a whole. That aim has assumed a new importance in an age of rapid technological change. We must not forget that education is still compulsory for children aged between 5 and 16. Society has the tremendous responsibility of ensuring that our education standards are as high as possible. That is particularly important for those with learning difficulties.

In the past few years there has been a reduction in the number of schoolchildren. Thus, there has been a reduction in the number of teachers. Unfortunately, the Government decided to reduce the number of teachers almost in proportion to the drop in the number of schoolchildren. Sadly, there has not been much of a reduction in the size of classes. Therefore, today's teachers usually face as difficult a task as that faced in the past two decades. However, the task is not as difficult as that faced four or five decades ago.

In my young days it was common to have 40 or 50 children to a class. Today, there are 20 to 30 children to a class. Even so, with a surplus of teachers, some classes have more than 30 pupils. Unfortunately, little progress has been made in specialist training for disadvantaged children in the last few years. Some progress has, of course, occurred, but no hon. Member can claim to be happy about the situation. To talk to the parents of these unfortunate children makes one realise the good fortune of those who have responsibility for children lucky enough to be born normal.

About 2,000 separate schools, day and boarding, cater for different categories of learning disabilities. There are schools for the blind, the partially sighted, the deaf, the partially hearing, the educationally subnormal, the maladjusted, the physically handicapped and those who are epileptic, autistic or in delicate health. Rarely mentioned are those who suffer from dyslexia. Too many sections of the educational community refuse to accept that it even exists. However, the parents are fully aware of the dangers to a child's future unless special tuition is provided.

The debate still continues about whether children with learning difficulties should be accommodated in special schools or attend ordinary schools. Integration into ordinary schools poses many questions.

There are places for 50 children at the Greenside special school, Wombwell, in the Barnsley metropolitan borough area. Unfortunately, the school has been allowed deliberately to run down. Only 29 places are used. With 40,000 pupils attending schools in the Barnsley area, the provision for children with learning difficulties amounts to about 2 per cent. According to the Warnock report, the provision throughout the country is about 5 per cent. The school is not being closed because there are too many places for children with learning difficulties. The fear is that the decision stems from the Government's attitude in reducing grants for education. Barnsley has obviously to cut back on education spending.

There is no question of a system of integration replacing the existing segregated arrangements. Government expenditure cuts mean that Barnsley has to try to reduce local government spending. I am not certain whether Ministers are aware of the feelings of the parents of these unfortunate children whose education will be neglected. Why is it so easy to take action that harms the disadvantaged in the community? Is it because they are weak and incapable of looking after themselves? Is it because they cannot protest?

It is difficult to accept that the needs of these children can be met in ordinary schools. The parents tend not to be over-vociferous about the fact that their children are mentally backward or have other learning difficulties. If we adopt an integrated system of teaching, more teachers must be trained to give special tuition. There must be small classes so that individual attention can be given. If all the factors that surround the integrated system are taken into account, it is possible to prove that the cost will be greater.

I am informed by a reliable source that in the South Yorkshire area heads of ordinary schools, especially infant and junior, need help in that area but are not receiving it. Surprisingly, ESN schools have places available but the children are not allowed to go to that sort of school. Although the headmasters recommend that the children should attend those schools, the authority will not allow it. That is why, although Greenside school has 50 places, only 29 are filled.

Some psychologists say that there is no demand for the empty places. If that is true, the Barnsley area is not typical of the country as a whole. The places available are well below Warnock's recommendations. Evidence suggests that there are too many children with learning difficulties in ordinary schools. They are not able to obtain places in special schools and so are not receiving proper education. The ordinary schools are not geared to ensure that those children obtain the necessary tuition.

The headmaster of Greenside school applied for his school to be designated as a special school for children with speaking difficulties. His application was refused by the education officer for the Barnsley metropolitan borough council. I understand that had it been designated a special school it would not be easy for the council to close it. That was why the application was refused. A question was raised whether the staff had the necessary qualifications. That is why I find it difficult to understand why the application was refused. All teachers at that school hold, in addition to the usual teaching qualifications, a diploma for the education of children with learning dificulties.

There is evidence that when headmasters in the Barnsley metropolitan area recommend that a child should attend a special school they are told that no places are available. Greenside school has had success in teaching children whose needs would not be met in another school in the Barnsley district. If Greenside school is closed, those children will have to go to residential schools outside the authority at a cost of £6,000 per child per year. If only eight children who could have attended Greenside school are sent out of the authority area it will cost Barnsley £48,000 a year. So where will the saving be gained by closing the school? It is estimated that that will save only £46,000 a year.

The infant and junior children who attend Greenside school from Bolton, Thurnscoe, Great Houghton, Darfield, Wombwell, Hoyland, Platts Common, Kendray and Grimethorpe will face a long journey at additional cost if they have to travel to other special schools. It will be especially arduous if Springwood is full and they have to travel to Whinnoor school, at Barugh Green. Infants and young juniors will have to travel from one end of the Barnsley metropolitan area to the other under the pretext of saving money.

Greenside school has a well-qualified staff. It is a special school where the headmaster and his deputy teach a full timetable every day. It is the only special school that returns at least one-third of its intake to the mainstream of education.

Greenside school has particular success in teaching maladjusted children, as well as other children with learning difficulties. It exists to provide an essential service to the most neglected and educationally disabled children in Barnsley and district. Yet the education office says that the school will close on 1 September 1981.

What can be done to see that the school is fully used? First, one could remove the special powers of psychologists to block the requests of heads of mainstream schools to have their children looked at by the panel with a view to assisting them with their special educational needs. Then, one could have Greenside school registered as a special school for children with learning difficulties. That would cut out the need for psychological tests and create a more flexible system whereby the special educational needs of all children are met in a more rational way. In the short term, that would save the authority money and prevent many children from being sent out of the borough to residential schools. It makes financial and educational sense.

The objections put forward by the education authority to the continuation of this school are not good enough. It is obvious tht some of the children, if they are not given special tuition, will become a liability to the nation. If they have to go into special homes the cost is bound to be much greater.

I have not the slightest doubt that it is the Government's financial policy of reducing public expenditure that has created the problems of Greenside School. I ask the Minister to take immediate action to ensure that the school is allowed to operate as a special school for children with learning difficulties. The question of integration or segregation depends on how the education authority plans either of the two schemes. Before the former can be put into operation, and if it is to be successful, an efficient scheme—which, most likely, will be more costly—will have to be planned well ahead. In an earlier debate we were told the differences between integration and segregation. There are arguments for both.

What benefits can be given to those unfortunate children to ensure that they get the best that our education system can give them, that the cost is not too heavy, and that the Government realise that these children are better off in society and make a greater contribution to society if they receive the kind of education that they should have?

I ask the Minister to conider this problem and to ensure, if possible, that the Greenside school at Wombwell is kept open until a better system can be found whereby these unfortunate children get the kind of college of education that they deserve.

12.9 am

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

I am grateful for this opportunity to reinforce my hon. Friend's argument I was chairman of a school that was similar to Greenside school—the remedial school at Market Street, Hoyland. It was closed at about the same time. It was decided to open it a short time ago to help children who could not read or write. Children were drawn from the whole locality of the Barnsley metropolitan borough council to attend this special school. It had a high rate of success. In a short time, children were able to take their place in normal schools.

The school is now to close. I am very disturbed, as is my hon. Friend, that two schools in the area that cater for this type of child are to close. If the children go to a normal school, two things will occur. First, they will not receive specialist teaching, to which they have been accustomed, and they will leave school unable to read or write. Second, they will form a disruptive element in class and thus interfere with the education of other children.

I join my hon. Friend in asking the Minister to make finance available to ensure that these schools remain open.

12.10 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

It is perhaps symbolic that the hon. Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) should raise this subject today in view of the Bill which was given a Third Reading earlier. The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue with me in two questions at Question Time. I am aware of his anxiety about the proposals that the Barnsley education authority has made for the Greenside special school. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I ignore the wider issues that he raised at the outset of his remarks. If he reads the report of the debate that took place earlier on the Education Bill, he will find that many of the issues were covered by both Labour and Conservative Members.

I shall deal first with the Barnsley education authority's intention to close the Greenside special school. As the law stands at present, the statutory procedures which apply to ordinary school closures do not apply to the closure of a special school. The local education authority is not obliged to publish notices giving details of its intentions, nor does it have to obtain the Secretary of State's approval. The Government realise that this situation is unsatisfactory, and the Bill which the House discussed earlier today aims to put this right. In future, when an authority wishes to close a special school it will have to notify the Secretary of State, the parents of all pupils attending the school, other authorities which have placed children at the school and any other interested parties. There will then be at least two months for those concerned to register objections, and any such objections which are not withdrawn as a result of negotiation with the authority will then be forwarded to the Secretary of State. Finally, whether or not there are any objections, the Secretary of State must consider the proposal and decide whether to approve it.

It is perhaps unfortunate timing that the proposal to close Greenside school has come up now before the new Bill becomes law, and doubly so in that parents and other local people with an interest in the school have, it seems, been given little or no real opportunity to express their views. It is greatly to be regretted that the Barnsley education authority has chosen to handle the matter so abruptly and without any real attempt to conduct proper consultation. My Department has received no letters from hon. Members, from parents, from those in the immediate area or from those in neighbouring local education authorities who might be affected.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright


Mr. Macfarlane

I accept that they may have been sent, but I have not seen them. I am not aware of what action the local Member of Parliament—the hon. Gentleman—has taken.

It is important to consider the reasons underlying Barnsley's decision. I am bound to put the reasons before the House as they add an important balance to the argument. Greenside is a small school for children with moderate educational subnormality aged 5 to 11 years. The premises can accommodate up to 55 children, but numbers have been dropping steadily and at present there are only 29 pupils on roll. The hon. Gentleman said that the school has been run down as a matter of deliberation by the Barnsley education authority. I shall not be drawn into the reasons for that, save to say that in 1977 there were 49 pupils, in 1978 there were 46, in 1979 there were 45 and in 1981 there are 29.

The authority has two other ESN schools—Spring Wood and Whinmoor—which provide for pupils right up to school leaving age and beyond. Between them, these two schools can accommodate about 250 pupils and at present about 210 children attend them. This phenomenon of falling numbers is not, of course, peculiar to Barnsley. Indeed, it will be necessary on this account to take some 200,000 school places out of use in England generally by 1983–84. It is therefore right that authorities should look for a reduction in their own stock of places in good time.

Of the three schools, Greenside has the oldest premises and the fewest pupils. Moreover, when they reach 11 years the Greenside pupils must change their school. Some may transfer to mainstream education, but the majority will have to go to Spring Wood or Whinmoor. That being so, the question quite properly arises whether the children's own interests would be better served by attending one of these other schools from the outset. It seems to me that they will. That issue of continuity is important. However dedicated and caring the teachers, a small school cannot, by its very nature, offer the same range of facilities and learning experiences as can a larger one.

I am aware that many people believe that a break in education at the age of 11 or 12 is beneficial for handicapped pupils, while others prefer a change of school at 14 to encourage the development of courses and activities to prepare youngsters for independent living. Whatever the ideal may be, the situation in Barnsley requires Greenside children to transfer into a school where most of the other children entered as infants. However one looks at it, this can hardly be regarded as satisfactory.

Mr. Wainwright

I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman. A petition which has been signed by 3,700 parents has gone to Barnsley metropolitan borough council instead of coming to me and to the Department.

Mr. Macfarlane

I am interested to hear that. It enables us to understand what is happening locally. When there is local anxiety, it is perhaps unique for any of my hon. Friends in the Department not to have had some direct communication from the hon. Member or from the local people.

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. McKay), there are practical implications of closing any school in terms of the length of journey to alternative schools for the children concerned. In this case I understand that although some of the Greenside children will have to travel up to two more miles to school, others will have a shorter journey. Clearly, these are factors of particular concern to parents and may also affect the frequency and ease with which they can visit the school themselves. However, I understand that well over half the parents with children at Greenside school have already accepted the authority's offer of alternative placements for their children.

Parents will also wish to ensure that any special help that their child may be receiving at Greenside school will continue to be available. I understand that a number of these children have speech difficulties which require the service of speech therapists. Barnsley's special schools, like those in many other areas, can always make good use of more speech therapists. Conversely, any reduction in this area would be a matter of concern. However, I am assured that the local area health authority does not intend to reduce the amount of time spent by speech therapists in its employment in Barnsley's schools whether or not Greenside school closes.

As regards special education facilities for children with speaking difficulties, the first point that I would make is to reiterate the substance of my reply to the hon. Member's question on 12 May, as reported in Hansard at column 604, that it is the duty of each local authority to ensure that the educational facilities available in its area are adequate to meet the needs of all the children in that area. It is not for the Government to tell authorities how to discharge that responsibility and, as I am sure the hon. Member well knows, the Secretary of State can intervene only if a local education authority can be shown to be acting unreasonably or in any way failing to discharge that duty.

My second point is that a child may experience speaking difficulties for a number of reasons. He may be unable to speak properly because of some inherent defect of mind or body which justifies his being ascertained as suffering from "speech defect" within the meaning of regulation 4 of the Handicapped Pupils and Special Schools Regulations 1959; or his difficulties may be the result of some other handicap, such as deafness, such that although his speech-making functions are not themselves impaired he has never learnt to use them properly. In either case, the child will receive appropriate special educational treatment, either in a special school or unit for children with speech defects or as an adjunct to that appropriate to his main handicap.

But many other children who do not suffer from any formally ascertained handicap also have speaking difficulties which may arise for any of a number of different reasons—linguistically inadequate home environment, too frequent changes of school in the early, formative years, ethnic background, emotional or behavioural difficulties or even inadequate early teaching, to name but a few. Such children will usually receive remedial education in their ordinary schools, including, where necessary, support from speech therapists and other specialists but without ever needing to attend a special school or special language unit. Clearly, the borderline between the handicapped and non-handicapped in these areas is inevitably blurred. This was one of the reasons which led the Warnock committee to recommend the abolition of statutory categorisation and the extension of the concept of special education to cover children with special needs as distinct from ascertainable handicap. I emphasise that education authorities have always had a duty to provide for all children, whatever their needs.

The hon. Member referred to dyslexia. Not long ago, I replied to a debate on that subject introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar). That subject was gone into in some depth. I recommend that the hon. Member has a look at that if he feels that I am falling short in providing information on that subject tonight.

That duty of education authorities is enshrined in section 8 of the Education Act 1944 and the new Bill in no way alters this fundamental precept. Nor would I accept that education authorities in general have ever chosen to ignore that duty in respect of children with speaking dificulties. The methods adopted in meeting such children's needs naturally vary from place to place and from time to time—and no system is perfect—but each authority's performance is to be judged on its results and not whether it has or has not adopted a system which matches any preconceived "ideal" provision.

Having already mentioned Barnsley in connection with the Greenside closure, I can only add that I am not aware of any evidence that children with speaking difficulties in that area are not receiving the education that they need. I cannot believe, if that were so, that the local education authority would not act with all speed. I am certain that the hon. Member would ensure that his constituents' interests were looked after.

Mr. Wainwright

The hon. Gentleman keeps referring to speaking difficulties. Probably I am to blame for that. I told his office that I am concerned mainly about learning difficulties. I do not want the impression to be given that only speaking difficulties are concerned.

Mr. Macfarlane

I accept that. However, it is an important dimension to the debate. We cannot ignore it. It is important. The hon. Member alluded to the subject in previous discussions in the House.

We have received no complaint from the hon. Member. No doubt, the petition which has arrived at the Barnsley local education authority office will be forthcoming in the near future. No doubt, the hon. Member will discharge his duties admirably. If he has any specific cases in mind., I shall be happy to have them investigated.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes past Twelve o'clock.