HC Deb 03 July 1992 vol 210 cc1071-137 9.37 am
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

I beg to move,

That this House considers that the opportunities for children and adults with special educational needs are being jeopardised by the fragmentation of education and the inadequate level of resources from central government.

I have chosen special educational needs as the subject of my motion as it is apparent that serious problems are developing in that aspect of our education system. More and more teachers are coming to the end of their tethers as cracks appear in the system of support for children with special educational needs. It is not just children with special needs and teachers who are suffering, but all children. If schools do not have sufficient resources to cope with special needs, they cannot give a fair deal to any of their pupils.

Before the election I was approached by a mother with a son in a school in Cambridge. She said that she had progressed through the state system and done reasonably well, gaining three A-levels, but she was concerned that her child would not benefit in the same way. The class in which he was being taught had a high proportion of children with special needs, although they have not been formally identified as such. The teacher had to spend much time with those children and had little time for the rest. As a result, the children without special needs were missing out and gaining little educational benefit from their school. I have discovered that that is by no means an isolated case and that the problem is becoming increasingly common.

Some 11 years after the passing of the Education Act 1981, and nine years after it came into force, it is time for the Government to take a hard look at special needs education and ask why things are beginning to go seriously wrong. Special needs education is in serious crisis in my constituency and is affecting all children. Every crisis poses both threats and opportunities. The threats are to the education of our children and the longer-term health of our society; the opportunities are to learn from what is going on and to make changes for the better.

When the Education Act 1981 was introduced there was a consensus. There was support for its provisions. I believe that that consensus still exists. The measures in the Education Act 1981 were the natural extension of a comprehensive education system, enacting the principles of equal access and equal opportunities. Children who had learning difficulties or physical handicaps would be entitled to have an assessment of their needs. Identified special educational needs would be met in mainstream schools through individual attention, learning support assistance and specialist teaching. Wherever possible, children who previously would have been sent to special schools would be integrated into mainstream schools. All children would have an enriched educational experience, as human prejudices were confronted and annihilated. A small minority of children whose needs were greater than most would have the additional safeguard of a formal statement which specified their needs and put a legal obligation on the local education authority to meet them.

One measure of the success of the 1981 Act is that there has been a steady decline in the proportion of children in special schools. Parents, teachers and learning support assistants have worked hard together to make the implementation of the Education Act 1981 a reality. I know that all the schools in my constituency remain very strongly committed to the principles of the 1981 Act. We have to ask ourselves, therefore, why things are beginning to fall apart.

The inadequate level of resources is the primary reason for the problems that we are experiencing in special needs education. I am not alone in holding the view that not enough resources are allocated to special needs education. That view has recently been expressed by the new Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, Howard Davies, who, in his previous post, was head of the Audit Commission. I think that it is fair to say that Director Generals of the Confederation of British Industry are not normally renowned for their socialist views. I want to stress, therefore, that it is not simply we on this side of the House who argue that local authorities are being starved of cash.

I have here case studies drawn from the Spastics Society's research on statementing, based on the experiences of 240 families with children with disabilities. In the first case, Adrian's mother wrote: He has achieved a lot in his school work but he could have achieved so much more if he had more back-up, more regularly. Equipment to help him with motor skills problems is not very forthcoming. Help in sports is also lacking … his physio sees him once a week but he needs more. I work with him but I'm no expert. At assessment reviews, ideas are very forthcoming but often are never followed through … I think there is a lot more room for improvement in the system to help disabled children in mainstream schools. In the second case, Jonathan's mother commented on the "meanness" of the local education authority in refusing relatively low-cost aids for Jonathan—for example, appropriate computer software, in view of the. thousands of pounds I have saved them in undertaking transport arrangements for him and going to help in school when paid help was not available. Jonathan's story illustrates the "hidden subsidy" contributed by parents to successful integration.

Most parents' accounts from the Spastics Society study indicate the damage caused to integration by the lack of resources. Likewise, for Sarah, the resources to carry out the statement could not be guaranteed by the authorities. A welfare assistant had been offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. These examples are typical of what is happening throughout the country.

Central Government do not allow local authorities to spend enough on education. The Government's cap on local government spending is, in effect, a cap on opportunities for children with special needs and, therefore, a cap on the opportunities for all children. Those who want evidence of the resource problem need look no further than the increasing numbers of children with special needs who are being excluded from schools. A recent survey pointed to the fact that exclusions were up 20 per cent. on the previous year. The evidence is that they will increase.

The authors of a recent Audit Commission report stated that they could find no evidence at present that schools were becoming less willing to accept children with special needs. In preparing for this debate I came across a number of specific cases in my constituency in which children were being excluded from mainstream schools. I had to look no further than the Cambridge Evening News and my mailbag. My researcher came across more examples when he spoke to the head teachers of the local schools.

I am not criticising the schools. I know from personal contact that all of them are committed to the integration of children with special needs, but they are torn between their desire to implement the aims of the 1981 Act and their commitment to give all pupils a decent education. They are no longer prepared to accept children unless they are given adequate resources to cater for their needs. In excluding pupils, they are often supported by the parents of the children involved, not because they do not want their children to go to mainstream schools but because the parents know that if their children are not given an appropriate level of learning support assistance their move to a mainstream school will be counterproductive.

Exclusions from mainstream schools have knock-on effects. They mean that children have to stay in special schools and special units attached to mainstream schools. That in turn means that children who would benefit from places in special units have to wait. We have many examples of that in Cambridge.

The effect of the inadequate level of resources is exacerbated by the increasing proportion of children in our schools who have formal statements of special educational need. The reasons for this appear to be complex. I have heard it argued that there is an increasing real demand because more low birth weight and premature babies are surviving into childhood. These children are more likely to have physical or mental handicaps, with associated learning difficulties. With the steady advance of modern medicine, I am sure that this is a factor. However, I believe that it is unlikely to be the principal cause.

There are probably two main reasons that explain the increasing rate of statementing. The first is increasing parental demand for formal statements; the second is the increasing number of children in our society who have emotional and behavioural problems. The argument turns full circle. The scarcity of resources explains why parents and schools are putting more pressure on local education authorities to have their children statemented. Because a local education authority is legally obliged to comply with the terms of a formal statement, the statement conies with resources attached to it.

Statementing has become a means of ensuring that the education of one's child is buffered against any cuts in special needs provision. That is exactly what is happening in my constituency this year. Primary and secondary schools in Cambridge are facing cuts of anything up to 75 per cent. in hours of learning support assistance. The children who are least affected are those who have statements which specify the number of hours of learning support.

One can hardly blame parents for pressing for the statementing of their children, yet it was not the intention of the 1981 Act to create a situation in which parents and schools compete with each other to get their children statemented in order to secure the resources that they need. In my opinion, it is against the spirit of the Act.

That view was well expressed by Lady Warnock in a recent debate in another place when she said: Children with statements are becoming a class apart, just as the handicapped used to be considered as a class apart. The notion that was central to the 1981 Act of a continuum of special needs … has been lost sight of as the number of statemented children rises and non-statemented children are left out of the need for special provision."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 June 1992; Vol. 537, c. 1397.] Hence, the 2 per cent. of children with statements are getting some provision and it is becoming increasingly true that those without formal statements are getting practically nothing in the way of extra resources. It cannot be right that one child with a statement gets 30 hours of learning support assistance a week while another, whose problems are slightly less severe, gets nothing at all.

Many parents have told me that the statement for their child did not tell them anything that they did not know already. There is also evidence in a recent Audit Commission report which confirms that the process of formal assessment is not regarded as useful by the majority of parents in defining the needs of their children.

Only one in seven of parents questioned found the statementing process informative, but three times as many valued the process because it gave their child the necessary resources to progress.

The process of formal assessment is costly. The Government's recent announcements about strengthening the statementing process and introducing an appeals procedure must add to the cost. If resources are limited —we all accept that they are—would not it be better to redirect them into providing help for the child rather than into strengthening the statementing process?

The second substantial cause of the increasing demand for statementing is the rapid increase in the number of children in our schools who are emotionally and behaviourally disturbed. This is one of the areas of greatest concern to schools in my constituency, and I have no doubt that that concern is shared in schools across the country.

Increasing social need is a terrible indictment of the Government's social policy. It is a symptom of the greater inequality and poverty that their policies have produced; the scandal of homelessness is another. I am deeply worried about the lack of provision for children who are emotionally and behaviourally disturbed. Supporting those children is the unattractive side of special needs education. There may be some kudos attached to helping people who have learning difficulties, but coping with children who are disruptive is a less-favoured proposition. It is expensive, and if resources are not available the teaching life of the school is jeopardised.

That is backed up by the Audit Commission, which considered special school costs for different categories of special need. For children with moderate learning difficulties, the annual cost is £4,000 per child. For children with severe learning difficulties, the figure is £6,500 and for children with emotional and behavioural disturbance it is more than £8,000. I stress that emotional and behavioural disturbance does not describe simply naughtly children who need to be brought into line. It often describes children who have been subjected to appalling physical, emotional and sometimes sexual abuse.

Problems associated with the process of statementing are identified in the Audit Commission's report. As there are no clearly defined criteria on the level of need at which statementing becomes appropriate, local education authorities have different policies on the process of formal assessment. The proportion of statemented children in different local education authorities varies by a factor of five, and in the 12 local education authorities studied for the Audit Commission's report there was no relationship between the apparent level of need and the proportion of children with statements.

The writers of the Audit Commission report observed a lack of consistency in local education authorities. An examination of 300 cases showed that pupils with widely differing levels of need were issued with statements. Schools in all 12 local education authorities were able to point out children without a statement who had greater needs than those with a statement. Factors that had no bearing on the need of a child were influential in the decision to issue a statement, the most significant being the level of determination of the school or parent and whether the parent was represented by a lawyer or a voluntary organisation.

The implication of all the findings is that resources are not being well targeted on children with the greatest need. The Minister should ask himself whether recent moves to strengthen the statementing process will change the situation. I believe that they will not, because the parents who press for statements will be articulate, middle class and will know how to do it under the present system. The new law may make it slightly easier for them, but it will do nothing to reduce inequalities between parents who have the knowledge and confidence to do battle with the LEA and those who do not.

There is a conflict in the statementing process because the local education authority is assessor and provider. An LEA has no incentive to issue specific statements requiring it to provide teaching support for which it has no resources. This leads to disputes between schools and local education authorities where it is felt that the refusal to issue a statement or to make its terms more specific resulted from an unwillingness or inability to provide resources, rather than a proper assessment of need. One parent who was interviewed by the Spastics Society explained: A statement is supposed to be a legally binding document which has an effect on the rest of your child's life—they cannot be honest and say what they really feel because they are limited to the provision that they know the LEA can provide and so you are lost really before you start. So why bother having a procedure like this when it might as well not be done? My local education authority in Cambridgeshire has admitted that education officers encourage schools not to go through the formal statementing procedure but assure them that resources will still be available to meet the child's need. In the event, this has not proved possible and schools and parents are outraged to find that children without a formal statement of special needs are having their learning support assistance cut dramatically.

The fragmentation of our education system since the introduction of the Education Reform Act 1988 has made special needs education even worse than it might have been. Formula funding under local management of schools is calculated largely on a per capita basis and has penalised schools in areas of greatest social need. That is certainly so in Cambridge, where I know of at least two schools that lost teaching staff previously appointed at the discretion of the local education authority. I should like to read extracts from a letter that was written to me by the chair of governors of the schools. She says: I write on behalf of the joint Governing Body of the two schools to express our very grave concern at the lack of support being given to schools by the Local Education Authority. Communication at all levels is poor; headteachers in crisis situations—eg concerning children who have been abused or are abusing others, children with severe behavioural problems, teachers threatened with violence from parents—are receiving little or no help or advice … we know that money is short. We question the management of that money especially in the area of special educational needs. The schools have 'lost out' under Local Management of Schools in that the two extra teachers allocated to them in recognition of the heavy special needs demands were removed under formula funding. The latest blow is that the allocation of support staff to the schools for next year has been reduced to a level which is totally inadequate. The schools have been likened by an independent professional to a 'simmering pot'. The staff do a fantastic job—we are proud of our delivery of the National Curriculum—and because of their dedication the 'lid is kept on the pot'. Now those staff numbers are to be reduced, despite evidence of increased needs in the children, and staff are becoming exhausted, we fear that the 'pot may boil over'. The room for manoeuvre by local education authorities is further restricted by the creation of grant-maintained schools, which pose an even more invidious threat to special needs education. There is the real possibility that those schools will exclude children with special educational needs. I am less worried for children with learning difficulties of physical disabilities than for those with behavioural problems. There is some credit to he gained by a school catering for children with learning difficulties and there is little threat to the overall academic standards of the school, but disruptive children are another matter. The point is graphically made in the Audit. Commission's report: No LEA reported difficulty in setting up units for pupils with special needs in ordinary schools, providing they were able to agree on the funding arrangements with the school. A number of schools were contemplating seeking grant-maintained status and all stated that they wished to retain their units for pupils with special needs. The one exception to all of this is the case of children with emotional and behavioural disturbance. I want to underline that. It is a concern of the Audit Commission as well.

Exclusion of pupils on the grounds of special educational need is the first rung on the ladder of introducing selection according to academic ability. It is selection at its most basic and prejudicial level.

I shall deal briefly with post-19 provision, the provision for adults with special educational needs. I know that many hon. Members also wish to mention it. The opportunities for many people with learning difficulties are abruptly cut off at the age of 19. Although such people may have been given extra help throughout their childhood, it is as if, at the age of 19, the existence of their disabilities is no longer acknowledged. Provision for continuing education for people with special educational needs has always been lamentably inadequate, but there is now real uncertainty about the future of what provision there is.

With the implementation of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, parents fear for their children, and centres of further education are unable to plan ahead. They have no idea of the basis on which special needs education for adults will be funded from April 1993 when responsibility for further education establishments is transferred from county councils to the newly formed Further Education Funding Council. Are the Government committed to maintaining and improving the provision for post-19 special educational needs?

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Has she been made aware of the statement by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation which expresses its concern about the confusion following the implementation of sections 5 and 6 of the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986? The statement deals with precisely her point. It refers to young people reaching the dramatic age at which they leave school—they and their parents find that the world has changed and that no arrangements have been made. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should take this opportunity to confirm that they are closely monitoring the legislation?

Mrs. Campbell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point which I hope the Minister will consider in his response.

Are the Government committed to maintaining and improving the provision for post-19 special educational needs? If so, how are the resources to be allocated? What support will they give to adults with multiple handicaps? The Government have a responsibility to answer those questions.

I said that a crisis poses a threat and an opportunity. The opportunity is offered because a crisis can prompt a serious and valuable reappraisal. I have attempted to offer an analysis of the threat to special needs education, which I believe points the way ahead. We expect the Government to publish a White Paper on education in the not-too-distant future, and I sincerely hope that they will take note of what is said today.

Recent Government proposals on special needs education have concentrated on strengthening the statementing process. There is considerable evidence that some local education authorities have been dilatory in that respect. However, there are also dangers in an approach which concentrates exclusively on one aspect of a complex system.

There is a danger that the resourcing of special needs education will become strongly biased towards children with articulate parents, while it ignores the rest, and against children with special needs who do not have statements. There is also a danger that too many resources will be diverted into the process of formal assessment to the detriment of the provision of real support for children with special needs. The danger of strengthening the statementing process alone is that the Government are merely giving parents yet another stick with which to beat local education authorities.

Without additional resources the statement will become a meaningless piece of paper. In fact, the Government's apparent unwillingness to provide more resources for special needs education, or at least to allow local education authorities to raise more money for special needs, leads me to suspect that the Government have a "wash-your-hands-of-responsibility" policy towards special needs education. Something far more fundamental needs to be done than what the Government have so far proposed.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I wonder whether the hon. Lady does not have more confidence in the teaching profession than seems the case from her interesting speech. Does she agree that children with special educational needs should be, and invariably are, thrown up—if I may use that term—by the teaching professionals who recognise the problems? Is not the real problem the fact that local authorities—or the nation—do not have a sufficiently developed psychological service to enunciate the needs of the children? I believe that that is where the blockage lies, and we must all accept that such a blockage exists.

Mrs. Campbell

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because it allows me to re-emphasise what I was saying. Teachers are doing a wonderful job. They recognise children's needs, but the difficulty is for the local education authority to provide the extra resources required. I do not believe that the problem lies with the psychological service. The Audit Commission's survey said that one in seven parents did not learn anything new from the statementing process itself. They knew what their child needed, but the support is simply not available under the present financial regime.

There is an urgent need for the Government to produce guidelines on the level of need for which a formal assessment is appropriate. That is necessary so that parents and local education authorities know where they stand and so that the original intention behind the formal assessment can be recaptured. It was never intended that statementing should be seen as the only means of securing help for children with special needs. The Government have a lop-sided policy in strengthening the statementing process without defining criteria for deciding whether to initiate a formal assessment.

The Government must also examine seriously formula funding under local management of schools. There is a need for the system to be reformed so that social need is taken properly into account in the funding allocated to individual schools. Children with behavioural and social problems should not necessarily have to go through the formal statementing procedure to get the resources that they and the schools need to cope.

There is no doubt of the threat posed to the principles of equality of opportunity and equality of access by grant-maintained schools in relation to children with special educational needs. For that reason, among others, grant-maintained schools should never have been introduced and should now be abolished.

As all schools are to be assessed on examination results, pupil attendances and other factors, there will be a monstrous disincentive to admit children with special needs, especially those with behavioural and emotional problems. What is to become of such children who have already been badly hit by poverty and a lack of security in their family backgrounds? Will they miss out on school altogether as schools decide that they cannot risk their position in the league tables? Do we merely store up trouble for ourselves by creating another generation of inadequate parents?

The Government must consider ways of separating the functions of the assessment of special educational need and the provision for special educational need, both of which are at present carried out by the local education authority. It may be necessary to establish an independent office in each education authority to carry out the function of assessment which will be completely independent of that authority.

Underlying all the problems that I have related, the root cause of the present situation is insufficient resources. In the last analysis, the key measure of the Government's commitment to special needs education is the amount of funding that they allocate to that cause. Without adequate resources, even the best mechanisms of support in the world will falter. The Government must give serious thought to increasing the resources allocated to special needs education.

I am conscious of the heavy burden of responsibility—

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point about a new form of independent assessment within a local education authority area but not of the local education authority. At the moment, the teacher, parents, education authority and—where appropriate—the health authority are involved in multidisciplinary assessments. What does the hon. Lady think is missing, as they seem to be the key people in assessing an individual child's individual special needs?

Mrs. Campbell

I am grateful to the Gentleman for making that point because it allows me to amplify my comments. It is important that all those people are involved in the assessment of the child's needs because they know the child and are able best to assess what the child needs to correct his or her difficulties. However, I do not believe that the responsibility for specifying the resources should lie with the local education authority, which is ultimately the body for supplying the resources. That was my point.

I am conscious of the heavy burden of responsibility I carry today to express the hopes and fears of all parents, learning support assistants, teachers and head teachers in my constituency who have urged me to take up in the House the issue of special needs education. Would that I could take home with me some words of encouragement from the Minister. There are schools in my constituency that are held together only by the willpower of head teachers and their staff who are working far beyond the call of duty. They are literally stretched to breaking point in trying to cope with their children who have special educational needs. The cuts that they will experience in learning support assistance next year may be the last straw. Some of the material with which they provided me in preparation for today's debate—the case histories and accounts of their working lives—would move people with the hardest of hearts. I want the Minister to be moved and to throw away his ideology. I plead with him not to fragment our education system yet further, but to consider carefully the suffering and deprivation that fragmentation will cause.

There are hon. Members of all parties who care about children and adults with special educational needs. We are determined that those people will not be left out in the cold. We are equally determined to support the teachers and learning support assistants who are being put under so much stress. If we are able to do nothing other than to be a voice for those people, we shall speak loudly and in unison, and we shall continue to argue on their behalf until our arguments prevail.

10.11 am
Sir John Hannam (Exeter)

The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) for providing this opportunity to debate special educational needs. She raised many important points which will be taken up by hon. Members and replied to by the Minister. The all-party disablement group has been at the forefront of action to ensure that the legal framework for special education laid down in the Education Act 1981 is not only properly carried out by local authorities, but strengthened and improved. Over the past year, we have had a number of meetings with Ministers and I am pleased that in his letter to me on 25 June my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed: the Government shares the general concerns about the operation of the 1981 Education Act. In the debate in the other place on 11 June 1992 on Second Reading of the Education (Amendment) Bill, Baroness Blatch, the Education Minister, announced the Government's proposals for legislation to deal with the main problems facing parents of children with special educational needs. The proposals include some important points. First, there is to be legislation on the length of time that authorities may take to assess children's special needs, which is an important aspect of the current problems. Secondly, parents of children who have been statemented will be given the right to state a choice of school. I find that complaints by constituents about the choice of school are common. Parents see a school that is ideally suited for their children and then find that the children have been assigned to another school, often much further away.

Another proposal that has been announced is the introduction of a comprehensive and coherent system to deal with appeals under the 1981 Act. All those proposals are much welcomed. The Government intend to carry out full consultation, so today's debate can play an important part in feeding in some of the concerns of our constituents and we shall be able to make some input in the consultation process.

I was a member of the Committee on the 1981 Act. It was an unusual Committee because it was one of only two Special Standing Committees in which we took evidence from outside organisations and individuals for two sittings before we began the Standing Committee proceedings. I thought that that was an extremely good idea and I am sorry that it has not been pursued to a greater extent with other legislation. The Special Standing Committee procedure enabled us to take evidence from people such as Mary Warnock, who was a key witness.

I recall discussions about Mary Warnock's estimates of the 2 per cent. of children who needed statementing and to go to special schools and the 18 per cent. who could go into mainstream schools. We know now that the figure of 2 per cent. has been used as a maximum figure by many local authorities. They get near 2 per cent. and they then call a halt to statementing regardless of the number of children with handicaps in their areas. I understand that Mary Warnock has more recently expressed the view that her original estimate of 2 per cent. was probably too low. The Audit Commission report shows that, due to insufficient guidance on what constitutes special needs in the 1981 Act, most statements are deliberately vague and lack specific comments on the children's needs. That is done to allow local authorities to avoid an open-ended financial commitment. The Audit Commission report also confirmed what the all-party disablement group had been saying—that some local authorities were statementing far fewer than 2 per cent. of children, some being right down to under I per cent., while others reached a level of 3.3 per cent.

Looking back at the 1981 Act, it is worth remembering, first, that a clear legal framework was provided for assessment procedures which may lead to a statement which determines the child's individual special educational needs and the provision intended to meet them. Secondly, the Act requires the education of pupils with special needs in mainstream schools wherever possible, subject to certain conditions. Thirdly, the Act established the parental right—a key point raised by the hon. Member for Cambridge—of parents to be partners with the local education authority and relevant professionals in decisions about their children's education.

The hon. Member for Cambridge made a key point about advocacy. As a sponsor of the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Act 1986, which was promoted by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke), I fully support the implementation of the provisions in the Act, which have not yet been implemented, that will ensure proper advocacy and representation.

The Education Act 1981 was widely welcomed by disability organisations, which continue to support its guiding philosophy and the intentions behind it, but it has become clear to all of us that a number of serious problems exist in the Act and in the way in which it has been implemented by some local education authorities. That has resulted in a wave of complaints and inquiries from parents in dispute with their local education authorities, and hon. Members have been on the receiving end of many anguished letters and surgery cases.

In January, I helped to launch a parental support group in an area covering a large part of the southern half of Devon. There was a packed meeting of parents, including an hon. Member, who is not able to be here today, 'who has a handicapped child. At the meeting, I heard of the frustrations being experienced by parents of dyslexic children and of children with severe sensory handicaps. Some of the difficulties related to the differences that parents had with local authority educational psychologists. In general, however, one came away with the conclusion that parents pretty well knew best what their children required and that the frustration that they experienced was in knowing what their children required and being unable to obtain it.

Many of the frustrations are being taken on board by local government and national Government with the review now taking place. Devon county council has published a major consultation paper covering the whole subject of special educational needs, although that in itself is causing considerable controversy as a result of some of the points made. I will quote the council on the question of post-19 education, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Cambridge. For years, I have been trying to impress upon the local education authority the fact that there is a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide post-19 education. I received a letter, which I sent to Devon county council. On 16 March came the following reply: I am concerned about the need for continuity of provision for young people with special educational needs beyond the age of 19. Mr. Howarth's letter of 22 March 1990 to you states that local education authorities are not justified in automatically withdrawing funding from special educational needs students when they reach the age of 19." That was a specific statement of the position, but the letter continued: It is our practice to continue to fund students to the end of the academic year during which they are 19. However, pressures elsewhere in the budget make it impossible to fund these students beyond that. So, on the one hand, we have a clear statement of the statutory requirement laid down by the Government and, on the other, the local education authority says, "Sorry, but we can't carry it out."

We all know that students with handicaps need extra time: they need to continue past the normal age to achieve certain levels of education. I hope that that point will be clearly established in the changes that are now taking place.

RADAR, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, and IPSEA, the Independent Panel of Special Education Advisers, have assembled and collated a wide-ranging list of examples of problems with local authorities. I shall cite a couple because they give a clear idea of what is needed to correct the position.

Some authorities refuse to assess children. One local education authority in the south-east of England concluded that a six-year-old girl with spina bifida required a statement, but, instead of issuing one under section 7 of the Act —which is a clear legal duty—it wrote to the parents saying that a statement would be issued and the recommended support made available when resources allow". That is a clear example of an LEA's failure to carry out a statutory responsibility.

In some cases, vaguely worded statements are drawn up so as to give little indication of the kind or amount of provision needed. That is in clear breach of schedule 1 in part II of the Act. An LEA in the north-west issued a statement for a seven-year-old boy with juvenile chronic arthritis: some help required from an adult". That statement should have specified clearly the boy's need for a learning support assistant for a specified amount of time, to give fullest possible access to the national curriculum and broader school curriculum.

Some LEAs are refusing to carry out an assessment or issue a statement. An LEA in the south-east has instituted, as a matter of policy, a moratorium on assessments. Another is operating a minimal statementing programme. Such policies clearly contravene the legal duties laid down in section 5 of the Act.

Other LEAs are going slow on assessments: we have all received examples from our constituents.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

I have heard serious allegations of the kind that my hon. Friend makes and they have proved to be unfounded and the result of scaremongering. I know that my hon. Friend would not indulge in that. If he is not prepared to name the authorities involved now, perhaps he will let me know later. I shall certainly want to look into those cases if what my hon. Friend says is true.

Sir John Hannam

I am convinced that the examples are based on evidence. In meetings of the all-party group with my hon. Friend's predecessors, specific evidence has been given, and I have letters in my office detailing the exact cases. I shall be pleased to give my hon. Friend the evidence. There should be no doubt in his mind that the crux of our concern is that the wide variations in local authorities' implementation of the Act has caused the problems. I hope that my hon. Friend will not feel that he must engage in a blanket defence of LEAs. After all, he had to write to me admitting that there were serious concerns about the implementation of the Act. Authorities' performance varies widely. Some are good and some are very bad, and we should surely aim to achieve a certain minimum standard of performance throughout the country.

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, when the Audit Commission examined the matter, it concluded that it was the Government's responsibility to give much clearer guidance on which children should be statemented and which non-statemented children should have help made available to them? It is not clear what is expected of LEAs, which have an open-ended commitment and which face increasingly tight controls on their expenditure. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is what has led to many of the problems that he has identified?

Sir John Hannam

That is the point that I am trying to make, and it emerged vey clearly early in the Committee stage of the 1981 Act. The resources that would be needed could not be defined: at that stage no one knew what they were, and local authorities certainly could not provide information on the problems that they would encounter when they set about the integration of education for disabled and handicapped students. As is so often the case, it was a question of that expenditure evolving.

Since then, expenditure on special needs education has expanded tremendously, but the power of local authorities to use the money allocated as they see fit and in the ways that are best from their point of view is still a major problem. That is why we have argued for strict ring fencing of certain types of expenditure, such as expenditure on community care, which is in the headlines at the moment. In this case, statutory requirements have been laid down and provision made; if local authorities are failing to comply, we must ensure that they receive the necessary guidance to enable them to understand exactly what their statutory responsibilities are.

Some local authorities complete assessments in a matter of a few months while others take a year or more. The Audit Commission pointed out that the average was running at about three months over the maximum period of six months allowed.

Another problem is the rewriting of statements and the annual review—often done without any regard to changes in needs or to the due process. An LEA in the north-west, for example, recommended the transfer of an 11-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and numeracy and literacy difficulties from a mainstream primary to a special school for pupils with moderate learning difficulties. The parents were told that there were insufficient mainstream places. The change was made without seeking professional advice or consulting the parents. That is strictly illegal under the Act, and the pupil lost a whole term's schooling before the case was resolved and his original statement reinstated.

The parents of an 11-year-old girl with multiple physical and learning disabilities were presented with a fait accompli by an LEA in the north-east, which told them that she would be transferred from an out-of-county residential school to a local school for pupils with severe learning difficulties 12 miles from her home. Those are typical of the cases that have been brought to hon. Members and we could produce many more examples to illustrate the problems that we face in ensuring that the Act is working properly.

The Audit Commission report confirms that many of those problems exist and pinpoints "deficiencies" in the Act and its implementation. First, the vague definition of special needs in the Act means that. receipt of a statement can depend on where a pupil lives rather than on his or her real needs. Secondly, there is inconsistent statementing within LEAs so that children with lower levels of needs have statements while others with greater needs do not. That brings us back to the whole question of the determination, professionalism and resources of schools, parents and their advisers. Thirdly, schools are not properly accountable to parents for the progress made by SEN pupils or for the resources that they receive.

Important changes are taking place in education. The Further and Higher Education Act 1992 transfers responsibility for further education from LEAs to the new FE funding councils. All the disability organisations are concerned that, with only nine months to go before the new system will be in place, the administrative arrangements for the delivery and provision of special further education have still not been spelt out publicly.

I received a letter from Deaf Accord which is a consortium of organisations for deaf, deaf-blind and hard of hearing people. Those organisations have long expressed their concern about the future of their children when their schools become grant maintained. They want local education authorities to retain their ability to provide adequate specialist services for hearing-impaired children. When deaf students go on into further and higher education courses, often at a later age than their peers, they will need adequate communications support.

While the new Further and Higher Education Act 1992 states that the funding councils shall have regard to the needs of students with disabilities", there is no guarantee that a student's needs will be assessed and provided for locally, which will often mean past the age of 19.

Access to further education courses is essential for deaf students, not only so that they can compete on more equal terms in the job market, but because, as I mentioned earlier, many of them need extra time to catch up on the development of language skills and knowledge acquisition that has taken longer because of communication difficulties.

Whether it is lip reading, speech therapy, special equipment or other provisions which can help handicapped students to increase their independence and enjoy a richer life experience, the reality is that much more needs to be done to achieve reasonable standards of provision across the country.

I welcome the Government's announcement of the consultation document on the proposals in respect of special education and especially the tribunals to resolve disputes between parents and LEAs. Substantial progress towards integration has been made, but we must not forget the crucial roles played by our special schools. Without their dedication to the severely impaired children, many people now living, working and fulfilling good lives would not have found that possible.

Let us put the final pieces of the 1981 Act into place and remove the worries and uncertainties facing the parents and families of handicapped youngsters. I am confident that the proposals go a very long way towards securing those objectives.

10.31 am
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on her excellent speech and success in the raffle which seems to run this place. I hope that she will always be successful in that regard. I also congratulate her on her choice of subject which is very important. I thank her for referring in her motion to people and not: just to children. I intend to refer to the post-16 situation, although I recognise the importance of the pre-16 situation.

I realise that as I shall he referring to the post-16 situation the Minister will probably not be able to respond to my points. However, as a former Employment Minister, he may have some memory of the areas to which I shall refer. I cannot remember whether he was responsible for youth training or employment training.

Mr. Forth

indicated dissent.

Mr. Worthington

I see the Minister shaking his head so, in this case, his ignorance will be forgiven.

The split between education and training is one example of the difficulties that we face. There is a transfer of youngsters at the age of 16 to the Department of Employment for youth training. That cannot be justified. We need an integrated provision post-16 and I should prefer it if that continues to be an education responsibility, rather than the responsibility of the Department of Employment. That would certainly be Labour party policy in Scotland.

I expect that the Minister will draw attention to the comments of Baroness Blatch who said that the Government had acted very quickly on the Audit Commission report. I should welcome the setting up of a special needs tribunal. However, I must point out that the report made some attacks on local authorities and the Government therefore reacted very quickly indeed.

Post-16 provision is conducted in secrecy. Youth training is a matter of commercial confidentiality. There is no right of appeal about whether one has received an adequate offer of training post-16. I am interested to learn from the Minister's response whether he is willing to consider, if there is to be a tribunal, that it should be applied to training appeals as well as to school-age education.

At the moment, special educational needs are transferred at the age of 16 to local enterprise companies in Scotland or to the training and enterprise councils in England and Wales. Training in Scotland is swamped within the local enterprise companies. Perhaps understandably, the LECs are dominated by the idea of economic development.

I have a report from Scottish Business Insider on Scottish Enterprise and the local enterprise companies. It is instructive that the chairman of Scottish Enterprise did not mention training when he described what Scottish Enterprise had done in its first year, even though the bulk of the money that Scottish Enterprise receives is for training.

It is obvious that economic development comes first in the ethos of Scottish Enterprise. That is not surprising, because that is how the body was recruited and how the local enterprise companies have been set up. The report to which I have referred contains 19 case studies from local enterprise companies and they all concentrate on economic development. The special needs educational training within training is mentioned only once in the document.

I am concerned that training, particularly for special needs, will be dominated by economic development within the LECs. That is not surprising, given that the LECs took over from the Scottish Development Agency. The SDA swallowed the Training Agency and its personnel. The Training Agency personnel were not skilled in special needs. In many cases, they were not skilled in training; they assembled programmes. We must upgrade the quality of work.

When I heard about this debate last Thursday, I wrote to LECs throughout Scotland to inform them. I am grateful to the overwhelming number of LECs that responded and for the information that they provided. In some cases, I very much approve of the commitment to special educational needs.

What definition of special educational needs or special training needs is used within LECs? I received a letter from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) about the Government's youth training and employment training programmes. He wrote: Both programmes are primarily intended to cater for people who are capable of completing a course of training within a reasonable timescale and of taking up employment afterwards. This definition can, of course, include people with mental handicap; He said that, because that was what the letter was about.

he continued: where this is so, the Government require that they be given, along with other unemployed disabled people, a priority for places on Employment Training; or, in the case of young disabled people, the guarantee of an offer of a Youth Training place. However, the priority is that one should be almost immediately capable of taking up a job afterwards. The Government's guarantee remains only for two years and there is then a black hole in respect of provision. Voluntary organisations consider that there is no clarity. The Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped says that it is not clear what special needs mean and that The definition of 'special needs' is not clear, and the emphasis on positive outcomes, with the implication that the only real positive outcome is a job, is a deterrent to providing for people with learning difficulties. In a city such as Glasgow, where male unemployment is 20 per cent., many people with special needs certainly have no chance of a job. Because of the private sector's neglect of those with special needs, only schemes that are run by agencies such as the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped cater for them. As the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped says, that is not ideal in terms of integration into the community.

A huge issue is mounting up for the Department of Employment, and it had better face up to it soon. I refer to meeting the training guarantee. Ministers north and south of the border say that it is being met. Careers officers north of the border, and certainly in the west of Scotland, say that it is not being met. In March 1992, the Strathclyde careers service reported a shortfall of nearly 3,500 places in the west of Scotland and a 1,316 shortfall in the Glasgow area. In Glasgow terms, those 1,300 places are equal to two secondary schools. In terms of fourth-year leavers, that is about the output of 10 to a dozen schools for which there are said by the careers services not to be places.

In contrast, the Government and many local enterprise companies say that they are meeting the guarantee. Mr. Stuart Gulliver of the Glasgow Development Agency states: In Glasgow, we have so far been able to meet the needs of all young people who have actively sought a training place. That is interesting— actively sought a training place. In other words, if one feels that the training is no good, that there are no opportunities or that the Government's training is a synonym for exploitation and one stops looking, the Government are meeting that guarantee. However, bearing in mind the Glasgow shortfall of 1,300, for instance, that is not good enough and Ministers cease to be credible in respect of what they are providing. In Scotland in 1988, 41,000 employment training places were available. This year, the figure is 18,000, yet the Government say that guarantee and A groups are being met.

There is evidence of people with special needs—the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped has reported on this matter—being pushed away from employment training towards employment action in which there is no training component. Scottish Borders Enterprise states: With yet another cut in the Adult Training budget expected for 1993–94 it is difficult to see how this LEC can again ring fence training for special needs at this level. So far, it has been able to meet the need for special needs provision only by taking from other sectors of its funding. It goes on: In any case no increase in funding levels reduces the quality of training when taking account of inflation. The quality of training is falling as well. Scottish Borders Enterprise further states: The cost of training people with special needs is high in comparison to mainstream training. Presently an LEC can deliver this type of training, but only if all other training provision can be delivered at a reduced cost. The unit price for Special Needs Training is far in excess of the unit price drawn down from Scottish Enterprise. Some recognition of the high cost of this training should be given by Government and a separate funding structure introduced. Considerable problems are stacking up in terms of the quality of training for those with special needs. It is particularly objectionable that that is occurring in such an atmosphere of secrecy. We have a world of commercial confidentiality. I do not agree that publicly funded training should involve commercial confidentiality. That is the wrong approach. Contractors and subcontractors are told that they must not breathe a word about the contents of the contracts that they sign with local enterprise companies and that such matters are subject to complete commercial confidentiality.

I recently received a very useful letter from the relevant Minister in the Department of Employment. He said that one could not allow information about training places to be made public because that would break the commercial confidentiality between the Government and the relevant local enterprise company. But who included commercial confidentiality? The Government did. The Government have said that that matter is in the world of commerce. If such information were available, it would not stop firms, private training providers, voluntary organisations or local authorities putting forward tenders.

My limited knowledge of economics—it goes back a good many years—tells me that the perfect market is one in which people know everything, an open market. It is one in which people know what others are offering. The Government seem to believe that if there is competition in secret, quality will go up. In general, if something costs less there is a cut in quality rather than an increase in quality. Certainly, there are exceptions to that. For example, the current edition of Which? warns that one should not buy Rayban sunglasses. With Rayban sunglasses at their current prices, one is not getting anything extra, according to Which? Generally, the pattern is that one gets what one pays for and that, if unit prices are constantly forced down, quality will go.

There must be openness about training contracts. One should know how public money is being spent, what it is being spent on, and who is being trained by whom and for what purpose. That should not be a matter of commercial confidentiality. There is a squeeze on special needs and it will get worse next year because local enterprise companies or TECs will not be able to ring-fence their training.

The ethos of the local enterprise companies is to provide funding which is related to output. When people contract with the LECs 25 per cent. of their money is held back and is not paid unless they achieve results. Therefore, there is payment by results. I do not disagree with some aspects of that. Output and results in youth training and employment training have been woefully low in terms of qualifications. However, such an ethos puts pressures on the LECs to back out of special needs training and concentrate on sections of youth training and employment training where it is easy to achieve results.

The LECs and, I assume, the TECs have responded to the requirement to produce results by introducing literacy and numeracy targets for special needs training. I have no quarrel with that, but there is a lot more to special needs training than literacy and numeracy. Training must involve physical, social, emotional and recreational competence as well as occupational competence. There must be much more monitoring of quality in the LECs and TECs. We shall certainly press for that.

I wish to spend a little time on anxieties about the Further and Higher Education Act (Scotland) 1992, which has its equivalent in England and Wales. The Bill was considerably improved in Standing Committee for the purposes of special needs.

I pay tribute to the Minister who was involved and to the Opposition members of the Committee. We worked closely together to improve special needs provision. We are delighted that for the first time in a Scottish Act, special needs of the post-16s are mentioned. We had it written into the Act that local authorities should be consulted and that development plans should be drawn up. The Scottish Office was required to lay down guidelines for the independent boards of management of the newly independent colleges on meeting special needs requirements. That is all to the good, but it leaves some problems.

A particular problem is that the responsibility for paying for a great deal of special needs training has been left with the local authorities. The bursaries have to be paid by the local authorities. I believe that the further education sector should not have been taken away from the local authorities in any case. Tensions have been created because local authorities have had their colleges taken away, but have been left with responsibility for payment. The Secretary of State and independent people will set the fees that the local authorities have to pay.

Considerable sums of money are involved in special needs provision. My local authority sometimes has to make decisions that involve fees and residential charges of about £25,000 a year for one person. I wish to ensure that, between them, the local authorities and the Government guarantee that quality of provision continues.

In the past, larger local authorities have created an integrated service. In Strathclyde every college provided a full-time course for those with special educational needs, but some made specialist provision. Motherwell college of further education has made specialist residential provision because the region was not able to evade its responsibilities. We said that one of our colleges must make residential provision. Another makes specialist provision for the deaf.

I am worried that, even though we altered the Bill a great deal in Committee, colleges have been told that the drive of further education colleges should be overwhel-mingly vocational. If the private sector is brought in to run a college, clearly the vocational element will be strong. However, good further education provision involves a great deal more than vocational training. It is still feared that colleges will run the courses that attract cash. The people who have cash tend to be in the private sector. They tend not to be those with special educational needs.

In Scotland the ethos of special needs training is a complete mess because the Government have not thought it out. The colleges and the Secretary of State have a duty to provide all forms of further education, yet the local authorities have the ability and the power to do that. Co-ordination will be extremely difficult.

I am especially worried about a neglected matter which we must consider. Employment, education and training are an important part of community care. There seems to be a massive deficit in the debate about community care. We talk about health and social work provision and about the Department of Employment, but there is a chasm. What do people, either those in institutions or those whom we avoid putting into institutions, do from Monday to Friday during the time of the day when other people go to work? What do they do from nine to five? Clearly, employment, training and education have a major part to play. However, in all our discussions about community care there is a chasm which is not filled by transferring responsibility for education and training to LECs or TECs. Community care is about more than that.

I am critical of all parties. We have allowed post-16 provision to be segmented. One profession has control of a group of people for a time. So from nought to five years old people belong to the Department of Health. From five to 16 years they belong to education. Post-16 they are transferred to the LECs for a couple of years. We must examine and integrate provision for people over 16 with special educational needs.

I cannot remember all the schemes that the Government have introduced over the years. They started with the job creation programme. The Government have introduced various schemes designed for the so-called normal population. The local voluntary organisations have sought to skew their provision to obtain money from the Manpower Services Commission, the Training Agency or, now, the LECs. Therefore, provision for special educational needs always comes from programmes that were not designed for that purpose.

We must consider education, health, social work and voluntary provision on a cross-departmental basis and ask what we should provide. Until we do that, we shall continue to make inadequate provisions. The process should be transparent and open and all parties should take part. At present, the position for those leaving school is unsatisfactory. We cannot find out what is happening to them in terms of training, its quality and its adequacy, because that is covered by commercial confidentiality. We must open up training. All parties must admit that our provision for adults with special needs is inadequate. I hope that the Government will respond to some of the points that I have made.

10.59 am
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I hope that the hon. Member for Clydeband and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) will forgive me if I do not follow him down the paths that he has trodden. It is not because the matters that he raised were not important, and I hope that he will understand.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on introducing the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this important subject—it could not be more important. I hope that the House will forgive me if I have to leave for a time after speaking. I have the Adjournment debate today and I have to do some other work in between.

In 1981, I was a member of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam), I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Education Bill in that year. That Bill made provision for children with special educational needs. The Select Committee has also studied special needs education since that time. We came to a number of important conclusions.

First, the Select Committee felt that there should be a standard procedure for statementing children. We came to that conclusion because we found extraordinarily divergent arrangements for statementing when we visited schools in different local authorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter said, some of those procedures were working well, but we felt others to be inadequate.

Secondly, the Select Committee felt that in many cases it took too long for a child to be statemented. We wanted it to take not more than two years—that is quite long enough. At my surgeries I meet people who have asked for statements, have had to wait an undue length of time for them and have not found them satisfactory when they arrived. No doubt my colleagues have had the same experience.

I would fence with the hon. Member for Cambridge over her statement that only one parent in seven learnt anything from statementing—

Mrs. Anne Campbell


Mr. Greenway

I hope that I am not misrepresenting the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Campbell

That information came from the Audit Commission's report, which stated that 13 per cent.— about one in seven—of parents find the information given in the statement valuable. The rest find it valuable for other reasons or do not find it valuable at all.

Mr. Greenway

I accept that. There is no disagreement between us over the facts. Many parents find statements valuable and learn much from them. From my experience in education—and I have quite a lot—I know that many parents are stabilised by the process of talking with informed psychologists or teachers about the behaviour of their child and the child's educational needs, and that in itself is a valuable process, as I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree.

Special schools continue to have special value. I do not disagree with Warnock, but special schools have done, and continue to do, a marvellous job for children. The special school continues to have a place, as it gives children security and concentrates on the needs of the children being cared for. There is a great deal more to be said for them, but those two points are substantial. Parents relate to an institution which deals with the needs of their child, and that is almost beyond price in educational and social terms.

I do not want special schools to disappear, as Warnock advocated, but that does not mean that I do not understand the strong arguments for integrating children with special needs in the education process.

My last school had 2,200 pupils between the ages of 11 and 18. It was a mixed comprehensive and contained a partial hearing unit for 70 children. They integrated into the school very well and came out of the unit for about 80 per cent. of the week. As deputy headmaster, I was responsible for the curriculum, for discipline and for various other aspects of school life. That ensured that I watched how those children integrated in the school, how they responded to ordinary pupils and vice versa. It was invaluable for all concerned. Therefore, I accept what Warnock says, but let us not get rid of special schools or advocate that we do so.

The John Chilton school in my constituency is a complex of first and middle schools—there is soon to be a primary school—a nursery school and a good comprehensive. Children escape—perhaps that is not the right word —from work in the special school to go to the high school, and to what will become the primary school, and then return to the special school. That seems to me to be the ideal. There must be a combination of the two—special schools which work with ordinary schools. That is where children score best and that is what I want to happen, but it is not the full integration recommended by Warnock and provided for in the 1981 Act.

The hon. Member for Cambridge and her colleagues are mistaken to vilify grant-maintained schools. They are out of touch with political and social developments that they will have to come to terms with. There are some signs that they are beginning to do so, but if they do not, they will be left miles behind and will not move with the educational developments of the times, which are in tune with pupils and parents.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

indicated dissent.

Mr. Greenway

The hon. Lady shakes her head. She is entitled to her view, but that is what I and my colleagues feel and many Labour Members agree with us. However, that is not my point. I want the money for statemented children in grant-maintained schools to be ring fenced. That is the only way to ensure that they get the proper provision that they must have. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will at least consider that suggestion. If money is ring fenced for such important provision, schools —whether they are grant maintained, within local authorities or under local management; whoever is putting up the money—will not be tempted to refuse children on the grounds that they are statemented and therefore require special resources, such as one teacher to a child, which will be expensive. In the intersts of our children and of the nation that temptation must be put aside.

I think that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) wishes to intervene.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

No, I was agreeing.

Mr. Greenway

I am delighted that we agree. I feel strongly that the Department of Education and the Welsh Office should issue guidance to define a child's level of need, which should trigger the procedures of the Education Act 1981. That was a valuable suggestion from the Audit Commission, and if the Department could set out those guidelines and procedures we would be on our way towards a standardised procedure. Much would be achieved by establishing the standardised procedure that I have described, which was called for by the Select Committee. There would no longer be unequal provision. It is not fair for children with a special need to have good provision in one area but be under-provided for in another. How can that be fair in any society?

I should like to issue a warning, as a longstanding practitioner in and out of the classroom. The Warnock report showed clearly and persuasively that 5 per cent. of children have special educational needs. In large schools such as those that I described earlier, many children have special educational needs of some kind, whether behavioural or emotional. Ordinary schools have a responsibility and an ability to absorb children with various difficulties. If the teaching profession does not make it its business to do that, the line can become blurred and more children can be said to have special needs and behavioural problems which cannot be contained, simply because the profession is not doing all that it can for those children. It is a tragedy when children are put out of school, especially when they have emotional difficulties.

I recently heard of a boy living not far from my constituency who was suspended from his school. His father had died two or three months previously and the boy had a row with a teacher. He went back and vandalised the teacher's car, the teacher called the police and the whole affair built up. The boy has now been through a nasty court case and has been sent away. His mother is beside herself. She is a good and responsible person with a strong religious faith and has done her utmost to help. The boy has been pushed out of the system, to his great detriment. That tragedy should have been avoided.

I strongly agree with the joint Audit Commission and HMI report, which said: Statutory time limits for the completion of assessments and statements should be set, with redress for parents if these are not met. At present, parents have no redress if a statement is not produced for them within a reasonable time. That is unfair and places strong emotional pressure on parents, which they should not have to bear. Time limits should and could he set. It will require hard work by all concerned and may require additional resources, but it should be done.

11.12 am
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on introducing the debate and giving us an opportunity, at an appropriate time, to comment on special education for those with special needs. It is particularly appropriate in the wake of the publication of the Audit Commission report, a valuable document which has brought many new aspects to our attention.

When the Education Act was passed in 1981, there were high hopes. It was the International Year for Disabled People and we saw the Act as a substantial step forward and hoped that it would achieve real changes. Some of those hopes have been achieved, but there is a long way to go. At that time, I had a personal direct interest because I had two boys at a special school. Since then, I have tried to be involved, through the all-party disablement group and in other ways, in issues which arise.

The House and the Government have significant problems with which to deal. None the less, I pay tribute to teachers in both special and mainstream schools who work with those with special educational needs. They do sterling work and any criticism is not directed at the teachers in question. We have two excellent special schools in my constituency—Pendalar in Caernarfon and Hafod Lon near Pwllheli—and I accept that there will always be a need for a certain number of speical schools, although we should move towards as much integration as possible where appropriate.

The problems with the Act fall into five categories. First, integration has not worked as fully or evenly as we had hoped. Secondly, the statementing system is far from satisfactory. Thirdly, the availability of specialist staff, support services and therapists is inadequate, which has obvious resources implications. Fourthly, changes in the education structure as a result of recent legislation have caused problems. The local management of schools, in particular, has implications for special education. Fifthly, a potential problem may arise more quickly in Wales than elsewhere, but will also arise in England, is the effect of changes in the structure of local government on those provisions.

There has been a great variation in integration from area to area. The services and approach that a pupil receives often depend on where the pupil lives. Some local education authorities have been slow in implementing the 1981 Act which, again, may be due to lack of resources. I remember noting the comments made by the Select Committee on Education in its fifth report on staffing for pupils with special educational needs in 1989–90. Paragraph 24 of that report says: The extent to which LEAs and governing bodies can implement the suggested staffing model, given existing staffing levels and current financial circumstances, requires clarification. The previous Committee noted that lack of resources had restricted implementation of the 1981 Act and that a commitment of extra resources would be needed if further significant progress were to be made. This is still our view. The DES should not recommend staffing levels to LEAs unless it is prepared to make funds available for these to be implemented. The Committee's comment still bears scrutiny today. I believe that there should be minimum staffing recommendations, and the funds which are needed should be made available centrally.

In that context, I wish to point out the needs of certain categories of children and young people with special educational needs. The integration of deaf children into mainstream schools can be achieved only if adequate advisory and peripatetic services are available. Those are not always available due to lack of resources. Our attention has been drawn to the fact that only 26 per cent.

of blind children receive mobility training and, in mainstream schools, 90 per cent. have no mobility training whatever.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) spoke about provision for children over the age of 16. The provision of education in long-stay hospitals for those with severe problems will be in question when funding goes from the LEAs to the further education funding councils. Will resources be made available for education provision at long-stay hospitals?

At the other end of the scale, it is worth reminding ourselves that the statementing procedure can be commenced at the age of two. That has an implication for nursery education under the 1981 Act. It is important that one identifies special educational needs at an early age. Some LEAs have not been providing nursery places, and some parents of children with special needs have had to pay for those provisions.

MENCAP has drawn attention to the problem, saying: at least one Local Education Authority parents whose children have statements of special educational needs are no longer receiving their nursery place free of charge. This development has occurred since the implementation of the Childrens Act. It is now the case that assessment places once paid for by the LEA are no longer being funded and social services who run the education provision are charging parents under the Childrens Act for the nursery place their child occupies. In other words, children and parents are being charged for provision made under sections of their 1981 statement. The Minister may wish to consider that serious matter.

Defects occur in the current statementing system. The recent Audit Commission report has drawn attention to the massive variation in statementing reports. The proportion of statemented pupils varies from 0.8 to 3.3 per cent. That is an enormous variation. One would not expect such a statistical variation if the same policies and guidelines were being implemented in all areas. The workings of the present system need to be investigated.

The length of time one has to wait for a statement also needs to be investigated. The guidelines are designed to achieve a statement within six months, but in practice the process can take as long as three years. Such a delay makes the entire system useless, because if one has to wait that long for a response to needs that were perceived three years ago, vital time in a child's development is lost.

An example of such delay has been passed to me by the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation, RADAR. It concerns a young girl, Janine, an eight-year-old pupil with epilepsy, little motor control and behavioural and learning difficulties. RADAR states: An assessment was begun by the former ILEA in February 1990 and handed over to her new Inner London LEA in April 1990. She is still without a Statement. Clearly this situation is not attributable to administrative transfer or delay. It indicates that the LEA is stalling so that expenditure on the pupil can be deferred until resources allow. The Minister asked his hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) for examples of such delay and I believe that that example cited needs to be examined.

Mr. Forth

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem with the existing provisions is that many parents, who are anxious and eager to do the best for their child, contribute to prolonging that procedure by exercising their existing extensive rights to produce new information or to put new arguments on behalf of their child? Tragically, that is often the case. If we could deal with that practice it would go a long way to overcoming the existing problems.

Mr. Wigley

I accept that parents' involvement can delay the procedure, but not for three years. We should have a slick procedure so that an LEA, or an LEA in conjunction with professionals, can assess the needs of an individual child. The parents or those representing that child should have the opportunity to react to that assessment, and if there is any disagreement it should be subject to an appeals procedure as quickly as possible. There will always be some delay, but it should not be anything like as long as three years. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree on that.

When statementing, some LEAs are not driven by the objective needs of a child. Unfortunately, they are conditioned by their perceived ability to fulfil services. Therefore, they will statement needs in line with what they think they can deliver rather than what might be sufficient to meet the absolute need of a child. That underlines the need for greater consistency and objectivity. The Government must undertake the strategic role of issuing adequate guidelines and monitoring LEAs to ensure that they carry out their responsibilities.

I do not believe that the Minister was suggesting that there should be less parental involvement in the system. If there is such a lack of parental involvement or representation on behalf of a child, the danger is that that child will receive a less comprehensive statement and his needs will not be adequately met. Therefore, there is a danger that those children with special educational needs who have more articulate parents may get a better deal. Perhaps that is what leads to some of the delays. We need the system to work properly.

The appeals procedure also has a number of shortcomings. It involves the work of two members of the LEA and one lay person. In my case two county councillors together with a lay person consider an appeal. The appeal procedure is not independent and therefore the danger is that if an LEA believes that it has a shortage of funds and resources to meet requirements, its appeal procedure will merely reiterate that attitude. Either the statementing system or the appeals procedure must be independent—it would probably be easier to make the appeals procedure independent. I am aware of the speech made a couple of weeks ago by Baroness Blatch and I should like to know from the Minister how the Government intend to review the appeals procedure and when that process will be completed. What is the likely outcome?

The lack of specialist staff is often due to lack of resources, and sometimes to lack of training. The Audit Commission report says: Consideration should be given to introducing financial incentives to LEAs to implement fully the 1981 Education Act. I agree wholeheartedly with that, but it is worth noting that my LEA has had no additional central funding for the implementation of the 1981 Act. That has led to some of the current problems.

Speech therapists are among the specialist staff who are required. I draw to the Minister's attention the way in which the Welsh Office has interpreted the law in an attachment to circular 54/89. I appreciate that this is not his prime responsibility, so perhaps he could pass it on to his colleagues at the Welsh Office. That attachment states that education authorities should provide speech therapists for statemented children if health authorities for any reason fail. That is unsatisfactory. Health authorities are funded directly by central Government and they may fail to provide that service due to lack of resources. The buck is then passed to the LEA, which must find its own resources—by raising the poll tax or whatever is necessary —and, according to the Welsh Office interpretation, it has a statutory obligation to do so. I am not arguing that there should not be such a statutory obligation, but for goodness sake let us be sure that the resources are there. We should not allow for a systematic method by which central Government can avoid responsibility. Priority should be given to providing extra resources so that extra speech therapists can be trained. The Audit Commission report has noted the need for resources to be transferred to meet the staffing targets for such specialists.

Whether dyslexia is a recognised disability is subject to much interpretation. Some educationists do not recognise it as such. A youngster in my area, now aged 13. has only just been recognised as suffering from it. but has had the problem for several years. Teachers, particularly in primary schools, should receive more training to recognise the signs of dyslexia so that they can give some help to pupils. Training courses are available and there would not have enormous resource implications. The University College of North Wales in Bangor has an excellent course. Such training should be encouraged.

The Education Reform Act 1988 has given schools certain characteristics, which have implications for special educational needs. First, schools now compete for children. Secondly, schools are funded as a result of formulae. Thirdly, crude attainment levels and assessment figures are published. Those three factors are worrying, because they militate against the needs of children with special needs. The results are already apparent. Schools are increasingly reluctant—or even refuse—to accept children with special needs. There has been a massive increase in formal statementing and in my area the special school population has increased. That may or may not be a general trend. The amount of integration in schools has also diminished and schools that have opted out are following selective admission policies.

It is fine to devolve as much as possible to individual schools—I am all in favour of that—but the LEAs must retain powers to monitor and ensure that standards are maintained and, indeed, raised. There is a danger of a resource drift as a result of the changes in the education structure. Money that was intended for special educational needs may be redirected for other priorities at the schools level. That is unacceptable and I note with interest what the hon. Member for Ealing, North said about ring fencing.

Special education may also be affected by the forthcoming changes in the structure of local government in Wales. A White Paper on the subject is being issued in October and I believe that Wales may have about 24 small all-purpose authori-ties which will be education authorities. There are good reasons for that, and there is generally all-party support for unitary authorities. However, there are worries about the implications for special education. Will those small authorities have the necessary specialist staff? Will they be able to adopt a strategic approach? If not, which strategic organisation will monitor and oversee the requirements of children with special educational needs? I should be glad if the Welsh Office could clarify its position, as the implications are far reaching.

Under the present Government, more market forces are coming into play. If there are also weaker local education authorities, the combination of those two factors could result in children with special educational needs suffering. I conclude by drawing attention to the recommendations of the Audit Commission, which include the following: guidance should be issued by the Department for Education … and Welsh Office to define the level of need in a child which should trigger the use of the 1981 Education Act procedures … LEAs should be given guidance to help them define the responsibilities of ordinary schools for pupils with special needs and to clarify when the LEA will itself provide extra help… parents of pupils with statements of special need should have the right to state a preference for their child's school, within limits… consideration should be given to introducing some incentive for LEAs to implement fully the 1981 Education Act"— Hear, hear to that. It continues: statements should be changed to give a greater focus on the objectives for the child and on the school's responsibilities … statutory time limits for the completion of assessments and statements should be set, with redress for parents if these are not met". The Commission also recommends steps that LEAs should take to improve provision. It states that a clear distinction between the role of purchaser of services (the LEA) and provider of services (usually the school) is required. The Commission makes another important point when it states: all LEAs should follow the lead of the minority of LEAs which have increased the capability of ordinary schools to provide for pupils with special educational needs". This is a critical time and the Government need to respond if we are to receive—as we thought that we would 11 years ago—the full value of the 1981 Act. I believe that there is common thinking on that throughout the House. If the Minister cannot respond fully today, I hope that in the next few months—certainly in this parliamentary year —we shall receive a response from the Government. I hope that there will be a strong move towards achieving those objectives.

11.34 am
Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

I congra-tulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on raising this subject, and I agree with much of what she said. However. I did not agree with the emphasis she placed on lack of funding as a major cause of the problems.

Speaking as a disabled person and a spastic, I remind the House that when the subject first came to light in the late 1930s and during the war, it was suggested that brain injury meant that one was mentally retarded and should be locked away. Perhaps some of my political colleagues still believe that, but that was then considered to be the right answer; there were no statements of need.

For the first nine years of my life, although unable to walk properly, I survived in an inner-city school in Bristol as best I could. Even after an operation to correct that problem, I had to survive in school with a relatively severe disability to my hand which made mobility awkward—it still does at times. Therefore, I understand the problems.

The information and technology on, and understanding of, disability has changed since my young days, but I wonder whether attitudes have changed. I am not sure that they have. I am grateful that the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) raised the subject of dyslexia and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Cambridge did not, although she may have mentioned the word in her speech.

I served on my local authority for a considerable time, and it flatly refused to recognise dyslexia as an illness until recently. Even in 1984, after I had been in this place for one year, I was approached by a parent who was convinced that her child was dyslexic. The education authorities had flatly refused to recognise that. We have to be careful about so-called experts; educational psychologists do not always know best. I accept the view that parents frequently know better.

In the case of the mother who came to see me, the so-called experts kept saying that the child merely had a learning problem that could be put right with extra attention in class. That was nonsensical bunkum and the solution did not work. The mother was convinced that something was wrong with her child, but could not identify what it was. She met experts in the subject of dyslexia who convinced her that that was the problem with her child. The family had an almighty row with the director of education and the experts. Finally, they argreed—I think to get me off their backs—to send the child to a dyslexic school, with the authority paying the fees. I wonder how many other kids in the same position, whose parents lacked the foresight and fortitude of that mother to approach a Member of Parliament, were left in chaos.

My local authority gives such children no special help. I think that the problem lies not in a lack of funds, but in the preconceived attitude of the experts, whose training at university as psychologists often teaches them not to recognise dyslexia. They are taught to consider the problem as a learning difficulty and, whatever anyone else says, that will remain their view. Such a perception is blinkered and tunnelled, and I am sure that many kids have suffered as a result.

I am not exactly sure about the Government's view on the subject, but they should direct every local authority to recognise immediately that dyslexia is an illness—a disability—which must be helped in a special way. If the Government continue to allow local authorities, for financial or other reasons, not to recognise that problem and to palm off parents by telling them that their child merely has a learning problem, the Government will have much to answer for.

I understood the intervention of my hon. Friend the Minister on the role of parents in delaying procedures. However, if it were not for the parent in my constituency —and, I am sure, many parents throughout the country —challenging the statements and comments of so-called experts in schools, many kids would not be receiving the special education that they do now. I appreciate why my hon. Friend intervened on the matter of statements being delayed by parents' tenacity, but we must not undervalue that tenacity.

Another aspect of special need that the hon. Member for Cambridge did not mention—neither has anyone else —is that of the gifted child. I have a grandson who may be specially gifted. The Act contains no provision for the gifted child who, if left to push himself or herself along within the class, becomes frustrated. That frustration can lead to disruption in the class and learning difficulties.

Why are the needs of a gifted child, with all that that entails, not recognised as special? I cannot understand why the Act does not provide for those needs, or why people involved with special needs do not consider that aspect. I recently received a booklet on special needs that did not contain one word or one line about the gifted child, which I find amazing.

Whether we like it or not, gifted children are likely to be future captains of industry, senior civil servants or even, God forbid, politicians. If we do not recognise the special treatment and needs of such children and the help required by their parents—who may have fallen behind their children in intellectual terms—I do not know what will happen.

Mr. Forth

In case I do not manage to answer the point later, I shall try to deal with it now. I can reassure my hon. Friend that the important point that he makes is well understood at the highest level in my Department, and is carefully considered. However, we face the difficulty as to whether it would be right to place the children of whom my hon. Friend speaks into the category of those with special educational needs as we all understand them, and as we have referred to them in the debate, as learning difficulties or whether those children should be dealt with in a different way. While I take my hon. Friend's point—the matter is being studied—he may agree that it is arguable whether we should seek to deal with gifted children under the umbrella provisions that we have debated this morning or whether they would be better provided for in a different way.

Mr. Dicks

My hon. Friend's helpful remarks are much appreciated. I accept the dilemma faced by educational experts and members of the Department when placing children in categories. However, I would rather that gifted children were placed in the present category than pushed aside and forgotten because they do not fit into a category. Perhaps we should write into the Act a special clause stating that we also recognise the special needs—or whatever we choose to call them—of the gifted child. Many parents who are concerned about that matter, go to their education authority, where officials say that they have no responsibilities for the problem. They say that they do not need to take into account whether the children are bright, and can only place them in an ordinary classroom and hope that they fight through. Often they do. Often they help with the teaching. My eight-year-old grandson reads to younger children to help out the teacher. He says, "If you're not going to listen to me, I'll stop reading." He wants to do that. His teacher must be frustrated when there are 25 to 30 children in a class and she cannot give him the special help that he requires.

Ms. Armstrong

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says. He is making a powerful case for very good comprehensive education. I invite him to study the HMI report that was published a couple of weeks ago about the education of the very able, in which the point is made very powerfully that when a teacher is able to develop good, differentiated learning and to adapt the curriculum and topic work for the specific needs of individual children, the very able have been most effectively challenged and have made the most progress. The report also refers to the fact that that has enhanced the overall examination results of the school. Therefore. differentiated learning within the classroom works effectively for the very able as well as for other children.

Mr. Dicks

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but to suggest that I am a supporter of comprehensive education is worse than to suggest that I am a supporter of the arts. Comprehensive education has done more harm to the youngsters of this country than any other system that I can possibly think of. If we still had grammar schools, some of these gifted kids—the top 3, 4 or 5 per cent. from working-class homes—would be in those schools and making real progress in an atmosphere that is not to be found in comprehensive schools. The quality of teaching is not to be found in those schools, either. That is the difference between Opposition Members and Conservative Members.

I believe that every child is special. Special help should be provided for disabled kids, but special help should be provided for bright kids, too. I do not believe in some airy-fairy comprehensive system where all the kids sit together and have to move forward at the same rate. Bright kids should be put on the fast track. Slightly retarded kids should get special help. The average kid, the one in the middle, should get help, too. It is this nonsensical comprehensive system which has ruined the lives of many kids. It is beyond the pale.

The problems faced by dyslexic and gifted children are very important, but they have only been touched on by Opposition Members, apart from the hon. Member for Caernarfon. There must be recognition of the needs of dyslexic children. I hope that my hon. Friend will send directives, if not something more powerful, to all local authorities telling them that they have no choice but to recognise dyslexia. I accept his comments about gifted children. I hope that very soon a report on education will be published that it will recognise that some children have special needs and that they must be catered for.

11.42 am
Mrs. Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I am pleased to take part in this debate about one of the most important aspects of education. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) for raising the issue.

I want to deal specifically with the special educational needs of those with physical and mental disabilities. I accept the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge about young people with emotional and behavioural problems and also the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) about young adults who need special training—a point which I have raised on previous occasions in the House.

In all my years of teaching —I taught some of the most academically able, as well as those who needed very much more encouragement and support so that they could achieve their full potential—I became more and more convinced that we do those young people no great service because we very often reach them too late. My colleagues in the teaching profession will back me when I say that they do not often have the opportunity to give those young people the help that they need because they are unable to reach them as early as they ought.

I want to deal, first, with some general thoughts on special educational needs, secondly, with an example of good practice in my constituency which I believe should be developed throughout the country and, thirdly, with a personal experience. The HMI-Audit Commission report "Getting in on the Act" makes important recommendations about how we arc failing both as educators and as legislators. I hope that the Minister will refer to some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge in her speech and will also deal with some of the points made by the report.

Children with special educational needs are not among the first to receive any spare funds that education authorities might have. They are few and far between, given the scant resources that the Government have passed on to local education authorities. It is essential that the work done with children with special educational needs should be closely monitored and evaluated. The teachers who work with children with special educational needs are dedicated professionals. They need resources and support to carry out their work and to develop it. They also need to be able to exchange ideas.

That support is not always available, except on a voluntary basis when teachers in their own time share their experiences and develop ideas. That evaluation must become part of the timetable of the school day so that any necessary changes and adjustments can be made to suit the needs of individual children. We often forget that children are individuals and have different personalities. They cannot be lumped together en masse. That is one reason why additional resources, in the shape of more teachers and learning assistance, are needed so that children with special educational needs can be helped in small groups.

In order to ensure that children receive the essential support that they need as soon as possible, we must reconsider how and when we statement them. That point was made by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr.Wigley). I agree with him. It is time that we looked at statementing children before they go to school. That brings me to my second point about good practice.

I am extremely lucky in representing a constituency which runs the Portage project. For those hon. Members who have not heard of it, I should explain that the name comes from the American city where it was first developed. It is a support and development system under which people work with children with special needs and with their families in their own homes. Portage is based in my constituency of Lewisham, East, but it is available to the whole borough. Teachers visit the families in their homes. They teach parents how to stimulate, motivate and encourage their children from as early an age as possible. That means babies as well as toddlers. Both physical and mental stimulation are important aspects of a child's development.

Some parents who become involved in the Portage project are very distraught. They wonder how they will be able to help their child, who may be suffering from several disabilities. The teachers—and, I should emphasise, the other parents—work together to support the new parents and to show what strides can be made, if action is taken early enough. I visited the project again last week. I cannot tell the House just how wonderful it was to see children between the ages of 12 months and five years running around together, playing with toys, reading, modelling and doing all the things that we hope all children between those ages can do. Mums and dads were exchanging the moans and groans as well as the happy times and the funny stories that children inevitably provide.

I do not want, however, to paint a wholly idyllic picture. Far from it. There was much relief that day at the Portage project. It had only recently been confirmed that it would be funded by Lewisham council. The project had been funded by a Government grant, but funding stopped at the end of the year. Time had run out. It was left to Lewisham council to pick up the tab and keep the project going. I am delighted that the council recognised the outstanding work that is being done by the project and chose to keep it going. However, it was a hard decision for the council to take, bearing in mind all the competing demands on its budget. Pre-school work is not a statutory requirement, so there is no obligation on the council to provide that service. It is a great weakness of the education system that no obligation is placed on local authorities and the Government to ensure that pre-school work is provided.

Councils are constantly being forced to make horrendous decisions between competing but excellent projects. Lewisham has made a point of doing all that it can to help children with special educational needs, and I am glad that it has, but if the Government were truly committed to helping all our children they would give local authorities sufficient resources to set up projects such as Portage everywhere. Standards would then be raised dramatically across the country.

I visited All Saints school, Blackheath, last week, where a number of children who have learning difficulties are integrated into the mainstream. It is a small. community-based school, with a wonderful atmosphere, a small, dedicated and professional staff and a head who believes that integration into the mainstream is essential not only for children with special educational needs but for all the children in the area. One of the reasons why it does so well is because, being a smaller school, it is able to direct resources to deal with specific problems. The head teacher was grateful for the support that she received from the local authority. The school had a true community spirit, and if we are serious about integration and supporting children with special educational needs we should encourage such schemes.

I want to speak on a personal note. I have a nephew, Christopher, who has Down's syndrome. He lives with his parents and younger brother in America. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge spoke of how articulate people managed to get resources more easily than those who were not. That is true of Christopher. He is lucky in two regards: first, his parents are articulate, able and willing to challenge the system and, secondly, he lives in an area where resources are available to help children with special educational needs. He received the physical and speech therapy that he needed to enhance his development. At the age of seven, his reading standards are the same as every other seven-year-old, he is beginning to become more articulate and conversational and he is doing all the things that we hoped for him.

I told my sister-in-law yesterday that I would be speaking in this debate. I asked, "What would you say as the mother of a child in that situation? What would you want to happen?" She said, "Tell them that you must integrate into the mainstream and that you must have high aspirations for those children; otherwise you will constantly fail them."

There must be much more integration into mainstream schooling. We must ensure that we have dedicated professional staff, which means more resources for local authorities. We must ensure that all children are targeted as early as possible so that they can be developed as quickly as possible, because unless we do so at the earliest stages of their childhood development we shall lose them. I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government will consider that in the next few years. If they do not, we shall undersell some of our most wonderful young people by not ensuring that they get the support and the opportunities that they deserve.

11.53 am
Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this important debate.

I want to put a slightly different gloss on the debate. The Government have received much criticism this morning. I know that the Minister will handle each point in a constructive and well-briefed manner. I have a long history of supporting the Minister in his various different duties and I shall not be dissatisfied with his response.

I want to offer perhaps a plurality of approach that moves away from many of the single answers that hon. Members have offered from personal experience. There is great inspiration in the work that is being carried out, and I want to deal with that. I want to offer the House the thought that humans have an infinite capacity for change: however late it is discovered that a child has special needs, the child can still move forward and alter. Human nature is such that we have the capacity for change throughout our lives. In Poland, where I was recently as patron of the Friends of The Polish Children—I am sorry that I do not speak the language and cannot identify it correctly in Polish—special needs children are children until the ends of their lives because, in their attitude, they are, perhaps, childlike or have childish qualities. The word "child" in this context is already recognised as a definition that can be helpful beyond the statutory age of being a child in our society—16 years. The human capacity for change is limitless and we should not take the attitude that unless a child is taken at a particular age or in a particular way there is no possibility for growth within the context of special needs education.

Perhaps the first difference that I wish to point out and argue is that in the past decade we have seen an enormous shift in the way in which we treat people with difficulties. We see it in health, particularly in mental health, where there has been a great shift out of institutionalisation and into the community. We see it in physical disability, for which a wide variety of options are now available to people. There have been all sorts of innovations—both legislative and practical—with Government grants being available, for example, to alter offices or factories to suit the special needs of an employee with a physical problem. We see it in our approach to genetic disorders, one of the worst of which is Tay-Sachs. The Tay-Sachs Society is foremost in its identification of the extraordinary difficulties that the Tay-Sachs child faces in its short and wretched life. Some positive things can be done for them.

I suggest, however, that under the Abortion Act 1967 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 we have made changes in the make-up of our society that mean that we have fewer people with the gravest physical disorders or mental handicap. Those of us who have worked in or have travelled widely in the developing world, especially in countries where abortion is unavailable or is denied to women--Romania. for example—have seen a higher number of children than the western average with what we would define as special learning difficulties. If one looks more deeply, one finds people with the gravest of physical disorders—perhaps an IQ of 10—whose life can hardly be deemed to be a life by western standards.

In passing the Abortion Act and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, we have taken a clear step away from allowing the widest possible variety of human beings to be members of our society. I am not passing a moral judgment, but merely making the point that one way in which we have tackled the problem is by creating a society that has fewer people with the very gravest of physical and mental disorders. Some Members look shocked. They should look at other countries, where they will see the balance. They will remember what the United Kingdom used to be like in the 1940s and 1950s, with a great variety of physical and mental problems.

We have fewer people with major difficulties and are therefore able, perhaps, to devote a greater percentage of our attention and to offer better and more appropriate facilities to people with special learning difficulties and physical needs, whom we now define as having challenging behaviour, both through health and teaching. Perhaps the main thrust of the debate and of the wonderful opportunity that the Government have given the House and society to help people with special learning needs is consultation on how to achieve the best possible provision for people born with difficulties.

I deal now with the non-governmental, as well as the governmental, aspect of assistance. So far, the debate has centred almost entirely on Government provision, but I want to show that no single state provision can ever match the need. There are some children and some adults in our society for whom a non-governmental approach appears less threatening. They respond better to such an approach, or the speed with which niches of need can be identified and matched may be better within the framework of a voluntary organisation.

I am not suggesting for one moment that the state does not have a major role to play. I have been familiar with the Centre for Autism at Henley for 25 years. It operates under the Department of Health, and I am not suggesting that it should be taken over by a voluntary organisation. I am a governor of the Mary Hare grammar school for the deaf, which has the finest provision in the United Kingdom for children with profound hearing difficulties. Incidentally, the school began as a voluntary organisation and was taken into the mainstream of the state. It is a grammar school, which provides the best possible educational needs-matching for profoundly deaf children.

If there are no physical disabilities. behavioural disorders or difficulties are often marked by truancy. That word covers a multitude of reasons for absence from mainstream schools. We have talked today about the need to integrate children into the mainstream from special schools. I remind the House that not all mainstream education is appropriate for special needs children. It would not be physically possible to replicate in a mainstream school what Mary Hare grammar school for the deaf in Newbury offers. One could spend all the money in the world, but one could not offer a profoundly deaf child the total learning environment that he needs and deserves and receives at Mary Hare grammar school merely by transplanting a portion of it to a mainstream school. I know how difficult autism is and what a tragedy it is for the parents and for the child. One cannot offer the necessary provision, which is made at Henley, merely by transporting some of the facilities into mainstream schools. I am arguing for a plurality of approach in recognition of the complexities of the human condition. There is no single solution.

However, if one has a child who can go into mainstream education, he or she may still find it very difficult to cope. In such circumstances, behavioural disorders may, and frequently do, result in truancy. Many children who truant —I apologise for that horrible use of the word, but it is the current phraseology—have a horror of authority. I draw the House's attention to a wonderful group of people called Cities in Schools which tries to get such children back into mainstream schooling. Special educational needs in America have already been mentioned today. The concept of Cities in Schools was born in the United States. The Cities in Schools group is a unique mixture; I have never come across a voluntary organisation precisely like it. It has federal funding, state funding, local and business input. It arose from the voluntary network and has pulled itself into its complex, interesting framework of funding which comes from diverse sources. It is carefully put together and is still a voluntary trust.

Cities in Schools set up special schools where they bring together parents, children and teachers and cross departmental boundaries. Its great success story is that in 25 years it has brought children back into mainstream schools. Its definition of success is when a child goes back to mainstream schooling and does not truant. I am proud and delighted that we have now founded a Cities in Schools group in the United Kingdom. It has been going for several years. Some centres are already funded and running, and children are beginning to succeed in them.

I do not believe that the Cities in Schools concept could possibly have worked if it had been a state initiative because, in the eyes of truanting children, it would have had an authoritarian stance. Cities in Schools has a long way to go. I am on the board and I was a founder member, and I know that it is bringing children back into mainstream schooling. It pulls in teachers, parents and social services and, often—alas—the police where crimes are involved. Cities in Schools is an example of a partnership involving the state, parents, the voluntary sector and other professionals outside education. I believe that it represents the way forward.

Another organisation I know well is the Child Psychotherapy Trust, which celebrates its fifth birthday on Tuesday 7 July. It is based at the Tavistock clinic in London, and I am sure that most hon. Members know a great deal about that wonderful clinic. The Child Psychotherapy Trust deals with troubled children whose problems have, sadly, often been induced by adults. The children may have suffered sexual abuse, bad parenting and difficult backgrounds. Most of the children whom I have met there do not have inborn difficulties—they have externally induced problems to which they have reacted adversely in educational terms.

Again, the trust was initially a voluntary body. It is working hard under the Department of Health and trying to link the children to the mainstream. I hope that the Department of Health will see its way to financing the training of the child psychotherapists who have an enormous input into the children's educational future.

Another organisation that deals with a harsh angle of life is the Thomas Coram Foundation, with which I am working at the moment. It is the oldest children's charity in Britain, dealing with people who have enormous difficulties with housing and being unable to stay in one place. Trying hard to bring such children into the mainstream of education is a full-time role.

At the moment, I am the foster parent of a child with special educational needs. As the child is a ward of court, the Official Solicitor 'makes an input. As a foster parent, I have become keenly aware of the parental role in defining the best possible answers at any given moment as the child grows and matures. The parent's role is large. Several hon. Members have mentioned that role.

It is true that many parents do not want their child to leave a special school. It is not necessarily because they believe that the child will not get exactly the same provision in mainstream education; it is because they are fearful and understandably protective and they are worried about allowing the child the broader scope. They fear that the child will get hurt. Parents do not feel merely that one cannot replicate a special school environment within mainstream schooling. It is not merely a question of saying that the state is not putting enough money into mainstream schooling. The parental embrace means that parents do not want the child to be hurt, and they are fearful of letting the child leave the special school to go into the mainstream world. The parents' role is crucial, but it is sometimes difficult to define and to understand.

More than eight Departments have an input into children's futures. How do we know that? The new declaration of the rights of the child, which arose from the International Year of the Child in 1979, calls on eight Departments to agree the provisions before the declaration can be endorsed internationally. We have not ratified the declaration, although ratification may come soon, because we want to do the work correctly and properly. With eight Departments, there is a crossing of boundaries all the time. I argue that the overlap of responsibilities is necessary and that moving towards a Ministry for children would be a regression and would narrow the perspective. I believe that the crossing of boundaries and the inter-departmental flow of knowledge and experience are essential. No single Department could possibly have the knowledge of how to deal with Tay-Sachs disease, with autism, with behavioural disorders resulting in truancy, with physical disfigurement and with mental handicap. That is impossible. The flow of information from all the experts is necessary. I argue for a plurality of approach because of the polarity of children's needs.

Who are the children with special educational needs? Why am I fearful when people say that statementing is too vague? I understand their worries because a vagueness of approach may mean backing out of meeting the need. One child whom I know well is a small child who will not grow. Her special needs teacher has to be with her to ensure that she can open the door, because she cannot reach the handle, and to ensure that she can get to the cloakroom where she cannot get on to the lavatory or turn on the taps. She is as bright as a button; her IQ is as good as anyone's if not better. Her special needs teacher is different from one required by another child. Another child whom I know well is significantly and severely dyslexic. Let us recall that dyslexia is not yet a single, definable condition. It is important to realise that, rather like schizophrenia, it covers a multitude of as yet unquantified learning difficulties. The special need of a child with a severe mental handicap is to get to a special school by the fastest possible transport, if the special school is some distance away.

In my constituency, we have an above average number of children with special learning difficulties. The reason is that my constituency is an especially beautiful part of the world. I know many parents who have come into my constituency once their children have been defined as having special learning difficulties. They have left their previous jobs and have taken less well paid and less challenging jobs. The parents know that they will die eventually and they want their children to be integrated into the countryside. The county has almost double the national average of children with special learning difficulties.

I do not always support statementing. It is a hard label and parents tell me that their children are uncomfortable about it and that it can cause awkwardness in class. There are many ways in which to support and help the children to do the best that they can and to lead the most fulfilled and enjoyable of childhoods without statementing them.

One school in my constituency has taken a special lead in dyslexia. It is a fee-paying school which has made dyslexia its mainstream preoccupation. The children are not statemented; it is just a school which decided that there was a great modern need for such provision on which it would concentrate.

In Devon at large, there is below average statementing. I suggest to the Minister that we do not have below average care and nurturing of children with special educational needs. I think that we have well above average and fine provision for children with special educational needs.

There is no simple answer and we all have a learning curve to go through on special educational needs. There will be many more answers that we can dream are possible today as we learn more and more about the difficulties of children with special educational needs and with learning difficulties, and as we increasingly analyse, identify, quantify and are able to meet those needs. I am confident that the Government are fully committed to that task.

12.15 pm
Ms. Liz Lynne (Rochdale)

I disagree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on one point. I do not believe that statementing should be got rid of; I believe that it should be strengthened and that money should be made available by the Government for that purpose.

This afternoon, thousands of special children will come home from schools that are failing them to parents who love them but who feel let down and left out by Government, by local authorities and by schools. Those children will come home knowing that Britain has not delivered what they and every child deserve.

Why are those children special? They are special because they need extra care and attention; they are special because they need individual help. Above all, they are special because they deserve the right that other children have—the right to realise their full potential.

The House must not misunderstand me. Most special schools for children with special needs provide a good service, and many mainstream schools are doing their best with limited resources to educate those children. The reality is, however, as every special needs parent knows, that the children are not being given the very best, which they deserve.

Last week's Audit Commission report revealed widespread problems in the way in which children with special needs are first identified and, secondly, provided for. Sadly, 10 years on, the words of the Warnock committee still have not reached those whom it addressed and the same is true of the recommendations in the Education Act 1981. They were both attempts to improve identification of difficulties and to provide suitable help, although I do not agree totally with every aspect of the Warnock report.

As Bob Chilton of the Audit Commission said last week, although the principles of the Act have proved robust, the procedures for implementing them have fallen into disrepair". The 1981 Act required local authorities to identify children with special needs, to provide suitable teaching and help for those with greatest difficulties, to make a quick assessment of a child's needs, and to provide an easily understood statement of how those needs would be met and action to match the words. However, as the Audit Commission made clear, and as all those involved with special educational needs know, the reality is very different.

One in five children are estimated to have special educational needs at some point in their lives. Some children have temporary difficulties with learning while others have more serious needs or profound disabilities. For those who need statements, there is the agony and uncertainty of waiting. Statements rarely come in the recommended six months; the average time is 15 months and in some cases it takes even longer. The Government must ensure that the guidelines turn into a firm legal requirement. When statements do not arrive on time, parents must be able to get an assessment elsewhere and bill the local authority.

Statements must assess the actual needs of the children. Too often, they are just vague statements of intent. Too often, they dodge real commitments. Too often, they are led by the facilities that local authorities have available or can afford to provide. Even when a statement arrives, there can be a long delay. A friend of mine has a child with special educational needs—who, incidentally, is also a friend of mine. I talked to her on the phone this morning. David has received his statement, but it will probably take a whole year for that statement to be acted on. That is just not good enough.

Parents must be fully involved in the process. They must be properly consulted. They must know who is responsible for providing what, and they must be given a real choice in what happens to their children. When there was talk of special schools closing in Rochdale, the first the parents heard about it was when they read the local newspaper. Parents contacted me and my predecessor, Sir Cyril Smith, asking why they had not been consulted and told what was to happen to their children instead of reading about it in the newspaper. They asked the local education authority to call a public meeting, but the LEA refused. We therefore called a meeting on their behalf and helped to set up the parents action committee in Rochdale, which is still going and does good work lobbying the council, exerting pressure and ensuring that parents are properly consulted, rather than lip service being paid to consultation. Often the experts say, "This is what should happen to your child." But the parents are the people who really need to be consulted. They deal with their children all the time, not just during school time.

It is time that parents of children with special needs had the same right as all other parents to a say in the schools to which their children go, whether mainstream or special schools. Although I believe that we should strive for integration, I also strongly believe that we shall never entirely get rid of the need for special schools. There will always be children who need special education in special schools—those with profound learning difficulties, in particular.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

I should like to correct one point that the hon. Lady made at the beginning of her speech. She said that she disagreed with me, but in fact it was never my intention to say that statements should be got rid of. I want to make that quite clear. What I said was that a disproportionate amount of local authority resource is spent on the statementing process and on identifying rather than on meeting needs. I hope that the hon. Lady will take that into account.

The hon. Lady then referred to the process of consultation—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. The hon. Lady is starting to make a speech.

Mrs. Campbell

I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. In that case, I shall leave it at that.

Ms. Lynne

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cambridge. I am sorry if I misinterpreted what she said. I am convinced that statementing needs to be improved and I am glad that she agrees with me on that.

Miss Emma Nicholson

Do the hon. Members for Rochdale (Ms. Lynne) and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) agree that identification of the problem opens the gates to the creation of the appropriate resources? The hon. Member for Cambridge said that a "dispropor-tionate" amount of resources was spent on identifying need, but that is perhaps not the appropriate word. Often one is lucky if one can identify clearly what is wrong, but if one can, one can then call upon the appropriate resources, people and materials. I therefore question that assertion, although I appreciate that it did not come directly from the hon. Member who has the Floor.

Ms. Lynne

I am glad that the hon. Lady recognises that it did not directly flow from my remarks. I agree that the identification of people with special needs is very necessary, but once that has been done, we need statementing—although not for all children—to ensure that those needs are met.

The 1981 Act needs revitalising. The revolution in education threatens the best of intentions. With schools increasingly competing on the basis of crude academic results and under the pressure of the market place, there is a real danger of discrimination against children with special needs, who need extra care and attention. They tend to do less well in league tables of static assessments, but they have the same rights as other children to be given the best opportunities to do their best. We are talking about children whose development and progress are ignored in crude measures of achievement. We are talking about special children who deserve better than to be thrown on to the mercy of the market.

It is vital that the control of special educational needs should remain with local education authorities, but it is also vital that some form of national strategic planning remains to ensure that those needs are met, and that the Government give far clearer guidelines to local authorities. It is also vital that, as the local management of schools develops, enough money is left in LEA budgets to provide for those children with special needs. There will be a need for far more resources, but there will also be a need for better monitoring and inspection and for parents to be given choices. In any decision that is taken about a child, parents must always be fully consulted. That is the main thrust of my argument. We shall then be able to watch special children grow up like other children who are given the best possible opportunities to realise their full potential.

12.25 pm
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms. Lynne) with most of whose speech I wholly agree. I, too, raised my eyebrows at the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) that one of the solutions might be to prevent such children from being born in the first place. The debate is about how we can enable and help children in the world, rather than about using devices—

Miss Emma Nicholson

I did not say that. My hon. Friend has it the wrong way round. I was merely pointing out that an effect of the Abortion Act 1967 was that children with very significant physical and mental handicaps are no longer born in our society. That is a fact.

Mr. Bowis

It may be a fact, but it is not a line which I wish to pursue in the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on her good fortune in securing the debate. Appropriately, she has chosen education as her subject and, within education, special educational needs and how we can enable children, young people and adults to get the best out of education throughout their lives. The hon. Lady did not go on to deal with adult education as I should have liked her to, because I feel that we owe it to older people, too, to give them access to the benefits of continuing education.

We have heard a number of personal testimonies from hon. Members who have experienced difficulties in their own lives or in the lives of their children or friends. That highlights the fact that very often special needs cannot be identified at birth. Sometimes special needs cannot be identified before a child goes to school; they may develop as a child grows up.

In that regard, Dr. Beve Hornsby, whose school is in my constituency, has told me that sometimes not even the experts can identify dyslexia until a child reaches a certain age. Sadly, dyslexia is not always identifiable at primary school level. Sometimes it is ascertainable only at secondary level. That may be one reason why in some cases statementing may take longer than six months, beyond the 12 months which the Audit Commission has identified as the median period and up to three years, which is far too long. However, there may occasionally be reasons for such delays, apart from parental involvement.

The hon. Member for Cambridge has done us a service by moving her motion. However, she was perhaps a little unfair to the Government. We have moved a long way under the Government. The 1981 Act has brought great benefits. The Audit Commission states clearly that there have been major advances for children with special needs as a result of that Act. The Government have contributed to that progress through their circulars. The Government, through the noble Baroness Blatch, have financed a review into where we should go next. The hon. Member for Cambridge was right to refer to the problems, just as the Audit Commission referred to them. However, we are tackling them and I am certain that the Government will introduce measures to improve opportunities still further.

During the 1960s, children were almost automatically shut out of our society if they were identified as having a special need such as a learning difficulty or a special physical need. They were put into special schools and often into boarding schools. They were taken away from their family and friends and from the opportunity to mix with their own peer groups. They were taken away from the opportunities of the curriculum. That point is even more important today in respect of the national curriculum.

We have moved a long way through the 1981 Act and through Back-Bench measures, but there is still a long way to go. I believe that a little booklet by Micheline Mason entitled "Nothing Special" is required reading for hon. Members. In it, a child relates her opportunities as a result of attending a school where everything is right. She is in a wheelchair and cannot speak very clearly. She cannot go to the toilet without help. She is picked up by bus and she tells the story of her school day and how she receives help through the design of the school buildings and assistance from the teaching and support staff. She also receives help from her fellow pupils who sometimes recognise more easily than the adults what she is trying to say.

That booklet is based on good practice collected from around the country. It is not based on one school. It is what we should be aiming for in the next step. It concludes: True integration means more than ramps and induction loops. It means an acceptance … regardless of ability or needs. That is what special needs education is all about. It is about giving opportunities to all our children, irrespective of the difficulties that they must overcome, to benefit from the opportunities that are available to other children in society.

The 1981 Act introduced five stages. Much of today's debate has been about the completion of those five stages under Warnock through to statementing and the provision of resources as a right to the child and to the school in which that child is being educated—be it a special school or an ordinary school. I am not sure whether "ordinary" or "special" are the best terms to use, but, as I represent the constituency in which the Young's brewery produces ordinary and special bitter, I will not quibble with those terms.

Most of our special needs children do not get near the five stages. Most of the special needs children in my schools, and I am sure in the schools of all hon. Members, are at stage two. The school and the parents have identified a problem and are seeking to overcome it without extra resources, the process of statementing and the multidisciplinary support to which I referred in an earlier intervention. We must consider those people and provide them with particular support.

Circular 8/81 stated of children: A small percentage have severe or complex learning difficulties who will need extra funding. Alas, it gave no formula for LEA funding of the extra help. It also suggested that the numbers would correspond to the numbers under the Education Act 1944. I believe that assessment techniques and the analysis of new problems such as dyslexia have progressed a long way since the 1944 Act. I reiterate that many special needs are apparent only after a certain time has elapsed.

Circular 183 gave a checklist of the developments that one should look for in a child—physical, motor, cognitive, language and social. Memory is not included in the list, but it is mentioned later. The circular also lists the resources that are needed. For example, I refer to the special equipment for the daily life of a child with physical, auditory or visual needs, special facilities for dealing with incontinence, facilities for administering drugs, special education equipment and other specialist resources, in particular speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, psychotherapy and so on. Of course, we must also consider the environment of a school and transport. All those matters cost money.

I have previously referred to a school in Surrey that has set out to get it right. That school, which was previously a secondary school, was adapted for all special needs. It had to create a special resource room, a physiotherapy room, a treatment room, a speech therapy room, two sets of adapted toilets and two laboratories on the ground floor. All entrances and exits were ramped. Internal ramps provided access to all rooms on the ground floor. It appointed two teachers with experience in teaching physically disabled pupils, and two part-time helpers. The health authority granted six hours of physiotherapy and six hours of speech therapy. Lifts had to be installed because the Caterpillar stair climber proved to he unpopular and unsafe for the children. There was great commitment and the school was accessible to all children.

That school was accessible not only to children with special needs but to children who had no special needs and who had parents with disabilities. It is necessary for parents to he able to go to a school to see its work, attend its functions and be full members of the school's community. We should bear that point in mind as we consider adapting school buildings.

Earlier this week, I visited a primary school in my constituency. I ask hon. Members to go to that school in east Battersea. In the sixth class, the final class, 27 out of 48 children have special needs; in the fifth class, it is 28 out of 43; in the fourth class, it is 36 out of 46; in the third class, it is 38 out of 54; in the second class, it is 31 out of 47; and in the first class, it is 35 out of 50. More than 60 per cent. of pupils at that school have special needs, but only eight or 10 of them are statemented. There is extra funding for those eight or 10 pupils, apart from what the LEA is able to provide.

We are right to ask what guidance should be given to local education authorities on when extra resources are needed. That applies not only to the statemented child, unless we want a massive increase in statementing, which I do not think is the case. We must provide for the vast majority of special needs children who are not statemented but who need support. If we do not give that support, a school that is doing its best for its children will bring in the necessary teaching resources and in so doing will reduce the pupil: teacher ratio, which will mean fewer resources for other children. Therefore, the education of other children may suffer. In such a school, there is no prospect of raising external funds.

I warmly welcome grant-maintained status. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Durham. North-West (Ms. Armstrong) has fallen out with her Front-Bench colleagues on that matter. Grant-maintained status is the way forward, but it would not be a starter for the schools that we are discussing. Funding must be examined. The school to which I refer is on the border with Lambeth, so several of its pupils come from Lambeth rather than Wandsworth.

I understand that no extra funds follow the pupils across the border from Lambeth to Wandsworth. So Wandsworth has to provide those extra resources. The school is willing to take pupils with special needs, but has to cater for children in two boroughs. Perhaps funding should include some sort of weighting to take into account recruitment so that money can follow the child according to its needs. We could also examine national funding, which has been referred to.

I am not certain that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) is right when he says that funding for special needs should be ring-fenced. What are we ring fencing? Until the child is assessed on a continuing basis, we do not know what its needs are. At the beginning of the school year or the school decade, it does not have a clue what resources it will need. It will certainly need some resources, but it is better to take each child as an individual, measure its needs and the resources that it requires, such as adaptations, teaching resources and so on, and set a figure. Perhaps an independent assessment of the figure is needed. As in the system of mandatory student awards, it would then be possible to ask the Department for Education, or the Further Education Funding Council, if the child is in a sixth form or FE college, to consider a claim for top-up support for the school or college.

Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall not go further into special needs funding. I welcome the broad principles of the forthcoming review of appeals, the speed of decision-making, and parental choice. Parental choice has rightly been referred to already. I hope that we shall continue to ensure that education and testing are flexible. As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, education should have high expectations of children, irrespective of their needs. It should not lower its expectations simply because a child has a special need.

I re-emphasise the points that were touched on by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington). He spoke about further education and the need to continue the excellent provision that is made thanks to the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. I reiterate that education is for life, through life and continuing through life—and that applies as much to a pupil, student or adult with special needs as to any child who enters the education system at nursery or infant level.

12.42 pm
Mr. Stephen Byers (Wallsend)

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on her good fortune in succeeding in the ballot for the debate today. I commend her good judgment in selecting special educational needs as the topic for the debate.

All too often, special educational needs are seen to be on the margin of education provision, but about 1 million school children and students have a special educational need of one form or another. We have heard a great deal today about the Education Act 1981. It was a crucial piece of legislation which set the framework for provision as we know it today. However, many of us recognise that, in the light of experience, we need to examine carefully how the 1981 Act has operated and how we could perhaps provide a new framework for the 1990s to lead us into the next century.

As we look forward, there will obviously be criticism of the way in which the 1981 Act has operated and been implemented. We must not allow those criticisms to overshadow the good practice that exists in many parts of the country. I give the House just a few examples. Pre-school provision was touched on earlier. Social services departments, education departments and, often, the health authority come together to work out the specific needs of a child even before it reaches the age of statutory schooling.

Special needs school children have been integrated into mainstream schools. In 1985, there were just 26,800 children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. It is projected that that figure will be well over 100,000 in three years. Schools are trying hard to provide for children with special education needs.

On post-16 provision, colleges have opened their doors to young adults and adults with special educational needs and have made a positive contribution. Schools that have developed community use have made positive strides towards involving adults with such needs as part of that provision.

Those improvements have been valuable and important, but we must recognise that we are still failing a large number of our children with special educational needs. If we are serious about building success for the future we must recognise that failure. It would be all too easy to apportion blame, but there is no single culprit or reason for the failure. The Government and local education authorities have to accept their share of the responsibility. The joint report from Her Majesty's inspectorate and the Audit Commission, entitled, "Getting in on the Act", which has already been mentioned, clearly lays the blame at the door of both the Government and local education authorities. It is an excellent report and the press comments did not do it justice. They seemed to concentrate to a greater extent than was necessary on the failures of some local education authorities.

The report is an important contribution to the debate and my comments are based on it, but also on 12 years' experience of local government and on the past two years. which I spent as leader of the Council of Local Education Authorities.

There are three principal reasons for the profound deficiencies in our provision for children with special educational needs. The first is due to weaknesses and flaws in the 1981 Act, which broke new ground and had to take people with it. As a result, there is some vagueness and it lacks clarity in certain important areas. It does not define special educational needs, and that has caused problems for parents and local education authorities. Some authorities have produced their own definition of special educational needs. I was interested to read a letter in a national newspaper the other day from the chief education officer for North Yorkshire county council, which outlined the council's steps to introduce a clear definition of special educational needs.

The lack of a definition can cause problems. Parents may not be happy to accept the definition used by their local education authority. A national definition of special educational needs is a matter of some importance.

Several hon. Members have referred to a time limit for making statements. It is true to say that if time drags on statements become—to use the words of the joint report —"virtually worthless". There has been discussion of a six-month time limit—I think that the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) mentioned a statutory six-month limit. I urge caution. There can be a variety of reasons why a six-month deadline cannot be met: a child may be in hospital, or information may be required from other statutory agencies. The Minister mentioned the fact that parents may produce new information which may change the nature of a statement.

A statutory limit would cause great practical difficulties. Most people would find it acceptable if we established that, in normal circumstances, a statement should be issued within six months. If a local education authority cannot do that for some reason, it should inform the parents of the reasons for that failure and give them a clear date on which the statement will be made. That would be a practical solution to a real difficulty.

We must also look at the appeals system. We have already heard that local education authorities are judge and jury in cases that often arise from decisions that they have made. Justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done, and many parents feel aggrieved at decisions made in what is considered an in-house appeal system, even if they are made for all the right reasons.

I support the setting up of an independent tribunal. However, I urge that it should not be too bureaucratic or legalistic. I understand that it may be based on the industrial tribunal model, with a legally qualified chair and perhaps two wing members who have an interest in the subject. When industrial tribunals were first set up they were intended to be friendly and informal. The other day, I read a report of an industrial tribunal hearing in which a respondent was represented by a senior QC and the hearing lasted for eight days. I hope that we do not get into that position. We need a friendly appeals system that recognises the delicate and sensitive issues with which we are dealing. An independent appeals tribunal will be a positive step forward.

The second reason for our system's failure relates to the pressure on the education service. Since the introduction of the Education Reform Act 1988, our education system has been in a state of turmoil. Market forces have been introduced into education provision. The market is about profit and loss and about gainers and losers. All too often, the losers in the education marketplace are young people with special educational needs, who have become innocent victims of the Government's education policies.

The education service has been in a state of almost permanent revolution since 1938. A blizzard of circulars and guidance notes has descended on our schools—a curriculum initiative nearly every other day. As a result, teachers have not had time—understandably—to devote resources to children with special educational needs. They want to do so, but, because of the changes with which they have had to deal, they have not had an opportunity to meet those requirements.

The deficiencies in the 1981 Act and the changes since 1988 have been compounded by the third reason, which is a lack of resources. Some 1.5 billion a year is spent on children with special educational needs, but there has been a massive squeeze on local government, particularly in the past four or five years. As a result of local authorities having to comply with the Government's strict capping criteria, demand is now outstripping available resources. The dilemma for local councillors is stark. They can respond to parents' legitimate demands and meet their needs, but, in so doing, they will run the risk of having their spending capped and budgets reduced accordingly. Alternatively, they can deny those demands, comply with Government spending targets and, as a result, fail to fulfil their obligations to the people who elected them to office. The result is not just a capping of a local authority's spending but a capping of opportunities and proper provision for young people with special educational needs.

I received a letter that shows clearly the consequences of a local authority having to cope with a reduced budget. It comes from someone who has responsibility for special needs in a secondary school in a certain shire county council. She says that her authority: Because of the financial constraints … must trim a million pounds from the Special Education budget. The reality of this global sum for individual children is, for example, that a statemented child due to transfer to us in September. who currently has an NTA"— non-teaching assistant— for 5 hours a week, has had the NTA time removed and will be de-statemented in October. At the child's Annual Review in March"— it was strongly recommended—

that both the Statement and the NTA help be continued … What this means, realistically, is that he will move from a medium-sized, very supportive primary, where he has generally to relate to 3 or 4 teachers per week and works within a clearly defined area of the school, with his NTA's assistance, to a comprehensive of over 1.300 children. Here, he will have to relate to, probably, 12 or 13 teachers in the course of a week and move over a widespread site. That is the consequence of those budgetary limitations for this child with learning problems. Thus the authority is setting the child up for almost certain failure. Such is the consequence of one authority having to comply with the Government's spending targets.

We understand that the problems of resources are likely to get worse because we are about to embark on the round of public expenditure considerations where the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—a true believer, in common with the Minister, in sound money and fiscal constraint —will no doubt be looking at ways in which to reduce spending on education. Resources are crucial to delivering high-quality special education needs.

Such are the problems that we face now. However, we welcome the forthcoming consultation exercise on how special needs can be met in the future. It should address a number of issues. It should consider resources, but, specifically on the recommendation of the Audit Commission report, it should also consider giving incentives to LEAs to implement the 1981 Act. At the moment, the way in which local government resources are allocated by central Government works against the provision of services. Under the standard spending assessment system one is penalised if one provides services and rewarded if one fails to do so. I should welcome a move to a distribution of resources from central Government that funded authorities that provide services that their people need.

The local management of schools must also be addressed. I hope that we all support the idea of delegated budgets. It was Labour and Conservative LEAs that embarked upon them. They were using such budgets for a number of years before the Education Secretary hit on that idea in 1986 and claimed it as a wonderful one of his own. However, we do not like the rigid formula that applies to the allocation of those budgets. Budgets for special schools in particular need to be allocated on the basis of need; the formula must be made more flexible for other schools so that money can he allocated to meet the special needs of individual children.

We know that we are now passing through a period of league tables. I support Newcastle United football club, and that trend causes me a lot of difficulty for a variety of reasons. The raw data provided are misleading to parents, but they are also dangerous for those children with special education needs. We are beginning to see a rapid rise in the number of exclusions from schools as they try to remove —take off the books—those children who may jeopardise their league table place. We need a special means by which to judge how those schools treat children with special educational needs without penalising them with a league table that might be published.

The provision for post 16-year-olds is a matter of concern, as one or two hon. Members have already mentioned. I know that the chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council is keenly aware of the possible difficulties that the changeover may cause to children with special educational needs. There has been a constructive and useful meeting at officer level between the local authority associations and the Further Education Funding Council. I understand that earlier this week a circular was sent from the FEFC guaranteeing that it would continue provision, at least from April 1993 for one year, for those students already in the system. That is welcome.

Another subject for concern is inspection. At present, under the existing provisions, Her Majesty's inspectorate has an obligation to inspect how special educational needs are being met in mainstream schools. As I understand it, under the new system with Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools, there will be no such obligation. The Government have a responsibility to ensure that such a provision is made and that the new chief inspector will inspect special educational needs and how they are being met in mainstream schools.

We are informed by the Government that the admission policies of grant-maintained schools will become a natural form of organisation for schools in the maintained sector. It may well become the natural form in Tory-controlled low spending local authorities, but I am sure that it will not become the norm in many parts of the country. It has enabled parents to register a massive vote of low confidence in low-spending Tory authorities, which is why they have opted out in large numbers. However, that has not happened in many parts of the country.

There is a responsibility for the Government to ensure that the admissions policies of schools that opt out—I know that the Government examine those policies when they are considering an application—should not rule out the entry of disruptive pupils. I particularly welcome the decision taken on Newent comprehensive school in north-west Gloucestershire. It adopted an admissions policy that tried to exclude potentially disruptive pupils and it was not accepted by the Minister. However, Langley Park school in south-east London had an admissions policy clearly stating that it would exclude disruptive pupils. When it submitted its application, the Minister's predecessor agreed, which must give us all cause for concern.

I welcome today's opportunity to discuss this all-important topic, which is all too often ignored. We need a clear and precise agenda for action so that parents know their rights, local education authorities know their duties and the Government know their responsibilities. That is one aspect of education on which we can build a consensus. Certainly, local education authorities, parents and schools want that consensus. I hope that the Government will respond positively and on behalf of children and adults with special educational needs. They deserve and rightly demand opportunities, and should be provided with them.

1.3 pm

Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I start by freely admitting that I am not a specialist in this subject. However, anyone who has visited special schools—as we all have as Members of Parliament—cannot fail to be moved by the love and dedication shown by those who work in them.

I have brochures from some of the special schools in my district, including Garston Manor school near Watford which looks after children with moderate learning difficulties, as does Colnbrook school in south Oxhey. Boxmoor school in Hemel Hempstead and the Falconer school at Bushey look after children with behavioural difficulties. However, I wish to draw the attention of the House to two lines in another brochure published by Breakspeare school. It states: A new swimming and hydrotherapy pool is being built which will benefit all the children enormously, funds for which have been raised by the parent-staff association. I mention that in particular because I have had a tiny bit to do with it. I was greatly impressed by the way in which everybody worked together to raise the money. It led to a great spirit of comradeship throughout the school and helped to weld the school into a very loving and caring unit.

I know that there has been talk about more money being needed, but I believe that the spirit within these schools is much more important than all the money that can be poured into them. If that pool had been provided by the state, I do not believe that it would have done half as much for the school as the school, the governors, the teachers and the parents who raised the money have done for it. I commend them for their efforts.

I freely admit that I am no specialist in this subject. but mention has already been made in the debate of the difficulty of accurate statementing. That is not unique to education. My work in the Public Accounts Committee and recent reports on breast screening show that standards of assessment vary dramatically throughout the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) asked a parliamentary question about the percentage of pupils with special educational needs in maintained primary schools in every local education authority area in England. The figures show enormous variations. The figure is 2.16 per cent. in Cornwall, but only 0.12 per cent. in Northamptonshire. No one can convince me that there is so much more need for the statementing of children in Cornwall than in Northamptonshire. I therefore endorse the call for a standard method of assessing the way in which children are statemented. The method of assessment throughout the country would then be understood and would be regarded as fair and acceptable. It is wrong to have high levels of statementing in one area while it is considered unnecessary in others.

It is easy to identify the extremes of the spectrum. The handicapped child can easily be statemented, but difficulties arise with the children in the middle. We all have experience of parents complaining to us about the time taken to obtain statementing. The parents are worried, they do not know what is going to happen, and the time scales involved are unacceptable. In the case of Hertfordshire, statementing can take up to a year. Even longer periods have been referred to in the debate. That puts unacceptable pressure on parents.

Parents face another problem. They may not agree with the result when it is received. Then, parents have to bear the cost of obtaining expert assessments in order to challenge the statementing or the assessments made by the education authority. There should be a recognised appeals system.

The movement from special schools to ordinary schools leads to doubt and worry. That is not new. When we had the 11-plus, the theory was that if children did well in secondary school they moved up to the grammar school, but if they did less well there they returned to the secondary school. That never happened; children were not moved. There was a rigid dividing line and late developers did not have the opportunity to move up to the grammar school.

To some extent, the problem with special needs education is similar, but we must approach it with greater care. The Audit Commission study found that annually only 2 per cent. of pupils in the 85 special schools examined moved to ordinary schools. I should like the figure to be higher. but we must ensure that when children move from a special school into main line education there is proper protection to prevent them from falling back and being worse off than if they had stayed in a special school. We must target resources to ensure that such children are not lost in the hurly-burly of an ordinary school. Support must be identified to give parents confidence in allowing their children to move from schools where it is required.

I welcome the Government's fundamental review of the Education Act 1981, which can only offer encouragement that the process of assessment will be shorter. I have spoken of the period of anxiety that parents experience and of the need for a coherent appeals system so that parents do not have to get their own expert assessment before challenging a council. I am happy that the Government have listened to the concern that has been expressed.

I conclude by paying tribute to those who work in special schools. The determination with which they pursue their Members of Parliament to get the best for their charges and the love and dedication that they put into their work will be noted and, I hope, acknowledged whenever the opportunity arises.

1.8 pm

Ms. Angela Eagle (Wallasey)

You. Madam Deputy Speaker, and I are making a habit of being present at the end of debates. I seem to go under the wire just before the guillotine comes down and the Front-Bench spokesmen stand up. Perhaps I shall make it three in a row shortly.

Like the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page), I am not an expert in this subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on initiating the debate and many hon. Members on the erudite way in which they showed their expertise, care and concern about these extremely important issues.

A pluralistic approach is sometimes desirable to the complex and multidisciplinary subject of the education of children with special needs. One of the difficulties is the way in which the various responsibilities of local and national government combine. Children and adults who need special education sometimes fall between two or three stools—the Department for Education, the Department of Employment and local authorities. We must pick a careful way through to ensure the utmost co-ordination.

The motion states: this House considers that the opportunities for children and adults with special educational needs arc being jeopardised by the fragmentation of education"— about which much has been said— and the inadequate level of resources from central government. I shall confine my remarks to two aspects of the problem. The first is funding, which some hon. Members have mentioned, but I want especially to shine a little light on a matter that has so far been mentioned only in passing. I refer to adults in further education and the way in which the changes in administration of further education as a result of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 are beginning to have a detrimental impact.

When the Department for Education issued circular 1l/90 on education for children with special needs, my local authority in Wirral noted: Lack of finance has prevented any substantial progress being made in raising staffing levels in special schools and units. It continued: Current staffing levels in special schools and units fall far below those mentioned in the Circular. Conservative Members have given examples of local education authorities apparently not fulfilling even their statutory duties. I suppose that in some instances it could be a problem of inefficiency, but I submit that the levels of funding are so critically low for those statutory duties that local authorities are often struggling to come to terms even with their duties in law and are failing because they are trying to balance impossibly small budgets. That is certainly the case for my own local authority.

A very timely letter arrived yesterday. It is from a teacher at Wirral metropolitan college which, unfortunate-ly, has just been subject to a cut of £1.2 million in its budget as a result of local authority financial strictures. I must point out that the cut was supported by the Conservative and Labour groups on the council—it was probably what I would describe as a Hobson's choice budget decision. We must hear that in mind as the background to the problem, but I am sure that the Minister is aware of what is happening.

The letter states: I have just been made redundant. Nothing unusual in that, I am one of several hundred part-timers at Wirral Metropolitan College who have been affected by the massive cut in the college budget. The loss of my particular job however has far more fundamental implications for the future. For the last Two years I have been placing adults with learning disabilities into community education classes, providing support for them, their tutors and volunteers. The scheme was due to expand in September to include more people with physical disabilities and those suffering from mental health problems. Although the college has for many years provided a great variety of courses for such adults (a large proportion of which have also been lost as a result of the cuts) this was the only programme which offered the possibility of true integration. The benefits to the students have been enormous in terms of their self-esteem and self-confidence. Jeremy, who has Down's Syndrome, described his yoga course as marvellous and said it had really helped his confidence and his speech problem by helping him to relax. John, also Down's Syndrome, loved every minute of his tap dancing class and found the tutor and the rest of the group wonderful. When asked if he wanted to do the same course next year the answer was 'yes please!' He won't now have that opportunity. Jean, in a wheelchair, was looking forward to starting a course in September. Her face lit up when she realised that she would he with 'ordinary' people. That will not now he on offer for her in September.

My constituent also says: Other students on the course have, in the main, been very welcoming and supportive. This has been a useful educative experience for those who may never have come across anyone with a disability before. The government is committed to care in the community, yet here is a scheme fulfilling the objectives of increasing self-esteem, self-reliance, self-confidence, personal choice and well-being and the achievement of individual potential, that is now being cut. If the college is not going to be able to fund such an initiative then is there a case for asking Social Services or the Health Department to take over at least part of the funding? I want to leave that question with the Minister.

Hon. Members may think that such a course is incredibly expensive. I spoke to Mrs. Gladden who wrote me the letter. It turns out that she was employed for six hours a week which was not an undue financial burden on any of the agencies involved. The benefits of what she did with her time for the people whom she managed to get out of special schools and to integrate into other courses were greater than the money she used. Mrs. Gladden had 25 students and she was employed for six hours a week.

I draw attention to the non-academic nature of some of the courses. We have talked rightly about education in primary and secondary schools and about further education. There is a case to be made for people with learning difficulties or with special educational needs to attend non-vocational courses which help to integrate them into the community and into what we might term —I do not like the term—"normal" society. It is the so-called "leisure" courses, such as tap dancing and yoga, which arc the first to go when there is a funding crisis, and many such courses have already gone. We need to pay attention to the non-vocational area as well as to the more academic side, up to and including university.

I should be grateful if the Minister would consider my next point. If he cannot respond today, I hope that he will do so later. There is increasing disquiet about some of the transitional problems that further education colleges—my own is an especially bad example—are experiencing with the shift from local authority control to the Further Education Funding Council. The trend seems to be that funding is cut by local authorities which, realising that the colleges will not be under their control next year, are trying to minimise their budget contributions. There is an immediate problem. We require transitional funding so that we can stabilise the colleges as they move out of local authority control next year.

I do not want to take up the 20 minutes which, I am told, is allotted to such speeches. It is important that we pay attention to the non-vocational courses and to some of the areas that have not been mentioned in most speeches today, but which are equally important to the quality of life to many people who rely on such provision.

1.23 pm
Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

We have had an interesting and important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) on coming high in the lottery. I congratulate her with some trepidation, given that the Methodist conference is being held this week and that it is debating its view on lotteries today. We have tried to remind the conference that the House uses the system often. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on choosing special needs as the subject for debate. There has been all too little debate in the House on it in recent years. That is one reason why hon. Members have raised so many questions about the age group and ability of those with special needs who seek an education that will allow them to realise their full potential. Many special needs issues have not been tackled today, and that is a sign of the breadth and importance of the subject.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge for introducing the subject so effectively and for giving the House a chance to debate it. I hope that we shall return to it soon after the summer recess and that, by then, Ministers will have had the opportunity to pursue more fully the consultation that we have been promised so that we can consider the decade that has elapsed since the passage of the Education Act 1981 and look forward—as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Ms. Eagle) suggested —to an education system that will meet special needs effectively into the next century.

The debate is timely. We understand that the Secretary of State is preparing a White Paper, on the basis of which legislation will be drafted, and that a consultation paper is shortly to be issued on the procedures for issuing statements and the appeals system, to which many hon. Members referred. Moreover. I was told in a parliamen-tary answer earlier this week that the Secretary of State is about to undertake a wide-ranging consultation exercise on special needs more generally. I hope that we will hear something from the Minister about that today.

We have marked the 10th anniversary of the 1981 Act, which revolutionised the education of children with special needs. The Act arose from the Warnock report, which was Commissioned by the Labour Government. The measure came before us with support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. It established the important principle that education, at least until the age of 19, is a legal right for all children and that, as Baroness Warnock said in a recent debate, the purpose of education for all children, whatever their abilities, is to improve their understanding and enjoyment of the world and thus improve their chances of obtaining freedom, independence and an ability to make choices, thereby giving them the opportunity to lead a fulfilling and productive life. I hope that, in any review, that basic aim of the 1981 Act will be retained. If we can begin to fulfil that aim, the standard of education for all our children will be raised significantly.

Hon. Members have talked about specific provisions of the Act as they relate to special needs and have said that there now appear to be serious deficiencies, not in the aims of that Act but in its implementation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) referred to adults. I do not intend to spend much time on that subject; it would take far too long for me to cover every aspect in which I was interested. None the less, the subject is important. When the 1981 Act was passed, the then Government gave commitments to the effect that their next education Act would specifically address the needs of adults post-16 and 19-plus. That commitment has not been fulfilled. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that attention will be paid to the needs of older young people and of adults with special needs. Many people feel anxious about the needs of those people. The children who were the first beneficiaries of the 1981 Act are now facing adulthood. It is important that what has been enabled in their development so far is not lost because we have not addressed their needs after they leave school.

A recent Audit Commission report attacks the failure of central Government to define more clearly what constitutes a special educational need. It attacks the lack of clarity about the respective duties of local education authorities and of schools. The report highlights the fact that those deficiencies lead to inconsistencies in practice between LEAs and even within LEAs.

Local education authorities have admitted that factors that have no bearing on the level of need of a child have been influential in the decision to issue statements. As other hon. Members have explained, the most significant factor was pressure brought to bear by parents. That is clearly not acceptable. The Audit Commission report demonstrates that statementing is a lottery, with parents feeling that the process often does not reveal anything new and that it is often used as a means to delay getting access to resources.

The aim of the 1981 Act was to involve parents in a partnership in the education of their children. That has clearly not been achieved to their satisfaction or, I submit, to hardly anyone else's, either.

Another of the aims of the 1981 Act was to integrate children into mainstream schools as far as possible. That aim has been implemented in an extremely inconsistent way with little or no guidance from central Government or examples of good practice. There are examples of very good practice, many of which come from pre-school areas.

I was interested in the example of good practice given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers). When recording the litany of failures, it is important to remember that there have been some incredible successes. I was much impressed when I visited schools and nurseries around the country. Indeed, I was pleased to visit a nursery in North Tyneside, the authority on which my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend used to serve. That nursery was educating with specialist help children who had profound hearing disabilities. It was amazing to see the confidence that other children were developing in signing. It was amazing also to see the ability of other children, despite their profound disability, to deal with other children and to begin the very important first steps in their learning in a way that was clearly going to set good learning patterns for the rest of their careers.

It is important to recognise the importance of good practice starting as early as possible. Perhaps the Government would like to review their commitment to nursery education. We cannot talk effectively about integrating children into the mainstream of schools unless we start that process effectively at the youngest possible age.

The Audit Commission report notes that the lack of movement of pupils from special schools to ordinary schools does not reflect parental preference. It recognises that integration needs to be backed up with appropriate resources—another issue on which hon. Members have touched. Many hon. Members have defended special schools. I do not believe that they need much defending, but many mainstream schools have opened up opportunities for children with special needs through integration in ways that we never dreamed were possible. It is important that we continue to push that process along, to hold up examples of good practice and to make sure that when parents and families want their children to be seen first and foremost as ordinary, everyday members of society, but need the special needs of their children to be addressed for that to happen, they have our support to enable that to occur in mainstream schooling.

There have been problems with the implementation of the 1981 Act and as a result of subsequent legislation, particularly the Education Reform Act 1988. The problems have been compounded by the Further and Higher Education Bill, schools legislation and the manner in which independent inspections are to be introduced. These pieces of legislation have had an impact on provision for pupils with special education needs. In many senses, those children are becoming the victims of the market ideology that underlies the legislation. The Audit Commission states: there is some conflict between the principles of the 1981 and 1988 Acts. It is a matter of history that when the Education Reform Bill was introduced, only three-and-a-half lines of it were devoted to the education of children with special needs. It is to the credit of members of the Standing Committee that examined the Bill that they ensured that the legislation addressed the needs of children with special needs. However, there still remained incredible gaps and problems. I am afraid that the history of education legislation since 1981 will demonstrate that the Government have considered the education of children with special needs only as an afterthought.

The aims of the 1981 Act have not been integrated into the principles of subsequent legislation. Much of that legislation has put the education of children with special needs into an impossible position, with local education authorities being between a rock and a hard place: on one side, they have clear responsibility for enhancing the educational development of children with special needs and, on the other, the pressure of reducing resources, with their role as providers and monitors of standards in education being severely undermined and attacked.

If the Government had started from the other end and considered the education of childen with special needs and the principles of the 1981 Act as their starting point, the ideological dogma which often inhabited Ministers' minds would have been much mellowed. As a consequence, education opportunities for all children would have been more possible and standards of education across the board would have risen. That would have meant that we would not have to face real problems in securing education opportunities for children with special needs.

One of the most serious consequences of the collision of such children with the reforms of the more recent legislation is the increase in the number of children who are suspended or excluded from school. I sought to raise the issue when the schools legislation was considered in Committee, but my attempt was met largely with derision. 1 trust that new Ministers will want to address the issue more seriously.

Now that we are the other side of an election, perhaps we can tackle the issues rather than bandy words about them. A recent Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte survey estimated that pupil exclusions jumped in just one year —1990–91—by a staggering 20 per cent. to 25,000. Recent reports from Birmingham suggest an even higher increase in 1991–92. The figures suggest a doubling of exclusions within one year.

The education of excluded children cannot await a lengthy review. They are out of school now. Many of them have not received any attention for at least the last term. Therefore, I ask the Minister to consider the issue urgently. We look forward to the publication of the national exclusions reporting system and the Secretary of State's review of exclusion procedure. I warn the Minister that we expect him to examine the reasons for such a sharp increase in the number of exclusions and to introduce measures to tackle the causes of such action.

I suspect that the causes of the increase will include a lack of resources for the local management of schools, which has forced some schools to make harsh decisions about priorities. In some areas, support-staff time has been cut drastically. That point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge in her opening remarks.

I wonder whether the imminence of the publication of unsophisticated statistics and league tables on the performance of pupils and schools may be a factor in discouraging schools from supporting children who may damage a school's reputation, given the crudeness of the league tables. The Government's rhetoric, which abuses all staff in the central services of local authorities as being bureaucratic, has served ill the proper evaluation and use of advisory staff, education psychologists and central support services.

Another problem that arises from the conflict between the aims of the 1981 and 1988 Acts is the increasing pressure on statements. Indeed, much has been said about that today. I welcome the commitment to wide consultation on changing the process of statementing. I welcome much of what the Government have already announced, but I have fears. In setting a statutory time limit on local authorities, the Government must take into account the fact that the health authorities take the longest time in the process.

It is critical that other aspects of the problems that are faced in educating a child with special needs are taken into account. There is a fear that too many resources are already bound up in the assessment and statement of need and that not enough are directed to the critically important response to that need. The Audit Commission states that most local education authorities in its sample fell far short of giving an adequate performance in responding to special needs.

It is important that the Government in considering their guidelines on defining when additional help should be available, should seek neither to increase massively the number of statements nor to be excessively restrictive and allow LEAs to respond only to complex, profound and severe difficulties. Again, several hon. Members have made that point. I hope that the Government will recognise it.

The Government should consider including in the guidelines on statements the advice that statements should tackle integration. Statements should assume integration and identify what is required for a child to be integrated in the mainstream. It should be assumed that a child will normally be educated in the mainstream. Justification should be given for segregating the child, if that is the decision.

Some hon. Members referred to the conflict of opted-out schools, and I should hate anyone to think that Opposition Front-Bench Members were avoiding that issue. According to the latest survey by the university of Leicester, one third of grant-maintained schools are already operating a selection system, using interviews and examination results. Their admission statements may not have conceded selection, but they are practising it. How will the Government monitor admissions procedures and the system of appeals against such procedures? Will the Government take grant-maintained schools into account when they consider appeals? The appeal system will give even fewer rights than the present appeal system for special needs, and that is something which the Government must not ignore. If there are no safeguards, the arbitrary admissions procedure is bound to lead to children who are less able because of learning difficulties not being selected. The market mechanism leaves such children vulnerable.

The Audit Commission report also refers to evidence that parents of children without special needs are resistant to children with learning difficulties—especially those with emotional and behavioural disturbances—being educated alongside their children. Their fears are understandable, but they should be unnecessary in a well-managed and adquately resourced system that is based on the notion that every child should reach his or her full potential.

Fragmentation of the system caused by the Education Reform Act 1988, in the name of choice, is restricting parental choice in practice and threatening the opportunities of the most vulnerable children. It is leading to schools choosing parents and pupils, rather than parents choosing schools.

There are problems because the Government embarked on sweeping changes without considering the principles of the 1981 Act. Two recent reports by Her Majesty's inspectorate show that, in schools that have paid attention to special educational needs as well as the needs of very able children, the quality of teaching for all children has been enhanced.

I hope that there will be a change in Government rhetoric from today. Dogma may serve Tory Secretaries of State well when they deal with the right-wing people at their backs, but it has been damaging to education. The Audit Commission report makes it clear that local education authorities have an important role. We look forward to the Government recognising that and spelling it out.

Mr. Iain Duncan-Smith (Chingford)


Ms. Armstrong

I am sorry, but I am anxious to finish.

We know that some of the changes in inspections are causing Ministers some concern, and we look to them to deal with those concerns in the White Paper. The fact that some schools will not be inspected until 1999 under the new Education (Schools) Act 1992, causes me some anxieties about how we can ensure that education opportunities for children with special needs are being considered and provided in those schools.

Mr. Duncan-Smith

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms. Armstrong

I am sorry, but I am about to finish. It is critical that we improve educational opportunities for children with special needs. Every hon. Member has urged that today. We have all accepted not just that the Government need to act, but it is critical that they do so. We look forward to hearing the Minister.

The improvement of educational opportunity for children with special needs is a key to improving educational opportunity for all children. If the Government start their review from that basis, we shall be able to enhance children's standard of attainment and ensure that we have an educational system that will take Britain into the next century with confidence.

1.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Mr. Eric Forth)

It is easy for me to join other hon. Members in thanking the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) for bringing the subject to the House. The House has displayed a wide understanding and knowledge of the subject and hon. Members on both sides have demonstrated their knowledge and concerns. It also gives me an opportunity to put on the record the Government's current position and how we see the future, which is what so many hon. Members have asked about.

As a theme for my initial remarks I could take no better than the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), who said, "Under this Government we have moved so far". I could not have said it better myself. May I correct the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong), because it was in November 1973 that the then Secretary of State, my noble and right hon. Friend Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven—no less—who announced that she proposed to appoint a committee of inquiry. She subsequently appointed Lady Warnock to act as chairman. Therefore. the process was initiated under my right hon. and noble Friend. Morever, under her Government in 1981, the Act was passed. Without wishing to make a party point, but simply to set the record straight. may I point out that it is significant that that individual was responsible for initiating and then putting into effect the Act that we are debating today. That reflects the sense of what my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said.

We must also acknowledge that, for example, in 1985 —only two years after the Act's implementation—only just over one in 10 pupils with statements of special educational needs were in ordinary schools. That figure is now nearer two out of every five, which shows a steady progress toward what many hon. Members have asked for —the process of integration. I have no doubt that integration has not gone far enough for most hon. Members who have participated in the debate, but I hope that the House will acknowledge that significant progress has been made. Some hon. Members may want integration where appropriate, but there must still be a role for special schools and many hon. Members have acknowledged that. Surely we would not want to sweep away or deny the superb work done by those schools throughout the country, which will always have an important part to play in dealing with children and young people who, with the best will in the world, are unsuitable for integration into mainstream schools at some stage.

I was intrigued by a contradication that arose in the speeches of Opposition Members. Perhaps they should have a quiet word together later to get their act together. The hon. Member for Cambridge used words such as crisis and said that the system was falling apart. Her remarks were at odds with those of her colleagues. I bear in mind the excellent speech made by the hon. Member for Wallsend (Mr. Byers). It is so refreshing to see an hon. Member speaking almost without notes and using them in the traditional sense of a reminder rather than to he read. He and the hon. Member for Durham, North-West referred to incredible successes and praised the examples of good practice throughout the country. How can we have a system that is apparently in terminal crisis and falling apart, while hon. Members on both sides of the House found so many examples of what has been done in superb schools by dedicated teachers and others? I do not think that we can have it both ways. It will not surprise the House to learn that I err in favour of the view expressed by the hon. Members for Wallsend and for Durham, North-West.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Our approach is not inconsistent. I am sure that the Minister is aware the local authority that I mentioned is Conservative controlled and has been starved of resources for many years. That may not be the case with the other local authorities to which my hon. Friends have referred.

Mr. Forth

I am delighted with that answer. Things are getting better and better. I shall give way frequently if the hon. Lady is confirming that, whether or not her authority is starved of resources—I have many figures that I could trade with her about that, but I doubt whether I will have the time—many other authorities are not starved of resources. That is common ground that we can occupy straight away.

The debate was also marked by a ritual whinge about resources. I have two things to say about that. One of them is mildly party political and some might even say it verges on the controversial, but I shall press on regardless if my hon. Friends will forgive me. I address this comment particularly to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Ms. Lynne), but it applies more broadly. The Liberal Democrat party in particular fought the recent general election by making a virtue of committing itself to a specific increase in education resources. It took great pride in the fact that it would apply a tax, an hypothecated one no less, to pay for that. Some Opposition Members might have been tempted down that same road.

The Liberal Democrats lost the election very badly—their vote went down significantly. It is tempting to say in a debate such as this that everyone agrees that more resources must be given, that that is the only answer and that unless that happens it will be a disaster. That does not accord with the recent political facts as expressed at the general election. We would all do well to bear that in mind. Those facts had an effect quite apart from the constraints of the public expenditure round, which I freely acknowledge and to which reference has been made. I doubt whether those constraints would have operated any differently if the Liberal Democrats had been in power.

Ms. Lynne

I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge that in a survey the vast majority of the public said that they would like more resources to be directed into education.

Mr. Forth

The public always say such things in surveys, but when it matters—when we are talking about the governance of the country and rates of tax—they tend to draw back quietly into the secrecy of the ballot booth and say something rather different. That is the backcloth to the debate.

My second point is equally important. It has been implied throughout the debate, as it has been in so many other education debates, that there is a direct relationship between the quality of education or the provision of special educational needs and the level of expenditure. That is taken as read. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) argued eloquently that there is no such relationship and that it has never been established.

I would not argue that there is an inverse relationship, but some interesting figures can be cited. The LEAs with the highest percentage of statemented children include Wiltshire, Hampshire and Buckinghamshire. Those authorities appear relatively low in the league table of general educational expenditure per head. Conversely, two of the authorities with the lowest percentage of statemented children, Enfield and Salford—in different parts of the country—have among the highest general educational budgets and expenditure rates. We can see from those figures that there is no necessary link between moneys available to LEAs and the amount that they give to special education needs through statements.

Ms. Armstrong

The Minister acknowledged in his last comment that there was no logic to his argument. There has been much discussion today of the fact that if authorities and schools support children with special education needs who are not statemented, that will frequently mean that they can decide that they do not need to statement children. They will be able to ensure that they can meet the need, which may be short term, by additional support, without a statement. That would fulfil everyone's aspirations. The logic of the Minister's argument will not stand up.

Mr. Forth

I do not dissent from the substance of the hon. Lady's argument. I was trying to make a different point. I was using the only hard figures that we have on statementing in particular, not general resources.

A feature of today's debate has been that, although the report of the Audit Commission has been mentioned, it has rarely been quoted. I shall do so somewhat in extenso, as it contains some interesting facts. Paragraph 74 states: Funding for pupils with special needs but without a statement was a regular source of dispute between school and LEA. Over half of the head teachers interviewed claimed that they were inadequately funded to provide for such pupils"— what a surprise— This view is weakened substantially by the fact that 60 per cent. of them"— head teachers— were not aware of the resources they did get. This situation arises partly because LEAs have not been sufficiently clear about the amounts in schools' budgets which relate to special needs, and partly because head teachers have not seen it as a priority to find this out. That is an interesting statement from the Audit Commission, as it gives the lie to some of the arguments that we have heard today.

Much play has been made of grant-maintained schools and the effect that they may have. Before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State approves any school's application for grant-maintained status, he must be satisfied that the arrangements that the school proposes for children with special education needs are satisfactory and a statement of the proposed provision for such pupils must be included in the application. Even if schools conduct ballots and receive parental approval, there is no question of their receiving approval for grant-maintained status if their provisions for pupils with special educational needs are less than acceptable in the fullest sense of the word.

The Audit Commission stated: There was no difference between the attitude of head teachers of the six grant-maintained schools visited and their counterparts in LEA-maintained schools … No LEA reported increased difficulty in setting up units for pupils with special needs (including learning difficulties) in ordinary schools, providing that they were able to agree on the funding arrangements with the school. That applied equally to grant-maintained schools, some of which had units for pupils with special needs. I hope that that brief extract from the Audit Commission's report will lay to rest the canard, mentioned several times today, that there is something unacceptable about grant-maintained schools in the context of special needs provision.

We can have a debate about grant-maintained schools, their role and acceptability at another time. Opposition Members must be careful that they do not get left high and dry, beached as the tide moves in a different direction, as they have on so many issues. However, that is a matter for Opposition Members to decide for themselves, and I am sure that they will do so.

We are satisfied that it is right that parents should be given the opportunity to take the decision. Opposition Members have said in this debate that parents know best when it comes to providing for their children's special needs. We believe that parents also know best about more general educational needs. If we put it to the ballot, having given them all the information on whether a school should become grant maintained, we believe that it is right to listen to those parents.

Mr. Byers

If the Minister is so sure that parents' views are of paramount importance, does he not further agree that if a parent were aggrieved because a place was not available at a grant-maintained school, he or she should have the facility—which I know that the Government are considering—of appealing to the independent tribunal that it is hoped to establish?

Mr. Forth

Is the hon. Gentleman referring to special needs, or more generally?

Mr. Byers

The debate is about special educational needs. If a parent who has a child with special educational needs applies to a grant-maintained school and is refused, no provision is made—apart from appealing to the school —for gaining admission. In those circumstances, would it not be appropriate for that parent to have the right to appeal to an independent tribunal?

Mr. Forth

We shall look at that question when we consider all the provisions that are to be made under our proposals to which now, in a timely fashion, I intend to turn.

I take this opportunity to put on record the Government's proposals. Through a quirk of fate, these matters were unveiled in another place before we had the chance to unveil them here. This debate, for which I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge, gives me the opportunity to do so. First, however, may I point out to the hon. Member for Wallsend that there are many aspects of grant-maintained school provision that require a new framework in which to operate. We are very conscious of that fact. It is one of the issues that will be addressed in the forthcoming White Paper and in the legislation that follows it. We shall certainly consider the hon. Gentleman's point.

Ms. Armstrong

The Minister tempts me. He mentioned the White Paper. Shall we have it before the recess?

Mr. Forth

No. [Interruption.] All right. I shall be fairer than that to the hon. Lady, since she has been very kind to me today. We hope that the White Paper will come out either soon or shortly—[interruption.]—or, since the hon. Lady tempts me further, in a few weeks. That is as far as I can go without getting into really big trouble.

For the benefit of those hon. Members who have participated in the debate, I shall set out what our proposals encompass, those on which we intend to consult, those that will be touched upon in the White Paper and those that we anticipate will be the subject of future legislation. There will be early consultation with local education authorities and others. We have decided that comprehensive provision must be made for regulating the time and the way in which authorities carry out the process, from initial notification to an authority that an assessment may be necessary to the issue of a final statement.

We shall consult widely on the content and form of the regulations that will be required to put this in place, particularly in relation to district health authorities and social services and their role in the process. We also acknowledge that there may be some cases where a shorter assessment process would be more appropriate than the prescribed one. We propose to implement that by amending existing statutory regulations that deal with assessments.

Although there is very much common ground, in that we all want to try to ensure that the present unacceptably long time scales for assessing these matters are dealt with, I share the doubts of those hon. Members who believe that a blanket six-month time scale would be unworkable. It may seem attractive, but I do not believe that it would work. What we envisage at this stage, subject to consultation, is the introduction of a more flexible series of time scales, depending on different types of assessment or provision of statements, or identification of need. We envisage a timetable, but we believe that it will have to be flexible in order to take account of the inevitable variations in this important and complex area. All hon. Members will find that there is a great deal of common ground there.

We have also considered what we should do to provide parents of statemented children with the statutory right to express a preference for the school that they wish their children to attend. That would be similar to the rights that parents already have under the Education Act 1980. We have concluded that it would be right to allow parents to express a preference for a particular special or ordinary school within the maintained sector, following the recommendations of the Audit Commission. The authority's decision on placement will need to take account of the assessment of the child's needs, consultation with those schools that would or might he able to make a special educational provision, the needs of other pupils and the wise or correct use of resources. That will be an important step forward in trying to give parents a much more effective say in the process. We have given that right to children who do not require special education, and we believe it right to do the same for those who come within the compass of special educational needs.

We acknowledge that there will be cases where parents and authorities will find it difficult to resolve their differences. We want to try to ensure that parents who are unhappy with what has been determined can secure quicker redresss than the present arrangements allow, which is certainly far too long. Consistent with the parents charter and the spirit of it, we want to see how an appeal system can become more independent and whether there is scope for making a single appeal body to replace the present two-stage process.

We announced on Monday that we will introduce proposals to establish a new independent tribunal to hear appeals from parents of children with special educational needs. We think that that is the best way forward. We wanted to consider in detail how it might make the procedure quicker, give people more confidence in it and make it more independent. We envisage—this is subject to consultation with interested bodies —that the tribunal will be established under a president and will sit as a number of tribunals having the same jurisdiction under regional chairmen. Membership may comprise a legally qualified chairman with two other members, one of whom would have to have expertise in special educational needs and the other of whom might have experience in local government. That is the flavour of the approach that we think would be most appropriate at this stage.

The tribunal would determine appeals against a local authority's refusal to assess or reassess a child, against an authority's decision not to determine provision for a child in a statement and against the special educational provision specified in a statement. It would also determine a new specific right of appeal against the school named in the statement and a new right against an authority's decision to amend or cease to maintain a statement.

That would be a comprehensive approach to the subject, which, since the 1981 Act, has proved more unsatisfactory as time has gone on.

Mr. Worthington

Labour Members agree that there should be a right to appeal, but the Minister is fond of introducing rights of appeal against local authority actions. I asked earlier for a Government guarantee of a suitable training place for everybody, including those with special needs. Will the Minister be robust, forthright and all the qualities that he gives himself by agreeing that it would be logical for the right of appeal to extend to a suitable training place?

Mr. Forth

Many of the points that the hon. Gentleman made should be addressed to my colleagues at the Scottish Office and the Department of Employment. I shall ensure that they are made aware of the point that he made in the debate.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

And the Welsh Office.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) did not mention the Welsh Office, but if the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) wants me to include the Welsh Office I shall do so. I shall ensure that those matters are brought to my hon. Friends' attention.

I do not want to get distracted; it would be wrong of me to do so. Other hon. Members want to speak briefly. It is not my intention to prolong my remarks any further.

Mr. Wigley

In the context of the White Paper and discussion of it, will provision be made for the circumstances of Wales? Changes in local government may lead to smaller education authorities and uncertainty over what is the strategic authority for special education.

Mr. Forth

That is an important point. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall maintain close contact with our colleagues in the Welsh Office to ensure that that dimension is fully taken into account. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will be able to read the White Paper and to make representations either directly to us or through my colleagues in the Welsh Office to ensure that those factors are taken into account. It is important that we all move together on this front and make proper provision for school children and those who have left school.

In my brief speech I have tried to reply to the main points raised during the debate. I regret that I have been unable to deal specifically with some issues that have been raised by my hon. Friends and by Opposition Members, but I hope that I have reassured the House that there is a lot of common ground between us and that we have together identified the shortcomings and difficulties which have arisen since 1981. My Department was already working on the problem, and the Audit Commission has spurred us on to outline our proposals as quickly as possible.

The debate is timely because a White Paper will be issued shortly. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to legislate during this parliamentary year. We hope to establish a consensus and to achieve the greatest possible agreement in order to identify the best ways to serve, help and support the children who deserve every support and help.

In that spirit, I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge for bringing such an important subject before the House, and I also thank everyone who has participated. The Government will consider carefully all the issues that have been raised and if I have not replied to any specific matters, I shall do so as soon as possible.

I am very encouraged by what has been said today and I regard many of the comments as broad support for what we are doing. I hope that the House has been encouraged by what I have said and that we can all work together to achieve our common aim.

2.16 pm
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I am sad to have missed one or two speeches in the debate as I was attending a meeting elsewhere in the House, but I was present at the beginning to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) introduce the debate with a particularly authoritative speech about education and statementing. She said much of what the Government and all involved in education need to hear.

I am tempted to take up some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) in her very thoughtful contribution. She referred especially to the education of children with profound learning disabilities. I have been interested to see the way in which my own education authority of South Glamorgan has recently been working to identify children who have hearing problems which are not acute but which cause them considerable difficulties in the early stages of their education. The authority offers help in the classroom at an early stage when it is greatly needed.

I shall concentrate on the problems experienced after the age of 16 and on problems for adults with learning difficulties—a topic on which the Minister would not even have touched but for the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) towards the end of the Minister's remarks. We need to change dramatically the way in which we consider people with learning difficulties or adults with a mental handicap. The International Year of Disabled People certainly succeeded in changing the view of physically disabled people who continue to make great contributions to the creative arts, sport, research and social work. Their contributions have been recognised. I am not suggesting that we should be complacent. but the way in which they are regarded has changed. However, we must recognise that nothing has changed for people with mental handicap—we are still in the dark ages.

I give three specific examples to illustrate the need for action. Some years ago I took a group of young people to Stuttgart as I have done several times. We took youngsters who had been involved in environmental work in the summer. We discussed whether two severely subnormal girls should be part of the group. We decided that they should because they had been part of the group in the camp. What surprised me was the change wrought by including them in the visit. First, their inclusion changed their view of themselves because they were being recognised by us and became more confident. The second change was the way in which their families regarded them. They were seen for the first time as people in their own right who were worthy of recognition. There was a dramatic shift, which is important. That underlines the need for educational and training opportunities for young people beyond the age of 16.

There are often excellent standards in schools. There is integration in St. Cyres comprehensive school in Penarth and separate education in the Rhondda special school which I visited last Monday. In both, the standard of care is excellent. I must tell the Minister in view of his remarks that the success of both schools is a miracle of commitment by teachers and by communities who care, and it illustrates the priority given by far-sighted councillors. However, jobs at the schools are rapidly being made impossible by the Government and are now at risk. I ask the Minister to question his response and his apparent complacency on the matter of resources for local education authorities and for schools. I referred to the positive side in both schools. The position is not the same for opportunity past the age of 16. If the post-16 position is adequate at first, it deteriorates rapidly as the young person gets older.

My second example is also positive. I have the honour to chair the committee of the special computer workshop at coleg Glan Hafren. It is an honour because of the friendship I have received from the students there. It is also an honour to be associated with the creativity that the students show as a result of their opportunities in the computer workshop. In my office in the House I have a brilliant computer graphic given to me by one of the students. Andrew Reed, of which anyone would be proud.

The development of talents in the youngsters in the workshop is an eye opener. I pay tribute to the dedication of the staff, the leadership of Mr. Chris Jones, the enthusiastic support of the officers and members of South Glamorgan, and the humanity of the principal and governors of the college. The magic ingredient in the workshop, however, is the talent of the students themselves which is being unlocked and allowed to flower in the positive environment there.

For so many young adults with learning difficulties, that opportunity simply does not exist. Where do the students go afterwards? The Government need to take an initiative on employment and to change the image of these people. I talked to people in one large Marks and Spencer store. The company is positive in relation to provision of training places for young people, but says that the difficulty is the public's perception of adults with learning difficulties in public areas of the store. Like many other organisations, including HTV and Cardiff city council, the company has been helpful with placements. South Glamorgan county council wanted to create a number of specific training posts to get youngsters who come off courses into a job. Once recognised and in a job, such youngsters can move forward and be accepted in the working environment, and their talents can be developed. The individual can, above all, have a real job and can take a proper place in society. The will to help is there, but the lack of resources for local government to do the job is a major problem.

There is a need for training and jobs at every level. My third example is Track 2000 in Splott in my constituency. It is an excellent project which was set up with the help of local authorities. Using trainees, an old building was refurbished, where the project recycles white goods and furniture. The trainees are adults with a mental handicap. The recycled goods go mainly to homeless people who are being rehoused or to those experiencing extreme poverty. People are often referred to the project by the Department of Social Security as well as by social workers.

Changes in Government policy on training—an annual event over the past decade or more—led to a company taking over the project and the trainees and the community continued to benefit. I was called in a few months later, however, and found that there was a problem. The company had had to withdraw because the money was not there in the training programme to make its position viable. I asked, "How come you are still here?" The facts of the case were as follows. The trainers were on the dole and still coming to work in a voluntary capacity; the trainees were no longer receiving a training allowance but were still coming in; the customers were still being referred there by the Department of Social Security; and adults with learning difficulties were still being sent along by social workers because there was nowhere else for them to go.

Agencies and councillors got together to try to rescue the project. To be fair to the managing director of the South Glamorgan TEC, he recognised the problem and said that he would do what he could to help. After a gap of a few months, during which we succeeded in making progress towards the registration of a charity to run the project, the TEC came forward with a contract.

Then came the final irony. Many adults with learning difficulties who would benefit [and some who are going in voluntarily now—cannot be trainees under the contract because the nature of their benefit excludes them from registering as available for work and they are therefore not eligible for a training place. That is outrageous.

Those who most need help are excluded from training places. The talents of adults with learning difficulties are cramped and hidden. Our society is excluding from the community of work many who could make a positive contribution to it. That is a sad comment on the state of our society after a decade and more of Conservative rule.

Humanity and common sense demand from the Government, first, that they accept and recognise the need for education, training and jobs for adults with learning difficulties or mental handicap and, secondly, that they make a major initiative to change society's view of such young people and adults. The Government must transform the place in society of adults and young adults, as well as children of school age, with learning difficulties. If they fail to do that, our society will be the poorer and it will be a new and continuing indictment of the nature of our society in the late 20th century.

2.26 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

If the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) was lucky enough to draw the lucky straw—on which I congratulate her—I seem to have drawn the short straw. Not for me is the magical allocation of 20 minutes referred to earlier in the debate. I shall make use of the remaining few minutes to draw attention to concerns expressed by experts who work in special educational needs in Bromley LEA, which I stress has an excellent record in this matter, having assessed some 1,100 special needs cases and with another 500 in the pipeline.

The published January 1991 figures show that, among London boroughs, Bromley leads the field for the number of primary school age children who have had statements. The experts are concerned at the impact on school curriculum assessments of special educational needs units. Curriculum tests are bound to have an impact on schools with such units. The majority of the population might not appreciate that fact and might conclude that a school fell low in the league table, with the result that it would develop a bad reputation.

The answer to the problem is to find some means of distinguishing between the results achieved by children who have not had a statement and the results of children who have. I do not believe that that would be discriminatory because, in a sense, special needs children are already put in a particular category by virtue of having received a statement. I fully welcome their inclusion in ordinary schools and that has been welcomed by parents, pupils and the experts in Bromley. However, it would be helpful for the reputation of those schools and for the furtherance of those units—one of which has 50 pupils in a school of 300 —if there were some special consideration of the way in which the results are published so that the reputation of schools is not affected.

I welcome the comments made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools about the importance that should be attached to parental rights. After all, that is now a major plank in educational policy —although that is not always the case—and it is right that it should be extended.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.