HC Deb 02 February 1993 vol 218 cc128-30
3. Ms. Walley

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what assessment he has made of the adequacy of funds available for special needs education.

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

It is for local education authorities and schools with delegated management to decide on the level of funds to devote to special education. Well-run local authorities and schools should be able to fulfil their duties in respect of pupils with special educational needs.

Ms. Walley

Although the Minister's answer sounds all well and good, does he not realise that the competitive direction in which he is leading local schools is causing anxiety to the parents of children requiring special needs education? Is he aware that in Staffordshire there has been an 18 per cent. increase in requests for formal assessment and that the average increase is the same throughout the country? Is it not the case that, as a result of the Government's so-called education reform, the budgets of local schools are so stretched and stressed that they cannot deal properly with special needs education?

Mr. Forth

I do not accept that. There is ample evidence that special educational needs are being well met by schools up and down the country, and by most local education authorities. Because the hon. Lady's authority, Staffordshire, started off with a somewhat lower percentage of statemented children, it has scope to catch up and there is evidence that it is doing just that. Although there is some evidence that more parents are asking for statements, there is also evidence of an increase in the amount of statementing done by that local education authority.

There has been a widespread welcome for the huge step that we are taking in the Education Bill now in Committee. We are introducing many radical new provisions for children with special educational needs and they have been welcomed throughout the community involved.

Mr. Rowe

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is not just a question of money? The provision of specialist help is also vital. Can my hon. Friend assure me that his Department is discussing the matter seriously both with health authorities and with social service departments, which are also purchasers of services such as speech therapy and psychology, so that the partnership between the three publicly funded bodies can be maximised?

Mr. Forth

Indeed. My hon. Friend has raised an important point. We are constantly aware of the need to ensure, wherever possible, that all authorities involved in and concerned with the meeting of special educational needs—for instance, education authorities, health authorities and social service departments—work co-operatively to ensure that they all discharge their various responsibilities together in making the best possible provision. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Does the Minister realise that, although organisations dealing with special educational needs welcome a number of aspects of the Education Bill, they are nevertheless very fearful about funding levels? They have already presented evidence of a drop in provision of learning support services. With 120 cases involving statements going to judicial review, this is but the tip of the iceberg. The Minister's Department must take seriously the evidence of underfunding and lack of services for children with special educational needs, whether or not they have statements.

Mr. Forth

I do not think that that is right, although I accept part of what the hon. Gentleman has said—that the mechanism for providing statements for children with special educational needs has let down many children and parents progressively over the years. That is exactly why we propose to introduce, in the Bill now in Committee, a new code of practice to give guidance on the statementing procedure, new time limits and a tribunal to provide an independent source of appeal. I believe that all those measures will go a long way towards enabling the statementing process, which is vital to a small but important number of children with special educational needs, to work properly. As for the other children involved, we have strengthened the Bill's provisions to ensure not only that all schools are aware of their responsibilities, but that they spell out those responsibilities clearly. They will be inspected in regard to their responsibilities. That is the way in which to proceed.

Mr. Bowis

Does my hon. Friend agree that, although resources for special educational needs must be kept under constant review, the clear message from the Audit Commission was that the problem was not lack of resources but the fact that some local education authorities did not give high enough priority to the statementing process? Will my hon. Friend send the message to every education authority in the country today that authorities should not wait for the measures in the Bill, good as they are, but should get on with the process now and protect the children currently in need?

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in such matters, is absolutely right. It is not so much a matter of the resources available as a question of how they are deployed. Many local education authorities have demonstrated that, with the right sense of priorities and the right management practices, they can fully fulfil their obligation to children with special educational needs. I believe that the Bill will provide the proper framework to ensure that all authorities do that in future; in other words, it will enable us to raise all of them to the excellent standard of the best.