HC Deb 05 December 1997 vol 302 cc580-637

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

9.34 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)

The House will know that, yesterday, the Government's Bill to raise standards for children in schools was given its First Reading. We view the discussion document, the Green Paper, that we have published on special educational needs as a sister document to the Bill. We are determined that, when we say that we want to raise standards for all children, we mean all children. It is important to us that the consideration of our schools' future incorporates the future of children who are thought to have SEN. I therefore welcome the opportunity to have a debate that perhaps matches the many discussions throughout the country since the Green Paper's publication.

I expect that different views will be expressed in the House today, and that is right, but—this is an important starting point—members of all parties in the House share the concern that we should do as much as we can for children with special educational needs and for their families. I acknowledge the Conservative party's contribution over the years to that group of young people. Almost a quarter of a century ago, while in government, it commissioned the Warnock report and gave effect to some of its key recommendations in the Education Act 1981.

The code of practice on SEN, on which the previous Government consulted widely, has been an important achievement. We want to re-examine it, but we acknowledge that it was brought about through consultation and discussion with everyone who had an interest in the sector. The Liberal Democrats and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) were part of the pressure that brought about the code of practice during consideration of, I think, the first Bill on which we sat together in Committee.

There are individuals who, whatever their party affiliations, have worked hard during their time in the House to ensure that children's special educational needs are not taken off anyone's agenda. It is in that spirit of a shared wish to do better—perhaps presenting different ideas of how we get there—that I wish to approach the debate.

The Labour party has not always believed that the measures have gone far enough or have been acted on as quickly as they might have been, but there has not been a major ideological divide in this sector, as there has in other education sectors. That is as it should be, because, in the education of children with SEN, whether we are talking about the 3 per cent. of children with statements or the 18 per cent. whom schools say have special needs of some sort, we are forced to confront some of the most difficult issues on the education agenda. Whatever we do, when we talk about children with SEN, we must never forget that we are dealing with some of the most vulnerable children in society.

I am delighted that, within six months of taking office, we have published a major Green Paper on the subject—and delighted that we have done so with the assistance of the national advisory group on SEN. I pay tribute to its work with the Government, especially in the past two months, when we have travelled throughout the country, been involved in consultations, and ensured that any decisions that we eventually arrive at will take account of the views of the people who will be affected.

Through both the Green Paper and the national advisory group, we have tackled the matter in an open consultative manner. That reflects our recognition that, if we are to improve provision for children with SEN, we must listen carefully to all those with an interest. That means listening to the professionals—to the teachers, workers in voluntary bodies, educational psychologists, education officers and medical professionals. However, it also means listening carefully to the views of parents and, as far as possible, of the young people who will be affected.

The consultation on the Green Paper continues until the start of January. I am delighted that so many organisations and groups throughout the country have been ready to hold conferences and meetings to discuss the Green Paper. I and officials from my Department have already attended many of them, and we are already receiving responses from organisations, individuals, voluntary groups, schools, parents and teachers and, of course, those will inform our future agenda for this group of children and their families.

It is already clear from the great majority of those who have so far expressed a view that they welcome the Green Paper. There is an air of excitement, optimism and eagerness that for the first time in many years they have the opportunity not just to look at an aspect of special educational needs, but to consider the whole package, to examine all the issues relating to SEN. It is clear that there will be many important suggestions on improving provision, but also some concerns about safeguards that will need to be retained or put in place.

In his foreword to the Green Paper, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State sets out six key principles that underlie our approach. I should like to speak briefly about them, because they are at the heart of everything that follows in the Green Paper. The first point is central to all that we want to do: the Government want to raise standards for all children and have the highest expectations for all children. By that, we mean exactly what we say, and we include children with special educational needs.

To make that happen, there must be a changing culture and the SEN dimension must be built into all our programmes for raising standards. The whole range of our education policies has a part to play in that. Those policies include announcements that we have already made on our early years development plans, our plans on baseline assessment and, most important, our emphasis on early literacy and numeracy and the resources that we are committing to make sure that our children master the basic skills at an early age.

As the Green Paper states, with the right approach in the early years we might be able to forestall the development of some special educational needs, although by no means all—I would not pretend that. If we are right, the inevitable consequence will be that, over time, the proportion of children who require special education on reaching secondary level should reduce.

Our second key principle is our commitment on educational, social and moral grounds to the inclusion of children with SEN in mainstream schools where possible. Of course, we must remember that 19 out of 20 children with such needs are already in mainstream schools. By comparison with some European countries, our record on inclusiveness is good. However, the experience of other countries, for example in Scandinavia, suggests that there might be scope for further progress.

The opportunities for children with disabilities to be educated in mainstream schools vary widely across the country. As the Green Paper states, in some local authorities less than 0.5 per cent. of children are educated in special schools. In other LEAs, it is more than 2 per cent. The variation might be acceptable, but it is clear that in some local authorities a parent's right to obtain an inclusive mainstream education might depend more on where the parent lives than on the needs of the child. The Green Paper seeks to address those differing statistics and to examine what is behind them, to see whether we can learn from some areas.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

I am pleased to hear that the Minister's commitment to special educational needs is being developed through the Green Paper. I am also pleased at the tone of her speech. Is she as surprised as I am by the fact that Hazel Glen, a special educational needs centre for under-fives in my constituency, was unexpectedly closed at the beginning of the year, despite assurances that special education would be expanded in Croydon? Will she undertake to look at that?

Ms Morris

I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that I shall look at that. It is difficult to comment on decisions in areas with which I am not familiar and when I do not know the background. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to spot special educational needs and learning difficulties at an early age. For some children, the age of five is too late. We must do what we can to identify special learning difficulties at an early age and take immediate action to assist the children and their parents. That is important. I shall look at the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises and, if it is acceptable to him, I shall speak to the authorities in Croydon and come back to him.

Nothing in the Green Paper suggests that we want to close all special schools. We shall listen carefully to responses to the Green Paper, but our starting point is that for some children during at least part of their school career, education in a specialist environment may be appropriate. There is certainly a need for development of the role of special schools so that, increasingly, they become specialist resources for educating children who are there full time for the whole of for part of their education, and for supporting children who are educated in mainstream schools. I understand the difference that that would make to teachers in special schools and to the parents of children at those schools.

The change cannot be made overnight. It will require extra training for staff in special schools who want to work more in mainstream education, and for mainstream teachers with some special needs children. It will require resources and prioritising, but we want to start by building on existing good practice.

The principle of inclusive education does not mean removing choice from parents. We want parents to choose mainstream education when they feel that that is right for their children. We want to help to develop the quality of education in mainstream schools and the necessary support services that will give parents confidence. It would be wrong to do away with the present arrangements, which require LEAs to pay serious attention to parents' wishes. It is clear that, if there is no effective inclusive education in the area in which parents live, they will not have the choice so that they can request either a special school place or a mainstream place.

We want to give body to the notion of parental choice, so that parents can choose with the interests of their children at heart, knowing that, whatever their choice, there will be support that is appropriate to the stage of a child's development. I regret having to say that the policy of promoting inclusion where possible was never about dumping difficult children on unwilling mainstream schools. The early headlines that greeted the Green Paper did a great injustice to families that genuinely want to see children take their place in mainstream schools. Those families try their best to include their children in the activities of their peers and communities. The headlines also did an injustice to the many schools that tried hard to keep children with severe behavioural difficulties in mainstream schools.

Schools currently face many challenges and they make great efforts to retain in mainstream education children with behavioural problems. Sometimes, with the best will in the world and after much work and effort, that simply does not work. Schools must take account of the needs of all children. That includes not only the needs of the individual child, but the needs of those whose work could be disrupted by the activity and behaviour of others. We are not being dogmatic about inclusion or taking away the right of mainstream schools to decide that it is better for a child and for other children to exclude that child and request that he or she be educated in different circumstances. We acknowledge the good work of many mainstream schools in dealing with children who have behavioural problems. We want to praise them and spread their good practice.

The changes that we want to implement have spending implications—there is no doubt about that, and we have not pretended otherwise. I shall say more about the implications later in my speech.

Now, however, I am pleased to be able to announce to the House our plans for the schools access initiative, which supports projects to make mainstream schools accessible to children with—often physical—disabilities. In the previous financial year, the previous Government budgeted only £4 million for the initiative for this year, and for following years. I am delighted that, against a tight financial background, we are raising the funding almost threefold, so that, from next year, the initiative will provide £11 million of support, which is more than at any stage under the Conservatives.

I should like to pay tribute to the work done, way back in the early 1990s, by Coopers and Lybrand. The hon. Member for Bath and I, as Back Benchers, were associated with that work. I pay tribute also to Scope and to the National Union of Teachers, which had the foresight to implement it. The work set in motion the concept of Government making money available for schools to adapt themselves to the needs of children with physical disabilities. I pay tribute to the work done by those organisations.

I have already touched on the Green Paper's third principle, which is the importance of empowering parents of children with special educational needs, so that they have a real say in decisions about their child's education and can themselves contribute to their child's development. Partnership between home and school is crucial for all children. Time and again, hon. Members on both sides of the House express that belief. Perhaps, however, such partnership is even more crucial for families whose children have special educational needs than it is for other families.

Parents of children with special educational needs are sometimes under the greatest pressure and stress. They face a series of important and difficult decisions that do not always confront parents without children in that group, and it is important that they receive accurate information—when they need it—and support in making their crucial decisions. Too often, the support that they receive in that important decision-making process is too little and too late.

In the Green Paper, the Government have suggested that we make use of the named person—a good part of the code of practice—at an earlier stage, and that we develop parent partnerships across the country. We aim to achieve that goal by 2002. From next year, local areas will be able to submit bids, under the standards fund, to implement partnerships, so that parents receive support at the right time—when they are making decisions.

Parents often feel overwhelmed by bureaucracy and by the many avenues along which they have to travel to find the help that they need. It is difficult enough to be a parent. Perhaps it is even more difficult to be the parent of a child with SEN. It must be very dispiriting for those parents to have feelings of loneliness and isolation when working with those who are trying to work with them. We will have done a good job if we can inject extra support for parents at that point, so that they are helped in their important decision making.

Our fourth principle is about getting good value for money in expenditure on SEN. Currently, local education authorities in England spend about one seventh of their schools budget—totalling £2.5 billion—on special educational needs. We do not want to reduce that sum. I have already demonstrated by today's announcement that we are not about cost cutting in our approach to children with SEN and their families. We acknowledge that there will be transitional costs in making the improvements that we want. We want to shift resources, however, from expensive remediation to cost-effective prevention and early intervention. We want to shift the emphasis from procedures to practical support.

It is right for us to ensure that the one seventh of schools expenditure on SEN is spent so that it most benefits children. We must reach a stage at which we can deal with the problems without people assuming that we are engaged in a cost-cutting process. We are not. The Government have already shown by our actions that we are securing more money for education, not less. Children with SEN will benefit from the increased resources, as will every other child in the United Kingdom.

We have to examine how effectively the process of statutory assessment and statements is working. There is much evidence—despite the introduction of the SEN code of practice—that there are still matters to be re-examined, and that perhaps the code is not working as well as everyone had hoped. Perhaps that is inevitable in introducing such a complex procedure. After a few years, we should re-examine it.

Undoubtedly, for some children with complex special needs, it is crucial that the statementing process—which brings together responsible agencies in helping and supporting those children—continues, so that the multi-agency approach can also continue. We have no intention of weakening the process or of removing parents' right to ask for an assessment and a statement. As statutory assessment is so expensive, and as there has been such a sharp increase in the number of children with statements in recent years—so that there are now more than 50 per cent. more such children than were envisaged in the Warnock report—it is right to ask how effective the process is for all the children to whom it applies.

I look forward to receiving comments on the Green Paper. I want also to help schools to make effective provision under the code of practice for all pupils, including those with SEN, at an earlier stage.

Let us consider the striking example of two children, one of whom is judged narrowly to miss qualifying for a statement—it is a fine judgment, but he or she has fallen below the line—whereas the other child is judged to be just above the line. The amount of money available to the first child will be much less than that available to the second child. Is a system that discriminates against one of two children with very similar needs fair to all children? Such anomalies make a re-examination of the statementing process necessary—not because we want to remove the protection that statements offer or the multidisciplinary approach that they engender, but because the process may not be operating in a manner that is fair to all children.

I shall deal only briefly with the Green Paper's last two principles, although they are both essential to achieving our aims. We have to improve the training of all those involved with children with SEN. The Green Paper contains our proposals for the training of all teachers, particularly for SEN co-ordinators and specialists. In the new remit letter from the Secretary of State, we have asked the Teacher Training Agency to pay particular attention to the SEN dimension in all its work.

The remit letter mentions also, at last, the growing band of learning support assistants who are becoming increasingly important to our schools and our children. They have had too little recognition and been offered too few training opportunities, either to progress to other activities or to enhance their ability to support children. It is right that we acknowledge the role that they play and do something to improve their training and qualifications. They contribute a great deal to educating children with SEN. We have asked the TTA to examine specifically what we must do to enhance their ability to work well.

The Green Paper emphasises the importance of co-operative working between the various agencies concerned with children's special needs. It proposes that LEAs should work together to co-operate on a regional basis to plan provision, especially for low-incidence disabilities. The planning would cover not only available specialist places, but specialist training and support services. We need to ensure that all local agencies—education, social services and health, with the voluntary sector—work together in the interests of children with special needs.

We shall never reach the position with SEN where we do not have to use the skills of many professionals who are located in different areas of the system, who have different training backgrounds and who are resourced by different finances. Think what it is like for parents who must deal with that structure. We must try to establish a cohesive pattern of provision that meets parents' needs. For too long, parents have had to adjust their needs to the system: we want to build a system that adjusts to parents' needs.

This is an important moment in the nation's consideration of children with SEN. Children who last year received recognition for their achievement in examinations would not have been thought educable—that is the word we use—20 years ago. The progress that has been made in the past 20 years has highlighted the potential of so many young people who were previously classed as ineducable. The potential of many children went unrealised—depriving them of their right to flourish and depriving the nation of the benefit of their contribution.

There is more potential to be tapped. We have not yet constructed a system that allows every child with SEN to grow, to flourish and to realise his or her true potential. It is time to look at overall provision for those children and to consider whether we can take the next step. I believe that we can. That goal can be achieved through consultation and through working on a shared agenda. We must send a message that those children matter and that we believe that we can do better.

I am grateful to have the opportunity today to listen to the contribution that hon. Members will make to our Green Paper consultation. When that consultation is concluded, the Government will consider the responses received and announce our plans to take forward the agenda in due course.

10.1 am

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I, too, welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate. It comes in the middle of the consultation process on special educational needs, which will conclude on 9 January. The Minister will not be surprised to learn that I have quite a few questions. If she cannot respond to them in her winding-up speech, I hope that she will be kind enough to take note of them. When the consultation concludes on 9 January, I should be grateful if she would reply specifically to the questions raised in today's debate.

I am also grateful to the Minister for her recognition of the previous Government's work in this area. As she said, the Eduction Act 1981, which followed the Warnock report, set the framework of recognition for special educational needs and, in 1993, a code of practice gave statutory guidance to local education authorities, health authorities, social services and, most important, parents. I agree also with the multidisciplinary approach established by the previous Government, on which the Minister said that she would build. We welcome that as an extremely important move.

We can support much else in the consultation document. It is critical to identify problems at the earliest opportunity. Improved training of SEN teachers and other support staff is very important also. We need better co-operation between local agencies in order to support children with special educational needs. As to early intervention, the Minister will know that health authorities in particular often hold a lot of information that should be transferred to LEAs and the education establishment at a much earlier stage. Despite much effort in that area, such information is often withheld until a child approaches full-time school age. If there is to be early intervention, that information must be exchanged and shared on a multidisciplinary basis at the earliest opportunity.

There are many questions arising from the consultation document, and I shall outline several issues that concern the Opposition. At the last Education questions, I asked the Minister about legal protection for children who receive statements and how that is enshrined in law at present. I remind her of the words in the press release issued by her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when the Green Paper was announced on 22 October. The Secretary of State said: The present law, including statements for some children, is there to protect the interests of the vulnerable. We shall not change that.

LEAs must, by law, deliver what is written into statements. Changes to the statementing process that recognise need must have legal backing. For example, an LEA would be legally obliged to deliver speech therapy if that were written into a statement. If speech therapy were suddenly to become the responsibility of the health service, although it remained a recognised need, there would be no statutory obligation on the health service to deliver it. I do not wish to see a diminution in the legal protection afforded to individual children through changes in the statementing process.

The Green Paper states that about 3 per cent. of children have special educational needs and are involved in statementing. There are now about 233,000 statements, compared with 153,000 in 1991. Hon. Members who have been here for some time will know that the practice of adhering closely to the figures cited by Baroness Warnock in her excellent report—which was produced in the 1970s and became the basis of the 1981 Act—is a personal bone of contention. If the purpose of the Green Paper is to examine the overall situation—the Minister said today that that is its purpose—I hope that she will also consider the changes that have taken place in certain areas of special educational need since Baroness Warnock produced her report.

For example, the Warnock report mentions dyslexia, which was formally recognised in the 1993 code of practice. However, the report does not identify the condition as necessarily requiring a statementing process, which is what happens now. I shall give several other examples later. I ask the Minister to do some number crunching. If this process is to be meaningful, we must address the real needs of children, rather than apportioning need according to a set of statistics which may be out of date for all sorts of reasons.

I turn now to the number of statements that the Minister is considering. Will the proposal involving quotas be at odds with local education authorities' basic duty to consider individual need? The inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream education and in special schools—I listened carefully to the hon. Lady's remarks about the dividing line and children who fall either side of it—requires resources. It is not just in mainstream education that we are concerned about the resources that support statements; if statements are based on a quota system, that may affect children in both mainstream education and special schools.

Children in specialised environments, such as special schools, are as much at risk from changes in provision resulting from cuts in resources as children in mainstream education. Therefore, their need for statement protection is every bit as great. Does the Minister accept that the proposal poses a real threat to the right of children in special schools to receive the provision that they need?

The proposals in the Green Paper also seek to ensure that, where possible, children with special educational needs are educated in mainstream schools. I know that many parents will welcome that approach. However, attempting to increase inclusion while removing children's rights to the provision that they require may be self-defeating. Should the Government not aim to strengthen the existing entitlement to ensure that the inclusive placements are successful?

The legal contract with schools mentioned in chapter 3, paragraph 9 of the Green Paper also raises some questions. There is a possibility of a new contract, different from what is currently in place. The Green Paper talks about strengthening the assurance to parents that schools will offer effective and consistent support of stages 1–3 of the statementing process. Are the Government thinking of legally binding contracts? If so, will there be an appeals system? There must be a right of appeal in those circumstances. The Minister has identified the bureaucratic nature of the statementing process, but there must be checks and balances associated with rights. Will the Minister say whether the Government intend that parents will have a right of appeal on the school contract?

What advice has the Minister had on the implications of the Green Paper on what a school should provide before a statement is agreed, bearing in mind the High Court ruling on Phelps v. London borough of Hillingdon? The case was brought by a mother whose daughter had dyslexia, arguing that the psychologist should have diagnosed the dyslexia in October 1985, when she was nearly 12. Failing that, it should have been diagnosed subsequently as the girl experienced increasing difficulties.

As a result of the failure to diagnose the condition, the girl failed to receive the necessary provision, and her standard of literacy was lower than she would have achieved had she received that provision. The defendant argued that the psychologist had no duty of care to the plaintiff and that his role was only to advise the local education authority and the school. The judge's ruling that the psychologist owed a duty of care to the plaintiff has implications if there is to be a legal contract between the school and the parent before statementing.

Statementing must focus on identifying need so that the services and provisions that will help to meet that need during a child's education can be delivered. However, it is obvious that the possession of a statement in education has a more far-reaching benefit to the child. It is a passport for life. The Minister did not mention that and I should like her to reflect on it. Children with lifelong special educational needs who do not receive statements often hit the buffers when they come out of full-time education at 16 or 18. Because they have no formal statement about their needs as a child, they have enormous difficulty in accessing appropriate training, benefits and appropriate employment.

The Government have already said that they want to get more people with disabilities into employment. I am not suggesting that there should be lots of pieces of paper flying around with lots of bureaucracy for no purpose, but the statementing process goes beyond the age at which the child leaves school.

I mentioned earlier that I should like to draw the Minister's attention to certain conditions that particularly affect children and their parents. Those conditions, many of which are lifelong, often make it difficult for parents to get recognition from the medical profession. I have been in that extraordinary position. If certain conditions are not diagnosed early and do not receive early intervention, the education of the child is adversely affected.

There has always been a big debate about labelling. I am familiar with the arguments. I understand the reservations of some in the medical profession about labelling children too early, because they do not know how a learning difficulty will develop from an early age or how severe the disability will be. However, labelling is not a stigma. Statementing was once a stigma. I hope that the 1993 code of practice has put that to rest. I hope that the Minister will not be gulled by siren voices that say that labelling and statementing are a stigma. They are a passport, particularly for children with certain problems.

I was delighted to hear the Minister recognise the difficulties of having children with emotional and behavioural problems in classrooms. We all recognise the difficulties caused to the individual child and to the others being taught in the classroom with them. My sympathies lie particularly with any teacher trying to teach a class including one severely emotionally disturbed child or a child with challenging behaviour. Certain conditions give us special cause for concern.

The Green Paper notes on page 77: The number of children perceived to be falling within this group is increasing. That is an ambiguous statement about children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Will the Minister say before the results of the consultation are printed whether that is only a perception or whether the numbers are genuinely increasing?

In the past few years, there has been an explosion in the number of parent support groups for children with attention deficit disorder, otherwise known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Those parents are desperately concerned that the condition should be better understood and that appropriate treatments and management should be developed. It is unfortunate that the condition is sometimes dismissed out of hand, and parents are criticised for their children's behaviour.

Will the Minister also consider another aspect of emotional disturbance in children? There have been changes in society and in the way in which people live in the past 15 years. Divorce is on the increase. For one reason or another, there are a lot of children in school who are emotionally disturbed because of a specific trauma in their life. I do not want to undervalue such needs or the necessity of providing appropriate support when the problem is identified. I should be interested to see the statistics that relate to the statement on page 77 of the Green Paper.

Baroness Warnock's report made suggestions about the number of children involved. There are clearly many children who would be classified as emotionally disturbed, albeit for a temporary period, who have to be catered for in the net of special educational needs. That must mean that the cake is being cut ever more thinly. I hope that the Minister will consider specifically how to address the problems of those children.

The concerns of parents about the appropriate education to be provided must be listened to by professionals. They need people to stand alongside them. As the Minister knows, one of the great difficulties is that some parents are not able to articulate their own and their children's needs. That gives cause for concern. Some parents cannot articulate their children's needs, but others do not want to kick up a fuss in case teachers, doctors or other professionals think they are making a fuss or take it out on them. Whatever changes the Minister makes, it is important that parents are listened to.

I refer the Minister to a paper that was sent to me by Contact A Family. It says: Most parents are at best wary and at worst downright hostile to the notion that their child's statement of special educational needs should be replaced or reduced by LEA discretion. As the Green Paper states…some LEAs have sought ways of restricting the rise in the number of statements and that has undoubtedly created some 'mistrust and conflict in an area where trust and co-operation are essential.'

One of the groups of parents who have particular difficulty are those with children who have a medical condition that the LEA tends not to recognise for all sorts of reasons. It is unacceptable that LEAs should pick and choose among conditions that they think they should recognise and those that they think they should not.

The House will not be surprised to know that I shall conclude by talking about a particular group of children and their special educational needs—children with autism. I am a member of the national council of the National Autistic Society and this is Autism Awareness Week, so it is a timely opportunity for me to give yet another plug for their needs.

A recent survey found that one in three parents were being turned away by professionals when they expressed concerns about their children, yet those children were subsequently diagnosed as having autism. The survey also found that there was an average delay of almost four years from when parents first sought professional help to when they got a diagnosis. Ignoring and dismissing parents' concerns in that way leads to much greater problems for children and their families than is necessary.

Children with autism can be helped to learn and to reach their full potential if they are diagnosed early. More than 500,000 people in the United Kingdom have autistic spectrum disorder, which is a disability with a wide range of effects. Some children with autism have learning disabilities, whereas others do not. Some children have no language and some exhibit challenging behaviour. All of them, whatever the degree of their autism, find the world a confusing and frightening place. With the right support, however, the impact of autism on children and their families can be minimised.

I ask the Minister to look particularly at the physical adaptation of the mainstream environment for children with autism. She will know that there are specialist schools for autism where the teaching methods are quite different from those in mainstream schools. I have in my constituency an excellent SEN school, Millwater school in Honiton, where in recent years the staff have adopted methods of teaching children with autism. I went there recently and the staff showed me what they were doing with the children. It is admirable work.

That type of teaching requires a more enclosed environment for the individual and much more structured programming in terms of what the child will do from one session to the next. Millwater school can offer that teaching in the earlier years, but it cannot follow it through until the child leaves school at 18. The school has established best practice. Indeed, teachers from other parts of Devon are trained by the teachers at Millwater school.

We are not opposed to integration in principle. I hope, however, that the Minister is aware that meeting the needs of some children means more than one-to-one attention. The idea of a bit more one-to-one attention has become a panacea in SEN. Of course one-to-one attention is important, but it has to be appropriate. The teaching methods have to be appropriate and the child's individual needs have to be identified.

I welcome the opportunity for us to explore in the debate today what the Government have in mind in their Green Paper. I hope that the Minister has taken note of some of my concerns and that she will respond to me in writing if she does not do so in her winding-up speech. I hope too that the Government's response to the consultation document in January will meet my concerns.

10.24 am
Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), I pay tribute to the Minister for arranging this debate today and, perhaps more important, for producing a Green Paper on this important issue when her Department is busy with other matters. It has introduced in a short space of time two major education Bills. That shows that the Minister, her Department and the Government generally are extremely concerned about special educational needs.

It was also right for the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton to refer to the important timing of this debate, which is taking place during national autism awareness week. As the hon. Lady rightly said, there are about 120,000 children with autism in this country. Their needs are covered by the aspirations behind the Green Paper.

I was interested to receive only yesterday a letter from the National Autistic Society, in which it says: The Green Paper on SEN could be of tremendous benefit to children with autism—but only if the key elements of early intervention, teacher training and development and resources in schools are in place. Those comments sum up many of our concerns about the Green Paper. We share many of the Government's aspirations, but we want to know that those aspirations can be delivered.

The Minister rightly paid tribute to the many teachers and professionals who, in recent years, have done a tremendous job of providing support in many different ways for children with special educational needs. She also, rightly, paid a tribute to the previous Government. There is no doubt that the previous Administration cared greatly about the issue. I pay particular tribute to one member of that Administration: those concerned with special educational needs recognise the committed work of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). During his time as Minister, he made SEN an important issue and did a great deal about it.

Unfortunately, as with much else in education, many of the promises were affected by the education cuts. One example is the introduction of special educational needs co-ordinators. That was a good idea, but those concerned have experienced difficulty fulfilling their potential because they are not provided with the resources they need or the non-contact time in which to do the job that is required.

We must all acknowledge that the Green Paper is a consultation paper and as such, is inevitably thin on details. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton observe, that means that there are a number of questions to which we would like the Minister to respond. I warmly welcome, however, the broad thrust of the Green Paper and I especially welcome the proposals to develop parental partnerships that will increase parental confidence in the system. I welcome the plans to strengthen still further the code of practice and the fundamental principle—this may be the key to the whole debate—that, wherever possible, children with special educational needs will be educated in mainstream schools.

The Minister rightly said that 19 out of 20 children with special educational needs are already educated in mainstream schools, but I share her view that we could do better.

Provision for special educational needs is a bit of a lottery. The Minister touched on that point, but it is worth stressing. Whether parents can get the mainstream provision that they want for their child depends on where they live. It is different in different parts of the country. There should not be a lottery in provision that children need.

I welcome the reference in the Green Paper and in the School Standards and Framework Bill to the procedures for early identification of special educational needs. Of all the proposals in the Green Paper and the Bill, that is the most crucial. Early identification of need, followed by early support, will reduce need and give young people greater opportunities to fulfil their potential.

I welcome the intention to drive down the number of statements. That will be acceptable only if we reduce the need for them; it will not if we merely cut the number arbitrarily. Early identification and support will be one of the key ways in which to reduce need.

There is just one thing wrong with the whole thrust of the Green Paper. I suspect that we cannot do anything about it yet, but it is an aspiration for us all. We should find a way of turning the whole debate on its head. We would achieve the most wonderful success if we were able to drop the phrase "special educational needs". Every child has special educational needs of one sort or another. We should have an education system that identifies and provides for the needs of every child. Only when we achieve that will we have a truly comprehensive education system.

Were we to move in that direction, as the Green Paper suggests, many more issues would have to be debated and addressed. That style of comprehensive education would require an absolute guarantee that all pupils have a right to the same range of educational choices, and that all schools value all pupils equally but celebrate diversity. Schools should be developed to facilitate the learning of all pupils. We must recognise that effective development requires the involvement of all members of the school community, not just a few specialist teachers and ancillaries who are specially trained and selected for special educational needs work.

I think that my vision is shared by the Minister and the Government and is covered in the Green Paper. It is not an impossibility: it can be realised. The Green Paper highlighted a number of examples. One such is the John Smeaton community high school in Leeds. I had a particular reason for looking in more detail at this example of a school that is trying to develop an inclusive policy. The recent report of the Office for Standards in Education said: The provision for pupils with special educational needs is very good. Staff cater extremely well for such pupils, ensure that they are integrated into school life and lessons, and help them to make satisfactory progress. Teachers generally use a range of styles and a variety of teaching methods depending on the needs and abilities of the pupils. Lively presentation and delivery was seen in English and geography lessons; in mathematics, stimulating activities are planned using devices such as pinball machines and the Morse Code. I should declare a special interest, because the head of that school until very recently was my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). He is even more passionate about these issues than I am, and rightly so. He apologises to the House for not being present, but he has an important constituency engagement.

Passionate support for an inclusive approach should not be interpreted by anyone as a belief that there will never be a need in the future for either statements or special schools: both will continue to play an important role. The Minister and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton were right to say that we must not be dogmatic about inclusion. There will always be some children for whose needs education in mainstream schools is inappropriate. Sometimes, mainstream schools may also be inappropriate for other children, but I echo the Minister's point that that should always be the exception rather than the rule.

If we start from the premise of inclusivity, we must ask ourselves a series of questions. We must think about how we will train teachers: that is not covered in the Green Paper. We shall have to train all our teachers for work with special educational needs. Sadly, some trainee teachers receive as little as two hours' special needs training during their teacher training course. We shall have to find ways for teachers to teach a class with a wide range of individual needs. It is no good the Secretary of State promoting whole class teaching in the more formal style that he has suddenly become very keen on, because that will not be appropriate for children with a wide range of needs. He will have to give that more thought.

We must also think again about the way in which we relate to parents. We must ensure that parents are confident that their child's needs are being met and that they are wholly involved in the process. As the Minister acknowledges, we must also think again about how we reallocate resources. There are answers to many of those questions and there are many examples of how that approach can work in practice, but we must put in place adequate resources and training.

The Green Paper—understandably—does not provide all the details, so some clarification is required. It would be helpful if the Minister could deal with some of the issues that have been raised, because that would help to inform other people who may want to submit comments before the close of the consultation period.

The Green Paper omits reference to the crucial distinction in law between special educational provision that can be arranged by a mainstream school and that which cannot. When it is shown that the school is unable to provide for special educational needs, it is the duty of the local education authority to undertake a formal assessment to determine the provision required and to arrange that provision. Do the Government intend to change that basic duty to children with special educational needs?

Paragraph 13 of chapter 3 seems to imply that the issuing of statements is now outside the LEA's control. There is no evidence to support that contention. In 1995–96, 99.5 per cent. of all statements were issued by LEAs of their own volition and only 0.5 per cent., which is the grand total of 75 in the whole year, were forced on the LEA as a result of tribunal decisions. I hope that the Minister accepts that the issuing of statements is still within the control and discretion of LEAs.

We must recognise—perhaps this is not recognised enough in the Green Paper—that we need a clearer understanding of why there has been a growth in the number of children with special educational needs. One of the reasons—about which more could have been said in the Green Paper—is that we have a greater professional understanding of special educational needs. More people have an understanding of dyslexia, autism, Asperger's syndrome and many other issues. Perhaps we should not be too surprised by the increase.

Many people are concerned about the proposal in chapter 3, paragraph 19 of the Green Paper, which suggests that the Government might introduce quotas in the number of statements. I believe that that goes against the spirit of the vast majority of the Green Paper.

Ms Estelle Morris

Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) have referred to that paragraph. I do not wish to repeat this too many times, but their interpretation is not correct. I am grateful for the opportunity to state this now, rather than leave it for another couple of hours. We have no intention of introducing quotas. Paragraph 19 says: They would therefore not operate as strict quotas". We want to look at the disparity in the number of statements and try to get behind the figures. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that this was not put in out of a desire to have quotas. We went as far as saying that we do not want to use the word "quotas". I hope that he will accept my assurance.

Mr. Foster

I am grateful to the Minister for taking the opportunity to make that clear. She said, rightly, that there are real concerns about the differences in the number and timing of statements in different local education authorities. If what we have heard is a clear assurance that the intention of that section of the Green Paper is to "get behind the figures"—as she put it—and to gain a better understanding of what is going on so we learn from best practice, many people will be heartened.

Is the Minister aware that many people still have some suspicion that the Government intend to remove many of the legal rights and entitlements to special educational needs provision? She may be aware of a letter received in the past couple of days by the Secretary of State from a child of nearly 15 years who is a pupil at a Plymouth school. In his letter, Ryan Gross says: Dear Mr. Blunkett, I am nearly 15 years old and I have cerebral palsy. I go to Lipson Community College in Plymouth, a mainstream school. In September my mum spoke to you about the Green Paper and you gave her your guarantee that your government would not diminish or remove the rights of disabled children to their legal entitlement to help that their needs call for. Now, my mum and I have read your Green Paper and we are very worried that you will break your promise… Mr. Blunkett, I am asking you to keep your promise to my mum and not take away my right or the right of any other child to be protected by having a Statement of Need and the guaranteed provision that the statement gives us.

I believe from my understanding of the Green Paper that the Minister will be able to give an absolute guarantee that those rights will not be taken away. I hope very much that she will.

Finally, I wish to comment on spin-doctoring. I am grateful that the Minister has announced today a near trebling of the budget, but let us not be too carried away by her announcement. She has said that £11 million will be made available per annum. I have done a quick back-of-the-cigarette-packet calculation. I know, for example, that if a mainstream school introduces a lift to provide access for disabled children, it must be separately powered due to fire regulations. The cost, therefore, will be at least £50,000—and that may be an underestimate. On that basis, the entire sum announced today will provide 200 lifts for 24,000 schools. It will not go very far in helping to ensure that all disabled children's needs are met.

Ms Morris

It is better than nothing.

Mr. Foster

The Minister says from a sedentary position that it is better than nothing, and she is right. As she said, the move towards inclusion—with all the back-up, teacher training and resource support that will be needed—will cost a considerable amount. I am glad that the Government recognise that, but I hope to hear from them a real commitment to making those resources available. The children of this country deserve to have their needs met—those with special educational needs particularly deserve to have them met—but we also need resources.

10.45 am
Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)

I warmly welcome the Green Paper on special educational needs, which is the first comprehensive review of special needs for 20 years. With special needs education now costing £2.5 billion a year—12.5 per cent. of schools' budgets—it seems sensible to look closely at how this large sum can be spent and whether it is being spent in a way that will bring greater benefits to children in need.

In particular, it seems appropriate to consider in detail the operation of the statementing system. The number of statements nationwide has risen by 40 per cent. in the past five years. Nearly 3 per cent. of children now have statements, compared with the 2 per cent. envisaged in the Warnock report which led to the introduction of statements in 1981.

Although improved in recent years, there are still problems with the statementing system. As hon. Members will know from their constituency casework, the process is complex, bureaucratic and prone to lengthy delays which are harmful to children. As schools and parents demand ever more statements, the cost of statementing—together with the legal costs of dealing with tribunal cases—is putting a major strain on local education authority budgets, not least in London, part of which I represent.

Nobody—certainly not the Government in the Green Paper—is challenging the principle of statementing. Nobody—certainly not the Government, as the publication of the Green Paper proves—is disputing the need for special education provision. In 1981, Warnock estimated that one in five children would require some such form of provision at some stage in their school careers. That figure is borne out by the current estimate that 18 per cent. of the school population has special educational needs.

The question is whether the current levels of statementing represent the most appropriate and cost-effective form of intervention. That reasonable question is addressed in the Green Paper, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for School Standards has made it clear today that if savings can be made by reducing the number of statements the money saved will continue to be earmarked for special educational needs teaching. I welcome that vital assurance.

I also welcome the Green Paper's emphasis on early intervention in special needs. The Government are surely right to place the emphasis on preventative, rather than remedial action. Indeed, such intervention cannot come too early. That is why it is good to see in the Green Paper—and in more detail in the Department's draft guidance on behaviour support plans—the proposal that from April next year all LEAs should have in place early years development plans, focusing initially on four-year-olds and ultimately extending to all children from birth to eight years.

Language is vital for the development of literacy and other skills. Chapter 7 of the Green Paper rightly emphasises the need for improvements in speech therapy. I am pleased that the Government recognise the need to resolve the lack of clarity over funding for speech therapy between local education authorities and health authorities, and their willingness to consider changes in the law to ensure that children receive the services that they require.

Currently, the relatively small number of speech therapists face exceptionally heavy case loads, with children sometimes experiencing long waits—even for initial assessment. I hope that my hon. Friend can offer the assurance that an increase in the number of speech therapists, with appropriate salary levels and conditions of work to attract them, will be an early call on resources.

Above all, I welcome the Government's fundamental thrust in the Green Paper towards inclusion in their approach to special education. I welcome that approach because, as the representative of an inner-city constituency, I recognise all too clearly the penalties for individual children and young people—and to the wider society—of exclusion from the school system.

Between 1991–95, school exclusions in the United Kingdom rose by 400 per cent. Exclusions are rising most dramatically in the primary sector. Dr. Carl Parsons, author of the Canterbury Christ Church college report on exclusion, estimates that education authorities are now dealing with up to 20,000 permanently excluded children a year, at a direct cost to the country of £60 million.

Last week's White Paper on youth crime identified truancy and exclusion as a key factor relating to youth criminality. In its report on young people and crime, published just over a year ago, the Audit Commission found that 65 per cent. of school-age offenders were not attending lessons regularly. The majority—42 per cent.—had been excluded, while the other 23 per cent. were playing truant a significant amount of the time. It also estimated that around £1 billion is spent every year in dealing with the effects of juvenile delinquency. These are among the social costs to which exclusion contributes in significant measure.

The personal costs are to be found in the tremendous strain on the families caring for these children and young people, and the under-achievement, alienation and loss of worthwhile prospects for the individuals themselves.

Representing as I do the Lambeth area, I have a special cause for concern in the disproportionate level of exclusions among black pupils. Higher rates of exclusion among, in particular, Caribbean boys and youths is a well attested phenomenon, even if the estimates of over-representation vary somewhat. The Commission for Racial Equality's analysis of the DfEE's latest figures suggest that Caribbean pupils are about seven times more likely than white pupils to be excluded.

It is perfectly clear that the increasing number of black exclusions follows the general pattern of rising exclusions. There are many and varied explanations and possible solutions for this, some of which I shall touch on later. However, even where schools have successfully cut their exclusion rates, they have still not been able to address the over-representation of certain ethnic groups. In other words, we need to put in place strategies to tackle the specific needs of such groups. These should include developing partnerships with ethnic minority and other community organisations, developing mentoring programmes, teaching pupils how to respond to racial harassment, and discussing racism and inequality within the curriculum.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for school standards has personally endorsed the CRE's good practice guide. The guide contains a number of proposals to reduce exclusions in general, but I draw her attention again to three specific recommendations aimed at dealing with potential racism and racial stereotyping in schools: first, the inclusion of racial equality as a management issue in head teacher training; secondly, addressing racial equality issues within training programmes for existing teachers, particularly those concerning behaviour management and curriculum leadership; thirdly, ensuring that equal opportunities issues are central concerns within initial teacher training, alongside literacy and numeracy.

I come next to the issue of emotional and behavioural difficulties as a source of exclusion from schools, although I do not wish to link this directly with the issue of black exclusions. I say that because, interestingly, the 1996 Office for Standards in Education report on exclusion from secondary schools found that excluded Caribbean children tended to be relatively successful at school and that their disruptive behaviour did not usually date from early in their school career, nor was it obviously associated with deep-seated trauma as with many of the white children.

Nevertheless, the Green Paper recognises that the number of children perceived to fall into the grouping of those with emotional and behavioural difficulties is growing, that exclusion is sometimes the only recourse for such pupils, and that even when they are not formally excluded many of these children effectively remove themselves from the education process.

In their 1995 study of primary school exclusions, Hayden and Lawrence found that, among the LEAs that they examined, nearly half of excluded children had statements of special needs or were in the process of being assessed, mainly for EBD.

There is certainly evidence that exclusion is often linked with poor acquisition of basic skills, particularly literacy. Poor language skills can result in frustration, which is reflected in behavioural difficulties, and prevent the development of literacy skills. That is why I drew attention earlier to the importance of speech therapy as a means of diagnosing such problems at an early stage.

Equally, EBD can also prevent learning. That is why the Government are right to acknowledge in the Green Paper that early identification and intervention can be particularly successful in tackling EBD.

I welcome the support for nurture groups and for school behaviour policies designed to create the calm atmosphere for learning that children with EBD problems especially require. However, we should not overlook the fact that getting children to behave in the classroom may not deal with the underlying causes of bad behaviour. Conformity in the classroom does not solve the problem if children still take their anger away with them out of school. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Minister will look at methods such as those employed by educational therapists, some of which can be acquired by classroom teachers through initial or in-service training.

For some children, of course, only therapy will meet their needs, and they will not make progress without it. Nor, might I add, are all EBD children disruptive. There are quiet and withdrawn children who may well, for whatever reason—perhaps abuse—suffer from an emotional problem that prevents learning and for whom extra literacy support will not work unless the emotional issue is dealt with. However, where a child is disruptive, exclusion may be unavoidable, but it really must be as a last resort.

It is not just that exclusion is so expensive. Home tuition or placement in a pupil referral unit costs more than twice as much as teaching a child at school. More important, permanent exclusion can have a devastating effect on the educational chances of the individuals concerned. Only one in three pupils excluded from primary schools ever returs to mainstream education, and for secondary pupils it is less than one in five. For most excluded children, exclusion is a sentence for life.

From next April, all local education authorities will be required to prepare behaviour support plans, setting out their arrangements for the education of children with behavioural difficulties, including those with special educational needs. Under the SEN code of practice, of course, schools are required to tackle behaviour problems, but as I understand it local education authorities will only be required to set out their expectations of schools in identifying the cause of behaviour problems and the procedures to be adopted before calling on support services.

It has been suggested to me and I now suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that there is a problem with the linkage between the LEA and schools under the local management of schools and grant-maintained arrangements. In my borough of Lambeth, only half the primary schools buy in specialist support from the learning support service's primary pupil referral unit and only one of the seven secondary schools, five of which are grant-maintained, buy into the secondary referral unit. The remainder of the schools make their own arrangements for the non-statutory SEN stages. In other words, we are relying on schools to act wisely in this matter, but we have no guarantees.

If the Green Paper's object of reducing the number of statements is achieved, we shall be putting extra resources back into schools, but we shall not know or have any guarantees about how the resources are being used or even if they are being used for SEN purposes. That in turn relates to the general question of the future role of learning support services. Although the Green Paper discusses the changed role of educational psychologists and the use of special school staff to support mainstream schools, I imagine that my hon. Friend the Minister would agree that the preventive work carried out traditionally by learning support services is a cornerstone of SEN policy.

However, the consequence of the greater delegation of school budgets has been a move away from an LEA core-funded service towards systems such as service level agreements. In effect, learning support services have had to turn themselves into marketing agencies under pressure to sell their services to schools and to comply with schools' work specifications—not necessarily the most effective way to use the specialist skills of the support services.

In addition, those new market forces have created a trend towards short-term contracts for learning support staff. That raises the question how services can retain highly trained staff and expect them to undergo further training when there is no certainty of a job from one year to the next. Those are both serious problems, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will reflect on them.

I began by welcoming the Green Paper's emphasis on inclusion in its approach towards special educational needs. I have focused on the need to minimise the damaging consequences of pupil exclusion. I have no doubts about the immense demands that we are making on schools and teachers in asking them to embrace that inclusive approach. Faced with a violent and abusive year nine or 10 pupil, a teacher will certainly want rather more than warm words to be persuaded that such a pupil should not be kicked out on his ear. The teacher must be able to rely on a practical mechanism to deal with such a pupil.

The answer has to be a clear behaviour plan with teeth. hi other words, behaviour support teams must be available to take the pupil out of the classroom, work with him and turn him around so that he can be reintegrated into the classroom. That is the support mechanism that teachers have the right to expect, and it needs to be available in the form of a specialist behaviour support unit in the school. If the school will not fund it, LEAs must have the resources to supply it.

If schools are to accept the inclusive approach, they will also need various forms of assurance. Like teachers, schools will have to be confident that there will be practical support mechanisms on hand to deal with disruptive pupils. If they cannot, or will not, provide those support services, there is a strong case for every LEA to have a support unit.

We all know of the pressures on schools to perform well, both from parents and the Government, and both are right to require the highest standards of excellence. We also know that it only needs one disruptive pupil to create an atmosphere of chaos in a classroom and in the school at large, with disastrous consequences for the performance of other pupils. The temptation to solve the problem by exclusion is obvious. It is surely no coincidence that the recent surge in exclusions seems to date from the publication of the league tables.

If we are saying that we want as many children as possible to be in school and that we want schools to be open and to serve the whole community, schools will have to be rewarded for opening their doors to everyone. That means extra resources and support for the so-called sink schools, which will still take on a disproportionate responsibility for such pupils. Obviously, that is envisaged in the education action zone approach, which I welcome. I hope that we shall get one in Lambeth. I am sure that further resources will become available as and when it is prudent.

Also, it means a change in the way in which we judge the achievements of schools. A good school is not only a school that scores highly on the raw results in the league tables, but one that serves its community, not one that takes on children reluctantly. That is the importance of the Government's commitment to ending selection in schools and to introducing baseline assessment and measures of the value added by schools to their pupils. A good school is a school that provides excellence for all children, whatever their background or needs. I commend the Green Paper to the House.

11.6 am

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Special educational needs is a subject of great importance in education. I welcome much in the Green Paper. Opposition Members have made it clear that when we are in agreement with the Government we will give them our support and there is much here that we can support.

Considerable numbers of pupils are directly involved in this area and some of the issues involved have a bearing on the entire education system. The subject is also complicated, encompassing many different issues and problems, which can make clear analysis difficult. On a more trivial note, however, I found—as did many other people in my constituency who were sent the document—that after one reading it started to fall to pieces. Let us hope that future Government policies do not do the same quite so easily.

In the past 18 years, much has been done to promote standards in our schools, but as it used to say on my old school reports, "Could do better." That will always be the case in education. Many of the aspirations contained in the Green Paper are desirable, but I have some worries about some of the recommendations. Of course we want to raise standards for all pupils, including those with special educational needs. The Green Paper's emphasis on early intervention, raising expectations, target setting, teacher training, the role of parents and improving the efficiency of the present arrangements are all to be welcomed.

My main worries relate to the increasing inclusion that is central to the Green Paper's thinking. Obviously it is sensible in many cases to educate pupils with special educational needs within mainstream education. For many, it is the most appropriate environment for social as well as educational reasons. It can also be more cost-effective to deal with special educational needs within the mainstream.

At the moment, there are parents who prefer their children to be educated within the main system, but who face practical obstacles in doing so. If their child is disabled, they can face problems of access. The Green Paper's pledge in favour of significant expansion in the schools' access initiative will be widely welcomed. It will help mainstream schools to become more accessible to disabled children who would otherwise be denied access.

The emphasis on inclusion must be qualified. Inclusion is fine only if it is the best solution for both special needs pupils and their fellow pupils. When those two interests co-incide, inclusion makes sense, but the assumption that inclusion is, by definition, good is not universally shared. We must never forget the sensitivities involved in SEN, particularly in relation to parents. Many parents whose children have SEN have expressed concern about how their children's needs are being met. Many fear that inclusion will lead to their children's SEN requirements being neglected in a mainstream school and that the emphasis on inclusion will mean that their right to opt for a special school will be diminished.

The Green Paper states that the approach to SEN must be practical and not dogmatic, and that the right to opt for a special school will be retained. The fear is that, as inclusion becomes the benchmark by which SEN initiatives will be judged, it will become practically more difficult to opt for a special school. The Green Paper contains a number of commitments to work with a specific number of schools to identify ways in which special and mainstream schools can support each other. The practice of piloting changes in specific schools and LEAs is sensible as it helps to establish whether the proposals will work in practice.

The Green Paper also mentions the funding of research into the relative costs, benefits and practical implications of education within mainstream and special schools. To an extent, it seems to put the cart before the horse. Would it not be more sensible to await the conclusions of such research before placing unqualified emphasis on inclusion?

That brings me to one of the difficulties of discussing SEN—the fact that the sheer diversity of needs included within that category makes talking clearly about the subject complicated. I wish to deal with a specific group with special needs, which will pose the greatest difficulty to extending inclusion—children with emotional and behavioural difficulties—and the problems that that group experiences in the mainstream system. That group of children—mainly boys—has a range of problems, from short-term emotional difficulties to serious psychological problems. Their behaviour often results in exclusion and can be the result of many factors, including the breakdown of the family unit, poor parenting or experience of early learning difficulties.

The problem with those children is that they seem to spend more time outside the school environment than inside, which makes it difficult to counteract the negative impact of the external environment. They disrupt not only their own education but that of others. We must bear that factor in mind when discussing the problem. The needs of a small minority must be balanced with those of the vast majority of children.

How can we maximise the educational attainment of all children in the most appropriate environment? That must be done without compromising the interests of one group at the expense of another. I am particularly worried by the proposal to give schools financial incentives to encourage them to keep pupils at risk of exclusion and to admit pupils who have been excluded from other schools. That sends out the wrong signal by tempting schools to abdicate their objective judgment by making an exclusion decision based on budgetary considerations.

I hope that the Government will take those concerns into account when they prepare their White Paper.

11.13 am
Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

Initially, I intended to thank both Front Benches for their broadly non-partisan approach; I am happy to extend my thanks to all three Front Benches. The subject of special educational needs is far too serious for us to get stuck in the mire of partisanship or dogma. I share the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister about the previous Government's action on special educational needs.

I was trying to come up with a crack about the attraction of foxes as opposed to children with special educational needs. However, I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have good reasons not to be in the Chamber today.

"Excellence in schools" was the title of the Government's White Paper published in July. It has now been followed up by the Green Paper bearing an extended version of that title, "Excellence for all children". The transition neatly mirrors the change of emphasis that has taken place under a Labour Government.

Schools identify almost one child in five as having some sort of special educational need. In the LEA that covers my constituency of Harrow, East, more than 900 children have individual statements showing the special educational needs provision that they require.

Although deprivation and special educational needs are clearly linked—much research shows that—SEN is not the exclusive preserve of inner-city, deprived areas. Areas of a far more mixed nature, such as Harrow, East, which is far from being the affluent suburbia that many people think it is, still have real concerns, albeit often of a different nature from the vast array and complexity of the difficulties alluded to by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall).

Whereas in the past doing one's best meant sympathetically tolerating low achievement, it now means tough adherence to the belief that all members of society have a positive contribution to make. The teaching profession in Harrow shares my high hopes for children in Harrow. The vast majority of children will, as adults, contribute economically to society, and all will contribute in other ways. That underpins our approach to special educational needs. Only this week, for example, Harrow held a Duke of Edinburgh award ceremony, when special school pupils with severe learning difficulties received bronze awards alongside A-level students from an independent school and young people from a range of secondary mainstream schools.

It is not, as others have said, merely a question of hoping; we have high expectations for children with special educational needs. The Labour Government's vision is excellence for all, not excellence for all except those with special educational needs. We have heard much today about how we can achieve that goal. However, no one claims that it will be easy and no one, least of all my hon. Friend the Minister, claims that the Green Paper contains all the answers. It is an extremely complex matter and much remains to be done on a cross-party basis to prevent children with SEN from being left behind and excluded, and from going on to join the one twelfth of 16-year-olds who currently leave school with no GCSEs, or the one sixth of adults with inadequate literacy and numeracy skills.

Early identification and intervention are therefore absolutely essential. Partnerships between professionals working with the under-fives and assessing pupils as they begin school will help to identify and address problems before they have a chance to get worse. There have been some successful Portage systems for working with parents of pre-school children. I cannot stress enough the importance of early intervention, not least to prevent subsequent SEN and emotional and behavioural difficulties at secondary school level. In many areas, although not all, that is preventable, because if children's problems are tackled early enough, they can go on to secondary school without significant SEN.

As pupils progress, it is vital that schools and parents have high expectations of the standards that pupils with SEN are capable of achieving. I do not seek to make a partisan point, but over the past 20, 30 or 40 years there has been, to an extent, an expectation of failure and of low performance and under-achievement by pupils with SEN. In this day and age, that is simply not acceptable. If that is a criticism, it is a criticism of the generic education profession, not a party political point.

Whereas only 2 per cent. of mainstream schools are deemed to be failing, the corresponding figure for special schools is 7 per cent. That is a telling statistic and a shameful legacy, which we are all determined to tackle.

The targets set for individuals, schools and LEAs will take SEN into account more than ever before. The new entry level awards as outlined in the Green Paper will be available for pupils for whom GCSEs and GNVQs at 16 are not appropriate. If we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past, we must take care that those awards are not offered as a second-class alternative to GCSEs, when higher expectations of pupils might lead to GCSE success. Although we should welcome those awards, we should not see them as an alternative, formalised secondary route for pupils with SEN. They must not dampen expectations that might otherwise exist were those awards not available.

Targets should be qualitative as well as quantitative. We should not run away from the fact that they should include factors such as the successful integration or reintegration of children with SEN in mainstream schools, as well as targets connected with the league tables.

The fear has been expressed that such targets will encourage and formalise inclusion into mainstream schools to the exclusion of any other option, but when inclusion works for SEN pupils, that should be recorded faithfully when we measure the performance of our schools.

We must not lose sight of parents and carers. Should I mention parents later in my speech, hon. Members should take that to mean parents and/or carers depending on what is appropriate. There is no reason why parents and carers of children with SEN should not know where to turn for help, but all too often that has been their experience. In many cases, that help has been available, but I accept what has been said about the geographical lottery of such help. In the past, parents did not know how to gain access to it and in other cases, that help was simply unavailable. The Green Paper proposes concrete measures to ensure that that is no longer the case.

Parents and carers will be given a greater ability to place their children within an integrated mainstream environment, while retaining their current right to express a preference for a special school place for their child. I partly understand the fear that that might mean that a child's right to a place at a special school will be downgraded, but I do not believe that that will happen. That option must be retained as part of the overall comprehensive provision of SEN. It is absolutely right, however, to reverse the balance so that, where possible, inclusion in the main stream is the norm and special school placement is the alternative. If that emphasis is reversed, it will change fundamentally the role and nature of special schools. They will be rejuvenated and reinvigorated as part of total education provision within an LEA, rather than being considered as an add-on sideline.

Under existing legislation, parents are offered independent advice only when a child receives a statement. The Green Paper proposes that that option should be available to all parents as soon as their children's needs are formally assessed. It is crucial that a child's problems are assessed early. From next year, parent partnership schemes, another vital source of support, will be eligible to secure resources from the standards fund. By 2002 there will be one scheme in every LEA. I am happy to tell the House that Harrow already has an extremely successful parent partnership scheme, which acts effectively as a go-between for parents and the LEA, and it has led to increased understanding and consensus. Harrow also has a network of locally trained named persons to offer a vital source of support. That, too, is part of the Green Paper proposals.

The SEN tribunal will remain the final arbiter in a dispute between parents and an LEA. There is a real chance, however, that the number of appeals to it will be reduced because of vastly improved arrangements for dialogue between parents, schools and LEAs. Parents and carers will become empowered, supported partners with local services, working to get the best for every child with SEN. They will no longer be the last, if not often forgotten, element in the equation.

It is right that people should ask how the proposals will work in practice, because a robust framework for monitoring SEN is essential. The emphasis should be on practical support, not procedures. In the past, all Governments have been guilty of concentrating far too much on such procedures, bureaucracy and the associated processes rather than on practical support. They should have concentrated on the key elements of implementation, to ensure that the best is offered to each child.

As has already been said, LEAs spend £2.5 billion a year on SEN. It is vital for all concerned, and for the House, that that money is well spent. Under the Green Paper proposals, an improved SEN code of practice will build on past good work, and greater emphasis will be placed on intervention at the earliest stage. Such intervention may take place while a child is still receiving help at school, and, for many, before they enter the statementing process.

I accept people's fears about the role of statements in terms of their legal position, but I believe that those fears are unfounded. The emphasis of the Green Paper is that action should be taken at the earliest possible stage, so that one can focus more and more on what a child needs before one reaches the statementing process and tribunals. Surely that must be a good thing. Early intervention will in some cases, although not in all, obviate the need for statements, and that will avoid possible subsequent difficulties with tribunals. Paperwork will be kept to a minimum and the result of such improvements will, I hope, be fewer delays for parents and their children.

Our strategy for raising standards for all as laid out in the School Standards and Framework Bill and the White Paper will lead to fewer children needing a statement, because their SEN will be met by other means such as the national literary strategy, early intervention and improved behavioural expectations.

I am not suggesting that the proposals outlined in the Bill will act as a panacea and that SEN will disappear—far from it. If a child is subject to early intervention on literacy and numeracy, he might not end up being labelled SEN or be statemented later. I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister said about the access fund increasing to £11 million. As ever, that was met with a rather muted welcome by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who said that that is not enough. We know that. I do not recall my hon. Friend saying that, because the funding had gone up from £4 million to £11 million, all problems with access to mainstream schools had been solved. That increase must be a step in the right direction.

The Government are committed to comprehensive and enforceable civil rights for disabled people. Our aspirations as a nation must be for all our people. For that reason, it is important that children with SEN should be educated in mainstream schools wherever possible. "Wherever possible" does not mean that such an option is an afterthought designed to cope with the most difficult cases; rather, that we must genuinely consider what is best for a child. I accept that in many cases it may not be possible or the best thing for certain children to be taught in a mainstream school. That is fine, because it is no better or worse than if that child were taught in a mainstream school—the fundamental focus must be the interest of each child.

Where children with SEN can be taught in mainstream schools, the benefits will be experienced by all concerned. Other children will grow up less ignorant about those with SEN, with all its complexities, if they are sitting next to such children in the class every day. Children with SEN will be better prepared for life after school if they are included in mainstream schooling.

I applaud the fact that the Government support the UNESCO Salamanca world statement on special needs, which adopts the principle of inclusive education wherever possible, unless there are compelling reasons for doing otherwise. Those compelling reasons must be connected with the interests of the child, rather than resources or the convenience of some in the teaching profession. The interests of the child must be paramount.

I am proud that Harrow is the sixth most inclusive LEA in the country. We have had particular success with including children with sensory impairments, such as those who are blind, the physically disabled, those on the autistic continuum—that is particularly appropriate, given that it is National Autism Week—and those with moderate learning difficulties.

Harrow also has a good record in providing integration experiences for many of our children in special schools. Inclusion need not mean having children with SEN taught completely in the main stream or in special schools, and never the twain shall meet. There are some good programmes throughout the country providing integration experiences for children who, for compelling reasons of what is best for them, are taught in special schools, but who also benefit from structured visits to the mainstream.

In the spirit of the non-partisan approach that we have adopted, I freely admit that the foundations and building bricks of Harrow's successful approach to SEN were introduced by an enlightened Conservative council. Our success does not date from the hung council from 1994 onwards, but goes way back to the mid-1970s, when Harrow became a comprehensive LEA. We now see the fruits of the good practice implemented when the Conservatives commanded a huge majority in Harrow. To move slightly away from non-partisanship, I am happy that that huge majority no longer exists, but their good work in respect of inclusive education for children with SEN is still there. All local parties in Harrow, including the Conservatives, can be proud of that.

Above all else, the needs of the individual child are paramount. Specialist support must be made available wherever needed. It has been argued in certain quarters that the Green Paper's proposals somehow constitute a threat to disabled people, but that is utter nonsense. Improved access to school buildings for the physically disabled and the use of new technology for those with sensory impairment will be a fundamental first step. Specialist schools, of which there are three in Harrow, will not be made redundant by the proposals, but will be rejuvenated. They will work together with mainstream schools in support of one another.

Particular attention has rightly been paid to schemes to help children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Discrepancies in facilities, funding and demand for services will be evened out by greater emphasis on provision at a reasonable level. National and local programmes to support increased inclusion will be in place by 2002. We have been talking about the geographically patchy distribution of access to support for SEN, but the confused and complex field of emotional and behavioural difficulties is even more of a lottery than SEN, where the needs of the child are more readily recognised and identified.

All this talk of schools cannot ignore the essential contribution made by professionals working with children with SEN. Teachers are an essential asset to national life, but in the past they have been overlooked, deprecated and, far too often, demonised. That will not be the case under our plans in both the new Bill and the Green Paper. I fully endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) about understanding the real difficulties faced by teacher.

Teachers will receive more information about SEN in their initial training, which is right and proper; and will have enhanced opportunities to improve their skills in teaching children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Head teachers, SEN co-ordinators and other specialists will have their training programmes enhanced. Teachers' helps will receive professional training and governors will receive guidance on their responsibilities towards SEN children. By 2002, there will be a national agreement on ways of reducing the time spent by educational psychologists on assessments and developing the service that they offer to children with SEN. Another highlight of the Green Paper is the welcome recognition of the important role of learning support assistants and the need to provide training for that undervalued group of staff, which grows larger each year.

I feel bound to rebut the unfair criticism levelled at the Green Paper by certain representatives of the teaching profession, who really should know better. Rather than be polite, as was my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, it is time to name names. Nigel de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers was quoted in The Times Educational Supplement of 24 October as saying that there is a "strong possibility" of industrial action by teachers if they face an influx of "impossible children". That was the best reaction he could manage to a far-reaching and comprehensive Green Paper on SEN. Mr. de Gruchy should be absolutely ashamed of himself. Children with SEN are not impossible and such labels are not appropriate in such a sensitive matter.

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

The hon. Gentleman is obviously not affiliated to that union.

Mr. McNulty

I should declare a partial interest, in that I am a member of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, so I am a bit higher up the teaching ladder.

Children with SEN are not impossible. As other hon. Members have said, labels and symbols in such a sensitive area are not useful and people should think before speaking. We must never give up on those with the worst behavioural and emotional difficulties, who often present teachers with the biggest challenge. Times are changing and the old ways of thinking are not good enough any more—Bob Dylan is 56 and the Spice Girls might well be No. 1 at Christmas. Institutionalised under-achievement will no longer be tolerated—there is no longer a role for acceptable levels of under-performance. All must embrace the principle of excellence for all. How dare people write off our children and blight their future in such a way? We shall fully support teachers who are facing fresh challenges, and I believe that they will support us in trying to do the best for all children, not merely those whom Mr. de Gruchy would presumably label "possible".

Harrow manages both to achieve high levels of attainment for all its children—we are third or fourth in the latest league tables—and to be one of the most inclusive LEAs in the country in terms of children with SEN. Harrow's learning support policy is well supported by schools and all in the local education community. The importance of a positive approach to SEN cannot be underestimated.

The most exciting and potentially the most fruitful of the Government's proposals are the ideas on disseminating good practice in SEN. LEAs, social services departments and health authorities are to share information, and up-to-date research will be made more widely available. In particular, speech and language therapy will be more effectively provided than ever before.

There will even be a post mortem by the Department for Education and Employment on the experiences of young people with SEN after leaving school. That cannot fail to help schools and colleges to prepare young people for adult life more effectively. It is about time that that was marked out as an exciting way forward—finally, as much as schools and LEAs, all the appropriate agencies will, in a more formalised fashion, have to talk to each other, work together, integrate their approaches and be inclusive.

What happens now? It is time to catch our breath. The first step is a wide national consultation on the Green Paper proposals. All this week, consultation meetings have been taking place in Harrow: councillors, teachers, parents, governors, support services and local education officers all came together to discuss these issues. It is no exaggeration to say that packed audiences gathered on Wednesday and Thursday to help to fashion Harrow's contribution to the consultation process. It is hoped to follow that up with discussion with the children in our schools. The Government are asking this country's education community and everyone concerned with our children to give their best ideas for the development of SEN provision. This is the most far-reaching review of SEN for almost 20 years, and people can and will have their say.

The result of the consultation and the final implementation of the policies outlined in the Green Paper will, I hope, be excellence for all our children. Gone are the days when children could be excluded on the ground of their needs and banished to schools where their failure and under-achievement were assumed and where they were kept out of the way of brighter and "possible" children. With the White Paper, the School Standards and Framework Bill and this Green Paper, the Government have shown that all our children matter; that the standards set for all our children will be improved; that every child will be stretched to perform to the best of their ability; that no child will be given up on; and that, where possible, all our children will be taught in an inclusive, supporting environment.

We demand excellence for all our children—they deserve no less—and all parents, carers, teachers, heads, learning support assistants and other professionals will work with LEAs and the Government to achieve that excellence. We should let every child flourish and all dreams become reality. We should help all our children, especially those with special educational needs, to realise their full potential. We owe them that and much, much more.

I commend the Green Paper, and I hope that the cross-party approach will be continued.

11.39 am
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I believe that the former hon. Member for Harrow, East, Mr. Dykes, was well known for being able to see the Labour party's view, and I welcome the fact that the new hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) is prepared to see the Conservative party's view. I hope that he will continue to do so—believe me, there are more issues on which that may be possible.

The fact that for every 100 Labour Members of Parliament who were here a week ago to enshrine the legal rights of foxes there is, in the Chamber today, barely one to consider the rights of needy children, speaks for itself. None of those Members appears to be truly prepared to defend those children's needs, which is what we need to do today. The fact that this debate was chosen for a Friday morning following a busy Friday the week before also arouses my suspicions.

Yesterday, I was at a meeting with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), who was not even aware that this debate was to be held this morning. I hope that she and her colleagues on the Labour Benches who will be with me during the Select Committee's deliberations next week when we address special educational needs will show more vigour when it comes to examining what the Government are doing.

Bipartisanship generates a nice warm feeling, but I cannot help remarking that the Government are selective about bipartisanship. There was no bipartisanship when the Chancellor stood up the other day with his little bag of Christmas goodies; there was no suggestion that he should compliment the Conservatives on the superlative performance of the economy under their Administration, which made it possible for him to stand up and deliver his bag of goodies.

In my limited experience, when Labour Ministers talk about bipartisanship, it is normally because they intend to do something unpleasant and want to have us on board while they do it, so that they cannot be fingered with the blame. While I do not dispute the sincerity of the speech of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, I am concerned that she, too, may be having the wool pulled over her eyes by her Department.

There is something almost Orwellian in the language used in the Green Paper on the subject of special educational needs. We are told on one page that the Government do not intend to impose targets, but we are told on the next that they want to see the proportion of children with special educational needs reduced from 18 per cent. to 10 per cent. What is that, if it is not a target?

We were told this morning in the Minister's intervention that the Government had no intention of introducing quotas. I am sure that I speak for all Conservative Members when I say how warmly I welcome that. But do the Government need quotas to achieve their aims when clause 31 of the School Standards and Framework Bill due to come before the House enables the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to impose his will and close some of the special educational needs schools?

I also have a concern, which I am sure others will share, that the Government are the captive of fashion. Words such as inclusion and phrases such as early intervention are important in this debate—I do not want to deny that—but should we derive from the fact that inclusion is a success for some schools that the same formula will work in every case and every area? That would be a great mistake on our part.

Concerns about the Green Paper go wider. The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice said that the Green Paper's proposal, promising "named people", as they are called, but without legal backing, "rings hollow", as does the proposal to cut the number of children who have statements. In one of its articles, it states: This is a crude attempt to save money at the expense of large numbers of needy children. IPSEA also estimates that as many as 20,000 children a year could lose, as a result of the changes, their legal entitlement to services that they can currently receive.

The matter worries not just that organisation, but my constituents. I have received a number of letters from constituents who are concerned about a range of issues relating to the Green Paper. I received a letter from parents in Cranleigh describing their difficulties getting their child's needs recognised. They say that, as a father myself, I will understand the long-term effects on the whole family of their child continually struggling in the school environment. It has affected both of them and their three other children, who are aged between 16 and six, enormously. What hurts them most of all is seeing their child suffering unnecessarily, both mentally and emotionally, because he is wholly aware of the widening gap between his own and his peers' abilities, and teachers report him hiding his work to avoid being teased or ridiculed.

The idea of inclusion may sound fine in theory, but there are limits on how far one can impose it in practice without damaging the chances of some needy children who, if their needs are addressed, have an important contribution to make to our society.

As has been mentioned, this is the week for autism. I received another letter from a constituent in another part of the constituency who has a five-year-old child with severe learning difficulties and autism. The letter describes how the parents fought long and hard to get a place for their son at his present school. They are worried that with the weakening or removal of the current legal framework, our situation would be hopeless.

Those worries are the result of the casual way in which the Green Paper has thrown open the issue and thrown up the prospect of the number of children recognised as having special educational needs being reduced, and the effect that that will have on children who are entering the school system today. I hope that we can hear more reassurances from Ministers on their intentions in terms of the numbers and whether they will impose a top-down approach, or whether, as the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) suggested—and I agree—if we are to reduce the numbers with special educational needs, we will tackle the problems early enough to resolve them. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on that.

The third case that I wish to mention from my constituency is positive and relates to the positive environment that can be created in some of the residential schools for these children. The letter describes a child at a residential school in my constituency who has been there since the age of five and will remain there until she is 16. The letter states: This has provided her with a secure environment with children of similar abilities and dedicated staff, which has given her confidence in her own skills…In our opinion, our daughter would not have flourished, as she has, in a mainstream school where class sizes and peer pressure would have given her such an inferiority complex, that she might never have found the confidence to live an independent life. The examples that I have given are telling, and show that the Government bear a heavy responsibility in presenting ideas that will change provision for the children we are discussing today.

I have mentioned that we have a number of special needs schools in my constituency. I am concerned that the Department will not take into account the major steps taken by such schools in recent years. Two schools in particular deal with those who suffer from emotional or behavioural difficulties. The way in which those failing schools have been turned around and become a success has been remarkable. Last year, one girl left one of the schools at 16 with 10 As in her GCSEs. That was an outstanding performance and a great credit to the school.

I am concerned by the words in the Green Paper on the appeals process. We have been told that it is bureaucratic and adds greatly to the costs of running the system but, as the hon. Member for Harrow, East said, we have to put that in the context of the fact that £2.5 billion a year is spent in this sector—a seventh of the entire education budget. I should like the Minister to clarify that point. In written answers, the Department said that the average cost to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal of a hearing is about £820 and that, in the year to August 1996, the Special Educational Needs Tribunal conducted 903 hearings". The cost of those 903 hearings is not vast in the context of the budget. Even more important is the fact that, as the reply states, in the same period parents' appeals were upheld, either in full or in part, in 620 cases."—[Official Report, 24 July 1997; Vol. 298, c. 756.] That is more than two thirds of cases. Parents are concerned that, if these procedures are not adhered to and if a short cut is found to save a relatively small sum for the Department, the real needs of children will be overlooked and legal cases such as the one my hon. Fiend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) mentioned will come back to haunt us. By the time such cases are dealt with, it will in many ways be too late for the children concerned.

The Government have said much about consultation. Again, as with bipartisanship, I am sceptical about their motives when they talk about consultation. It is often a means by which a public relations exercise is carried out, the Government already having decided what they want to do.

Mrs. Browning

Although a spirit of co-operation has prevailed during the debate, which I welcome, I assure my hon. Friend that, as we are in a consultation, we are seeking answers to questions, but that if, at the end of that consultation, some of the fears raised in the House become a reality, we will bring the Government to account.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments. She makes it clear that, although some Labour Members have read their speeches in an almost thoughtless manner this morning, we are on the ball and determined that the real needs of children will not be overlooked by a departmental agenda that, at heart, many of us mistrust.

As the School Standards and Framework Bill sets up a framework by which local authorities can, if they deem it necessary, close special educational needs schools, why is it necessary to have clause 31, by which the Secretary of State may in effect override the local decision-making process and impose a decision to discontinue a school? Clause 31 states that the Secretary of State may give a direction to the local education authority by whom the school is maintained requiring the school to be discontinued on a date specified in the direction. The Government will not even give the local authority a second chance to consider how long the school has to close. That could cause immense disruption for the children.

As I have mentioned, we have several special needs schools in the Guildford area. At least two are at the cutting edge of new ideas and new ways of dealing with some of the most disadvantaged, in educational terms, children in society. There is a further danger in the top-down approach from central Government: the knowledge, understanding and skills that are developed in those special schools will be lost and dissipated as a result of ill-thought-out changes. Clause 31 will only add to the worries of such schools. I hope that, in her reply, the Minister will deal with that point.

I hope that we can be bipartisan about one thing. It seems that the issue of having inclusion where it can work is not in dispute, but do the Government realise what that means? If we are to have children of much less academic ability in a school and they are not to feel as if they are second-rate citizens there, we have to be imaginative. It is important that the esteem of those children is promoted.

Often, children with educational difficulties have talents in other areas—perhaps in music, on the playing fields or in drama. Will the Government give schools the resources to promote those activities, in which such children may excel and therefore come to win the regard and respect of their fellow pupils even though their academic performance may not be on the same plane? That gets to the heart of the challenge that faces the Government if they are sincere in their policies on inclusion and are not involved merely in a money-saving exercise under the guise of some warm words.

11.57 am
Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State on her speech, which covered and dealt with many of the issues that the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) has mentioned. I do not think that he was in the Chamber for my hon. Friend's speech. I was not either, but I listened to it in my room and I was impressed.

One of the claims we need to nail immediately is the idea that this is a cost-cutting exercise. My hon. Friend said that is an attempt to move money. Other hon. Members, who have not been quite as testy as the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), have stated that resources should be shifted to early intervention and practical support.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Is the hon. Gentleman comfortable with clause 31 of the School Standards and Framework Bill? Why does he think it is necessary to override local decision making?

Mr. Colman

I shall come to that. The hon. Gentleman obviously has no experience of local education authorities. He had a distinguished career in banking. Many of the areas that he criticised are the responsibility of his local education authority and local council. I shall give good examples of how LEAs are able to deliver later. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) spoke on that subject.

There are no quotas and targets to be met because there is a partnership between central and local government. As many hon. Members would agree, there is a need, in areas such as Hackney, for reserve powers. The House must not abdicate its responsibility for the delivery of many policies by delegating to local government. I think that the hon. Member for Guildford will accept that the spirit of reserve powers is in the Bill, which has yet to receive its Second Reading.

Before the hon. Member for Guildford spoke, I was heartened by the general agreement that we are debating a cross-party matter. Certainly at local education authority level and within education committees it is seen in that way. I hope that that continues. I was pleased to note that the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) and for Bath (Mr. Foster) and other hon. Members paid tribute to the National Autistic Society. I commend to those who have not yet signed it my early-day motion on Autism Awareness Week, which brings the matter to the attention of the House.

The early-day motion has interesting signatories in that it contains the signatures of fellow members of the Treasury Committee. I think that its signing is a first for the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd) and for the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies). The motion clearly suggests support from the banking community and from others who wish to deal with issues related to autism and special educational needs.

I commend to the House the "Timetable for autism" which is mentioned in my early-day motion. It has not been mentioned in the debate but I am glad to say that some hon. Members have a copy of it. I commend to the Minister pages 12 and 13 and ask her to ensure that the National Autistic Society's work on training and accreditation is considered before the Government publish a White Paper and possibly a Bill. I endorse "SPELLcheck", which has nothing to do with the function on our word processors, but is an autism-specific training and development audit for local authorities who seek to enhance and develop their provision for people with autism.

I draw to the Minister's attention the six proposals on pages 14 and 15 of the document in the context of the National Autistic Society's view on what every LEA should provide. First, the earlier specialist intervention starts, the better the outcome. I know that the Green Paper and the Minister support that. I commend to the House the society's early intervention project, which is called "EarlyBird". That will be a great help in ensuring that children who have autism can be identified early.

Secondly, I strongly endorse an informed balance of mainstream and specialist education. Planning for that is important. The society states that all children should be monitored and that there should be a clear approach to how that can be done. Thirdly, LEAs should provide informed staff. Everyone who teaches children with autistic spectrum disorders, whatever the type of placement, should have knowledge of autism. Fourthly, LEAs should provide the right educational environment for children with autism. Whatever the location, teaching approaches must be deeply empathetic and the environment must be organised to reduce clutter and promote calm. A structured routine and consistency are all important.

Fifthly, there should be individual help for the child. Children with autism have highly individual needs in the areas of thinking, self-organisation and communication. The programme of support must be individually determined.

Sixthly, where appropriate, a statement of special educational needs must be based on the child's individual condition. If autistic spectrum disorder were to be mentioned as a specific condition, which I would wish in any revised code of practice, it would greatly assist in ensuring that the child received support and education that is appropriate to his or her needs. I regret to say that there is currently no specific requirement that autism be indicated on a statement of special educational needs. I commend to the House those six items in the "Timetable for autism".

I mentioned the differences between one local education authority and another. I am the hon. Member who represents Putney but, for the previous six years, until July 1997, I was the leader of Merton council. I commend the excellent offices of that borough, from which I know the Minister has received and continues to receive advice on projects and ways of working with special educational needs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) has drawn attention to the need to deal correctly with pupils with emotional/behavioural difficulties. I am proud to say that, in Merton, we have very few such exclusions. Nevertheless, I agree with him on the need to deal correctly with those pupils and particularly on the need to monitor possible exclusions among ethnic minorities—which we are doing.

Across my local education authority, only 19 children from the secondary sector and eight from the primary sector are in special schools. Despite Mr. Nigel de Gruchy's suggestion, it is possible to retain within the school system children with emotional/behavioural difficulties.

In my six years in Merton, we reduced, with parents' agreement, the number of children in special residential schools. As the hon. Member for Guildford said, there are excellent residential schools. However, many parents are concerned about children being away during the week, not being part of the family and being unable to take part in family activities except during holidays.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some children's home environment is, sadly, so disrupted that they can learn to cope with that environment and to appreciate the need for education only by being removed from it for a few nights a week? Those schools play that vital role.

Mr. Colman

I fully accept that and I am pleased that we have returned to cross-party agreement. As I said, parents particularly wanted the change that occurred during my six years as leader of Merton council because they wanted their children to be integrated with their neighbours' children. Individual cases will have to be dealt with as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but the parents with whom I spoke in those six years much preferred to have their children back in their neighbourhood's special or mainstream school—whichever they decided.

Statements should contain success criteria. Far too often, statementing has been extremely negative: that is not the way forward. The hon. Member for Guildford may not agree, but goals should be set towards which children are helped.

The most important change that I registered when there was a change of control on Merton council was the enormous time required for the statementing procedure. In some boroughs—not Labour boroughs—delay was sometimes used to keep down the number being dealt with.

Mrs. Browning

They all do it.

Mr. Colman

The hon. Lady is quite right; I am now doing it.

In Merton, statementing occurs within 18 weeks. I hope that the Minister will publish the timetables regularly so that we can see how the statementing procedure is progressing. I am concerned that more than 60 per cent. of LEAs are nowhere near the level achieved by Merton. Perhaps central Government should intervene in this area to point out clearly where those LEAs should improve their performance.

I want to ensure seamless provision across local and central Government and I am concerned that different Department for Education and Employment policies could cause tension. I shall give three examples, to which the Minister may wish to refer later.

First, as Merton shifts more pupils from special to mainstream schools—I am sure that Wandsworth also has an excellent record in this area—it is important that money is made available through the phasing-out of the assisted places scheme. We are moving to the excellent situation of maximum class sizes of 30 for five, six and seven-year-olds. There must be co-ordination to ensure that, as pupils with special needs enter mainstream schools, account is taken of resources in order to benefit both education streams. The integration of children with special educational needs into mainstream schools should not cause problems if that is what their parents want. However, financing may be an area of concern.

My second concern relates to literacy and numeracy targets in mainstream schools. I hope that the Minister will ensure that those targets take account of children who find it difficult to catch up and attain the same standards as other pupils. Such children should not be castigated for their performance: it is not their fault. The system must assist them. It is important that that factor is taken into account in any examination of league tables and literacy and numeracy targets.

The previous Government set targets for training and enterprise councils and phased out support for many young people with special educational needs who wished to enter the work force. That has now eased, but it is important to ensure that any literacy and numeracy targets take account of the mixed abilities of children in schools in particular areas.

I come now to my third area of concern. I am proud of the facilities that SEN makes available to children across the borough of Merton, but as we move towards a 100 per cent. delegated schools budget and there is less money for LEAs to spend on central services, we must ensure that specialists and SEN facilities continue to be available to all schools on a cost-effective basis. Not every school can have its own specialist facilities, so it is important to retain access to those services in the local education authority area.

I shall now consider the matters that my hon. Friend the Minister raised when she opened the debate. First, help should be given for early years education, with money being reallocated and, I hope, new money being provided. As the National Autistic Society has said, it is important to identify and provide help at the earliest point.

Secondly, mainstream schools should be encouraged to take children with special educational needs, but only when appropriate. The knowledge that I gained as leader of Merton council for six years leads me to support that view. It is important that it should not happen without parental agreement. Parents should decide.

Thirdly, parents must be empowered. It is important that they know that they are in the driving seat. Fourthly, the training of teachers must change. That is one of the three key points raised by Autism Awareness Week—early years development, training and a third element that I have forgotten; I shall come back to it.

The fifth item is co-operative working. I have talked about the need for services from the local education authority. I also applaud the idea of regional working. I look forward to the Greater London authority having an interest, just as I wish it to have an interest in health. I do not want it to take on responsibility for delivery, but to ensure co-ordination of services.

My last point—the point from which we started—is that we do not want a reduction in resources. I have support from the Minister on that. Resources are being shifted to early intervention and practical support. That is the third point made by the National Autistic Society. I remind hon. Members that the three points were early intervention, teacher training and development, and resources in schools to deliver the policies that we all want.

12.16 pm
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

This is an important debate. As the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) said earlier, it is a pity that it is being held on a Friday morning. The attendance today contrasts with that last week. It is also a particular pity for me, because my wife is nine months and one day pregnant. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I do not linger for the winding-up speeches in view of the rumblings on my pager.

I have been a governor of inner-city primary schools and technology colleges in Wandsworth with a high proportion of special educational needs children. I have also been struck by the many desperate surgery cases that have come to me since I became a Member of Parliament. Parents and grandparents bringing up afflicted children are struggling against the system to get the special educational treatment that those children deserve and need. I am still dealing with many of those cases. We have some excellent special educational needs schools in my constituency and throughout West Sussex, which has a proud tradition of provision for SEN children.

I will concentrate later on severe SEN cases and the principles of funding. I welcome the Green Paper, but it raises important questions that need to be dealt with. They are fundamental to our approach to special educational needs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) mentioned the scale of the problem. It is a growing problem, with 1.5 million pupils regarded as having special educational needs—that is 18 per cent.—and 233,000 statements in the past year. More than half of those are looked after in mainstream schools and fewer than half in specialist schools. I recognise, of course, that the increase is due in part to a better awareness of special educational needs.

I am grateful for the Minister's tribute to the work of the previous Conservative Government, beginning in 1981 with the setting out of the terms of SEN, which was followed by the Education Act 1993 and the establishment of SEN tribunals. We have heard about the tribunal cases which have increased from 1,200 to 1,600. Tribunals are an important part of the process, as is the code of practice which identifies and assesses need, which was introduced in 1993 as well.

In the spirit of cross-party bonhomie, I want to take up a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) who said that the Spice Girls might not be No. 1 by Christmas. If they are not, it is most likely that they will have been pipped at the post by the Teletubbies. If ever there was a case for a need for SEN statementing, particularly for speech therapy, we have it in the Teletubbies. I say that as the father of two children who are addicted to the Teletubbies; I am determined that my third will not be brought up in a similar vein.

We welcome many parts of the Green Paper and I want to highlight the early identification procedures outlined in it. It is essential that we identify SEN children early and that the necessary measures are taken from the age of three or four, or as soon as possible. As a former school governor, I especially welcome the national guidance for the training of governors with SEN responsibilities. When I was a governor, SEN was very much a grey area. Far more detailed training must be given to governors, especially in view of the additional responsibilities that they now have with the local management of schools.

I also welcome the greater emphasis on training in information and communications technology, although we take issue with the fact that it is to be lottery funded. The money should come out of mainstream funding rather than being pinched from the pot that is meant for other things.

Another great concern mentioned in the Green Paper is the national variation in statementing. In some areas, fewer than 2 per cent. of children are statemented while in other local authority areas the figure is more than 4 per cent. That problem must be addressed. We need far greater national consistency; although, of course, we must take into account regional, social and economic differences. I am sure, however, that the divergence is not so great as the figures might suggest.

We also need to consider the temporary as well as the permanent specialist requirements of children with special educational needs. The Green Paper also emphasises the importance of co-operation between local agencies. We cannot see SEN as just as a local education authority problem, because it brings in the whole school system and, in many cases, the social services.

Many special educational needs children and disabled children need special facilities, such as special shoes or special boots; I have had cases involving such matters in my surgeries. Transport is also important. Special educational needs schools require specialist transport; again, that is a matter with which I am dealing in West Sussex.

Another important issue is respite care which is so essential for parents who have to look after difficult children day in and day out. I have come across some desperate cases, and I pay tribute to parents who are saving the state enormous sums by looking after their children at home, as they want to do. Looking after such children places an enormous strain on many families, especially where there are other children who are in mainstream education. The parents have to concentrate on the child who has special educational needs and there may be behavioural problems which can cause serious upheaval to the family environment. We need to take a holistic approach: I hope that the Government will take account of that when they look at co-operation between local agencies.

The overall thrust of the Green Paper is that there should be more integration in mainstream schools, and we agree with that. Integration is good in principle because inclusion has to be the right way forward, but we have to approach the matter carefully and sensitively. Integration must not be used, as some may see it, as an excuse for cost cutting or siphoning off SEN money to patch up gaps in classrooms in mainstream schools. There must be appropriate, well trained support staff in mainstream schools, who are dedicated to SEN children, and who have had the proper, specialist training.

I am pleased with the Government's statement about disabled access and the schools access initiative. That must be a step in the right direction. We shall not quibble about the amounts involved, as the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) would have us do.

It is appropriate to raise the subject of autism, given that it is national Autism Awareness Week. I was pleased to read my copy of "Timetable for autism". Adaptations will have to be made to mainstream schools to accommodate autistic children, of whom there are in excess of 120,000.

Many autistic children are sensitive to light and sound, especially if they are epileptic. Classrooms will have to be adapted so that they can cater for those children properly. We shall have to review discipline procedures at schools, where autistic children may become victims of bullying. Those considerations are not necessarily at the top of the priority pile in the Green Paper, but they are important and could make the difference between autistic children having a happy and fulfilling life in mainstream schools or its being a nightmare for them.

I should like to refer to some of the problems with the Green Paper. The Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has undertaken some interesting work, which has not yet been mentioned. Its response to the Green Paper contrasts with that of the National Association for Special Educational Needs, which was less critical. Both organisations were constructive and positive about the way ahead.

IPSEA makes the fair point that more than three quarters of the members of the advisory group that the Government have established are local education authority employees. I am sure that that was not deliberate, but it arouses suspicion. The group contains no parents of disabled children, and no representatives from special educational needs organisations. That worry has been expressed.

There is also a suspicion that proposals to cut the number of statemented children are a crude attempt to save money, and that as many as 20,000 children a year could lose their legal entitlement to the provision that meets their needs, which is the fundamental provision behind statementing. The Minister has refuted the claim about quotas, but when is a quota not a quota, if it involves a drive towards a 2 per cent. target? I question the arbitrariness of that target. I want more details about how that target was arrived at and how it can reasonably be achieved under the Green Paper proposals.

Mr. St. Aubyn

My hon. Friend makes an important point. With the power in the new Bill to close some special schools, the Government could achieve their target without quotas, although in an equally crude fashion.

Mr. Loughton

Indeed, unscrupulous local education authorities may use some of the provisions in the Bill to lessen their responsibilities. The legal responsibility of LEAs to provide appropriate and necessary education for children with special needs must not be lessened as a result of the Green Paper.

IPSEA also referred to the greater emphasis at annual reviews on ceasing to maintain a child's statement. That could be used by cost-cutting LEAs to reduce their liabilities, which I fully acknowledge is not the point of the Bill. We must be sensitive to that problem, and I encourage the Government to take those points on board when framing the final legislation.

I wish to refer to the more severe SEN cases and the pressure on local authority finance. I visited recently Heronsdale school in Shoreham in my constituency; an excellent SEN school with a first-class reputation which received an excellent Ofsted report. It provides an excellent service for parents whose children are not at that school, by advising them on how to deal with SEN problems. It is a real community asset.

Many parents who have visited my surgeries have not been able to get their children with special educational needs into that school, or others like it, because they are victims of the school's success: it is over-subscribed. Unless there is enormous additional funding to expand such schools, I fear that many children will be left outside it.

I have a particularly desperate case of a 10-year-old boy who was diagnosed with severe autism at the age of four. He is currently at a non-specialist school, in a mixed disability class. His parents and grandparents are coping admirably with him but claim, with some justification, that the teachers cannot give him the special attention his severe autism requires. He rarely speaks and is constantly excluded from the school's mainstream activities. He also wets himself, and his parents are at their wits' end.

Two schools have been identified for the child—Hope Lodge in Southampton and Purbeck school in Dorset. They are excellent specialist schools, dealing particularly with autism. The parents visited the schools and spoke to parents from the same area with children who go to those schools and who have benefited enormously.

The problem is that, if West Sussex county council—the education authority—were to allow the child to go to one of these schools, it would cost more than of £40,000 per year. That is £40,000 which will come out of the general education budget, and £40,000 a year dedicated to one greatly deserving child means that a lot of resources, potentially, will be taken away from mainstream children in mainstream schools for a range of other activities. This is a problem faced by LEAs.

I have other constituency cases, but I will not go into them all. However, there is one desperate case of a family who have coped admirably with two sons, each of whom has cerebral palsy. It is very rare for two children in the same family to suffer that dreadful disease. One has gone to a special school within the county and is doing extremely well. Under the old terms of reference, he had help from social services for the special footwear he requires. His brother is now old enough to go to that school, but the county cannot guarantee him a place and social services cannot guarantee him the generous footwear allowance that his brother received. That raises enormous problems.

These are two comparable children in the same family. The system has worked for one, but due to the nature of the allocation of resources there is no guarantee that the younger sibling will have an opportunity to go to that school. That is causing real problems.

When my constituents see other children going to special schools because they have qualified on discretionary criteria while their own son or daughter—however deserving—cannot meet those criteria, desperation sets in. That is where I think that we have real problems, particularly with facilities outside the parents' LEA area. I appreciate the difficult position of LEAs due to the competing claims of SEN and mainstream children on the budget.

I wish to mention also the high cost of tribunals. The tribunal system is necessary and has worked well—the majority of parents who have gone through it are happy with it. More than two thirds of tribunal cases—as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford mentioned—have found in favour of the parents. However, the tribunal system involves a high cost to the local authority in preparing cases, many of which do not get as far as a tribunal hearing but involve an enormous amount of time and resources, which come out of the budget that would otherwise go into front-line SEN provision.

Local authorities also have a problem when children with severe statementing move into their area from another area: the local authority has to pick up the tab for something for which it had not budgeted, but just try telling the parents of a child who has moved to a neighbouring county that the special educational needs treatments that their child received in one county cannot be repeated in the county next door. Very real problems can be foisted on to local education authorities.

It is worth pointing out that more than 40 per cent. of tribunal cases are purely involved with literacy and numeracy need rather than severe disability requirements. I cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of man to come up with a better procedure to simplify some of the more straightforward cases—current procedures take up time and resources and involve stress—without taking away the legal rights of parents to have their cases heard in another manner. That is an area of detail that the Government may be able to consider beyond the Green Paper.

I also mentioned earlier the implications of providing transport for SEN children. As many parents have complained to me that their children cannot get into a special school as have complained that they are not in a position to provide transport and cannot afford public transport for their children, but because they are out of area, the local education authority is not obliged to lay on specialist transport. In some cases, that has meant that children could not take up a much desired place at a local authority special needs school because their parents could not afford the transport to get them there. That is a most desperate circumstance for people to be left in.

I hope that a degree of ring fencing to finance special educational needs—aside from mainstream education budgets—can be found, because we put local education committee chairmen in an impossible dilemma when they have conflicting claims on their budgets, which will not be helped by the local government finance figures announced earlier this week. This will not get easier.

We on the Opposition Benches welcome the Green Paper, but there is scope for improvement, certainly for much greater sensitivity to the perceived—although the Minister denies it—quota system on statementing. More sensitivity is required towards greater integration. It must include appropriate resources to maintain the rights of parents whose children need specialist schools for more severe conditions, while enabling mainstream schools to take on lesser SEN cases without disrupting the existing pupil role. None of this will work while LEAs are straitjacketed on competing priorities for funding between SEN and mainstream schools.

12.38 pm
Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) on a very fine speech, especially as his wife is expecting to give birth. I made my own maiden speech the day after my fourth child was born, so I know what the hon. Gentleman is experiencing. I wish him and his wife well on the birth of their child.

As I said, I have four children, and next to my wife they are the most important people in the world. That is something that all parents can say of their children. Therefore, it is impossible to explain to parents why the provision made for every other child in the street, borough and local education authority should not be equally open and accessible to their child.

Last night, in my office, I responded to the following letter, which I had read with horror. It reads: Dear Mr. Gardiner, I am writing to ask for your help in a very distressing matter regarding my son Simon who is unable to walk. You may remember meeting Simon recently"— indeed I do, as I will explain— when you visited Kingsbury High School to take part in their assault course for charity. As the only child in a wheelchair at the school he tends to be quite noticeable. It took a lot persuasion to get Simon into Kingsbury High as there are several levels and no lifts but Simon's determination showed them that it was worth a try and he is very happy working alongside his friends. As a statemented pupil he had to have a complete reassessment of his needs before moving into secondary education and a number of things were said to be essential. Ramps, a disabled toilet and a wheelchair at each level he would need to use were all stated by the various experts who assessed him. Kingsbury High (a grant maintained school) accepted him assuming that these things would be provided by the LEA or Health Service but to date neither these nor the lap-top computer clearly identified in the statement have yet appeared. Indeed I have just been told that as Parkside Wheelchair Service has run out of money Simon cannot have a chair to replace the one which they have agreed is dangerous and too small until they have more money—next April presumably. I enclose a letter I wrote to the Service manager which explains the situation more clearly. Given your Government's proposals in the Green Paper to fully integrate pupils with disabilities like Simon's I expect that you will be horrified to hear of his predicament. I hope that I can count on your help to get this matter sorted out at the earliest opportunity because I really do fear for his safety, not because he is in the wrong school but because he has not been given the basic equipment he needs to move around.

That letter touched me to the core and it goes to the very heart of our debate. Simon's mother says that I might remember him and indeed I do. The assault course was for Help the Aged. Incidentally, my wife tells me that I should remember that I really am one of the aged now and that doing assault courses is no longer appropriate. I remember running up a 10 or 12-foot ramp and jumping off at the beginning and then completing the rest of the course. As I got to the end, I saw a young boy in a wheelchair wheeling himself up to the top of the ramp, where he applied the brakes and propelled himself 12 feet into mid air and down so that he could continue the assault course.

Simon is no ordinary young man. He is, indeed, special and any school should be proud to have him as a member. Naturally, as soon as I had read that letter I wrote a strongly worded letter to the local education authority asking exactly why provision had not yet been made in accordance with the statement. I am acutely aware of the financial stringencies under which Brent local education authority operates. Its central hold-back per pupil, from which such provision might be made, is 47 per cent. below the national average.

I welcome the extra resources that the Minister announced this morning when she said that £11 million will become available next year for special educational needs. Simon's needs cannot wait until next year, so I shall work with the LEA to see how they can be met immediately.

The Green Paper has been a genuine consultative exercise. Earlier in the summer, I organised two meetings in my constituency at different schools on the education White Paper. They were well attended and I now have a group of some 140 people who will act as a sounding board for me on all educational matters. Next Thursday, I shall have a further consultation meeting in my constituency on the Green Paper, "Excellence for all children". I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I increase her postbag, subsequent to that meeting, with that group's concerns and responses to the Green Paper.

I welcome the way in which the issues have been set out in the Green Paper and the approach that the Department wants to take in listening to local people and their concerns. Through listening to local people who are intimately involved in those matters we can extend cross-party agreement—which has been so valuable this morning—into good, coherent and constructive legislation that will benefit all our children.

On emotional and behavioural difficulties, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall)—1 do not mean the juxtaposition to be offensive—said that the Government should consider not paying schools to keep children at risk of exclusion. I find it strange that he should question the wisdom of paying schools that took on that added burden and rose to the challenge. It is particularly strange given that when his party was in government it adopted a procedure whereby schools were given additional money to select children who were least likely to cause those problems. The sensible way to tackle the problem is to put resources where they are most needed—where children are at risk of exclusion.

Brent LEA has an extremely proud record. The House will be aware that in the past couple of years the national exclusion rate has risen by more than 20 per cent. per year, whereas in Brent it has dropped by 26 per cent. year on year. That has been achieved simply as a result of its approach, which is designed to try to maintain students in school for as long as possible. It has devoted to those students the resources necessary to provide them with a stimulating environment in order to bring them back into the mainstream.

In the Green Paper emphasis has been placed on practical support rather than on procedures. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham spoke about the safeguard of statementing and I agree that we must take that extremely seriously. I trust that my own Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley)—who I believe is to speak after me—may corroborate the example that I am about to give.

About four years ago, the Cambridgeshire LEA had an agreement with schools encouraging them not to put children through the process of statementing and not to statement those with special needs because of the stigma that might be attached to that and the lengthy process of statementing. Instead, it promised to ensure that the necessary resources to meet the needs of those children would still be supplied to schools, but according to a less formal arrangement.

I do not want to make a party political point, but control of the LEA changed hands and as a result the funds available within the education budget were reallocated. Resources previously made available for children with special needs attending local schools were taken away unless the children were statemented. Everyone in the county responded by reminding the LEA that there had been an agreement, but it was hard to try claw back the money because, as has already been said, the sums available for SEN have to compete with other demands on the overall education budget of an LEA. That money was desperately needed by those pupils.

Yes, let us do away with unnecessary bureaucracy and procedures, but let us never lose sight of the fact that statementing offers a legal safeguard for the most needy children in our schools.

12.53 pm
Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

The hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner) paid a warm and generous tribute to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton). Likewise, the hon. Gentleman has done the House a service by reminding us of the needs of children and how they are manifested. That is at the heart of the debate.

Several colleagues have referred to the fact that the debate is being held on a Friday. It is my experience, and I hope that it is yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that many colleagues take the trouble to read Friday speeches. They will find much of value in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham and that of the hon. Member for Brent, North, which may be of use not only to Ministers in relation to the Green Paper but to those colleagues' contributions to the further development of policy.

I apologise to the Minister for my neglect in not managing to get here in time to hear all her opening remarks. I understand that I missed a point relating to the welcome increase in resources for the schools access initiative, but I shall take the trouble to read on Monday precisely what she said on that and other subjects.

When debating special educational needs, we must be conscious of four trends in recent years, none of which is likely to change in future. The first is that there is increasing awareness of the range of children's special educational needs. Today's debate has highlighted some of those needs, and all hon. Members know from their own constituency experience that some of those needs—for example, those of children in the autistic spectrum—are better able to be diagnosed than was once possible.

The second trend is that, within schools, there is increasing use of assessment and performance data as a basis for the measurement not only of the school's performance, but of children's progress within the school. For parents and schools, that has highlighted the range of pupils who are not making progress in accordance with targets and with the generality of their peers. That has, in turn, highlighted the need to take special action to try to bring pupils—especially those with less severe difficulties—up to the standard of the rest and to meet their own expectations.

The third trend is that, in relation to special educational needs, a greater range of professional options is now available for the remedying of learning difficulties. The debate on emotional and behavioural difficulties has helped us to understand some of the new techniques and units that have been established, which are further amplifying that range of professional skills.

The fourth and perhaps the most important trend is increasing parental involvement and an increasing demand for special educational needs provision for their children, where those needs can be identified. All hon. Members know that some of that parental demand arises well before there is professional recognition of the needs of children, and parents are right to have their own children's needs at the forefront of their minds and to make their demands, as the hon. Member for Brent, North described so well.

We live in a set of circumstances in which we cannot be sanguine that the rate of increase in demand for special educational needs provision will necessarily decline. The Green Paper seeks to manage that demand, rather than to frustrate it. The Minister has specifically made it clear that she is engaged not in trying to cut the cost of provision for special educational needs, but in trying to manage it better. It is important that we focus on that objective rather than on cost cutting.

It is also useful to look at the issue from the standpoint of schools. I have talked to many children, teachers and parents in Cambridgeshire over recent years and I find that it has been the experience of schools that, as a consequence of those trends, an increasing number of children are being recognised as having special educational needs; and that that is occurring alongside resource constraints within the school as a whole and increasingly heavy demands on teaching staff. When children are recognised as having special educational needs, that leads to increased pressure on schools from parents who are anxious that extra provision should be made for those children.

In such circumstances, it is perhaps inevitable that the response of parents, teaching staff and school administrators is to make additional demands on the local education authority through its special educational needs budget, which is effectively top-sliced from the education budget as a whole. The rate of increase in special educational provision in Cambridgeshire, which gave rise to the difficulties to which the hon. Member for Brent, North referred, has been dramatic.

That process provides an incentive—some might regard it as a perverse incentive—for the school and the parents to seek additional access, through the special educational needs budget, to resources for the school, especially where it includes statementing. As has been mentioned, statementing provides that additional legal obligation on the local education authority to provide specific provision.

The increase in resources to support special educational needs, especially where the process of statementing is involved, perversely limits further the resources available to schools. There is a potentially vicious circle. The top-slicing of budgets for special educational needs further exacerbates the pressure on resources in schools; that causes parents to react more strongly as they try to secure additional provision from the protected budget to try to compensate for the demands in the school.

In practice, access to additional resources does not necessarily relieve the pressures on teachers in the school. I am sure that we all appreciate the value of the work that learning support assistants do in relation to children. However, notwithstanding the welcome reference in the Green Paper to the creation of a further national framework for the training of learning support assistants, those people are not, and will not become, teachers.

The presence of those assistants, even when they work on a one-to-one basis, does not obviate the requirement for a teacher to teach the child. Often, the teaching of that child remains disproportionate in relation to the teaching commitment to other pupils in the class. The presence in a class of a pupil with learning difficulties may consume an additional increment of the teacher's time. Even though additional resources—in terms of the provision for pupils with learning difficulties—may be gained for the school, that does not necessarily correspondingly reduce the pressure on other teachers.

I recognise the value of the Green Paper in addressing this issue—which I have described in my own terms—and the fact that it is important to break out of the vicious circle. I therefore endorse the view that we increasingly need to enable mainstream schools successfully to accommodate pupils with special educational needs. In order to do that, those schools should increasingly use their own judgment on how to call upon resources, expertise and external help where necessary.

I agree with the approach taken in the Green Paper that, to the greatest extent possible, we should avoid lengthy and expensive reliance on procedures and the bureaucratic process to do that. We know that, within the vicious circle, the lost resources are those lost in undertaking bureaucratic procedures rather than providing resources to the child.

I welcome the broad approach set out in the Green Paper: it is right that we should have high expectations for all children. If 20 per cent. of children will have special educational needs at some time during their school career, it is right to expect that those needs should be met in mainstream schools as much as possible, so that as many of those pupils as possible can remain with their peer groups for as long as possible.

The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) made the points that I would otherwise have made about early intervention and preventing learning difficulties in schools—he was right to emphasise that. Other hon. Members have rightly spoken of the importance of the additional provision of training and skills for teachers: not only initial teacher training, but additional support for trained teachers in mainstream schools. Those teachers must be able to respond to the increasing presence of pupils with special educational needs in their classrooms.

Many practical issues remain in relation to the Green Paper; I should like to highlight a few. We would do well to recognise the difficulty of the task that special educational needs co-ordinators still face. In smaller schools, they can often undertake assessments without lengthy observation of the children concerned, because they are familiar with those pupils. In larger schools, however, that is much more difficult and the co-ordinators' work in observing an individual pupil in order to become familiar with his circumstances can be particularly time-consuming.

I do not offer any particular solution to the Minister, but we have to recognise that a lot of teacher time may be consumed by co-ordinators in a large school, and that that may not necessarily be the best use of resources. We may need to rely more on greater professional awareness on the part of classroom teachers and on other teachers who have contact with pupils undertaking necessary observations.

In my constituency, there is interaction between the importance of early intervention and the activities of the community health trust and of the school nursing service. The Cambridge and Huntingdon health authority has reduced the school nursing and the health visitor services dramatically. One consequence is that it is proposing henceforth not to undertake the three-and-a-half-year check for children.

The health authority's argument is that no child who has a statement at the age of seven in Cambridgeshire schools was not known to the community health trust at the age of three to have learning difficulties and special needs. With respect to the health authority, that answer is deficient because, first, not all the children who will go on to have statements have statements by the age of seven. We all know that, in practice, that is one of the earliest points at which a statement might be provided, and that many other children have statements later.

Secondly, in the main, we are dealing with children who do not reach the stage of having a statement. The health authority neglects to consider the range of learning difficulties to which young people may be subject and which fall short of a statement, but which may be identified at the age of three and a half if there is full screening. The substantial, and I dare say incontrovertible, evidence is that, if remedial work can be undertaken before a child's entry to school—so that the child can enter with its peer group and move along with it through school, rather than having to undertake remedial and special work later—that is much less expensive, much better for the child concerned and a better use of resources. From that point of view, I am saddened that the health authority is to abandon the check. I hope that it will do otherwise.

We would do well to consider actively how the health authority and local health agencies will be able to deliver the early years development partnership that Ministers talk about in the Green Paper, if those health bodies do not undertake such a broad screening check. The suggestion that they will be able to identify at-risk groups and to target sufficiently is complacent, and we have to challenge it.

As I am sure the House knows, a high proportion of children who are looked after by local authorities have special educational needs and, often, severe emotional and behavioural difficulties. Unfortunately, many of those children are excluded from school as well and too many are not in school, even though they may not be excluded, at any given time.

Local authorities often have dual responsibilities in relation to such children. They are in loco parentis for children looked after by the authority, and are also responsible for their education. It is unfortunate that there seems to be a lack of co-ordination between schools, local education authorities and social services departments to try to make sure that the provision of special education meets the needs of such children. There is an unhappy consequence in relation to the proportion of children looked after by local authorities who later have substantial difficulties, including being at risk of offending or falling into drug abuse or other problems.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Select Committee on Health is currently undertaking an inquiry into children who are looked after by local authorities. The contribution that local education provision, schools and educational psychologists can make is significant in improving the outcomes of children who are cared for by local authorities. I hope that the Minister will remember that when considering responses to the Green Paper. I am not sure that the Select Committee will have finished its work by 9 January, but I hope that she will bear in mind that it is a source of advice and input to the further measures that she and her colleagues may take.

In general, for reasons that I hope I have outlined, the Green Paper's approach is encouraging and it promises much. However, it does not say how many of its recommendations can be afforded. The hope that the proposals in the White Paper, if I may turn to that, will lead to improved attainment in schools is at the moment a leap of faith. The Labour party may be willing to take it, but the hope is so far unproven. The hope that the increase in achievement and attainment in schools generally will also lead to a reduction in the number of children who require special educational needs provision, from 18 to 10 per cent. or, in the case of statements, from 3 to 2 per cent., is a further leap of faith.

The combination of those two leaps of faith slightly stretches one's credulity, and I am afraid that it is somewhat akin to the original concept of the national health service, which was that improvement in the health of the population would lead to a reduction in demand. It may not happen, so we must be prepared for demand to remain high and to be managed within the system.

Many local education authorities, including the one in Cambridgeshire, have for some time been trying to work in some of the ways that the Green Paper has outlined. As the hon. Member for Brent, North said, they are trying to work within schools to tackle learning difficulties and special educational needs in stages 1 to 3 rather than allowing children to be statemented. The experience in Cambridgeshire was represented to me by the chief education officer. In a letter to me, he stated: we have been pursuing this aspiration for some little while now"— that is, operating at stages 1 to 3— and you are already aware of the spiralling cost of statemented provision. It is much easier said than done.

There is much to applaud in terms of aspirations, but there is not yet the evidence to show how that is to be accomplished. Notwithstanding the Green Paper's examples, perhaps the next stage is to draw upon experiences around the country during consultations, so that we can implement practical action in a way that is likely to work.

The ambition to develop special schools as centres of expertise to collaborate with and support mainstream schools is a correct aspiration, but the head teachers of special schools in my county have said that they have heard such ideas before and are all too aware of the funding implications. The issue is how that is to be afforded. That is also true of the obvious need for special units in mainstream schools and for pupil referral units if mainstream schools are asked to undertake much greater provision for special educational needs.

There is much to welcome in the Green Paper. I have already mentioned the schools access initiative. Help to primary schools in tackling emotional and behavioural difficulties will be welcome, as will the proposed revision of the SEN code of practice.

We must recognise a continuing dilemma: making the best possible provision for young people with special educational needs is expensive; and legislative requirements and the code of practice rightly help parents to secure the best possible provision for their children, almost regardless of cost. Practice and priorities in education budgets are changing to the extent that serious compromises are having to be made in provision for the general school population. There is a danger that we shall make ever better provision for children with special educational needs, who enjoy the protection of a very specific set of legal requirements, to the possible detriment of other children.

In such circumstances, it is all the more important that we succeed in tackling special educational needs in early years. It is equally important that we give priority to tackling needs within schools at stages 1 to 3, and that we include children with special educational needs within schools as much as possible. Such policies are most likely to enable mainstream schools—increasingly within their own resources—to make judgments on setting priorities and on balancing and meeting the needs and priorities of all children.

We therefore need to give greater powers to schools to strike the necessary balance—while recognising the needs of the many and of the few, and that an objective for schools is to hold high expectations for all children. Schools will increasingly have the responsibility for balancing their resources against those expectations.

1.16 pm
Mr. James Cran (Beverley and Holderness)

My speech will be short because, as I am the final speaker before the Minister's reply to the debate, it has all been said. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) that Friday debates are undoubtedly the best informed in the House. So it has proved today.

I am not an expert on special educational needs, although I am the first hon. Member to have said so in the debate. Members of Parliament, however—almost by definition—collide with the issue because of the problems of some children and parents in our constituencies. As hon. Members have already said in the debate, we are dealing with vulnerable people, and we want to ensure that there is a non-partisan approach to the issue. I think that we have achieved that goal, and that anyone following our debate will take comfort from the fact that the House can occasionally reach such a state—would that we could do so more often.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) made a very knowledgeable speech and raised some detailed and pertinent issues, which I know that the Minister will address. Like the hon. Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), I shall study particularly carefully, in the Official Report, his points on emotional and behavioural difficulties. Clearly, he knows a great deal more about the subject than I do—or, I suspect, most hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) is responsible for having filched at least three quarters of my intended speech. I had to fling away pages of my speech as he mentioned many of the strategic issues that concern not only hon. Members on both sides of the House but parents and experts. I should simply like it to be known that, if anyone eventually reads my speech—although the ribaldry on Conservative Benches makes me think that no one ever will—he or she will have to read the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford for a fuller view of the points that I would have made, had I had the time to do so. Later in my speech, I shall outline several concerns raised by my local authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) deserves a medal for attending the debate. I had no idea that his wife was about to give birth—I trust that that event is not imminent. He gave a knowledgeable speech, which was clearly based on first-hand knowledge derived from his service on a school's board of management.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire never fails to mesmerise me. He has such a wide knowledge of so many subjects that I am getting an inferiority complex. He did not disappoint me today. I took particular note—as I am sure the Minister did—of his comment that the Green Paper promises much. There is very little doubt that that is so. I hope that the Minister will confront the concerns that have been raised today and provide an assurance that the Government will allocate resources and introduce changes in order to fulfil the Green Paper's potential.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire and several other hon. Members that a number of agencies are involved. However, I shall concentrate on the views of my local authority, East Yorkshire council. It is concerned about good practice in several areas. There is no doubt that that is important, and I suspect that the Minister agrees that probably good practice can be set only by the Government after consultation.

East Yorkshire council is particularly concerned about target setting for SEN pupils in mainstream schools. My local authority believes that the Government should encourage schools to set different targets for children with different needs. Will the Minister address that suggestion in her winding-up speech? My local authority also favours the introduction of a finer grain for early national curriculum levels—which, as the Minister knows, some children never leave. I hope that the Government will consider that point—the Minister may not be in a position to respond today. At the end of the day, a finer grain would allow us to chart more effectively the progress of the children involved and would assuage parents' concerns in that area. Will the Minister bend her mind to that?

I have culled another question from a full brief provided by my local authority, which tells me—and the Minister—that it is taking the matter seriously. No doubt all local authorities do. The document asks how we can encourage dialogue between parents, schools and LEAs and resolve disputes. However, I found the answer rather bland. I shall go hot foot from this debate to my local authority to—upbraid is not quite the word—ask it for a little more information. The answer in the document is: This is best achieved through good communication. There is a need to encourage easier access to LEAs to discuss concerns and all the rest of it.

That is fine as a mission statement. It is what everyone wants. It is what anyone would say about communication between management and work force in a company. It is more difficult to set up a mechanism that allows that. Communication systems also have to be reviewed often. I want to know about the nuts and bolts. If the Minister has anything to say that I can tell my local authority, I shall be delighted.

I should like to reinforce a point made by one of my hon. Friends—I cannot remember which one—and by Labour Members about the need to improve the effectiveness of SEN tribunals. I am not involved in that, as I have said, but, having been taken through the procedures by my local authority and others, I am astonished by the enormous amount of paperwork that is involved in support of cases going to tribunals—as happens in all Government and local authority systems. There are delays of many months in the tribunals. Ministers must bend their minds to the problem—I know that they will. The Green Paper is one of the more readable that I have come across. I pay tribute to the Government for that.

I have consulted experts in my constituency, who have concluded that decisions should be reached on the basis of written evidence only. Perhaps the Minister would like to take a view on that. Of course, that cannot happen in the most complex cases, but the suggestion should be considered. It would reduce the enormous amount of time and the costs in my large rural area.

I am coming to the end of my few remarks, so that the Minister can put us right. I have asked how we can reduce the paperwork associated with the code of practice. I welcome the fact that the Green Paper addresses that question. My local authority and others have very little to say. I suspect that it is not sure how to reduce the amount of paperwork. How does the Minister think that that can be done? I hope that she will give direction to the local authority, because, as she knows, she is pushing on an open door.

I could ask any number of other questions. I have them all with me. I shall write to the Minister with them. I see Labour Members nodding. Perhaps they have legitimate constituency engagements, as do my hon. Friends—I am not making a party point. I will, therefore, conclude my remarks simply by saying that I have found this to be an informative and good-natured debate. I look forward to the Minister putting the flesh on all the questions that we have asked.

1.29 pm
Ms Estelle Morris

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply to the debate.

I thank hon. Members for a thoughtful debate which has confirmed what I said at the outset: we have in the House not only a wealth of determination to try to do better in special educational needs, but a wealth of expertise—not necessarily professional expertise in terms of qualifications, but expertise gained from our role as constituency Members. Week in, week out, we meet at our advice bureaux parents of children with special educational needs. That gives us an overall perspective that is not available to others. Combined with that is the knowledge we all have of what goes on in our local schools.

One of the features of special needs education is that people are bound to see the issues from their own perspective. We need to have people who can judge matters from every perspective. Many hon. Members have commented today on the problems faced by parents whereas others have talked about the problems of financing by local authorities. The challenge is to bring all that together in the best way possible.

In the Green Paper, we do not pretend that we have all the answers, although we hope that we have asked the right questions. Hon. Members will have noticed that, at the end of some sections, we have suggested a number of possible responses to the issues raised in them. What I have to say now will be very much in the spirit of listening to people's ideas. I again assure hon. Members that when we make decisions following the consultation, we shall come back to the House.

I apologise for having missed one speech—that made by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn)—because I had to go out for a few minutes. I am told that his was the only speech that was not in the cross-party spirit and I am sorry about that. I am also told by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) that the clock stopped the minute the hon. Gentleman started to speak and resumed the minute he sat down. I am not sure whether that happened because I left the Chamber or because the hon. Gentleman was speaking. Hon. Members will have to come to their own conclusions.

The hon. Member for Guildford asked about clause 31 of the School Standards and Framework Bill, to which other hon. Members also referred. The clause mirrors similar provisions in existing legislation. It provides an emergency power for the Secretary of State to close a special school if there are concerns about the health, safety and welfare of the pupils. We have heard too much in recent years about what has happened to vulnerable youngsters who are meant to be in a place of safety as well as one that delivers education. The report published by Sir William Utting on safeguards for children in residential placements recommended that, where the health, safety and welfare of children were at risk, there should be an emergency reserve power for the Secretary of State to act. The existing power has not been used by previous Governments, and we have no intention of using the power more widely.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I can think of at least one school in my area that, although not threatening children's welfare, was failing them. There is concern that, rather than the school being given a chance to sort out its problems and bounce back to being a good school that fulfils an important need, the decision might come from on high that it should be closed. The Minister's comments are therefore welcome.

Ms Morris

I can confirm that clause 31 covers the case I mentioned. There are other procedures after Ofsted inspections and improvement plans. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government favour the idea that if, at the end of the day, schools cannot give a good-quality education to children, including children with SEN, a fresh start or closure may be appropriate. None of us wants to keep open schools that are letting down children.

I now turn to a subject about which I am especially sensitive—membership of our national advisory group. There are parents in the group; it has one member and one observer, both of whom have children with special educational needs. The vice-chair of the group is Paul Ennals who works for the Royal National Institute for the Blind and is also chair of the Council for Disabled Children. Philippa Russell, who is director of the Council for Disabled Children, also plays an important role in the group. The misconception has probably arisen from the fact that we did not take the usual course of action and ask each group to nominate a person. The group includes parents with special needs children, the voluntary sector and others are also involved.

It will be impossible for me to answer all the questions, partly because I shall have to give some of them further thought. I shall bunch them together.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. Many referred to early years provision. There is general agreement that we should try to get it right. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to transfer of information from one sector to the other in the early years. The early years development plans that we have set in motion will be drawn up by the early years partnerships, which will include health authorities, social services, the education service, parents and others. We hope that those partnerships will facilitate the transfer of information. That should happen, because they are all dealing with the same children. We will serve those children ill if action is not co-ordinated.

We shall monitor the process carefully. We have charged the early years development partnerships with paying special attention to special educational needs. We have requested that partnerships include people who have an interest in that area of education. Structure, by itself, will not arrive at the answer, but it will take longer if we have the wrong structure. I am confident that, with the early years partnership, we are providing the structure whereby special educational need can be identified and supported at an early stage.

The Green Paper is partly about giving assurances, which is what I want to do in my winding-up speech. It is also about pushing out boundaries and asking the difficult questions that need to be asked. These two do not always sit easily together. Difficult questions make people feel insecure.

We have no intention of operating quotas for statements. I was surprised to discover that the local education authority with the highest number of statements is in the area represented by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton and that the second highest is that in the area represented by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), which is just above average. The LEA with the fewest statements is my authority, Birmingham, which is well below the national average: given that my LEA covers the two most deprived areas in the country, one might have thought that the situation would be the reverse, but I make no comment on that.

St. Helens and Doncaster statement almost 4 per cent. of their children; Oldham and Salford, which I imagine are of a broadly similar size and deal with children from a similar socio-economic background, statement only 2 per cent. I am not saying which is best or that any of them have let any child down, but it is right to investigate how authorities with different numbers of statements meet children's needs. Perhaps we will learn something and come up with the best practice to which the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Cran) referred. The furthest we want to go is to consider guidelines for statementing and perhaps targets. LEAs may be conscious that they are not statementing in the best way, and such an approach may enable them to support other authorities.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I apologise for not being present during the earlier part of the debate. Does the Minister accept that the wide variation in the use of statementing may have a bearing on resources? Adequate resources may not be available everywhere. Will she comment on the issue that was raised in the discussion document? Is there an alternative to a statement? Is a different approach to this matter being taken in Wales from that taken in England? That has been flagged up by the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice, which is concerned that there may be a move in Wales to drop statementing. As the Under—Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) is sitting by the Minister's side, can she tell us whether there is different thinking on that matter in Wales?

Ms Morris

I do not answer for Wales on education, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales said, "No, no," as I stood up. That is not a statement on behalf of Wales—I am merely repeating the mutterings made in my ear.

The right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) is right; resources have an effect. The rough figures are that £1 billion is spent on the 1 per cent. of children in special schools; £0.5 billion goes on the 2 per cent. of children with statements in mainstream schools; and a further £0.5 billion goes on the 15 per cent. of children with special needs who do not have a statement and are not at special schools. The way in which we deal with this matter will partly determine how we use resources. We want to pause and make sure that everybody is getting the best deal and that we are working in the best way.

The issue of tribunals was mentioned and the figure given in that context is of great concern. There has been an increase in the number of people going to tribunal but, in almost half the cases, parents who say they want to go to tribunal decide not to do so just before the tribunal sits. I suspect that, in such cases, the problem is solved by the pressure of a tribunal hanging overhead. We must try to solve the problem without making parents feel that they have to go to tribunal.

When we say we want fewer cases to go to tribunal, we do not want to remove people's right of access to a tribunal. I am worried that almost half of parents are eventually satisfied with an answer they could have received before going to tribunal. We need a new system of partnership. I refer the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness to Bradford—which is mentioned in the Green Paper—which has set up a partnership involving parents, Barnardos and the LEA to improve communication.

There is a dilemma in trying to reassure parents that their statutory rights are being protected while asking questions that need to be asked. I must inform the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that, in trying to reassure parents by having an agreement or strengthened individual action plan for stages 1 to 3, we do not think that it needs to be statutory. That is not our intention, as we would be doubling the bureaucracy of cases.

I am conscious that if parents are confident enough not to push for a statement, we have to do better in stages 1 to 3 with the code of practice. In the consultation, I want to find a way of saying to parents, "It can be done without seeking a statement." We need agreement, and an individual action plan was one of the measures we proposed.

During the debate, we heard a call from the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton)—I will not go as far as he did—to ring-fence the money. Given that we delegate a fair amount of money to schools for special needs, there should be some notion of how it is spent so that we can monitor whether it is spent on children with SEN. At the moment, it goes into the general schools budget. That causes pressure—the school knows that a statement will bring extra resources.

My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) referred to children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Our guiding practice must be to give money to the people who are responsible for delivering the service. That is the problem we face with speech therapy, a subject to which I shall return. In accordance with our philosophy, we want to devolve as much money as possible to schools so that they can purchase the services they need. One consequence of that is that there is a danger that we will not leave enough centrally to keep a valuable service, and my hon. Friend referred to the pupil referral unit.

There is a great difference in practice as to how much of the special needs budgets we devolve. I genuinely have an open mind on this matter and look forward to the comments that will come in. There is provision, which is not with local authorities and which schools might want to access, for EBD children. I am thinking of the voluntary organisation Cities in Schools, which does much good work. We want to bring these elements together and enable schools to choose how the resources are spent without damaging overall provision.

In a previous job I was a secondary school teacher in the inner city, so I know only too well how very difficult EBD youngsters can be and what a difficult task many teachers have dealing with not just one, but perhaps two, in a class of 30. It is not easy. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham will be interested to know that the Department has financed research by the university of Birmingham—I shall attend the launch in the new year—to examine best practice for dealing with children with EBD. It is a small project, but we look forward to it and welcome it. We shall see whether we can learn from it.

The problem with EBD is that it covers such a wide variety of behaviour. Some children can have the most severe psychological and mental difficulties; others—a number of hon. Members referred to this—exhibit EBD behaviour' because of factors in their life outside the school. When we talk about EBD, it is very important that we are fully aware that each child has different needs.

I think that the increase in the number of children with EBD reflects the breakdown in communities and the increasing difficulty some parents have parenting in complex social situations without the support of extended families that was, perhaps, available to their parents. There are many causes for the increase and there are probably many solutions, but I take the difficulties very seriously.

The irony is that many of these youngsters—usually boys—are very bright. If we could keep them in school and keep them learning, they would be high fliers. They would go on to higher education and occupy leadership roles. We have to solve the problem, but I do not want to put it all in the hands of schools and teachers. Sometimes, schools are the most orderly places in these children's lives. If we are to tackle the issue, we must all accept our responsibility for working with this vulnerable group of children so that they do not grow up and, in turn, find it difficult to parent.

On teacher training—a point raised by the hon. Member for Bath—we have to do more. He will know that the new standards implemented for teacher training this year ensure that teachers in training are familiar—I know that it is a minimum—with the code of practice, with how to assess, and with things that they need to know. The irony is that, because there is no inclusion, when they go out for teaching practice, they often do not work with children who have SEN. I suspect that teachers could finish their initial teacher training having had very little first-hand experience of such children. That is why we made our announcement on induction; it is important that the matter is seen as one for continuing professional development. We will try to ensure that we enhance awareness of SEN in initial teacher training.

I can reassure Ryan Gross and his mum that we do not wish to take away any of their legal rights and protections, but we want to show leadership and be brave enough to ask the questions that need to be asked.

Autism is an important issue, and it is important that we acknowledge it this week. One of the things that the Government have agreed to do is to trawl all the evidence and research on autism. Parents—we would all do this—will follow anything that might help their child, sometimes without much evidence or information as to whether it is worth the emotional energy, let alone whether it is in the child's best interest, or whether it is worth the resources and the pressure on the family. Much work is being done, such as that by Higashi in Boston. We must collect the evidence and ask ourselves what might work and what we might want to pursue. That is not an academic exercise, but an important first step. The trawl of research that we have financed is important and I know that the Local Government Association wants to continue its work.

Regional planning is the next step. We must link in special needs to the research that is being done. Our plans for regional planning will bring regional health and education services together. We want to link them with schools of education and universities in the region so that the practitioners and the parents can always have good-quality information at their disposal when making decisions.

Finally, I must thank all hon. Members for their contribution to what I hope will be widespread consultation on the Green Paper. I think someone said that yesterday's paper and the Green Paper are a leap of faith. I feel strongly that if we do not say that we will make that leap of faith now, we may never do it. This is not merely about children's expectations but about our expectations. We want to be a Government with high expectations of our ability to make a difference.

Sometimes a step will look like a leap of faith, but unless we try it—unless we have those aspirations, show that we are prepared to face the difficult questions and make the necessary changes in what we do—how on earth can we ask it of parents, schools and local authorities? This not easy. It will not happen without resources and it will not arrive with the millenium, but in that spirit and whether or not the progress that we have made in the past decade and more has been welcome, we have the sure and certain knowledge that we have not got it all right and there is so much more that can be done.

For the sake of children who have not yet reached their potential, of parents who need the support and of the teachers, local authorities and voluntary organisations that work day in and day out with that vulnerable group, it is right that we have shown leadership and pointed the way forward.

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Wigley

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will be very much aware of the strong feelings that have been expressed in Wales and elsewhere this week by farmers, in particular beef farmers, because of the acute desperation of the plight that they are facing. Yesterday, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that there may be some rethinking of the compensation scheme. You will be aware of the meeting between the Secretary of State for Wales and agriculture representatives in Cardiff this morning. I wonder whether you have received any request for a statement to be made in the House so that farmers know before the weekend that some progress can be made. The depth of their present plight is driving some to be nearly suicidal.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

I have had no indication that a statement of that nature is to be made.