HC Deb 11 February 2004 vol 417 cc1429-43 1.19 pm
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke)

Today the Government will publish "Removing Barriers to Achievement". This is our long-term strategy to give children with special educational needs the opportunity to succeed. The strategy, which I promised to the House last September in the Green Paper "Every Child Matters", sets out the Government's proposals for working together with local authorities, schools, early years settings, the health service and the voluntary and private sectors to enable children and young people with special educational needs to achieve their potential.

The strategy builds on the current statutory framework for SEN. We propose no changes to that legal framework, but our strategy sets out the ways in which we will give real effect to it. I believe that in recent years we have made good progress in improving provision for children with special educational needs. However, there is much further to go. The Audit Commission's report, "Special Educational Needs—a mainstream issue", which was published in 2002, highlighted a number of real concerns. That report stated that too many children wait for too long to have their needs met; children who should be able to be taught in mainstream settings are sometimes turned away and too many staff feel ill equipped to meet the wide range of pupil needs; many special schools feel uncertain of their future role; and that there are unacceptable variations in the level of support available to families from their school, local authority or local health service. Our strategy seeks to address those legitimate concerns.

We have discussed the matters with a wide range of practitioners and policy makers, as well as with children and young people themselves. We have listened to what they say and I believe that our strategy provides clear national leadership, supported by an ambitious programme of sustained action, nationally and locally, in four key areas.

The first key area is early intervention. We want to ensure that children with learning difficulties receive the help that they need as soon as possible and that parents of children with special educational needs have access to suitable child care. Our strategy therefore seeks to embed in practice nationally the principles of the early support pilot programme; to implement a new strategy for child care for children with SEN; to work with voluntary organisations to establish a national early intervention centre of excellence to raise quality; to encourage delegation of funds to schools; and to cut bureaucracy in SEN provision.

The second key area is the removal of barriers to learning. We recognise that a child's learning difficulties often arise because the learning environment is not suitable. Our aim is to develop inclusive practices to meet the needs of every child so that they have the chance to succeed. Special schools are and will be an important part of our specialist programme and we will encourage them to become part of local communities of schools and to play a key role as centres of excellence and expertise. We seek to remove barriers to learning by, for example, creating a new inclusion development programme to bring together education, health, social care and the voluntary sector to develop effective approaches to provision for children with SEN.

Initially, the programme will focus on autistic spectrum disorder; behavioural, emotional and social difficulties; speech, language and communication difficulties; and moderate learning difficulties. We will develop practical tools and materials for schools and local authorities, working with the Disability Rights Commission and voluntary sector partners. We will make proposals to improve the quality of education for children with more severe behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. We will improve regional planning of provision and provide practical guidance on reducing reliance on high-cost placements. We will also establish minimum standards for SEN advisory and support services.

The third key area is the raising of expectations and achievement. We will develop teachers' skills to meet the needs of children with SEN and help them to move successfully into adult life. Our strategy puts children with SEN at the heart of personalised learning; delivers practical teaching and learning resources to raise the achievement of all children with SEN; works with the Teacher Training Agency and teacher training providers to deliver initial and continuous professional development, which provides a good grounding in the knowledge of SEN; will measure the progress made by those pupils working below level 1 and collect data nationally from 2005; and will work across Government to improve the quality of transition planning for young people with SEN and expand their opportunities for education, training and work.

The fourth and final key area is delivering improvements in partnership. We intend to build partnership working between education, health, social care and the voluntary sector. We will develop the common assessment framework, multi-disciplinary teams and children's trusts, to deliver joined-up services for children and families. We will align the SEN strategy with the national service framework for children. Above all, we want parents to be confident that their child will get the education they need, wherever they live. There is great variation in the provision made by local authorities for children with SEN, and so we think that there is a need for greater consistency across the country. We will promote that through our network of SEN regional partnerships.

All children should enjoy education that enables them to fulfil their talents and provides a firm foundation for adult life. "Removing Barriers to Achievement" reaffirms our commitment to working in partnership to unlock the potential of the many children who may have difficulty learning but whose life chances depend upon high-quality education. I commend the statement to the House.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his courtesy in providing an advance copy. I welcome both his statement on this important topic and many of the specifics of what he has announced today. What he said about the priority that we should all give to children with special educational needs will unite all hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I wish to press the Secretary of State on a few of the specific proposals. I am sure that those who have campaigned long and hard for the interests of parents of children with SEN will welcome what he said about the need to iron out the sometimes large differences between local education authorities. Given that the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has made it clear that local education authorities of all political colours—Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat—have, at times, not been sufficiently generous or speedy in responding to SEN requests, does he agree that any action that he can take to level up, rather than level down, will be much welcomed?

Does the Secretary of State stand by the letter that the head of his Department's SEN division sent in July last year to all LEAs, warning them not to apply blanket policies of never quantifying special education provision in children's statements? Does he anticipate that the national guidance that he seeks will be consistent with the judgment made by Lady Justice Hale in the Court of Appeal some time ago, which is regarded by many parents as an important legal statement on the issue?

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State had warm words to say about special schools. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that many children with SEN are most appropriately looked after in mainstream schools, but that some would benefit enormously from special schools. Does he share our regret that 79 special schools have closed since 1997, and would it be consistent with the approach that he set out today to consider the case for a moratorium on further closures? My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) has been calling for such a moratorium for some time.

Will the Secretary of State also consider the case that many parents have made that greater co-ordination between the various responsibilities of different authorities would be welcome if it provided a one-stop shop for parents? There are merits and advantages in those authorities co-operating in greater partnership, as he specified, but a one-stop shop for parents would be very welcome. In that context, I also wish to press him on an issue raised in the other place by Baroness Warnock—I am sure that he recalls that she was largely responsible for setting up the statementing process—that it is now time for a comprehensive review of the process, because it is too combative. He will know that many parents say that they have to fight for the interests of their children. There must be a better approach. If the Secretary of State can clarify those points, I am sure that his overall approach will be welcomed by all hon. Members.

Mr. Clarke

I appreciate the general welcome given by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) and I confirm his view that the subject is not a matter of party political difference, whether at local government level or across the Chamber. As far as I am aware, politicians and people from all parties are committed to broadly the same approach.

On the three specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised, I agree that the process of improving services must be a question of levelling up, not down. That has to be the right approach. I focus on quality because we must improve professional practice, so that people can see what good practice consists of and how they may apply it in particular areas. The regional networks to which I referred will help us to do that in a variety of ways.

I stand by the letter from my Department last July, which stated that there should be no blanket policies. A critical point—I emphasise it—is the importance of judgment. To go down to the position where everybody either is or is not in a special school is a hopeless way of going about things. We talk too much in terms of categories when we are talking about people with special educational needs. The point behind the philosophy that every child matters is that each individual, with their particular special need, is a special person who needs to be taken into account. Obviously, that is difficult to achieve—the task is massive in respect of resources and in other terms—but that must be the right approach, rather than saying that everybody in one category should be treated in way X and everybody in another should be treated in way Y. The point I want to stress is that such an approach requires high-quality judgment in each locality, which is why we wrote the letter about no blanket policies.

On the hon. Gentleman's third point about a coordinating one-stop shop, it is critical that that judgment is made in co-ordination with the health and education professionals concerned, voluntary organisations and parents, too. Sometimes, parents feel isolated from the process that involves their child. That is not best practice, but it happens. I am sure that we have all experienced situations in which both individual parents, concerned about their child, and groups of parents, concerned, for example, about the closure of a special school, are passionately engaged but are left outside a decision-making process from which they feel alienated. The answer is to ensure that there is coordination and judgment.

That is why I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he asked in his second question, that we would have a moratorium on all closures of special schools. We should not adopt that type of blanket position, but should say that in every locality people must look at the particular circumstances and decide what to do. The great shift in the document that we published today is that we talk about special schools as part of a local network of collaboration, through liaison both with the specialist schools' programmes and as centres of excellence working with local schools. The more that we see a special school not simply as serving the children within it but as part of the local educational provision, the better the basis for taking the decisions that have to be taken.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)

May I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of the statement? Like the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), we are at one with the right hon. Gentleman in trying to improve special educational needs. Both the previous Government and the present Government have good records on tackling some of the key issues.

I am a little disappointed that there will be no changes to the legal framework, because although the Education Act 1981, pioneered by Baroness Warnock, which introduced the idea of statements, was a major step forward, it is now a hurdle that many schools, and many parents, find it difficult to get over, so I hope that the Secretary of State will revisit that issue.

May I put on record my praise for teachers, in both mainstream and special schools, who work with some of the most difficult youngsters in some of the most difficult circumstances? They do a brilliant job and no one doing such work should regard the statement as suggesting that they do other than an excellent job.

We all found the Audit Commission's 2002 report an incredibly chilling document. Questions must be asked about why Ofsted did not pick up some of the major concerns earlier—I hope that the Secretary of State can respond. What role will Ofsted play to ensure that in future we do not have the Audit Commission reporting that things are difficult?

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has not tackled some of the obvious barriers. He referred to the specialist school movement and to church schools. Will he examine how many such schools have children with special educational needs? How many of the children attending those schools receive free school meals and how many of them are in care? Many special needs children throughout the education system come under those three categories and are disappearing from the specialist schools. That is a challenge. These comments are not party political, but we must address the issue.

On early identification, there is no doubt that the first six months are crucial. Will the Secretary of State work with the Secretary of State for Health to expand birth-to-six screening, especially for cognitive and sensory development? Will he commission research, which could probably be undertaken by the research council being set up under the Higher Education Bill[Interruption.] You never know. Will the Secretary of State commission research into low birthweight and families at risk? There is a correlation between low birthweight and later special needs problems, and adequate research has not been carried out.

On funding, will the right hon. Gentleman consider following the Dutch model in which children are funded from six months onwards according to their need? That would avoid a bureaucratic process later on and children could get support where and when they need it.

On the inclusion development programme, will the Secretary of State ensure that there is a key worker for any child who is diagnosed at six months with a cognitive, sensory or physical impairment, so that there is a one-stop shop for the parents as well as for the professionals working with the child? Will he consider taking appropriate regulatory action to ensure that adults in non-regulated early-years settings also have a duty of care for children with special educational needs? At present, they are excluded from that requirement.

Will the Secretary of State consider guaranteeing that when children enter school—be it at five or at any other key stage—teachers and classroom assistants have appropriate training? Far too often, children with special needs are dealt with by classroom assistants who have no specific training. We would not do that with A-level students and we should not do it with children with special needs.

Will the right hon. Gentleman pay special attention to the issue of children with behavioural difficulties? There is a growing incidence in our schools of children with attention deficit disorders, dyspraxia and autism, which causes major problems in terms of the inclusion programme, not only for the children themselves but for other children at the school. We have not given sufficient attention to that aspect of the programme, yet it is one of the greatest barriers and threats to inclusion. The Government should play a special role in dealing with that problem.

I agree that special schools have a specialist role, but I urge the Secretary of State to look at the American model, whereby special schools are linked to research departments in higher education institutes. Research excellence is thus developed locally and practice can spread to other schools, especially in mainstream settings.

Respite care is a massive issue for parents of children with dyspraxia, autism and some of the behavioural disorders, but there is a postcode lottery for its provision. Will the Secretary of State pay special attention to resolving that problem?

We very much support the statement, but in the end resources will make a huge difference in ensuring that children who are born with cognitive or other difficulties receive the best that we can give them. I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that, in the new comprehensive spending review, this programme, together with higher education, receives special attention.

Mr. Clarke

I am not sure whether that was another claim on the Lib Dem 50 per cent. tax rate, but I shall generously assume that it was not.

The hon. Gentleman made a series of points. First, we thought carefully about changing the legal framework. To be blunt, we came to the view that we cannot take that route until we have really developed the approach set out in the strategy, especially early intervention, in a way that gives parents confidence in the robustness of the current system. The existing statementing process is seen by many parents as a means to give them some assurance about the future of their child. To remove that process, or to fiddle with it, would not be appropriate until we have gone a considerable way down the line in implementing the approach that we have taken. That is the reason for our decision.

On the inspection regime, there is a new inspection framework. We have of course looked at the Audit Commission report in the context of Ofsted's comments, and we shall take it further. There is much dialogue about those matters.

On specialist schools, there is one point on which the hon. Gentleman is not right. Many of the specialist school bids that I have seen include a partnership with a special school in the locality. For example, I remember going to a languages specialist school that had a class from a local special school in the language lab, going through the process. We are seeing much more engagement between specialist schools and special schools, in a variety of different ways, which is a very positive thing.

I come on to the hon. Gentleman's point about EBD—emotional and behavioural difficulties—and attention deficit syndromes of various descriptions. It is important to build a better relationship between special schools and mainstream schooling with professional staff and so on.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about birth-to-six screening, birth weight and the need for research. My view is that we have had a problem with joined-up government, which we are trying to put right. There are three main players: the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the voluntary organisations dealing with the particular area concerned, many of which raise large amounts of money for research. We must get effective co-ordination. We can say that we have been doing that over the past two or three years, but there is still a long way to go. I am in constant dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health about precisely that.

I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's point about funding in relation to the child.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the key worker is very important. We shall give that priority.

With regard to adults' duty of care more generally and the question of training, I have to concede that the hon. Gentleman is right. It is a massive issue involving both initial training for teachers and those in other professions, and in-service training and continuous professional development. We highlight this in the document. There is a great deal of work to be done, and we must make steady progress to raise standards across the whole range.

I shall look at the hon. Gentleman's interesting idea of a link with university research departments. There is much to be said for it, and I am grateful to him for the suggestion.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about respite care, too. We are developing a programme with foster respite carers, if I may put it like that, to be able to do work in that field, which will relieve some of the pressures that the hon. Gentleman rightly described.

Resources are always an issue—there are never enough. It is important, first, to secure the best use of resources, which is one of the reasons why the partnership between the different agencies is very important, and, secondly, to intervene as early as possible, because the more we can sort out problems early, the fewer the resource implications further down the line. It is worth investing early in a child's life to make a difference later on, quite apart from the social benefit.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the general support that he has given to the document.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab)

May I give a warm welcome to the proposals that have been outlined to the House? We need to take action to end the postcode lottery and make sure that there is proper provision across the board.

In terms of awareness, I suggest that when my right hon. Friend makes his forthcoming visit to north Staffordshire with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, he should discuss the statement in further detail with the local voluntary sector in order that it may be properly understood.

What account does today's statement take of people with dyslexia? Is that factored into the statement? Is it part of the proposal?

Mr. Clarke

Yes, dyslexia is taken into account. I have discussed this with the two national organizations dealing with these issues and dyslexia. Serious investment in training and in information and communication technology can make a difference to special needs education, and I have seen some exciting projects in schools funded by voluntary organisations.

Of course, I shall be delighted to discuss these issues with my hon. Friend's colleagues when I visit Stoke and north Staffordshire.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)

I, too, welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement and any measures that can be introduced to help the group of parents and children concerned, who evoke sympathy across the House.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in my experience most parents seem to feel that, in addition to the inherent problems of bringing up children with severe special educational needs, they seem to have to fight battles the whole time to get the help that in theory is available, and certainly should be available, to them? Will he respond a little more fully to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) about the sense that one is having to fight a battle to get a child statement, because behind it lie limited resources, which those who dish out the statements are effectively rationing? Is that a correct perception? Does the right hon. Gentleman propose to change the nature of the process or increase the resources available?

Mr. Clarke

I think that there is a great deal of substance in the right hon. Gentleman's perception. The truth is that, as medicine advances, parents, who are desperately keen to do right by their child, see what is being done elsewhere—in America or wherever—and ask "Can we have that for our child?", and they look to the state to pay for it. There are substantial issues here, as the right hon. Gentleman, with his financial experience, will know. It is not an easy matter to resolve.

Nevertheless, I have two points to make on this matter. First, we must engage parents right at the outset with top-quality professional advice and the best possible experience, working as a team. I emphasise the teamwork aspect. Many of the feelings described by the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) come from people thinking that they have been messed about early on, with people taking Gradgrind decisions purely on grounds of money, without looking at the welfare of their child. That may or may not be true, but it is the perception. In my opinion, it can be dealt with only by honest and open discussion at the outset and good advice—and, to be quite honest, also by enabling people to make genuine assessments of the position of their child and the possibilities for the child in the real world. That is very hard.

The second way of addressing the problem that the right hon. Gentleman raises is early intervention. I come back to it again and again, for the simple reason that the earlier one can obtain clarity about this matter, the better one can resolve the problem. People understandably feel terribly upset about the situation that their child is in, quite apart from the genuine pressures. They feel that it is their obligation to fight for their child, and they do it as best they can. Our obligation is to respect that and try to work with the parents as best we can. That is the only way through that I can see.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central) (Lab)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement and the thrust of his proposals, and on his very prompt response to the Audit Commission's findings of roughly two years ago. But I wish to draw attention to the very complex needs of a very small handful of children for whom no proper planning mechanism exists to provide services. In that respect, I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the difficulties of Northern Counties school, an independent special school in my constituency, which has not a single fee-paid child attending, with 80 children drawn from Scotland, Wales and the south of England. They are children with very special and difficult needs, such as cerebral palsy and all its related conditions. Because of the lack of any kind of planning mechanism to guarantee provision of the services for those children, and finance for those services, the school is now faced with closure. In his statement my right hon. Friend mentioned strengthening regional planning mechanisms, but far more needs to be done in that direction.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I am trying to call as many hon. Members as possible. Shorter questions, and perhaps shorter answers from the Secretary of State, would be a great help.

Mr. Clarke

I shall try to be very brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

First, I shall look into the school that my hon. Friend mentioned. Secondly, I agree with him about planning, at both the regional and the national level. The way to tackle the issue, as I said earlier, is through the joint work of the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the voluntary organisations concerned with the particular type of special need, to establish what needs to be done right across the country.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim) (UUP)

I broadly welcome the statement, and I am delighted that for the first time there will be a focus on the special needs of all our children.

Will the Secretary of State consider training more specialist teachers, in addition to raising the skills of the very committed band in our special schools at present? May we have an assurance that this strategy will be applied to Northern Ireland as soon as possible? Has the right hon. Gentleman given any consideration to further provision for those children with special needs who are no longer in the group requiring compulsory education?

Mr. Clarke

We have thought about the last point. It is a very difficult problem, which is why we refer throughout the document to the need for proper transition planning. The fact is that many people of school age have a reasonable degree of support, which suddenly goes away when they exceed that age. I take that point completely, and we focus on it in the document.

Secondly, I am ready to discuss with colleagues from Northern Ireland how to establish the principles in the document for Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about training specialists, but I would make one point in qualification. I have seen much evidence that for many special needs a substantial way to attack the problem is to achieve a much wider range of understanding about how to deal with them, both in teachers and non-teaching staff in schools. That is a question not just of the specialist, important though it is; it is a question of getting some level of general understanding of the issue among everyone who works with children with special needs.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but does he agree that it will only have an effect if it not only involves parents but informs them about their children's rights, thereby empowering them? Many teachers throughout the country are coping with children with mild forms of educational disability, with few resources at their disposal. By directing resources to those areas, especially to early intervention, the bigger problems that can develop, which can be more costly and more time-consuming to deal with later on, can be alleviated or completely avoided. Not only should we put resources into the classroom to assist those teachers, but we should address the skills shortage. Many people with language and learning disability skills are much needed in those schools to help the teachers to address those problems at an early stage.

Mr. Clarke

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about three things: first, the parent relationship is crucial—it requires more work all the time, which is what we have to establish; secondly, the partnership between the professions is crucial—for example, between speech therapists, teachers and so on; and, thirdly, a general higher level of skills across the whole work force is very important.

By the way, I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) in praising the work done by those who work in this area, but they would be the first to say that the more support they can have, the better they can fulfil their responsibilities.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)

May I ask the Secretary of State to share with the House the views and experience of his Department about the appropriateness of caring for children with special educational needs in very small schools? I speak particularly of primary and lower schools. Is it his view or experience that there is sometimes a critical mass of numbers of children in a school whereby children with special educational needs receive more appropriate care?

Mr. Clarke

I do not think that I do agree. I have seen some very small schools that have done very well for children with special educational needs, and one cannot generalise about this issue. I certainly accept that some needs might be so difficult for a school to deal with that one has to look at them differently. So I come back to my remarks to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale in saying that there is a question of local judgment about what is available and how to deal with it, but I would not seek to be prescriptive in any way, by saying that certain types of school cannot handle it or that a certain type of school has to do things in a certain way. Local judgment, based on real professionalism, has to be used.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab)

I welcome the statement and my right hon. Friend's determination to root out inconsistency in service provision between different local authorities. Will he confirm that one of the services that he will look at is the provision of safe transportation between home and school for children with special educational needs? I have drawn attention to such shortcomings in my area that may be widespread. Will he also ensure that effective remedial action will be taken where his own Department's guidelines or standards that he lays down are not being met, and that he will have powers to ensure that services improve, so that safe transportation can be provided in the future?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend has worked very hard on that issue, and I pay respect to him. The fact is that a very high proportion—sometimes as high as two thirds—of a local authority school transport budget goes on transport for children with special educational needs, so very big issues need to be addressed. I agree that we need efficiency in that area. I hope that the draft Bill that we are talking about will enable people to consider more carefully how to get high-quality transport, but I take the point.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

The Secretary of State mentioned early intervention and involvement with voluntary organisations. Is he aware of West Norfolk Dyspraxia, which is doing an excellent job, especially with early intervention? However, because of recent cuts in Norfolk Children's Fund, it will either have to close completely or greatly reduce the help that it can give to those children. What advice can he give to West Norfolk Dyspraxia and the many other groups that are helping with autistic, dyspraxic and Aspergic children, who will be hit very hard by those cuts?

Mr. Clarke

I am familiar with that organisation; it has written to me directly as another Norfolk Member of Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and I are looking very closely at children's fund issues because we acknowledge that they are of a type that the hon. Gentleman describes, and I hope that we will be able shortly to say things that will be of assistance.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

May I join in the general welcome for the statement and particularly in the congratulations given to all the teachers and assistants involved in that world? I have the good fortune to have a particularly fine school in my constituency: Northcote—a beacon school for training and teaching children. However, one of the things that has come out in all the exchanges is parents' sense that they are coming up against a brick wall. They feel that they are not told the truth by officials, who are curbed by financial constraints that they are not prepared to talk about and they therefore find excuses. Very often, parents arrange private consultations with psychiatrists and psychologists, putting them to a great deal of expense, but that affects only those who can afford to do so. A lot of people simply do not understand, and there is a real need for some sort of independent advice outside the administration of special educational needs, so that parents can feel that they are properly considered and that time is being given. Some parents see their children only getting an hour of speech therapy, when they feel that they need far more than that, as well as better training and so on.

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend is right in the concerns that he expresses. He is also right that the people who have the resources to do so will pursue whatever avenue they can to get the advice that sets up what they feel is the right course of action. I also agree that an independent source of advice is needed, although the tribunal system offers that to an extent at the moment. That is perhaps a last resort, but I will consider how we might improve things. I come back to my earlier answers: the relationships with parents must involve candour at the beginning and early intervention as quickly as possible to deal with the issues. That is the best way forward in my view.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

I welcome the Secretary of State's desire to raise expectations and achievement because, for far too long, we have been faced with the attitude of local education authorities saying "This will do", rather than "How can we do the best for our children?" Does he share my concern that the biggest barrier locally to pupils achieving is the lack of speech therapists and occupational therapists? What is he doing and what conversations is he having with his colleagues in the Department of Health to address that problem?

Mr. Clarke

As I said in my statement, the position across the country both on the professions, such as the therapists whom the hon. Lady describes, and on other things is very variable and patchy. So we are seeking, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, with whom we are talking about the issue, to analyse precisely where the shortages are, what needs to be done and how to develop programmes to move in that direction, and we will continue to do that jointly.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab)

I, too, warmly welcome today's statement. Does my right hon. Friend accept, however, that when a mother gives birth to a child with a handicap, it is crucial that the first professional person to advise that mother gives the correct advice? At the time of birth, the degree of the handicap is not known. There have been examples throughout the country where professional advice has been given to a mother when the degree of handicap is not known and the mother has been guided to send the child to mainstream education, although at the end of the day a special school is the only answer to meet that child's need.

Mr. Clarke

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why the document that we published today focuses on the need to raise standards of professionalism at all levels. The quality of the advice that mothers and fathers get in such circumstances is critical. Of course, a lot is unknown at any given point, but what is needed is the best advice on the basis of what is known. We must work to improve the quality of that advice. Again, that is a question of the joined-up approach that I am describing between health and education. We need to ensure also that parents receive consistent advice from different sources that is genuinely high quality throughout. That is exactly what the document is designed to encourage.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con)

I greatly welcome the Secretary of State's good intentions this afternoon, particularly his recognition of the importance of early intervention. Given that recognition, will he take steps to ensure that teacher-training colleges give at least basic minimum training in special needs to every teacher? Often, it is in the early years at primary school that problems are identified, and if a primary school teacher does not have that ability, the problem is left too late, whereas it could be dealt with much earlier. The Secretary of State recognises Baroness Warnock's criticism of the system that she helped to set up many years ago. Will he also undertake to come back and look at this matter in perhaps a year's time, when the system that he talks about today has bedded down, as he wants it to do?

Mr. Clarke

To respond to the hon. Lady's second point first, I will undertake to keep on looking at that matter as necessary, but I do not want to put a time scale on the process. I think that she will acknowledge that establishing the kind of ambitious system that we have outlined will take some time. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) earlier, parental confidence is critical in reviewing the matter to which the hon. Lady referred. We need to be sure that parents feel confident in the system as it is now, before we start to review people's entitlements.

On the hon. Lady's first point, I can confirm, as I said in my statement, that the Teacher Training Agency and teaching providers are considering initial teacher training and continuing professional development to see how we can improve the general quality of the professionalism that teachers have from the outset.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)

I welcome today's statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the role of special educational needs co-ordinators is vital in delivering special education provision in every school in this country? How will today's statement assist SENCOs in that key role?

Mr. Clarke

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to say that the role of SENCOs is essential. We plan to assist them in three different ways. First, SENCOs should have better access than exists now to a network of professionals working in different fields, including social services, health, mental health and educational resources. Secondly, SENCOs should be able to access better quality material of various kinds, as I announced in my statement, so that they can point the teachers in their school to the resources that they need to deal with the issues that they are involved in. Thirdly, as I have described, SENCOs must be able to liaise more effectively with other schools, through the schools' collaboration, to see how progress is being made. On that matter more than any other, everyone will benefit from a strong cross-fertilisation of professionalism and advice. That is precisely what we seek to encourage.

Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)

I welcome the publication of the strategy, but echo the comments that other hon. Members have made about the lack of therapy support for children with special needs. There can be nothing more frustrating for a parent than to have a statement that suggests the level of therapy support that is required, when that support is not available. Will the Secretary of State co-operate with his colleagues in other parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, to develop a national strategy for the recruitment of more occupational therapists, physiotherapists and speech and language therapists, to ensure that those children receive the level of therapy support that they require, and that that is consistent throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Clarke

I have two points on that. First, the Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) will be participating in the discussion, and she is committed, as is the Northern Ireland Government, to establishing the kind of coherent approach that the hon. Gentleman has set out. I am sure that she will discuss with political colleagues in Northern Ireland how that can best be done. Secondly, I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about therapy, but I want to emphasise one point that I have not emphasised before. Teachers and teaching assistants can play a therapeutic role, even if not to a full professional level, if we can provide them with more training and support. That is precisely what we are doing. We need to improve the skills and increase the amount of support that adults can offer to children in those circumstances, at all levels. That is not a full answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, but it should help a little.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

The Secretary of State's aspirations are laudable and I share them entirely. Does he agree, however, that autistic children, in particular, need continuity of contact with carers and classroom assistants, and that chopping and changing does not do?

In an isolated community such as mine, which has to provide economically from a base of only 130,000 people, many more children have to board to get special educational needs support than in most constituencies. Will he look at the additional costs of that provision for my local authority?

Mr. Clarke

I shall look at that latter point. I am not aware of anything that I can say on it now, but I am prepared to commit to looking at it.

On the hon. Gentleman's general point, I agree that consistency is absolutely vital in this matter. I hope that this strategy will enable better consistency, in terms of both a consistent approach among different professions and, as he implied, consistency over time.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

I should like to press the Minister on the part of his statement that mentioned improving the regional planning of provision and reducing reliance on high-cost, often private, placements. There is nothing in the statement about consortiums of local authorities seeking to collaborate to bring down the costs of provision on an area basis. Is that an omission, or is such collaboration implied in the statement?

Mr. Clarke

I am subject to correction on this, but I think that that is in the document. It is certainly implied, and we are in favour of developing the kind of cooperation that the hon. Gentleman describes. That returns us to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) earlier. We need a planned approach, and must look at particular special needs and how we deal with them on a regional and national basis. The framework that we have set out in the document enables us to address such questions.

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