HC Deb 01 July 2004 vol 423 cc430-1
9. Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

If he will make a statement on plans to improve special needs education in England. [181601]

The Minister for Children (Margaret Hodge)

We published "Removing Barriers to Achievement", our strategy for special educational needs in England, on 11 February 2004. The strategy contains a programme of practical measures to promote early identification of children's special educational needs, boost early intervention to support those needs, improve coordination of services to children and their families, improve staff training and build strong collaboration between mainstream and special schools to share knowledge and expertise. Those measures will help to provide the opportunities and support for children with SEN to realise their potential.

Mr. Wiggin

As there is a shortage of trained SEN professionals, does the Minister agree that what parents require for their children is more choice, whether they want to go for a special educational needs school or the mainstream?

Margaret Hodge

I completely agree that parents should have choice, and that the facilities for children should meet the individual needs of each child—but if the Conservative party were to introduce a voucher worth £5,600, how would that help to pay for a child in a non-maintained special educational needs school, where the average cost is more than £41,000?

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con)

Is the Minister aware that since I held my debate with the Minister for School Standards about the Government policy of inclusion, I have had letters from all over the country saying the same thing—that Government policy is being prayed in aid by educationists and accountants who are closing special schools in the name of inclusion? Will the Minister get her Department to investigate what is actually happening? Does she not agree that those of us who have very disabled children should not have to spend our time fighting to keep open the wonderful schools that do such a good job?

Margaret Hodge

We are attempting to maintain choice for individual children and their families. Closure of special schools has not moved apace under this Government. There has been a small closure of special maintained schools, but it has taken place at about the same rate as under the Conservative Government, and there has been growth in the non-maintained special school sector. An increasing number of parents wish their children with disabilities or special educational needs to be educated in the mainstream sector. Where that is the choice of the parent and the child, we attempt to facilitate it. That provides both good special schools and good choice for people to have their children educated in the maintained mainstream sector, which is the underpinning drive of our policy for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con)

What measures does the Minister have in place to address the chronic under-provision of speech and language therapy for special needs pupils? The national professional body says that 780 speech and language therapy students graduate every year and enter the job market. What will she do to ensure that more of those graduates are attracted into special education, to ensure that the pupils there attain the communication skills that they need?

Margaret Hodge

I agree that there is a shortage of speech and language therapists. Interestingly enough, because of our Sure Start programmes we are identifying the speech and language needs of children at a much earlier age. The answer is to train more people, and we are doing that. We will provide 6,500 more speech and language therapists and other health professionals in the schools sector by 2004, and we are training nearly 4,500 more therapists and key professional staff each year. I have also seen schools and Sure Start programmes which, through cascading some limited training to support staff in the schools or in the programmes, have built skills among other people in the staff cohort so that they too can help with the speech and language needs of young children.