HC Deb 08 September 2004 vol 424 cc836-42

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

7.31 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)

I am pleased to have secured this debate on the future of Alderman Knight school in my constituency. I am grateful to the Minister for being here to respond to the debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Witney (Mr. Cameron) for being here to support me in the debate.

I have raised this matter many times in the House, but I make no apology for returning to it because the school faces closure. Alderman Knight is a special school, accommodating in the main children with moderate learning difficulties but also those with severe learning difficulties, behavioural difficulties and physical handicaps. Gloucestershire county council's cabinet has voted to close the school. There has been a bit of a kickback from the county's education scrutiny committee, but the cabinet and the Liberal Democrat and Labour-controlled council are determined to close the school. Their policy is to include all children with moderate learning difficulties, at least, in mainstream schools. I shall return to that point shortly.

Whenever I have taken this matter up with Ministers—I also served on a Standing Committee considering a relevant Bill—I have been told that the legislation should not be seen as a green light for the wholesale closure of special schools. However, in Gloucestershire we have seen that programme being put into motion: Bownham Park, the special school at Stroud, has closed. I want to return to that matter, too. If the Government's policy is that their legislation should not lead to the wholesale closure of special schools, they really need to have a word with their friends on Gloucestershire county council, who are not interpreting it in that way.

There are many reasons to keep special schools open. The Prime Minister's wife alluded to those reasons on 23 June, when she said to me that inclusion can be a very good idea, but we also need special schools. I am sure that she will not mind my quoting her. I would be the first to say that many pupils with special needs can be integrated into mainstream schools—many already are, and very successfully too—but that is not suitable for all children with special needs. For some, integration now can mean exclusion in later life.

If we take what may seem an extreme example, although I do not think that it really is, and look at the prison population, we find that the majority of prisoners are illiterate.

There is a link between poor education or the inability to learn and going wrong in later life.

Mainstream schools will not be able to cope with a massive influx of pupils with special needs. The pupils at mainstream schools will be adversely affected by too many pupils with special needs going into those schools. Again, I make no apology for saying that. It is common sense. The children themselves could not cope with being in mainstream schools. That is my opinion. It is also the opinion of many other politicians, teachers, chairmen of governors, governors and parents. More importantly, it is the opinion of the children.

I shall read out three letters that I received from children who go to Alderman Knight school. Ben Waters writes: I was at Alderman Knight School for seven years and I used to be very worried about lessons because I was bullied but when I came to Alderman Knight School in 1997 I was very nervous but over the years I became more confident. If I was at Mainstream I wouldn't of taken five GCSE's or I don't think I'd pass them I had a D in English, D in Food Tech, E in Art, E in Science and a G in Maths a lot of those lessons I thought I couldn't do but now I can. There is also a letter from Harriet Windsor-Clive who writes: Alderman Knight is my favourite school. It helps me learn and I have good friends. I am sad for the younger ones because they will not have a lot more help. I feel very, very sad about my school closing and having to go to another school. Jake Rose, who is 11 years old, met the Prime Minister's wife. Jake is autistic. He writes: I am happy at my school. My teachers help me to learn in a way I can understand. I feel safe at my school. That is very important. A number of those children have been down to the House of Commons today to make their protest.

The education portfolio-holder at Gloucestershire county council says that children who are attending a special school now will be able to continue to go to a special school, even if it is not that special school. But if all the special schools are closed, how will that be possible? What about the officers? What are they saying? They say that their policy is to include children with special needs in mainstream schools, so we do not know what Gloucestershire county council is trying to achieve, other than the closure of special schools. The council does not seem to know which way it is going.

I refer to the flawed process that the county council has undertaken. It has held various consultations with the public. Closure was not mentioned in the final consultation. It was indeed mentioned in an earlier consultation, but the option was rejected by those who were consulted, so unsurprisingly it was removed from the final consultation. However, the council decided that it wanted to go ahead with closure anyway. What on earth was the point of the consultations? How much did they cost the taxpayer of Gloucestershire? Could not that money have been better spent at, say, Alderman Knight school?

When my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold and I attended a meeting with the county council leaders on 2 July, we were given a briefing paper. My hon. Friend will remember it well. On that briefing paper there is no mention of the option of closing the school. What on earth is the county council doing? The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.

The council predetermined the policy before it went out to consultation. I understand that there are rules regarding councillors, who are not allowed to attend meetings if they have a prejudged view—if they have already made up their minds. That is in the code of conduct for councillors. Yet the county council can have a prejudged view to the extent that it can reject the consultation results if it does not like them. It has clearly said that it does not accept keeping the school open because that is contrary to the council's policy. I have that in writing. If that is not prejudging the issue. I do not know what is.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con)

Will my hon. Friend take it from me, as the father of a severely disabled son who has just completed his second day at a special school, that for many of those children a special school is the only place outside home where they can obtain the love, care, attention and therapy that they need? Given the compelling story of what is happening in Gloucestershire, which is being repeated right across the country, does he agree that it is time for the Department for Education and Skills properly to investigate what councils are doing with special schools? Ministers keep saying that a closure policy does not exist, but closures seem to be repeated not only in Gloucestershire, but elsewhere.

Mr. Robertson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that he takes a deep interest in these matters. I entirely agree that the Government should examine what is going on up and down the country, because the wrong things are being done in the wrong way.

Gloucestershire county council has consulted on merging schools without the prior consent of those schools, and it has failed to consult the children. The level of statementing in Gloucestershire is very low. The council has a duty to provide the education specified in a statement, so it is no wonder that it avoids statementing in the first place.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. Although the school is situated in his constituency, a number of my constituents go to it. Does he agree that Gloucestershire county council is not serving the people that it purports to represent? Denying parents and children the benefit of the school is a terrible thing to do, and those who will benefit from that school will be severely disadvantaged by the decision.

Mr. Robertson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a powerful point. It is not only people in my constituency and those with special needs who will suffer, but those who already attend mainstream schools, who will suffer because of the influx—that is not an insult to the children; it is a fact.

The council has undertaken a flawed process. I want to make a serious point because I understand that the director of education, who has given councillors recommendations to close the school, may have been in breach of the county council's own guidance. She may have a non-financial interest, which she has not declared at various meetings, and she has not sought to distance herself from involvement in the matter. Both of those points are recommendations from the county council that she serves, and I ask the Minister to look into the matter. If required, I can provide more details that I choose not to make public.

I also want to draw attention to the behaviour of the leader of the county council, Councillor Peter Clarke. In 1999, he assured me in front of a number of people that there was no intention to close special schools, but we have seen the value of that promise. On 9 August, he wrote to the chairman of governors at Alderman Knight school. He said that the chairman had expressed "extreme views", but that is not true. He also said that a letter from the chairman, which was published in a local newspaper, could be construed as "agreeing to extreme measures" and possibly "incitement". That is not true—I have the letter that the chairman of governors wrote and to which Councillor Clarke referred.

Councillor Clarke went on to say that he was taking the precaution of copying the letters to the county's legal officers, the chief constable and the editor of The Citizen, who allowed that "threat" to be published. There was no threat. What we have here is a man running scared and using legal offices paid for by the taxpayer to threaten and bully. Such behaviour is unacceptable.

I referred earlier to the education scrutiny committee having kicked back the closure decision to the county. Councillor Clarke attended that meeting as an observer. On leaving the meeting, a number of people heard him say, "We are now going to rip apart the head teacher at Alderman Knight school in public."

I believe that Councillor Clarke, who is a Labour councillor, has a lot to answer for, and I ask the Minister to look into that.

For all those reasons, we are considering whether, if the closure goes through, there are grounds for a judicial review, because the process has been flawed. There are also attempts to try to prevent some of our councillors from participating in debates and voting by saying that because they have a prejudged view they are not allowed to do so. Yet the county council is apparently allowed to have a prejudged view.

I have raised these issues before, and I am aware of the response that I am likely to get from the Minister—although he may surprise me. He will say that it is due to local decision making. However, he will know that if the county council does decide on closure and the school's organisation committee is not unanimous, the decision goes to the adjudicator. When Bownham Park at Stroud was closed, that decision did indeed go to the adjudicator, but he lived in Darlington, which is 225.1 miles away from Stroud, according to Multimap—I looked it up today. Can the Minister explain how that is local decision making and local democracy in action?

A referendum is about to be held by Tewkesbury borough council—the Government have put that legislation in place—and we are going to raise a fighting fund to fight that referendum. I pay tribute to the chairman of governors, Dave Waters; the head, Ieuan Walsh, and his staff; Councillors Gordon Shurmer and Brian Calway; and the parents and pupils who have fought so hard to save the school. I assure the Minister and the county council that I will do everything in my power to save the school by legal and campaigning means. These children have very special needs. One can imagine the outcry if a Conservative Administration tried to close such a school.

7.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on securing this important debate on the future of Alderman Knight school. I recognise the contributions and presence in the Chamber of colleagues on both sides of the House—my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and the hon. Members for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who has taken up such issues in several forums in the House and outside.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury has taken several opportunities to raise the matter—I pay tribute to him for that—through parliamentary questions and debate in the House. This is clearly one of those opportunities. He raised two specific issues relating to the conduct of an officer and a councillor in Gloucestershire. I ask him to write to me with the full details on a confidential basis, and I will of course respond.

There will always be debates about the pattern of school education, both special and mainstream, in localities. It is important that those debates respond to local needs and demands. Under arrangements introduced in the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, the consideration of proposals for establishing, altering or discontinuing maintained special schools are a matter for local decision making. I shall refer to those process issues again towards the end of my remarks. The decision-making structure to which the hon. Gentleman referred consists of the local education authority, a school organisation committee and an independent adjudicator to make decisions where local agreement is not possible. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about the local adjudicator, but we have to have a system in which there is an ultimate decision maker, and if they were not an adjudicator, based wherever they may be based, the only alternative would be a Minister. That would be no more local than having the decision made by the adjudicator.

Clearly, it is preferable for consensus to be reached locally, as is often the case with such matters. I hope that it will apply to the instance that we are considering. As the hon. Gentleman said, neither Ministers nor the Department for Education and Skills have the power to determine local education authorities' plans in that regard and I would argue that that is proper.

The policy of encouraging the inclusion of children with special educational needs in mainstream schools is not new. The principle was established in the Education Act 1981 and the Education Acts 1993 and 1996 built upon it. Subsequently, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 strengthened the right to a mainstream education for pupils with special educational needs and reinforced the Government's commitment to improving standards of achievement for all children with SEN so that they can fulfil their full potential.

I want to emphasise that, from our point of view, inclusion is not simply about the sort of placement that children or their families are offered, but the quality of the educational experience and the extent to which children can learn, achieve and participate in the life of the school. In that context, we believe that special schools continue to have a role in the framework of inclusion, especially in providing education for pupils with severe and complex special educational needs, and working with and providing outreach support for mainstream schools. That is the basis for our policy as set out in the strategy entitled "Removing Barriers to Achievement."

For too long, we have had an either/or education system, whereby decisions made at one point in a child's development—either a special school or a mainstream school—stick for good. Yet what matters most is not location but the quality of the child's experience. We want not an either/or but a both/and system, whereby mainstream schools have the capacity to meet the needs of most children with SEN and special schools provide education directly for children with severe and complex needs, and, importantly, link much more closely with mainstream schools to share knowledge, expertise and pupils. In such a community of schools, it should be possible for children perhaps to start in special and move to mainstream provision and vice versa, or to move between the two according to their needs at different times.

In other words, we want an inclusive system, whereby children with SEN have inclusive educational experiences and there is therefore greater social inclusion. We want to promote that through encouraging special schools to participate in federations, clusters and twinning arrangements. We are especially considering the opportunity that the "Building Schools for the Future" capital programme affords for bringing schools physically closer together.

I want to put on record again that the Government continue fully to support special schools and that we envisage a continuing role for them in a continuum of inclusive education, catering for children with the most severe and complex needs and working more closely with mainstream schools to share expertise and to support all children in both settings. That support stems from the excellent work performed within the sector, such as outreach services to mainstream schools.

We set up a working group to examine the contribution of special schools and I want to stress how much we welcome its report, which has taken the debate considerably further. I want the contribution of special schools to inclusion to be reflected clearly in the work of the SEN regional partnerships in spreading effective practice and promoting regional and local provision.

Our strategy recognises that local authorities have a vital strategic role in planning a spectrum of provision to meet children's needs in their area. The strategy makes clear our view that authorities should take account of several considerations, one of which is that some children have such severe and complex needs that we will continue to require special provision for them.

To emphasise that, my ministerial colleague who leads on those matters, Baroness Ashton, and Sir Jeremy Beecham of the Local Government Association, wrote recently to all LEAs setting out local and central Government's shared view of inclusion, and of the need for strategic planning for special school places. To follow that up, a number of conferences are being planned for the autumn. On supply and demand for special school places, the letter from Baroness Ashton and Sir Jeremy Beecham points out that special schools may need to be reorganised as we move to implement the SEN strategy, and in response to local demand. It will be important for elected members to provide clear leadership and to work with parents and the wider community to persuade them of the benefits of reorganisation, to allay concerns and to help them through the necessary period of transition.

There must be no question, however, of arbitrary decisions by LEAs to close special schools. The hon. Gentleman talked about wholesale closures, which is not the intention behind the strategy that I have set out. The LEA must go through a consultation process. He has commented on that process in his constituency this evening, reflecting his view and, I am sure, that of many of his constituents. It is important that that is a full and open consultation process, that the authority explains how interested parties can make their views known, and that it can demonstrate how it has taken into account the views expressed during consultation in reaching any subsequent decision as to the publication of proposals. Once the LEA has published its proposals, a two-month objection period will follow, during which anyone can submit formal objections to the authority. I understand that the proposals for Alderman Knight school will be published shortly.

This evening, the hon. Gentleman has placed on record his concerns and those of his constituents, including a number of pupils at the school, and it is important that those are taken into account as the process moves forward. As he said in his speech, any formal objections must then be sent to the school organisation committee. The committee has a duty to give careful consideration to those proposals and to reach properly informed decisions, based on all the available evidence, including any objections received. If it is unable to reach a unanimous decision, the matter will at that point, as he said, pass to the independent adjudicator for a determination.

I want to put on record that it is best for parents and others who have concerns to make their views known directly to the local education authority so that it can take them into account as it proceeds with formal consultation and the publication of statutory proposals. I realise that that response will be a surprise neither to the hon. Gentleman, in terms of the content, nor to those involved in the decision, on both sides of the discussion, at local level. I am simply setting out the long-standing policy in this regard that those matters are best determined at the local level.

Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Witney suggested that we consider again the pattern of what is happening. The fairest response that I can give to that this evening is that I will discuss the matter with my ministerial colleague, Baroness Ashton, who leads on these matters. What I have sought to do in my short time this evening is to set out the general approach of the Government and our view that special schools continue to have an important role to play in education. All of us, as constituency Members, will know of special schools in or close to our constituencies that provide an important education to significant numbers of children and young people. I recognise that Gloucestershire is confronting some difficult issues and has some difficult decisions to make.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, notwithstanding some of the concerns that he has set out, will feel that the process will at least allow those concerns to be fully reflected. Finally, I hope that today's debate in the House will contribute to that ongoing local discussion, consultation and decision making in Gloucestershire.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eight o'clock.