HL Deb 03 February 1998 vol 585 cc580-97

7.40 p.m.

Lord Addington rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure that appropriate provision will be guaranteed for those children with special educational needs who cannot reasonably be integrated into mainstream education.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I thank all noble Lords who have put their name down to speak in this debate. We have just one regret, that we have only one hour to cover the subject with such an impressive list of speakers. I look forward to hearing the maiden speech and wise counsel of my noble friend Lady Linklater who has had considerable experience of special schools within the education system.

When we talk about special schools within the education system we are continuing an argument which has gone on at least since I joined your Lordships' House. Some people have always maintained their battle cry that everyone should be integrated within the system, while others have said that they should be educated outside it. Both sides of the argument have waxed and waned fiercely, sometimes inside the Chamber but more often outside. The arguments are often based on fears and dogma. I hope tonight that we shall be able to reach a compromise based on best practice. That is finally starting to be accepted across the whole spectrum.

I sought briefing on this subject from outside bodies. I was astounded by the six or seven replies I received. They all said virtually the same thing: inclusion—that is, bringing people into the education system where that is appropriate—is a good thing; integration is essentially a bad thing because it does not take into account special needs. At least that is what the term is thought to mean.

Special schools with back-up facilities and sheltered environments will be needed for the foreseeable future. That was something that was so universally endorsed that I began to doubt it. When everyone is on the same side one always thinks that something must be wrong somewhere. However I suspect that we do have it right. I suspect that, because I have heard the arguments before. It has taken us a long time to reach that level of consensus. Even the Government agree. We should all be worried by that. However, there are certain caveats.

The Government's Green Paper, Excellence for all Children, follows a series of best practice procedures, or something close to them. That is a position for which we have striven for a long time. I shall inject some politics into the discussion. There is always the question of how we will achieve that aim within current spending levels. Excellence in any field is never cheap. With a Government who accept the expenditure plans of the previous government, which my party thought could have been expanded, there is always the danger of going along the integration route as opposed to the inclusion route.

That is effectively care in the community—a concept which sounded so good but which was never given the resources, and indeed probably never could be given the resources, to enable it to work in the way envisaged. That is a worry that always nags at the back of the mind: the image of going down the right path without sufficient will to drive oneself to the end.

If we are moving towards inclusion, we must ensure that there is something to back it up. Special schools are centres of excellence and havens for some people within the school system. The people who are aware of the various special needs are centred at such places and have the resources to provide the necessary support.

Unless there is a vast increase in expenditure on education we shall never be able to match that across the board or in all schools. It is almost impossible. We must bear in mind that some types of learning and support for learning require sheltered environments and different teaching methods from those appropriate to mainstream education.

I promised myself that I would not start my speech by mentioning dyslexia. I shall use it as an example. A dyslexic learns language in a different way and has to be taught differently from someone who is not dyslexic. They need different types of teaching and so the common classroom is not appropriate for both groups.

With a little thought those with moderate disabilities can adjust themselves to the mainstream classroom. Many of the areas of worry can be removed from those with moderate difficulties. People with other disabilities—for example, those whose movement is impaired—can often be easily catered for in the classroom. There is no real problem for someone in a wheelchair, once that person is allowed inside the classroom. It is agreed that there is no reason why someone in a wheelchair, with a stick, or on crutches should not have access to a classroom. There are relatively cheap ways of overcoming the difficulties. Ramps can be installed. One chairlift per floor can be provided in a school. Such things can be done. That removes the problems for a whole group of disabled people. That leaves those people with specialist needs which are best met in a specialist teaching environment. That is the group about which we are talking.

When dealing with children or young adolescents, we must bear in mind that we are dealing with the most conformist group in our society. It is the group which is probably least tolerant towards those outside it. If we place a young person who is vulnerable, because his confidence has been damaged due to his academic failure in school, in such a situation such a person will probably be bullied. If we put someone with severe learning difficulties in a classroom without the appropriate back-up facilities, we might as well put a sign across their head saying, "Victimise here", because that is probably what will happen.

There is the further problem that young people who are placed in such an environment without the appropriate help tend to react badly to school discipline. I know dyslexics who feel, "If I cannot cope with the classroom, I shall ensure that no one copes, and I will disrupt it". If such a young person has not received the help needed to manage in the classroom, a specialist school may be the only answer.

The move towards inclusion could be greatly helped if the Government were prepared to find the appropriate resources or to restructure teacher training so that teachers were better equipped to recognise disabilities within the classroom. I know that the Government are studying that problem now. This is an opportunity for the Government to tell us how far they have gone towards ensuring that teachers have the skills required to give the necessary assistance.

The Government now have the chance to say that they will keep these necessary support structures. They will make available the appropriate resources and back-up to allow them to work and to enable them to be accessible to the rest of the school system. Without such support, there is a grave danger that the Government's best intentions will come to nought, especially if they allow the accountants or the balance sheet to rule their education policy.

7.49 p.m.

Baroness Pitkeathley

My Lords, it is well known that in the field of special education, we have come a long way in a generation. Until the passage of the Education (Handicapped Children) Act 1970, the conventional wisdom was that some children were ineducable. It took many years of dedicated work to challenge and overturn that negative approach. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. While I acknowledge his concerns, I must make it clear that I do not support them entirely.

I speak as the chief executive of the Carers National Association which has frequent contact with parents of children with special needs and, more significantly, with the information and opinion received from respected voluntary organisations like Contact a Family and the Council for Disabled Children. They believe that parents of children with special educational needs should be able to choose a mainstream school for these children, no matter what their disability, and that a compulsory direction to a special school is unfair, discriminating and against the best interests of the child. Most parents make it clear that they, too, want their children educated in the mainstream. I therefore welcome the speed with which the Government and the Department for Education and Employment produced a Green Paper on special educational needs for consultation last year and the statement of intent included in that Green Paper, to increase the level and quality of inclusion with mainstream schools". I am sure your Lordships will agree that an inclusive education within a mainstream school has much to recommend it in terms of reducing the social isolation of children with special educational needs, enhancing the range of curriculum subjects available to them and, not least, informing the whole of society about special educational needs and disability issues. The Government's decision to increase the monies available to the School Access Fund, which is directed to improving facilities in mainstream schools and to allow better access for children with special needs, is also to be welcomed.

Parents, then, want inclusion on the whole, but they do want the guarantees which should go with it. They will not be confident about letting children leave special school environments unless they can be confident that the mainstream school will not tolerate bullying; be reasonably resourced in terms of staff, including trained classroom assistants and equipment; have ready access to qualified medical help if a child needs it; and provide a good quality education for each child.

I willingly concede that in some cases this may be a big "if" within the mainstream and therefore welcome the fact that the Government's statement of intent in the Green Paper. while increasing the level and quality of inclusion within the mainstream, goes on to say: while protecting and enhancing specialist provision for those who need it —the point emphasised by the noble Lord.

Some parents will continue to choose a special school place for part, at least, of their children's school career and I share the noble Lord's concern and agree with him that, where special schools exist and have a valued continuing role, they should be properly resourced and indeed connected with mainstream schools and other educational bodies. The report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, The SEN Code of Practice 2 Years On, published last year, gives examples of good practice. They include the provision of full information to parents and the involvement of parents at all stages; strong commitment by staff and by governors to special educational needs; and the involvement of pupils in planning their individual education plans.

The report also makes clear that not all special schools are centres of excellence. I am afraid that there is scope for improvement in practice in many of the schools, particularly about parental involvement. It is clear that too many schools do not have adequate information about funding arrangements and that there are too many examples of planning for a child being impossible because of lack of information about available funding.

We have heard about the need for special schools for children with special needs such as dyslexia. I must also point out the widespread shortage of support services for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and I welcome the fact that the Social Exclusion Unit at the Cabinet Office has given priority to school exclusion and truancy.

Finally, I pay tribute to all voluntary organisations and Members of this House who work so hard on this issue and endeavour to ensure that government, local education authorities and school governors take the view of parents either with regard to mainstream or special education seriously when planning the education of these important future citizens—children with special needs.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, we are in a period of great opportunity. The Government's Green Paper. Excellence for all Children, has been widely welcomed for its clear determination to improve the educational opportunities of that wide-ranging group of children with special needs. I declare an interest as the father of a daughter with autism.

There are children whose needs are so complex or severe that from the outset of their education they should be identified as such and given specialist support, perhaps through a special school. It may be that the economics and organisation of mainstream education will, for a long time, make it difficult to address needs such as those of a child with classic autism or challenging behaviour. Does the Minister therefore agree that there is a continuing and important role for specialist schools, underpinned by clear educational principles and by properly trained staff and professionals? In such cases, the vital need is for accurate early identification of the nature of the child's learning and communication difficulties, followed by the right kind of teaching and educational environment. Early intervention is crucial.

So it is disappointing that the Green Paper is so vague about how children with special needs are to be identified on arrival in primary school. We now have baseline assessment, but this, apparently, is not intended to pick up such children. How then will they be identified? What universal mechanism is to be put in place to ensure that children, with less obvious and visible difficulties, are identified at this crucial stage? Without early intervention there can be no assurance that the main aims of the Green Paper can be met. I hope that the Minister will look at this concern, which is widely shared by organisations working in the special needs field.

Early intervention can work only if professional skills are in place. This applies both at the stages of assessment and practical support in the class. A recently published survey showed that in a large sample of families with an autistic child as many as one in three were mistakenly turned away by the health professionals concerned, resulting in years of delay and waste. Will the Minister make a commitment to address this crucial area of supporting teachers in special needs knowledge, without which it will be impossible to achieve effective early intervention?

Finally, I should like to emphasise the role of parents. Speaking as one, I know of the anguish which parents of children with special educational needs feel and I therefore lay great emphasis on the need to involve them and recognise their entitlement. The Green Paper work should recognise the principle of involving parents and ascertaining the wishes of their children. It is premature to set targets for the reduction in statements or special school placements. The more important goal should be to focus on achieving higher levels of confidence in the process from parents. Will the Minister therefore make a commitment to look at ways of measuring relative parental confidence in the system? I say "relative" because, of course, parents of children with special educational needs are hardly overjoyed by their situation. It must, however, be possible to find ways of measuring the progress which the Government hope they will make in helping parents and their children to feel that they are reasonably treated, respected for their views and receive the right level of specialist support where it is needed.

When parents say that they and their children are getting a good deal we will have made some progress.

7.59 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, it seems appropriate that I am making my maiden speech on education since for any newcomer to this place the experience is just like coming to a new school. However, a key difference from any other school that I have experienced is the unqualified welcome and helpfulness towards my own integration that I have had from your Lordships and all associated with this House, for which I am truly grateful.

I realised the parallel when, having kindly been offered the loan of some robes by a noble friend, he said that he would leave them for me on my peg—the very symbol of a school cloakroom. I then had the pleasure of finding that it is next to that of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, of whom I am a lifelong fan and whose peg is laden with books and carrier bags under which I respectfully squeeze my own.

I should declare a special interest in this subject because I founded a small, specialist secondary school about five years ago which caters for educationally fragile children. I founded it having watched our youngest daughter, who had been born minimally brain damaged but who is nonetheless intelligent, go through mainstream schooling never being truly integrated and, as a result, having a miserable time. My school is now full of boys and girls from all over Scotland, none of whom had been integrated in any way in their previous schools.

I have reservations about the assumed desirability of integration into mainstream of many more children with special educational needs, which is the key thrust in the Government's Green Paper. We have heard also how those reservations are shared strongly by many of those with first-hand experience in the field.

We are talking about 1.5 million or so children, so the issue is of major importance. Superficially the notion of integration seems to be self-evidently right. What could be more just and equitable? Who could possibly be in favour of the opposite—segregation? However, I believe that it is a notion belonging to a social model, and what we should be seeking instead is an education model based on educational need. We should aim at policies which encourage us to value differences and celebrate diversity rather than subsuming as many children as possible into some integrated whole.

Today, we talk about inclusion rather than integration. But as Professor Tomlinson states so clearly in his important report Inclusive Learning, it is not synonymous with integration. It requires new thinking and the development of a variety of environments for learning, acknowledging that all students have different learning styles and needs. Of course, the integrated setting has its place but it is not the be-all and end-all.

Policies must take account of how children behave towards the less able—very cruelly sometimes—and the practical implications of learning needs. In that regard, class size is crucial and must be addressed. The reality is that for a significant number of children, current education methods do not work. They also put an extra burden on already overstretched mainstream teachers, and it is no wonder that we have so many excluded and under-achieving children in our system.

Support strategies of attaching a teacher to a child in the classroom or withdrawing children for special help often highlights their difficulties, and those strategies are very expensive in cash and human terms. Simply to put a child into an integrated school setting, even with support, does not make him or her integrated. The experience can be frightening and excluding, with disastrous results, to confidence and self-esteem. That was the experience of all the children in my school: and they are the tip of the iceberg.

If our goals in education include helping our children to realise their potential and have a real place in society, we need more rather than fewer specialist schools and a system which reflects the complexity and diversity of our society. I hope that the Government will look again at their assumptions in the interests of properly meeting the needs of that significant and vulnerable group of children.

8.3 p.m.

Lord Rix

My Lords, as I suspected when I first met the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, at a delicious dinner in Edinburgh last September, and as her maiden speech has confirmed, she will be a most valued addition to your Lordships' House and a formidable ally for those of us trying to represent people with disabilities which create special educational needs. I, and I am sure all noble Lords present, congratulate and welcome her.

The question is mainstream or special schools. The issue is appropriate education. Today's inspectorate report is about standards. Standards are individual things, and how well an individual child does depends on that child receiving an appropriate education.

The experience which best explains the origins of MENCAP, which I have the honour to chair, is that of a mother taking her child to school on the first day of the child's school life, and being summoned later in the day to take the child away because it had been found ineducable, the same verdict passed on my own daughter some 46 years ago. She had to be certified as educationally subnormal. Children are no longer being turned away in that peculiarly heartless way.

But we do need to worry about the level of school exclusions of children with severe learning disability from special schools; and we need to be concerned about what happens to children when they are in school, mainstream or special. If children with the most severe learning disabilities are to be taught in school, including mainstream schools, they have to be taught by teachers who know how to teach these children, using methods by which the children can learn, and measuring their progress by standards appropriate to them.

Inclusion which involves putting children with very special needs in a mainstream classroom and keeping your fingers crossed for a fruitful social experience, denies opportunity; it does not provide it. I warmly support the Government's emphasis on standards, underlined again today. I simply ask for relevant standards. The issue is added value: it is what the school has done to ensure that each and every child has fulfilled his or her potential.

If that means good examination results, fine. If it means being able to communicate basic needs, fine. What is not fine is labelling as a successful school one whose very able pupils have not become any less able by the time they leave, while labelling as a failure a school whose profoundly and multiply disabled children have been helped to conquer mountains of achievement but will never come within hailing distance of an exam pass.

Perhaps I may make some suggestions: first, the issue of inspection. Effective inspection processes are a vital tool in raising standards and spreading good practice. I should like to see Ofsted working with schools and the teacher training agency to develop appropriate measures and finding ways for inspections of celebrating non-traditional achievements. Mainstream schools can learn from special schools. MENCAP's profound intellectual and multiple disability project is at the leading edge of this work and has a great deal to offer all interested parties.

My second area of concern is inter-agency working. It is so often the case that for a pupil with special needs, support is needed from a wider number of agencies than just the education department. That is hard to secure in many mainstream schools. As the Minister may know, I have a particular concern about speech and language therapy.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of such services. I should like to see the work being undertaken in Scotland extended to the rest of the UK. Scottish education authorities can negotiate contracts to purchase specified speech and language therapy services for pre-school and school age children with statements. In three years this has led to the creation of 80 additional speech and language therapy posts in Scotland.

We shall never again say that children with special needs are ineducable. That battle has been won. But now we must continue to fight for the best education possible for all children if we are to create a society where all citizens are respected for their abilities and the unique contribution they can make. A society which fails to educate all its citizens has failed all its citizens.

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, it is a very great pleasure and honour to be able to congratulate my noble friend Lady Linklater of Butterstone on her maiden speech. She has effected that difficult and delicate transition by translating personal experience into professional and public service provision. It is not easy to do that successfully and in just five years her special school has become nationally known and highly regarded. As such, she brings both familial and professional experience to your Lordships' Chamber.

I thank my noble friend Lord Addington warmly for giving us the opportunity through this debate to look back at what have been, in effect, the results of the Warnock Report of the early 1980s which brought special needs children more into mainstream schools; and I fully support that thrust.

I wish to touch on two schools which are special schools. In that regard I speak against the thrust of the interesting and excellent points put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. I, too, know from professional and personal experience, that special schools are needed for some children.

I take Kingsdown School in Southend. Its head is a Mr. Hagyard. It offers specialist provision for physical and neurological impairment for children from all over Essex—quadriplegics, those with spina bifida or cerebral palsy, those with no speech. and so on. Indeed, it contains 115 exceptional children who are also exceptionally fragile physically. It has received a first-class report from Ofsted. I have a list of the practical problems that those children experience in sitting exams. However, because of the shortness of the debate—just four minutes for speeches is insufficient—I shall put those problems in a note to the Minister and doubtless he and I can also discuss them. Much provision has been made for special needs children in examinations but experience shows that more is needed of a different sort.

I turn, secondly, to the Mary Hare Grammar School for the Deaf where the head is Ivan Tucker. It responded recently to the Government's Green Paper. It is a different sort of special school with 200 pupils. Indeed, I believe it is the only special school featured in the Financial Times top 1,000 schools in the A-level league table. That school reminds us that fewer than 400 severely and profoundly deaf babies are born every year in the United Kingdom. Its conclusion, and indeed mine, is that the current educational provision for such children—those who, in terms of decibel shortage, fall into the category of 71 to 95 minus decibels of severe and profound deafness—is, frankly, largely ineffective. That is because responsibility for them is scattered over 132 LEAs, 32 special schools and a large number of units in mainstream schools.

There is, alas, little consistency and, not surprisingly, remarkably little data on educational achievement; there is inefficiency and ineffectiveness due to the lack of critical mass. Those are proven facts and not suppositions. I speak of the educational and not the medical needs of profoundly and severely deaf children; for example, speech and language therapy, acoustical excellence, hearing aid provision and use, and so on. The school delivers the national curriculum profoundly well and still it has no core funding from the Government. It costs £17,500 a year for each child: some special schools can charge up to £45,000. The school has experience to offer us, but solutions cannot be given this evening because there is insufficient time. Again, if I may, I shall write to the Minister and perhaps he will be kind enough to grant me a meeting so as to allow these these two important sectors to be examined. They are positive proposals that I have for him.

8.13 p.m.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for tabling this very topical Question this evening. I should also like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, on her most interesting maiden speech which reflected all her experience. Although there are many technical aids to help children with special educational needs, there will still be some children who will need to be taught in very small groups on a one-to-one basis in specialist schools. SENSE finds that most deaf-blind, multi-sensory impaired children fall within the group of children whose needs cannot be met within mainstream education. Inclusion should mean that every single child should have access to the highest quality education which will meet his or her individual needs. Mainstreaming every child, irrespective of his or her needs, will not serve the interests of many disabled children and it will not lead to social inclusion later on.

While most of us agree that it is best for children with special needs to be educated with their peers in mainstream schools, we must recognise that meeting that goal will take time and resources. Mainstream schools need support and advice on how they can meet individual children's needs and to ensure that the child gets an education appropriate not only to his or her needs but also to his or her abilities. Can the Minister say what work is being undertaken to ensure that a curriculum is developed to meet the needs of children with severe and profound learning disabilities?

In 1985, 200 teachers gained a specialist teaching qualification for teaching children with severe learning disabilities, but by 1995 there were just 40 of them. During their training, teachers receive a little training in special needs, but not really enough. Teachers used to teach for a time, and then take extra qualifications for specialist training in severe learning disabilities. It would seem strange that to teach the deaf-blind one needs a special qualification, but not for other equally complex children with a range of severe disabilities.

The drop in the number of teachers with special qualifications will surely put a strain on mainstream schools to manage those children who need specialist help and who cannot manage a mainstream school without help. Can the Minister say what can be done to encourage more teachers to specialise in the teaching of children with severe learning problems, and others with mild disabilities who, nonetheless, sometimes find it difficult to follow the curriculum?

Does the Minister consider that there is too much concentration on assessment tests, especially at primary school level with children who have slight problems in learning, which discourages schools at secondary level from taking these children with less serious special needs, such as lack of concentration or dyslexia, which I realise can be severe at times?

The question of choice in education is important to all families, especially those families with children with special educational needs. I know of families who find it difficult to send a child with learning difficulties to the school of their choice because of difficulties with local education authorities which do not agree to pay the other authority. This is possibly a case of where the child lives. Is it still a case of where these children happen to live, or whether or not there is a school for those with special needs? In some areas of England and Wales there is a growth of local specialist services and support which is beginning to recognise and meet children's needs. That is to be welcomed.

I am sure that many will agree with both MENCAP and SENSE that a statement is, for many parents, the end of a long battle to get their child's needs recognised. Can the Government reassure parents that they will in no way undermine the rights that children have to funded education provision that meets individual needs, especially for those who cannot be educated in mainstream schools?

8.17 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I add my thanks to those already expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for introducing this debate. I should also like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, on her truly knowledgeable maiden speech. As usual in debates of this kind, I declare my interest as a father of a 17 year-old daughter who has Down's syndrome. I therefore speak especially on behalf of mentally handicapped children and their parents, and would like to highlight two areas of concern this evening.

First, I share the hope of other noble Lords that the Government's policy of greater inclusion into mainstream schools will not come to mean that children such as my daughter are forced too near mainstream education for their own good, or for their parents' peace of mind. The Government's Green Paper, Excellence for All Children, is a well-intentioned document. But if it has a fault, as my noble friend Lord Astor has already indicated, it is that it does not appear to give enough weight to parents' wishes. Indeed, parents do not seem to get a mention at all in Chapter 5, which deals with the planning of SEN provision. So one is left with the impression that the professionals will continue to decide what is best for our children, without being obliged to listen carefully enough to the people who almost always know those children's needs best—that is to say, their parents.

My daughter is extremely fortunate to go to a Camphill Community Rudolf Steiner boarding school for children in need of special care. There is not time for me this evening to explain to your Lordships just how that school has worked such wonders for my daughter, but I hope that noble Lords can accept that it has done so. I would, therefore, be very worried if the emphasis on inclusion were to damage schools like my daughter's. There is tremendous demand from parents for such schools; indeed, far more than can be satisfied.

Of course, at first sight these schools may appear expensive, but that may not really be so if one looks at what the cost has to be of a special unit in a mainstream school which is really able to offer all the advantages of a special school. Small units lose economies of scale, and so if they are to do their job properly—and that is a very important "if"—their per capita cost must become just as high, perhaps sometimes higher, as that of special schools.

My second area of concern is one which we debated under the previous government on several occasions, but to which a solution was not found then. This occurs when children with fairly severe learning difficulties reach the age of 19. I trust this is not outside the scope of this debate because these young people often have a much lower mental age, and in many ways are still children. But the problem is that social services do not want to take them on, and nor does the FEFC, and so many of them are falling through the gap in the middle. One difficulty here is that higher education tends to be less structured than the school environment, and so lends itself even less easily than primary and secondary education to the kind of protected environment which is so essential for these young people.

Lack of time again prevents me from giving your Lordships specific examples of cases where this is happening but, if the Minister has time, I would be happy to prove to him that this is a serious defect in our educational provision today. I feel sure that the solution is to encourage community special schools and colleges, whereas at the moment they are often discouraged, especially at local level. Whatever happens, we must stop forcing these young people into entirely unsuitable environments or, more often, abandoning them altogether.

8.21 p.m.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and my sincere congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, on her maiden speech. I thought it was a great speech—and it was—but I doubt whether it fulfilled the criterion of being wholly uncontroversial.

I wish to say a few words about the class of children we are discussing, those children who cannot properly be educated in mainstream schools—the severely emotionally and behaviourally disadvantaged or disabled. I entirely agree with the Green Paper that such children are frequently excluded from mainstream schools, or effectively exclude themselves by simply truanting. Therefore it follows that much of their education is bound to be outside the mainstream.

It is a fact that a large number of these children who are excluded from school are children in care who go to school by day—if they go at all—either to mainstream or to special schools and who are either statemented or not statemented. I think the question of who has a statement and who has not is increasingly irrelevant. On my deathbed I shall continue to regret that my committee ever introduced that distinction, but that is by the way.

The alternative of boarding school for some of these children who are in care—even though they may have to go back into care during the holidays—is an option which I think is largely disregarded. That is no doubt partly on grounds of expense but partly, I fear, because of the continuing grave difficulties which stand in the way of social services and the education services collaborating with one another. Boarding school, uniquely, can provide the kind of 24 hour education which is quite often the only and the last hope for severely disturbed and severely disruptive children. That is especially true for those whose parents are not the wonderful, adequate, co-operative, concerned people so often invoked in documents from the DfEE.

I ask the Minister whether it is not time to consider a policy of providing more, better and more properly inspected special boarding schools to replace those which have been closed—this happened over and over again in the past decade—and for which our greatly missed friend Lady Faithfull had a particular fondness and a particular interest in. In her sad absence we ought to reconsider boarding education for children who are so disruptive that they are positively dangerous in a school which cannot give them 24 hour care and care which is centred on education.

My next point is very important. If such schools are inspected—as they must be—the criterion of success must not be simply whether or not they conform to the regulations of the national curriculum. The aim must be that such children should be educated in accordance with the national curriculum, but first they have to learn how to be educated at all. I hope very much that when the Green Paper is debated the question of boarding education will not be neglected.

8.26 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I begin by apologising most profusely to the House for having neglected the most basic task of all; namely, that of adding my name to the speakers' list. I am particularly aggrieved that I did not do this as this is a subject which interests me deeply.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for initiating the debate. Although speakers have had little time in which to speak I am deeply impressed by the points that have been made in the course of this short debate which no doubt will be expanded when we discuss the Green Paper.

I also add my most warm congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater. I can remember how daunting it was to make a maiden speech in this House. I was full of trepidation on that occasion. But if the noble Baroness's maiden speech is anything to go by, I am sure we shall hear much more from her in the future which will enrich the debates in this House. I wish to make warm remarks about other speakers. I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, on the work that she did preceding the 1981 Education Act, and the work that she did to bring the whole issue of special needs educational provision to the centre of our discussions on education. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Rix, has worked tirelessly for hundreds of thousands of people, young and not so young. Those people have benefited from his work with people with mental disabilities. My noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch has been a doughty fighter—both with me when I was on the Government Front Bench and no doubt with the new Government—in fighting for appropriate provision for young people in education. That will form the thrust of my remarks. We miss my late friend Lady Faithfull when these causes are being fought for.

The 1981 Act was a turning point and a real milestone on the road to placing the needs of young people with disabilities at the centre of education. I am proud to have been involved with the 1993 Act which built on the 1981 Act and came into effect in September 1994. Central to that Act was the concept of giving parents more choice and a presumption always towards meeting the choice where that was possible and where it was consistent with the needs of the child. From that date on all schools were required to have regard to a code of practice—I understand that code of practice has been widely welcomed throughout the educational sector—and all schools had to publish information on their special needs policies and to report annually to parents. The code of practice and guide for parents were published later that year.

Ofsted carry out inspections. It was given responsibility for monitoring the code of practice on the identification and assessment of special educational needs. That is stated in the foreword to the code of practice. Ofsted has reported twice now on the working of the Act in 1995-96 and again in 1996-97. Those reports are well worth consulting in order to address weaknesses and to build on strengths. Each school is required under the code to keep a register of all children with special needs and to keep records. A five-stage approach was established which makes a great deal of sense. I refer to early identification, dealing with those problems that can be dealt with effectively in school by developing plans for each and every child. However, where the school believes through the special educational needs co-ordinator that those needs cannot be met entirely by the school and require external support, it works with other agencies.

I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said about statementing. However, the system provides an official statement of the needs of a child and the rights of the child to have those needs met.

I conclude by saying to the Minister that I hope any changes contemplated will build on the 1993 Act. I hope that the inspection reports will be used, and that policies will be based on a sound assessment of need and the effective provision to address such need. Early identification must be the key. I also wish to thank the Minister's honourable friend in another place, Ms. Estelle Morris, with whom I had a fruitful meeting recently on this matter. Again, the need is for the most appropriate provision for young people. Mainstream is not always the answer. Therefore we must not give way only to some ideological philosophy which says that integration and inclusion is the only way forward.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for initiating the debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, for an impressive maiden speech which indicated a vast expertise in this field. I feel very humble because much personal experience and experience as parents have been reflected in the speeches, as well as knowledge of the organisations concerned in this field. It is important that those concerns are reflected back to the department in conjunction with the consultation process on the Green Paper that has already begun. Noble Lords will know that the consultation period on the Green Paper, which was produced with the assistance of a high level national advisory group, ended on 9th January. We have yet to assess the full burden of the comments which came from a wide range of sources. But it is clear that the great majority of those who expressed a view welcomed the Green Paper. It was the first opportunity for many years to consider all the issues regarding special educational needs.

It is equally clear that there are many detailed and important suggestions for ways of improving provision; and some concerns about the safeguards that need to be retained. They have been reflected here today. I welcome the general tenor of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I may disagree with some of his technology. But he recognises that the Green Paper is not dogmatic; it seeks to generalise existing good practice and to stimulate new good practice. I hope that noble Lords will not be worried when I say that I agree with most of what the noble Lord said about special schools as centres of excellence, and his emphasis on the need to consider the different situations faced by children with different types of special educational needs.

I can assure the noble Lord that the Government have no intention to promote inclusion where that might damage an individual child's interest. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, we are not concerned about dogmatism but the appropriate mix of education for each child.

However, it is the Government's aim, subject to the outcome of the consultation, to increase the level and quality of inclusion within mainstream schools. That does not mean the end of special schools in any sense. Nor does it mean taking away the choice from parents that was incorporated in the 1993 Act, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred. The Education Act enables parents to express a preference for special schools where they consider that appropriate to their child's needs. The Green Paper and the Government make it clear that that right will remain. We want parents to choose a mainstream education in those areas where they feel that it is right for their children. As my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley emphasised, the majority of parents want inclusion within mainstream schools. It is already the fact that the vast majority of children with special educational needs are within mainstream schools already; and therefore the concentration to some extent must be on improving the quality of that inclusion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and others, perhaps slightly underestimate the success which some mainstream schools have demonstrated in including a wide range of children with special education needs. To say that is not to disparage the achievement of specialist schools but to recognise also that mainstream schools have often been very successful. We want therefore to develop the quality of education in mainstream schools and the necessary support services to keep children in mainstream schools. The Green Paper sets out proposals to cut through the bureaucracy which parents often face. We recognise that there are a variety of views on the sensitive issue of where an individual child or form of disability will best prosper. We believe that some children currently educated solely in special schools would benefit educationally and socially from being in the mainstream school. But all schools are included as equal partners in the school community. The benefits are felt by all.

Traditionally the role of special schools has been to provide specialist teaching, support and facilities to meet the needs of the pupils. In excellent specialist schools, this has often meant a concentration of experience and expertise in a small number of establishments. We want to see a new role for special schools. The context in which they operate has already changed. The categorisation of special schools is no longer as clear as it once might have been, and many now cater for a wide range of increasingly complex needs. We are looking for better, more flexible schools, in some cases more specialised, with boarding facilities, and so on, rather than abolishing or reducing the special schools sector.

I entirely agree with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, about early identification of problems. In many cases that identification should happen pre-school, before even the baseline assessment comes into play. But we know that there are problems for those not identified as having SEN before they start in reception classes in mainstream schools. We need to consider that baseline assessment so that it is more targeted in regard to SEN assessment procedures. We want to make sure that no child drops through the cracks. We shall work with parents throughout, recognising that parents have a unique perspective on this.

We are quite clear that there will be a continuing and increasingly demanding role for special schools. We want to build on the expertise they have developed. We want them to become centres of excellence, working directly with children with complex special educational needs but also providing support to their mainstream colleagues. As with so much in the Green Paper, we know that that transformation will not happen overnight. Staff in special schools will need training to work alongside their mainstream colleagues; and they will need the time to do so. Nor should we forget that mainstream schools may have much from which special schools can learn.

In all of this we want to see a serious and continuing role for special schools. But over time we wish to see special schools providing a more flexible pattern of support. Some children will be in full time placements; others part-time or short-term. Staff will he supporting some children in mainstream schools. They will be helping mainstream schools to implement inclusion policies; and they will be a source of training and advice for mainstream colleagues. This is a challenging medium-term agenda, but it means that the term "special school" will no longer be a totally adequate reflection of what it does.

We also recognise that many different patterns of support beyond the school, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rix, referred, will be necessary to cater for the range of individual needs. At present there is a wide variation in the percentage of children in local authority areas who are educated in special schools. There is no reason why children with similar needs in different parts of the country should not have similar opportunities to attend mainstream schools; but in many cases they will need specialist support in the education and other services to take advantage of those opportunities.

When the Green Paper was launched, some people said that the Government were hostile to the process of statutory assessment and statementing. That is not the case. What we are concerned about is that, in some cases, the process is over-bureaucratic and not driven by children's needs. We pay tribute to the work that was done in this field some 20 years ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. She expresses some regret at the over-rigidity of the statement process, and we wish to break that down. Every statutory assessment carried out for a child whose needs could, with the right approach to funding and support, have been met without a statement means that resources that could have been used to provide support are instead diverted to bureaucratic procedures.

The question of resources, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is central to people's approach to the Green Paper. In regard to access to mainstream schools for children with special educational needs, we have already provided a substantial increase under the schools access initiative. In 1998–99, £11 million will be available in that area, compared with the £4 million allocated in 1997–98. The Secretary of State has also made clear his commitment to providing resources for this area in general.

A number of other points were raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, requested that we should hold discussions on these issues. I note the points that she made and the difficulties experienced by some children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. The noble Baroness may wish to speak to me, but my friend, Estelle Morris, who has special responsibility for that area, would also be willing to have a discussion with her, as she has already with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.

I assure the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is already working on the issues to which she refers. The outcome will be seen shortly. I recognise the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about post-16 provision. I shall refer his comments back to the department.

The Government are quite clear about the direction in which they want to move in relation to provision in mainstream schools. But they are also quite clear about the vital importance of developing and changing specialist schools. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, a society that fails to educate all its citizens is failing all its citizens. We understand that point. We look forward to further consultation on the Green Paper and further discussion in this House. Certainly, the points made by your Lordships, including some to which I have not had time to reply, will be reflected back to the department during consideration of the Green Paper.