HC Deb 15 December 1999 vol 341 cc104-10WH 1.29 pm
Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

It is one of the great privileges of being a Member of Parliament that, every now and again, one comes across an issue of profound importance that one would not have come across had one pursued a more conventional career.

There is such an issue in my constituency. I am referring to the Edinburgh Road special school in Holt. It is special in a number of ways—because of the children, parents, teachers and staff. There are about 35 children at the school, the youngest of whom is three and the oldest 19. They all have statements of special educational need. The majority have severe learning difficulties and approximately one third have profound and multiple learning difficulties. A further 34 children attend special schools in Norwich because there is no room at Edinburgh Road, although they live closer to Holt.

These children are among the most vulnerable and fragile in our society. Many of them will be wholly dependent on others throughout their life, and will never enjoy a quality of independent life that most of us take for granted. They deserve the best that we can give them. Society has an obligation to provide the best possible education and surroundings, to give them the best possible chance in life.

We are letting down these children at the Edinburgh Road school, and have been doing so for a number of years. We are also letting down the staff, who have a record of commitment and dedication second to none; they have worked wonders with generations of children in very difficult circumstances. We are also letting ourselves down because it is in our power to make a difference and to make the school better.

The 1996 Office for Standards in Education report summarises the problem when it states:

The quality of education provided is affected by the inadequate accommodation. The school building is too small for the number and range of pupils on roll. There is a lack of specialist teaching areas and very little space for storage. There are too few toilets and changing rooms. The school does not have suitable outdoor areas for play, sport or recreation. As a result, education decisions are often driven by accommodation problems, rather than by the needs of pupils. Those words are inevitably rather dry and impersonal, so I shall give the Minister more of a flavour of the problems at the school.

There is only one toilet area, within which there is no privacy. Many of the children have to be helped extensively, often using a hoist, and many are incontinent. No privacy means no dignity. There is no playground worth the name, nowhere for the children who can walk to let off steam and play, and certainly no room for those in wheelchairs, of whom there are many. The confined space may lead to more behavioural problems. Jill Measures, the head of the school, who is one of the unsung heros of Norfolk, describes the position as sometimes akin to a pressure cooker.

The age range of the children—between three and 19—makes them difficult to teach, and would do so even if they did not have special needs. The conditions would not be tolerated in a mainstream school. There is no medical room for when a child feels ill. There is no quiet

room in which a child may calm down. There is no music room, or a room for indoor drama. There is no staff room. There is no communal dining area, so the older children have to eat in a caravan, which is parked outside the school, and which is also used for speech therapy.

The corridors are narrow and virtually impassable, with wheelchairs parked along both sides. The staff talk openly of the school breaching health and safety regulations and posing a fire hazard. The children have to travel to off-site facilities for swimming or physical education. The nearest high school is five miles away, which makes any meaningful inclusion with a mainstream school impractical. The building was never designed to be a school, let alone one for children with special needs. Originally, it was a junior training centre.

The children, their parents and teachers are getting a raw deal, which is starting to tell on their morale. The teachers do a wonderful job in Dickensian surroundings, but it is not fair and it is not right to expect them to do so. It would not be acceptable in a mainstream school, so why should it be acceptable for a special school?

At the end of 1997, the Government produced a Green Paper, "Excellence for All Children". It was followed in November 1998 by a programme for action. This year's Queen's Speech promised legislation to improve the education of children with special educational needs. I applaud those initiatives, and the commitment, which I hope is real, that the Minister has made to backing them up with financial support. I especially support the Government's commitment to inclusion and shall quote from the section in the Green Paper entitled "Increasing Inclusion". It states:

The ultimate purpose of SEN provision is to enable young people to flourish in adult life. There are therefore strong educational, as well as social and moral, grounds for educating children with SEN with their peers. We aim to increase the level and quality of inclusion within mainstream schools, while protecting and enhancing specialist provision for those who need it. We will redefine the role of special schools to bring out their contribution in working with mainstream schools to support greater inclusion. The Green Paper's vision for the future of special schools and the encouragement of greater co-operation with mainstream schools is one that I hope we all share. It has inspired the Norfolk education authority, the Edinburgh Road school, the local schools at Sheringham and many others to develop a new future for Edinburgh Road special school. The matter has been in the melting pot for five years, which has meant five years of disappointment, frustration and false starts.

However, a firm proposal is with the Minister today, which envisages a new, purpose-built special school for five to 16-year-olds on the same campus as Sheringham primary school and high school. There will be room for 70 children, who will share many facilities with the primary and the high school. If feasible, children from the special school will be included in mainstream lessons and activities. Staff in the special and mainstream schools will be trained so that they can all help each other.

The benefits of co-location will be a two-way process. The special school will seek to become a centre of excellence, used by all the local schools. There will be provision for 10 nursery-age children with SEN. They will be taught on a fully inclusive basis in the nursery in the primary school. Staff from the specialist school and the primary school will work together in the nursery. There will also be provision in the sixth form for 10 post16-year-old students with SEN, using independent accommodation attached to the high school, but there will be full inclusion when possible.

I hope that I have given the Minister a flavour of the vision of the future of Edinburgh Road school. It is a flagship project for Norfolk, representing a great commitment to these special children. "Excellence for All Children" is the title of the Green Paper, but it is our vision too. We want inclusion when possible, and specialist separate accommodation when it is not.

In my letter to the Minister on 7 December, I concluded as follows:

This is one of those opportunities which dwarfs the normal cut and thrust of politics. It is an opportunity to give a better chance in life for thousands of severely disabled children, and by bringing them into mainstream schools, where possible, to enrich the education and increase the understanding of other children. In the long run, this is the best possible way to establish the rights of disabled people as equal partners in our society. That is an objective that we all share.

The status quo at Edinburgh Road school is unsustainable, unfair and unacceptable. A firm proposal has now been framed and it is in tune with the Government's philosophy of excellence in education for all. I hope that the Minister will support it.

1.40 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) on securing the debate and raising an issue that is so important to his constituency. I agree with him that the Government have inherited much work that will be necessary to provide the requisite standards of education for children with special educational needs.

One of the first issues tackled by the Government after the election was the education of children with special educational needs. As the hon. Member for North Norfolk mentioned, within months of October 1997 we published the Green Paper "Excellence for All Children" and followed that in November 1998 with "Meeting Special Educational Needs: A Programme of Action". We have continued to work hard to put in place a system for children with special educational needs that will enable them to receive the education that they deserve, as part of the Government's overall drive to improve standards for all children. I am pleased to note the hon. Gentleman's broad welcome of what we are trying to achieve in our broader programme of action.

The hon. Gentleman made clear his concern about the future of Edinburgh Road special school and, in particular, his strong support for the recent proposal by Norfolk local education authority to relocate the school to a new site in Sheringham. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for spelling out that proposal. I would also like to take this opportunity to commend the head teacher, the staff, parents and children for the work that is going on in that school when the circumstances of the accommodation are so difficult.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the general position on formal proposals to open, alter or close a special school is that, with effect from 1 September, responsibility for considering such proposals transferred from the Secretary of State to local school organisation committees, provided the local education authority had an agreed schools organisation plan in place. Norfolk LEA had not agreed a school organisation plan by early November: hence the proposals for the Edinburgh Road special school will be decided by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

It might help if I explained the timetable of consideration for such proposals—

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)


Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody)

I assume that the hon. Gentleman has permission to speak from the hon. Member for North Norfolk, who proposed the Adjournment.

Mr. Prior

indicated assent.

Mr. Robertson

I am grateful to the Minister, but I may have missed her point about transferring the responsibility for closing special schools. Will mainstream schools remain the responsibility of the Secretary of State and the transfer apply only to special schools, or am I wrong on that?

Jacqui Smith

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Under the new arrangements for statutory proposals from 1 September, responsibility for the development of school organisation plans is given to local education authorities and responsibility for decisions about individual proposals and specific plans is given to school organisation committees. The hon. Gentleman will recall that, when he intervened in Education questions, I pointed out that school organisation committees will include some special schools representatives when statutory proposals are discussed.

The position in Norfolk is different because the school organisation plan had not been agreed by the time that the particular plan for the school was proposed. The proposal was published on 22 October and a statutory period of two months follows in which objections can be made. The LEA then has a further month for my Department to receive copies of any objections, together with its comments on those objections. If there are objections to the Edinburgh Road school proposal, we would expect to receive the LEA's comments by 22 January.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also receives advice from Her Majesty's inspectorate on all such reorganisation proposals and he will need to consider that advice, the case made by the LEA and the points, if any, made by objectors. He will also need to take account of advice from the Department's professional architects on the capital building proposals.

I have described the standard procedures for dealing with proposals. The hon. Member for North Norfolk will appreciate that the procedure takes time, but helps to ensure that the Department gives thorough consideration to all proposals and enables people or organisations to comment. I am afraid that, at this stage, I cannot give any indication of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's view of the Edinburgh Road school proposal, which could be viewed as prejudicing his decision. I can say, however, that he hopes to announce his decision by next spring. I recognise that the hon. Member for North Norfolk not only is anxious for the Secretary of State to approve the Edinburgh Road proposal, but wants to ensure that the Department makes available a capital allocation to Norfolk to cover the costs of the proposed building work.

The position is not completely straightforward, but I shall attempt to explain it. LEAs are required to bid for capital cover in the annual capital guidelines round, as Norfolk LEA has done regarding the Edinburgh Road school proposals. However, an allocation for such a project would be made only if the Secretary of State had approved the statutory proposal that was linked to it.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk will know that capital allocations for 2000–01 were made earlier this week and Norfolk's allocation did not include cover for this project. The Department has nevertheless retained a capital reserve on a national basis, which can be released during the year to LEAs whose proposals are approved later. The hon. Gentleman will understand from all that I have said that I cannot comment specifically on the Edinburgh Road school proposals because I cannot preempt the Secretary of State's decision. I can gladly assure the hon. Gentleman that in reaching his decision, my right hon. Friend will take fully into account his comments today and those set out in his recent letter to my noble Friend the Minister for Education and Employment.

Mr. Prior

How big is the capital reserve set aside for projects that were not framed in time for the earlier allocation?

Jacqui Smith

I shall come to the issue of funding later.

It may be useful to reiterate the Government's general policy on the education of children with special educational needs, which is also relevant to the particular application. We are firmly committed to promoting inclusion by choice—a cornerstone of our strategy for raising standards of achievement and meeting the educational needs of all children. We are determined to maintain the progress to which the hon. Member for North Norfolk alluded, which enables more parents to feel confident that their child's needs can and will be met in a mainstream school. We intend to use the Special Educational Needs Bill announced in the Queen's Speech to strengthen the right to a mainstream place.

Our approach has been practical, not dogmatic, and the key objective must be to safeguard the interests of all children and to ensure that they achieve their full potential. When parents want a mainstream setting for their child, it is our policy to try to provide it. Equally, where more specialist provision is sought, it is important and right that parents' wishes are respected.

We have emphasised that there is a continuing and vital role for specialist provision, often within special schools. The Government have stressed in the past, and it is worth repeating in this context, that inclusion is not an agenda for the wholesale closure of special schools. We want them to become outward-looking centres of excellence that work hand in hand with their mainstream partners to support pupils who would benefit from a mainstream place. The right of parents to make a positive choice and to express a preference for a special school place will be fully maintained.

We acknowledge that, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk noted, a mainstream place might never be right for some children. For those whose needs cannot be met within the main stream, there must be a range of high-quality provision. There must also be strong links between special schools and neighbouring mainstream schools so that pupils in special schools have ample opportunities to mix with their peers and friends in mainstream schools. We are encouraging local authorities to consider innovative ways of joining up mainstream and specialist schools.

The importance that we attach to promoting inclusion and developing provision for children with special educational needs is underlined by a range of initiatives that are designed to help schools to develop their practice and become more inclusive. Those initiatives are also designed to build the links that I described between special and mainstream schools.

For example, a special mainstream links working group was established in September and draws together a range of special and mainstream head teachers and other interested parties. I am pleased to tell the hon. Member for North Norfolk that one of its members comes from Norfolk. The group is producing an interactive CD-Rom package that is aimed at teachers. The idea is that it will be a starting point, and that it will encourage discussion and then action to develop stronger links between the two sectors and to support inclusion. It will focus on a range of issues, including the new outreach role that we want special schools to develop, dual registration and reintegration. The package will be launched next summer at a series of seminars to be organised jointly by the National Association for Special Educational Needs and my Department.

The SEN regional co-ordination projects, which are being expanded to cover the whole of England by early next year, are also helping to establish better links between mainstream and special schools. The projects bring together groups of local authorities and other local partners. Through collaborative planning and working, they aim to redress variations in access to and quality of provision and services for pupils with special needs. Norfolk is part of the eastern project, which will come on stream fully in April. We are beginning to evaluate the projects, and we aim to publish details of initial good practice towards the end of the summer term 2000.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk rightly raised the importance of funding to support special educational needs provision, and I want to outline the Government's commitment in that respect. I reiterate that the Government fully recognise that all the relevant initiatives will require funding. We are supporting expenditure of £35 million in the current financial year under the SEN element of the standards fund. That will increase to £55 million in the financial year 2000–01. We plan a further large increase for the following year.

Part of the standards fund's purpose is to support innovative local inclusion and emotional behavioural difficulties projects. Some £8 million has been made available this year. That will be nearly doubled to £15 million in 2000–01. Many of the projects aim to join up the mainstream and specialist sectors to better meet pupils' needs. The standards fund money is also being used to train staff to support parent partnership schemes and speech and language therapy projects.

Furthermore, I was pleased to be able to announce earlier this week that we are making £30 million available under the schools access initiative in 2000–01. That represents a 50 per cent. increase on the previous year's funding. The money has been allocated to improve access to education for children with special needs, including disabled children and those with sensory impairments. Over the three-year programme to 2002, we expect to allocate £100 million for access projects.

I have also announced increased support for capital projects to improve facilities for pupils with special educational needs. Funding will increase from £16 million in the current year to £21 million in 2000–01. I can tell the hon. Member for North Norfolk that the capital reserve for special educational needs projects stands at £15 million.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the forthcoming Special Educational Needs Bill, which was announced in the Queen's Speech. It will take forward the Government's proposals, which were set out in our programme of action. It is designed to raise the standards of achievement of all children with special needs. It will impove services to parents by establishing better parent partnership arrangements and introduce new conciliation procedures to resolve disputes between parents and local education authorities. It will reinforce the powers of the special educational needs tribunal and promote inclusion by strengthening the right of children with special educational needs to be educated in mainstream schools, where that is in accordance with their parents' wishes. It will also introduce changes to the SEN code of practice.

I hope that I have convinced the hon. Member for North Norfolk that the Government take the education of children with special educational needs seriously. It is something that we have taken seriously, acted on and funded. There are no easy answers, and I am sorry that I have been unable to give a direct response to the specific proposal that has been made. However. I hope that I have shown that the measures that I described will go a long way to ensure that the requirements of children with special educational needs will be met effectively under this Government.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to One o'clock.