HC Deb 24 May 2000 vol 350 cc227-46WH

11 am

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I have been assisted in my understanding of special educational needs and the issues surrounding them by the existence in my constituency of several centres for excellence. I should like to pick out for special attention Ashley junior school and its headmaster, Mr. Colin Williams, who is supported by his thoroughly professional staff. It is a very successful primary school, with a fully integrated special needs unit catering for pupils with simple learning difficulties through to those with autism.

The school's strength lies in the fully integrated nature of its special needs unit, which is managed by close contact with parents and with various professionals. The school's aim is to ensure that pupils with special needs are able to enter mainstream classes by the time that they enter secondary education. Although it is not always possible to achieve that aim, the school's success rate is high.

It is important that resourced, attached units such as the one at Ashley enable children with a variety of needs to enjoy their education within a mainstream setting, among other pupils who will act as good role models. Parents believe that their children's attendance at a mainstream school will help to meet their own aspirations of ensuring that their children are assimilated into society and can make a contribution to it.

I do not want to enter into the argument about the various merits of special schools against those of mainstream schools. My view is that there must be choice, because a mainstream school cannot always be the answer. However, I have neither expertise nor great knowledge in the sphere—unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson). I am sure that, if he is fortunate enough to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair, he will share some of that knowledge with us.

Ashley junior school's growing reputation has brought with it some penalties. Although a recent report on the school by the Office for Standards in Education was full of superlatives and recognised it as a centre for excellence, a consequence has been that Ashley has become a magnet for referrals from outside agencies, particularly local paediatric consultants. Therefore, a growing proportion of children at Ashley have special educational needs, and the school has had to work harder to maintain its position in local and national league tables. Ashley must still cope with the pressures of meeting what must be, at least in some cases, unrealistic or non-achievable targets. Nevertheless, Ashley continues to insist that, regardless of any short-term effects on statistics and league tables, increasing children's self-esteem will reap long-term benefits.

If the Minister is interested in seeing a school that has such an excellent reputation for special needs teaching, she could visit Ashley, where I am sure she would be most welcome and learn much.

My main purpose in initiating this debate, however, is to draw attention to problems in acquiring statements of special educational need. I know that there are always two sides to a story. For many parents, the granting of a statement brings comfort and makes them feel more at ease. They believe that such a label seems to make their child's condition more socially acceptable. There is also a belief that a statement will ensure that the school provides a level of support that was not previously provided.

My view is that a statement should make no difference. In an ideal world, a statement would make no difference. At many schools, such as Ashley junior school, a statement does not make a difference. If a school provides support on a needs basis, rather than a resources-driven basis, it should not matter whether a child is statemented. If more schools were provided with sufficient resources and the freedom to deploy those resources according to their priorities—as they were under the grant-maintained regime; I assure the Minister that this is the only party political point that I shall make in the debate—the need for statements would be much reduced.

We do not, however, live in an ideal world, and not all schools are like Ashley. Schools have resource constraints, and different schools may have different priorities. Nevertheless, there is increasing demand among parents for statements. I believe, however, that that demand is capped by an artificial restriction.

The 1979 Warnock report, which formed the basis of the Education Act 1981, took the view that 20 per cent. of pupils have some special educational need, whereas, at any one time, no more than 2 per cent. of pupils should be statemented. My perception is that, despite the passage of time and hugely changed circumstances, those guidelines remain effectively in place. In the past 20 years, however, we have discovered a whole series of new conditions, such as attention deficit and hyperactive disorder.

To digress from my theme for a moment, I am concerned about the number of pupils who are being diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin, which is being dispensed at school. The headmaster at Ashley junior school told me that he is concerned that he has 13 pupils to whom he dispenses daily doses of Ritalin, whereas he believes that, in 50 per cent. of those cases, Ritalin make little difference to the pupils' behaviour at school. He suggests that we should be looking for other explanations for children's behaviour, which is often well under control while at school.

As I said, a series of other conditions has recently been diagnosed, although such conditions were not prevalent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Other than ADHD, they include organisational dyspraxia, motor dyspraxia, the autistic continuum and a variety of other disorders. I do not know the reason for the increased diagnoses, but suspect that we are only now noticing conditions that were always present, and not that something else has suddenly changed to cause them. Nevertheless, we should review the guidelines and criteria established by the Warnock committee.

I sought to initiate this debate because I perceive that there will be huge frustration if we maintain the resistance to statementing when there is an increased demand for it among parents. I am sure that I am not the only hon. Member who, at constituency advice sessions, faces parents at the end of their tether, filled with absolute frustration, because they feel that they are entirely on their own. They seem almost to be trying to wage war against the local education authority in an attempt to obtain a statement for their child. I have also had parents who were in tears, after succeeding in achieving a statement for their child, as they recalled the frustration of months and years in which they seemed to be banging their heads against a brick wall.

Parents who are resourceful and articulate, of course, win through. I am concerned about those who are less resourceful or articulate—many of them lone parents—because they often do not stay the course and do not achieve a statement. That is a serious problem.

I am fortunate in having in my constituency Mrs. Irene Sharman, an adviser who runs a telephone support line for the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice. IPSEA is the largest parent advice and advocacy organisation in the voluntary sector. Mrs. Sharman recently put me in touch with its director, Mr. John Wright. IPSEA does a tremendous job in supporting those parents who are able to access its services and gain support from them, but the statement achieved at the end of the frustrating process is often not worth the paper that it is written on.

In the Education Act 1981, a statement was envisaged as an enforceable contract under which a local education authority was bound to make provision to meet the child's needs. That aim has been frustrated over two decades by local authorities refusing to specify how much special help a child should receive. I have seen a number of examples, including the following shocking extract from a statement: This child requires provision suitable for a child with general learning difficulties. What does that mean? How is it enforceable? How can parents be sure that their child is getting the support that he or she needs at school? I am told that such vagueness is not uncommon.

I am not the only one who says that. In 1992, the Audit Commission published a report entitled "Getting in on the Act: Provision for Pupils with Special Educational Needs. The National Picture". It said: Since most statements for pupils in ordinary schools are vague, they cannot protect a specific level of provision. The notion that statements protect resources is therefore a fallacy. The 1981 Education Act envisaged that a statement would be a guarantee that extra help would be provided consistently and for as long as required. In fact, there are numerous examples of LEAs changing provision. One LEA, facing a budget crisis, reduced the extra teaching hours by 50 per cent. for all pupils with statements issued because of learning difficulties. LEAs which ran their own teams of peripatetic teachers frequently changed the levels of support offered to pupils. Rarely was there any discussion of this with parents—but even if there had been, the parents could hardly have claimed that the provision specified was not being made since it was not usually made clear in the first place.… There is an incentive for LEAs not to specify what is to be provided because they thereby avoid a long-term financial commitment. In response to that damning report, the Government issued a code of practice in 1993. It required that the statement should normally be quantified, specifying the number of lessons or hours of assistance per week that the child was to have. That was subsequently confirmed by a decision in the High Court. Notwithstanding that, I continue to receive a host of complaints about the vagueness of statements.

IPSEA has drawn to my attention the excuses that local education authorities give for failing to be specific in their statements, as they are required to be by the code of practice. For your amusement, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall regale you with a few. One says: The school timetable won't let us be precise on the Statement. Another says: In our county there is a policy not to quantify provision on a Statement—this is done instead in the school's Statement Implementation Plan. A further excuse runs: We like to keep it vague so that if we are able to give a little extra we are not prevented from doing so by the Statement. How extraordinary!

The intention of the 1981 Act was to guarantee provision so that special needs would be given the resources that the statement called for. The 1992 Audit Commission report showed that the law had failed to deliver that. The 1993 code of practice has similarly failed to deliver. Parliament is still failing to deliver the guarantee promised two decades ago to some of our most vulnerable children. It would be out of order for me to call for legislation in an Adjournment debate, but I should like the Minister to answer two specific questions. First, does she still support the principle enunciated in the 1981 Act that there should be a legal guarantee that a child will receive the special education that his or her needs call for? Secondly, if she is still committed to that principle, what will she do to ensure that we start to deliver it in practice?

11.17 am
Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am pleased to be able to take part in this important debate. I have to disappear for a few minutes at 12 o'clock. I apologise to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and to my hon. Friend the Minister for that, but I shall be back to hear the concluding speeches.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) here. I am sure that he will dwell on the issues as they affect Gloucestershire, and I make no apology for doing likewise. A long-overdue review of special educational needs provision is going on in Gloucestershire. It has concentrated on the moderate learning difficulty schools, but it will have an impact on severe learning difficulty provision and schools that cater for educational and behavioural difficulties.

The debate in Gloucestershire has become quite heated, to put it mildly. It has not always been handled as well as it might have been, but it is easy to speak from a distance and cast aspersions. I may disagree with some of what the hon. Member for Tewkesbury says. I agree that the review is needed and with the general direction in which it is going. I have always believed that to argue in extremis in favour of exclusion is as wrong as to argue that inclusion is neither possible nor reasonable.

Bownham Park special school is in my constituency. I have worked with the Special Schools Protection League, under the chairmanship of Mr. Graham Barton. It does not argue against inclusion in principle, but it is unhappy about some aspects, which I shall concentrate on.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West identified the essence of the problem. The fact that parents often have great difficulty with the statementing process and there is often a battle to get children statemented—or at least to have their special needs identified—flavours the way in which they regard their children's education. That often means that it is difficult to include the children later. In an ideal world, all children would be in mainstream education, but that will never be feasible or realistic. We must understand the background and try to overcome some of the difficulties.

Gloucestershire's review is ongoing and some proposals have been made. I am a great believer in the need for incremental change, but to carry out that change we must provide facilities to allow children to integrate for some of the time, but have support when necessary. The difficulty is that in carrying that through, some mainstream schools will have to provide some special provision—I do not like the idea of special units▀×where children can go when it is not appropriate for them to be in the mainstream.

There is a supposed problem of stigma for the schools that provide those facilities. More particularly, the parents of children in moderate learning difficulty schools essentially distrust the system because of the battles that they have had in the process of getting their children identified as needing either statementing or additional help. They believe that if their children go into the mainstream, support will be diluted—notwithstanding the fact that many children in the mainstream who are already identified as needing special help are not getting it, for all sorts of reasons. It is a question of resources—we cannot hide from that—but it is also a question of early identification and support.

I understand and support what the county is doing—even if I do not necessarily go along with all the findings and conclusions—because we have to take people along with us. Choice is something of a myth, but people need assurance that what is being provided for their children is right and as good as it can be.

We must understand that the debate on inclusion is approachable from the other side in the sense that, in our changing society, it is right to try to include people in whatever way we can. That must mean that we look at the balance of provision and whether it is right. That is why Gloucestershire has had difficulties. I know many other counties have been through this in the past, but Gloucestershire is something of a special case as we have had a high percentage of children in special schools. That may have been right historically—and it may be right now—but we must consider how best to move the picture forward.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West looked at some of the dilemmas that we face. In Gloucestershire, this has become a political issue, although not a party-political issue. Understandably, people will fight for their school and for their provision, and I have had some moving letters about this matter. However, we must argue the case, if it is right, and take people with us. I believe that that is possible. People at Bownham Park school understand and support the logic of integration, but not on all occasions and not at the cost of the educational provision for their children.

What we do must be right for the individual child. That is a wonderfully idealistic concept, but if my understanding of the 1981 Act is right, that should be happening now. For too long the battle lines have been drawn in terms of authorities seemingly trying not to provide the necessary education and, if they do, providing too little, too late. We must overcome that.

This is not a finance-led exercise, and too often we are taken along that road. We must also recognise that many children in the mainstream need additional support. Special schools will remain, although they may not stay on their existing sites. If integration is possible, we must identify how it can be achieved in practice.

I wholeheartedly believe that we need to engage in the debate. It is not easy, and I shall always argue for the provision of special needs education for all children who require it. I would be interested to hear what the hon. Member for Tewkesbury has to say in terms of taking the matter forward. Special educational needs is rightly a subject for debate, and I am grateful for this opportunity to debate it here this morning.

11.25 am
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on securing this debate. It is not easy to get these one-and-a-half hour debates, and I am sure that he has been persistent. There is a good reason for his persistence, and he eloquently went through the problems.

I do not know whether I ought to declare an interest, but I declare that my wife is a county councillor in Gloucestershire. She sits on the education committee and, for a year, she was the Conservative group's spokesman on that committee. One of the biggest items that she dealt with was the changes to the provision of special educational needs.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). He said that I was not his hon. Friend but, away from the Chamber—and, quite often, in it—we work closely together for Gloucestershire. This may not help the hon. Gentleman's career, but he comes from an independent-minded position on many issues; I mean that as a compliment. I may not agree entirely with his comments, but I recognise that our opinions come from different, but genuine, standpoints.

On the question of money, I will make some accusations regarding the process in Gloucestershire, one of which relates to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West. He talked about statementing, of which there is a great shortage in Gloucestershire. We could query why that is; I suggest that it suits some people in the county to have a lack of statementing facilities. When there are a great many statemented children, that means that one must question whether special needs provision should be retained or expanded. If there are no statements, it is easy to pretend that there is no need for special educational needs provision.

The hon. Member for Stroud, who has been at the meetings with me, knows that Gloucestershire has had a funding problem in education generally, and we have done what we can to try to improve matters. However, I must refer to a comment, which was probably not intended, by the county's director of education when we were discussing the general problem of education funding. When it was pointed out that the county had quite a good provision for special educational needs and that money could be saved there, the director of education said that he was "doing his damnedest" to save money in that respect. That is a disgrace; it is supposed to be not a question of saving money, but of providing the right kind of education for children.

I recognise that many children with special needs are already integrated in schools across the country—certainly across Gloucestershire. If we can include children in mainstream schools, we should. That is an obvious statement with which most people would agree.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West and the hon. Member for Stroud recognised that there are many children who simply cannot be included in mainstream schools and who need the special care, education, treatment and facilities that only special schools can provide.

If we are agreed on that, what is the problem? Some authorities, including Gloucestershire, have taken the Green Paper as a green light for the wholesale closure of special schools. That is beginning to happen. The Minister will no doubt say that that was not the intention, and I would accept that, but that has certainly been the effect.

I have taken the matter as high as I can, to the Secretary of State and to the Prime Minister, who recently wrote to me to say that his concern was that parents should have a choice. That is a good, Conservative principle, but there will be no choice for any parent if the schools are closed.

I support the principle of inclusion, but I recognise that it is not always possible. A nephew and godson of mine has special needs, and he has been tried in both kinds of school. He is extremely bright, but he has one or two problems that caused disruption in the mainstream school. That was not fair on him or, equally importantly, on the other children. Because of his difficulties, the special needs school tended to provide a far better education for him.

It is important to recognise people's feelings on the issue. I have spoken to many parents in Gloucestershire and to heads and teachers at mainstream schools, as well as a great many pupils, and they are all in favour of retaining the special schools.

Alderman Knight school in my constituency provides education, care, treatment and facilities of the highest quality. If the Minister came to that school and saw the work that was being done there and the feeling that the pupils have, or if she saw the letters that I and my wife, as a then education spokesman, received from the pupils, or the petitions calling for us to do our utmost to save the school, I am sure that she would be persuaded that it is important to keep it open. Nobody who has seen that school's work would allow it to close.

It is not entirely down to the Minister whether such schools close, because responsibility has been handed down to regional or county level. One could argue that that is the right thing to do, in that people in the area should know what provision is needed and which schools are doing a good job, but it concerns me that the Department for Education and Employment seems to be washing its hands of the issue. If the special school is under threat, will I still be allowed to hold an Adjournment debate on the issue, or will I be told that it is not the Minister's responsibility?

Given that so many people who are involved in education do not want the wholesale closure of special schools to go ahead, who are we to engineer that closure? Who are we to say that inclusion has to be the right way? It may be the right way for many children, but for many others it is not.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West again on what he said about statementing, although I have confined my remarks to another issue, which concerns me and a great many other people in Gloucestershire. Somebody who came to see me yesterday, who is heavily involved in Alderman Knight school, asked why we should work to help the school if it is to be closed. It is not under immediate threat of closure, but, given Gloucestershire education authority's policy, neither I nor the parents have any doubt that it is under threat.

I end by making a plea for the very special pupils who attend special schools.

11.35 am
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), who so eloquently introduced this subject—when we saw it on the Order Paper, we realised that it was a big subject—and who made an effective point about the vagueness of statements. We all recognise that problem. What he said about how authorities seem to want to keep their statements vague to give them more flexibility has many resonances in my local authority, although I question whether that is a matter of intentions or of the resources available.

I think that we all appreciated the contributions of the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), who identified some issues in Gloucestershire that have received national attention in the media. They brought out well the difficulties that local authorities face in dealing with integration.

It is helpful to analyse the pressures on local authorities by considering both the demand and the supply side and recognising that many factors create pressures that, sadly, are transmitted to parents and children and lead to inadequacy of provision, delay in identifying the need for provision, vagueness over what is to be provided and, sometimes, cuts. When cuts are needed, it is sometimes seen as a soft option to cut special needs provision.

Much of what the hon. Member for New Forest, West said about the demand side is true. He listed some of the reasons why there may be an increasing—and legitimate—demand for special educational needs provision and, as a subset of that, for statements. One is that more difficulty and disability in communication, behaviour and learning are recognised these days by educational psychologists, paediatricians and other experts. We would expect that to be the case in this, as in any, field of medicine and education.

It may be the case that, at the margins, advances in neo-natal care have led to a greater number of severely disabled children—of course, I make no judgment on that—and to a wider range of disabilities that, quite rightly, have to be catered for. That has certainly been observed in terms of health care provision and there will of course be a spillover to education. Physically or mentally disabled children have a right to education, and that can add an enormous amount to their and their families' quality of life.

There is probably more information available now—in the information age—to parents of children with needs, alerting them to the fact that there are services out there. Many patient organisations and organisations of the recipients of education do invaluable work in identifying best practice and alerting parents and teachers to what can be done. The National Autistic Society is but one. In the age of the internet, we would expect more parents to have a great deal of information about the best practice that is out there. There is also information about new practice, which will be portrayed as good by those who are promoting it, although there may be no evidence to back up the claims.

More can be done in schools, as the professionals become more expert and experienced. Both the legislative and the good practice approaches that have been taken over the past few decades to try to ensure that children with special needs get the attention that they need can be built on. Potentially, in certain areas, there may have been a shift from health service provision for some children with severe difficulties to the education service, and that raises the issue of whether that shift has been matched by a transfer of funds. Both sectors, of course, try to retain as much funding as possible, as demands increase.

Demands may increase for other reasons and the hon. Member for New Forest, West mentioned the increased diagnosis of conditions. It is unclear whether that is caused by new conditions emerging, new recognition of conditions or the labelling of conditions that were previously recognised but did not have a diagnostic label that enabled people to campaign more clearly on the issues. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is one example, and many of us will have had representations from people concerned about the recognition of that spectrum of problems and whether the drug treatment is appropriate.

On the supply side, it is inevitable that funding questions will arise. Even in the best-resourced education service, and even with a Government with the best will towards education, one would expect resource pressures, whether in terms of grants to local education authority or of the level of standard spending assessment. The two are not necessarily linked. Simply calling a school grant maintained does not suddenly magic up extra resources—they are taken from somewhere else in the system. The hon. Gentleman said that that was a party political point, but my response would be that it misses the point on funding issues.

Clear underfunding still exists in education, and the Government have recognised that in giving a big increase in funding this year. Many of us would note that the 8 per cent. real-terms increase in funding has come three years into this Parliament, and we should therefore ask what people receiving the service went through in that time, as well as under previous Governments.

There is a question—no more than that—about the danger of distorting priorities through target setting. I have not investigated the issue in detail, but I ask the Minister to recognise that the problem may exist and to investigate it. If more targets are set in an area other than special needs, or the Government or Ofsted decide that targets set in special needs must be more stringently adhered to, there is a danger that local politicians will put resources into ensuring that they meet the targets that they must meet. By default, resources would then be taken from areas with fewer targets or with targets that appear to have lesser political importance. That may be an issue for the media, because it seems that, if something is not capable of being measured by a league table, they are not interested in it. In asking the Minister that general question, I do not defend the use of targets as the answer. There may be merit in having fewer targets and allowing priorities to be set locally and letting teachers get on with their jobs within a Government-set framework.

A question arises from the Gloucestershire debate on integration and whether that creates pressures on funding. We want parents and children to have a choice, but it must be a funded choice. We must recognise that if a certain number of special schools have a certain number of pupils and slowly but surely those pupils are integrated into the mainstream without the closure of any special schools, the per capita cost of providing that special schooling increases. Overheads cannot be reduced as quickly as the number of pupils in the system. While the Government may have provided additional help for special needs, the question is whether that has been sufficient to cope with the additional cost in the special schools sector of providing the same service for a smaller number of pupils. It is also questionable whether full funding has been provided for the sort of support that statemented and non-statemented children and their parents wish for in the mainstream sector. Such support is not a cheap option.

Another area in which resource pressures may have been created by policy is the continued delegation of funding to schools. I do not oppose such delegation and, indeed, the early pilots of delegated budgets took place in Liberal Democrat-controlled authorities, for example—at the time—Cambridgeshire. It has been pointed out by schools receiving delegated budgets and by local education authorities that one loses economies of scale when some services are not provided centrally because of the following of the mantra of delegation. That has certainly happened in the case of school meals in my authority, and the Government have also recognised the problem in the provision of music education. We must also question the continuing drive to measure the efficiency and competence of local education authorities by the amount that they keep centrally, even if that is for effective and efficient provision for special educational needs.

Mr. Drew

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a problem that, if we integrate more children, special schools will become smaller, which means that they will face a deteriorating budgetary situation? That is the double whammy facing Gloucestershire's special schools.

Dr. Harris

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for agreeing with my point. Without some closures, the cost per capita of educating children in special schools will increase because overheads cannot be reduced as quickly as school numbers are falling. If the number of children educated in special schools falls by 10 per cent., the logical answer is to close 10 per cent. of the schools to achieve the overhead savings, but that can be difficult for political reasons. It can also be difficult for practical reasons, if a school specialises in specific provision, whether for a disability group or a mode of delivery of education. That may make it counter-productive to seek to rationalise the buildings.

That issue must be recognised by those responsible for resource allocation, or the responsibility for taking difficult decisions that are unpopular should be taken by those who have control of the budget. As we know, 80 per cent. of control of LEA budgets rests with the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and only around 20 per cent. rests with the democratically elected members of local authorities and their discretion to raise the council tax, where that is permitted under capping rules. Blame—if that is the right word—and responsibility should rest with those who set the budgets.

I have several specific suggestions on the issue of special needs, based on my experience of what Oxfordshire has done in the short time that I have been a Member of Parliament for the area. Parents feel genuine concern that targets in the form of league tables for attainment may make schools, perhaps irrationally, resist the inclusion of children with special educational needs, especially in large numbers, because of the effect that that may have—even marginally—on attainment levels. It is important for the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), to put on the record her position on that issue, if she has the opportunity to do so. My LEA is on record as saying that such discrimination in admission is unacceptable, especially for that reason, and I hope that the Minister can assure us that it is also unnecessary. The market that is being created by the publication of league tables in their current form—I recognise the changes the Government have made to reflect added value better—can be a disincentive to integration.

A second suggestion is that the Government should develop specialist mainstream schools dealing with certain disabilities. They may be doing that in certain areas, but in Abingdon in my constituency I recently visited the Larkmead school, the county specialist for the integration of deaf children and of children with hearing difficulties. It has an excellent reputation, and provides a supportive yet challenging culture for its children. It does not rely merely on sign language, but does a lot of other work with pupils.

The Minister must also accept that the additional cost of transport for special needs children has implications for funding. Large distances may be involved when children have to travel to specialist mainstream or special schools. In Oxfordshire, I am told that transport for SEN children costs £3.6 million year, compared to a total of £5.8 million for transport for mainstream children. The Minister will not want to get into a discussion about standard spending assessments, but there is a feeling that the cost of transport, especially in rural areas, is not covered adequately in SSA calculations. That problem may worsen as specialist mainstream schools become more common.

There is an argument for regional planning of special needs provision. That would ensure that each county or local education authority did not regard its area boundary as the limit of its responsibilities and of the requirement to share good practice. Provision must be shared between LEAs in a region, and they must work closely together. Clearly, it is easy for the Liberal Democrat party to call for that, given our attachment to a democratically elected tier of local government at regional level, but existing regional structures should also consider that suggestion.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I am listening with interest to the hon. Gentleman's thoroughly constructive speech. Although I do not necessarily accept his regional agenda, will he join me in asking the Minister to say a little more about the regional co-ordinating committees for special educational needs provision? They have been established, but we have heard very little about them to date.

Dr. Harris

I look forward to the Minister's response to a joint quasi-delegation on that point.

The use of new technology provides an opportunity to integrate the delivery of education to some children with special educational needs. It allows them to integrate even better than they do in mainstream schools, as children with physical disabilities are at least as adept as others at using joysticks and computers. Do the Government have any plans to fund or encourage new initiatives in that area?

I end by thanking the hon. Member for New Forest, West for introducing the debate, which has given us an opportunity to hear his concerns about statementing, and to discuss the wider issues. The hon. Gentleman noted that statements are seen to be an end in themselves, rather than a means to provision. Parents tend to focus on statements because of the way in which the legislation and codes of practice are put together. The situation will improve when we concentrate more on the provision and less on the statement.

11.54 am
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

I echo the congratulations extended to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on his good fortune in securing the debate, and on the way in which he introduced it. He tackled an important subject with the appropriate blend of passion and sensitivity.

As we consider these issues, we should all adopt the phrase "sensitivity matters" as our motto. I have no quarrel at all with what was said in the distinctive contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and from the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris). The first two speakers explained and made more widely known some of the difficulties in their local education authorities, and the third contributor added to the mix some constructive points arising out of his experience of what is happening in his area.

I have no intention of spoiling the tone of the debate, and I am sure that the Minister has no such intention either. All hon. Members have different points to add to what I hope will remain a broad consensus on this matter. We are all aware, from our work as constituency Members of Parliament, of the immense effort expended and concern expressed by parents of children with special educational needs. Equally, we are aware of the frustration and hassle that they experience when they try to get from their local education authority the appropriate provision for the distinctive—and often unique—needs of individual children.

The debate has revealed a phenomenon that is evident in the wider spectrum of social policy. Better scientific knowledge, improved information among citizens and rising expectations blend together to make it difficult to provide appropriate resources for special needs education, and to resolve conflicts with respect to that provision. Parents have huge concerns about SEN provision, which Members of Parliament must loyally try to represent to the providing authorities. However, at the same time, we must accept the difficulties that LEAs face in balancing the allocation of resources between mainstream education and SEN provision. In that connection, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon made some highly revealing comments about transport costs.

Moreover, overall SEN provision will vary between LEAs. Some authorities may make better provision for blind children than for children with hearing difficulties, for example, while others may do more for children with specialist conditions than for those with more familiar categories of disability. It is extremely difficult to treat all cases fairly and in the best possible way. We must also bear in mind the fact that special school provision will not always fit a changing pattern of presenting disabilities or needs, or the various transport and geographical requirements of a well scattered county authority.

As I have said in previous debates on disability issues in this Chamber, the right approach is not to play party political football with what has or has not been done in the past. Instead, we must accept that all parties want to achieve continuous improvement when it comes to disability matters, and a gradual raising of standards, expectation and provision.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury said, the Conservative Government made some contribution in the early 1990s, when they established the code on SEN, and the tribunal. I was a Minister at the time, and played a small legislative role in that process. However, I am happy to accept that the Government now want to move on to other matters, and I hope that we will spend some time today on those.

The new phase was ushered in by the Green Paper and the Government's welcome commitment to involving education in the disability rights agenda, which extends to all education in maintained schools, and to further and higher education. The Government have also promised that they will introduce a Bill on disability in education, and I hope that the Minister will say when that is expected to appear. It is an open secret—Ministers have admitted as much—that the Bill was agreed to at the very last minute and that it is being drafted.

That Bill is complex to draft, and it is another open secret that the Government are having some difficulty with their legislative timetable. Will the Bill appear this Session? If not, should not the Government make a clean breast of the matter and concentrate on getting a largely agreed Bill ready in good time for the next Session? Given the sensitivity of these issues, it is better to legislate properly than to legislate in haste. That should not, however, be seen as a blank cheque for sitting on such a measure indefinitely. There is a balance to be struck, and I should be grateful for the Minister's comments.

From the general tenor of the debate so far, I wish to identify two areas of particular sensitivity. The first, to which nearly everyone has referred, is the inclusion agenda. The Government's programme of action tells us quite eloquently: Inclusion is a process, not a fixed state. The term can be used to mean many things, including the placement of pupils with SEN in mainstream schools, the participation of all pupils in the curriculum and social life of mainstream schools, the participation of all pupils in learning which leads to the highest possible level of achievement and the participation of young people in the full range of social experiences and opportunities once they have left school. Try as I might, I find it impossible to disagree with the spirit behind any of those sentiments. However, difficulties may arise in their delivery.

Philippa Russell, known to some of us as the director for the Council for Disabled Children, has said that increasing inclusion will be challenging—a word which the Minister will know is occasionally used by officials to indicate a task that will require a great deal of work in Whitehall, rows with the Treasury and difficulties with the lawyers; however, that does not mean that we should not attempt to increase inclusion.

Another point, which was made well in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury and implicit in the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West, is that inclusion policies cannot be implemented on the cheap. If inclusion is to be appropriate, it may cost more in resources than continuing special schools. The test ought to be whether it is appropriate.

That brings us back to some important concerns. There is concern at the suggestion by some local educational authorities that they see little future need for special schools. They would like to impose an element of compulsion on inclusion. Some parents—not many—are over-protective of their children and expect too little from them. They do not realise the opportunities that may be available in mainstream education. The Government have, on the whole, been encouraging about the principle, and local education authorities that are worried about resources need to be imbued with an element of pragmatism and to recognise that special provision is needed for children who might be lost or vulnerable in mainstream schools, and/or have a clear need for specialist support.

In certain cases, with a bit of ingenuity and lateral thinking, we may be able to break out from the simple concept of one or the other. We may be able to provide an element of inclusion alongside extra support or special provision, as is often done in mainstream schools, or by including children from special schools in some activities. I hope that local authorities and schools will be flexible, and that the Government will disseminate good practice.

I should value the Minister's comments on the interaction between the special educational needs regime with which we are broadly familiar, and which is based, at least in concept, on the educational appraisal of the individual child, and the new agenda that will take a civil rights-based approach to disability rights. We all acknowledge that disabled pupils have a right to appropriate education. The converse is that their schools have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them. Some adjustments, which require capital investment, are quite do-able, and others require special arrangements in the classroom. The difficulty with joining the two concepts arises where a statement, particularly one on which it is difficult to put a specific value, does not fit in with the legal concept of a right or a disability right. The Government have made it easier for themselves by indicating that they intend to deliver the disability right in education for pupils through the tribunal. That is with the difficult exception of further and higher education where, as I understand it, the courts will be involved in adjudication, as they might be where other issues of disability rights are involved.

There are also interesting and important resource implications where local education authorities may look to the Government to meet contingent commitments. I need hardly mention the huge cost to the national health service of liability claims—it exceeds £600 million a year. We have only just started on the disability rights agenda and it could be very expensive if matters are not handled well. I tabled a parliamentary question to register my concern that the original approach would not even evaluate the impact costs of these moves on further and higher education.

As with inclusion, we cannot offer disability rights on the cheap. There will be further resource implications, of a capital and current nature. The Government must face those and work out, with the local authorities, how to deal with them.

My final points concern the awkward interface between SEN provision and the wider social issues that are relevant to any inclusion agenda. We really need to improve the transitional provision from school to further education and past that, wherever possible, into work experience and work. It is generally conceded that the current practice is not ideal because local authorities do not always do what they are obliged to do under previous legislation. The Government need to ensure that the existing law is properly implemented as well as taking forward into law any improvements, such as those in the Learning and Skills Bill. In no sense is that a cop-out. We need to ensure that local authorities are doing what they are obliged to do and that any new duties are properly carried out. A lot of value is added if people can be properly assessed and passed from one stage of their provision to another as part of a proper plan.

We need to consider families and family units as a proper framework, as part of our wider approach to inclusion. There needs to be proper consultation with all relevant agencies and with the family as a whole, given the interaction and relationships between family members. For example, one child may be in mainstream education and have a sibling who is in specialist education. We need to be more sensitive to such issues.

A Member of Parliament is often the holistic bit of the jigsaw. Constituents who come to our surgeries may have three or four needs. The Member of Parliament sometimes functions as the sole agency, drawing those needs together and referring to the various pieces of the jigsaw. Families, pupils and parents need an approach that is centred on meeting their needs.

In conclusion, local authorities may sometimes view local children with special needs in terms of problems, resource centres and costs, but there are also huge opportunities. These are very special children and they deserve, as I think they will receive, our firm, warm-hearted and generous support.

12.9 pm

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

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on securing a debate on a topic which all hon. Members agree is most important. I join him in paying tribute to the good work that is obviously going on at Ashley junior school in his constituency. Since taking up my post, I have been fortunate enough to visit many schools where excellent work is being done on such matters, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will pass on my congratulations to schools in his constituency.

Education of children with special educational needs was one of the first issues that the Government tackled after the general election in 1997. Within months, we published the Green Paper "Excellence for all Children: Meeting Special Educational Needs". We followed that up with an action programme, through which we have continued to work hard to establish a system to enable children with special educational needs to receive the education they need and deserve. That forms part of our overall drive to improve standards for all children. I hope that I shall be able both to respond to the points made by hon. Members and to highlight how, in practice, we are delivering what we said we would.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West asked about the specificity of statements. There is no absolute requirement that the educational provision to be made for a child should be specified in hours per week. However, in most cases, it will be necessary to set out the hours of help needed in order to comply with the requirements of section 324 of the Education Act 1996 and with the Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations 1994.

The code of practice to which hon. Members referred indicates that provision should normally be specific, detailed and quantified; for example, for the hours of ancillary or specialist teaching support. Although some flexibility should be retained in order to meet the child's changing needs, it will be necessary, in many cases, to specify the hours of ancillary or specialist teaching support required for a child with a statement.

If an authority does not specify the hours when making a statement, the child's parents have the right of appeal to the SEN tribunal. The Secretary of State is able to consider taking action against an authority which maintains a blanket policy of not specifying such provision in a child's statement.

Concerns were expressed about statementing and the code of practice. The Department is currently engaged in revising the SEN code of practice, in close consultation with a specially convened sub-group of our national advisory group on special educational needs. As we explained in the action plan, the revised code focuses on guidance for SEN school-based provision in each phase of education, with an emphasis on the roles and responsibilities of all teachers in relation to children and young people with special educational needs.

Alongside the new code, we plan to publish a good practice guide that will help schools, LEAs and other agencies to improve the ways in which they meet the needs of children and young people. We shall also publish guidance on thresholds for the identification of pupils with special educational needs and on the range of provision that would be appropriate to meet those needs.

I share the concerns expressed by hon. Members that the code should not be seen as a rush to statement, if parents and schools are worried about what support will be offered to their children. I shall refer later to other measures that we are taking to support those children and their schools and families.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) rightly raised their concern about the review of special educational needs provision currently under way in Gloucestershire. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury and I have been in communication on the issue, and I understand his anxiety about a particular school in his constituency. However, changes will continue to be made to school provision, both special and mainstream, in accordance with local needs and circumstances. That has always been true and was reflected in the remarks of both hon. Members. All hon. Members who have experienced changes in school provision in their constituencies are aware that such changes will always be difficult; they always raise considerable local concern which needs to be addressed.

LEAs cannot, of course, summarily close a special school; they must publish statutory proposals and, before doing so, must ensure that they have consulted all interested parties. Under the new arrangements, they have to refer those plans to the school's organisation committee, whose members are drawn from local groups with an understanding about the decisions to be taken. They can include members of the LEA, governors of local schools—at least one of whom should be a special school governor—the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, the Further Education Funding Council and other groups deemed relevant in the LEA area. If that committee is unable to reach a unanimous decision, it will pass the case to an independent adjudicator for determination. Notwithstanding the difficult decisions that will be made in Gloucestershire, I hope that hon. Members feel that the process at least allows their concerns to be reflected.

The Government's position was spelt out in our Green Paper. We are firmly committed to promoting inclusion by choice. That is a cornerstone of our strategy for raising standards of achievement and for meeting the educational needs of all children. We are determined to maintain progress on that matter, so that more parents feel confident that their child's needs can and will be met in a mainstream school.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud made the important point that the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools would be beneficial not only for them, but—socially and educationally—for the other children in the school. That was proved by the hon. Member for New Forest, West when he highlighted the good work in a school in his constituency.

Our approach has been practical. The objective must be to safeguard the interests of all children. When parents want a mainstream setting for their children, our policy is to try to provide one. However, it is equally important to respect the right of parents to specialist provision, if that is what they want. We have underlined the point that specialist provision continues to play a vital role.

Inclusion is not an agenda for the closure of all special schools; it creates a challenge for the education system—often to find new roles for special schools and for specialist provision. In particular, we want such schools to become outward-looking centres of excellence and to work with their mainstream colleagues to help to support pupils who would benefit from a mainstream place. We are acting to support such collaboration between schools.

The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) is right to point out that we must not only outline our objectives but ensure that we can deliver improvements for children with special educational needs. The importance that we attach to promoting inclusion is emphasised by a range of initiatives designed to help schools to develop their practice so as to become more inclusive. The initiatives offer practical solutions to enable schools to meet the challenge of providing for the needs of a more diverse range of pupils. They will also ensure that we maintain high-quality provision for all children with special educational needs and the other children who are learning alongside them.

The first of the practical approaches relates, as hon. Members have suggested, to funding. I strongly agree with the sentiment that the move to inclusion and to improving provision for special educational needs is not about saving money. That is why the extra £219 million in funding to schools that was announced in the March Budget will give schools the flexibility to use it to support all children and children with special educational needs. In particular, the money provides an extra £15,000 to each of the 62 non-maintained special schools.

We also are allocating £15 million this year from the SEN standards fund to support 100 innovative local inclusion and emotional and behavioural difficulty projects. That is nearly double the money that was available last year. Overall, the SEN standards fund has been raised from £35 million last year to £55 million this year, and the money is being used to support training, parent partnerships, pilot speech and language therapy projects and to help schools to prepare to become more inclusive.

Since 1997, 3,300 schools have benefited from the schools access initiative and the capital support available to make schools and the curriculum accessible to all pupils. That money has been increased to £30 million this year as part of a £100 million package over three years. The Department is funding the distribution of the index for inclusion to all schools and local authorities. That is a practical review tool to enable schools to examine what they need to do to become more inclusive, to increase participation and to raise standards not just for pupils with special educational needs but, as I stressed, for all pupils in school.

A special mainstream links working group is producing an interactive CD-ROM package aimed at teachers, showing how we can, as I suggested earlier, develop in a practical way the links between the specialist provision that remains and the mainstream sector. The package will be launched later this year at a series of seminars.

There is nearly £1 million to support the network of 11 SEN regional co-ordination projects that were mentioned by the hon. Member for Daventry. Since this April, they have covered the whole of England and they bring together all the local partners—health, social services, education, employment and the voluntary and private sectors—and they help to promote inclusion.

The projects aim to redress through collaborative planning and working the variations in access to, and the quality of, provision for pupils with special needs. They go some way to dealing with the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) about the need to ensure that we do not allow different authorities and sources of funding to isolate themselves so that they do not work together in the way that they should to provide the best of the whole package to children with such needs. I am more than happy to send the hon. Member for Daventry details about the work that the regional co-ordination projects currently undertake.

Rightly, we heard about the importance of involving and helping parents and about the frustrations that they sometimes feel. The importance of an effective partnership with parents was one of the key themes in the SEN programme for action. All local education authorities have been expected to provide parent partnership services from 1999. LEAs do not necessarily have to provide the services themselves: they can, and in many cases do, arrange for the services to be delivered by the voluntary sector and by organisations such as those highlighted by the hon. Member for New Forest, West. I strongly believe that it is important that LEAs look for good supportive provision in the voluntary sector that will work with them to support parents.

The aim of parent partnership services is to ensure that parents of children with special educational needs have access to information, advice and guidance on their children's needs so that they can make appropriate and informed decisions, in what, as has been pointed out, can be a stressful, difficult and emotional time. In 1999–2000, the Department supported expenditure of £6 million through the SEN standards fund to develop and expand such services. This year, we have doubled that to £12 million.

In relation to the concerns expressed about statements and the code of practice, the parent partnership services will be expected to ensure that parents of any children identified as having special educational needs—not just those with statements—should have access to an independent parental supporter. That goes some way to meeting the concern expressed that parents think that their child must have a statement before they receive the advice and support that they want.

Mr. Boswell

I sense that the Minister is beginning to draw her remarks to a conclusion. Before she does, will she tell us what has befallen the promised legislation?

Jacqui Smith

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to learn that I was coming to that point.

The Department also funds the national parent partnership network that is operated by the Council for Disabled Children. It plays an important part in encouraging positive partnerships by providing information on existing services, distributing newsletters, arranging meetings, sharing good practice and exchanging information. The draft revised SEN code of practice to which I referred will include a new chapter on effective partnership working with parents. We intend to legislate on that subject as part of the planned SEN disability Bill that is designed to ensure that LEAs provide parent partnerships services and to replace the current arrangements for named persons that operate only in relation to children with statements.

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's question about the Bill, regrettably, it is not for me to decide the timetable for legislation. However, he will be aware that we have carried out consultation on our proposals in the Bill, and he raised important questions about how we intend to take forward the disability measures in it. Following the results of the consultation, we are committed not only to implementing the Bill but to implementing it in a way that delivers the changes that we all want. I think that hon. Members will agree that we should reflect the views expressed in trying to ensure that the Bill works. We are committed to the changes, but, as I said, I am not responsible for the parliamentary timetable.

I hope that hon. Members will accept from what I have said that we recognise that parents, teachers and children need support and reassurance on these issues. We are providing the funding, the renewed structure to the system, the support for teachers, the support for schools and the examples of good practice that will be necessary to ensure—as all hon. Members have emphasised—that we provide the best possible opportunities for all our children, and particularly for the special children whom we have considered today.

12.29 pm

Sitting suspended.