HC Deb 19 May 2004 vol 421 cc263-71WH

11 am

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con)

I am delighted to have this opportunity to talk about a very important subject. There are many who are more expert: I am a beginner, but an interested one. My comments will be based on my constituency and personal experiences. My constituency experience comes from visiting special schools and from talking to parents, teachers and pupils. My personal experience comes from being the proud father of a profoundly disabled child who will soon start his schooling. I probably see this issue from the perspective of a parent of a child at the most disabled end of the spectrum. That affects my perspective and it is right to put that on the record. Maybe it is no bad thing. Children like mine are among the most vulnerable and needy in society. It is important that they get the right sort of services.

Let me rather illogically start with my tentative conclusions. My concerns are as follows. First, the policy of inclusion, while right in principle for most children, is wrong in practice for some children. Some local education authorities are possibly over zealous in their pursuit of inclusion. Some pray in aid Government policy and at times completely overstate it. As a result there is a danger that we could lose forever some very good special schools that do an excellent job with children who have a range of very complex needs. As another consequence, some mainstream schools are struggling to cope with children with these very complex needs. That can have a serious knock-on effect not only on those children but on the education of other children. From what I have seen and heard, I would say that there is a real danger that the pendulum is swinging too far in favour of inclusion.

I should like to say a little bit about the special schools in and near my constituency. Springfield school in Witney works with children from the age of two to 16 with complex learning difficulties. It operates both on its own site and at different mainstream school sites across west Oxfordshire. The main school is in a brand new building in the middle of a new mainstream primary school. This is an excellent concept as they can share facilities and do things together as well as be separate when they need to be. I urge the Minister to come to look at it when he is passing Witney. It is a good concept with the best of inclusion and the best of special status at the same time.

The Ormerod school, based in Headington, also has a site at the Marlborough school in Woodstock in my constituency. It caters for pupils with a wide range of physical disabilities who usually have associated learning and communication difficulties as well. Penhurst school in Chipping Norton, operated by National Children's Homes, is a residential school for the most profoundly disabled children of all. Woodeaton and Iffley Mead, just outside my constituency, are both state schools but provide residential education for children with moderate learning difficulties and a range of behavioural problems. Some of the children may have been badly abused at home.

The Mulberry Bush school in Standlake in my constituency is not part of the state sector but takes children from state schools around the country who have emotional and behavioural difficulties, including some children who have been extremely disruptive and violent. The school's aim is to reintegrate them into the state sector, on which it has an excellent record. I have been impressed by what all these schools do and the value that they add. I should also mention the Fitzwarren school in Wantage. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and our candidate there, Edward Vaizey, are campaigning hard for it to have a secure future.

I should say two things straight away. First, what I am going to say does not apply equally to every school. As I have pointed out, they care for children with different needs. But there are some common themes. Most of the schools have experienced the same thing. They are well aware of children who would benefit from places and they often know parents who want their children to attend, but the message from the local education authority is often to question why their rolls are falling. Secondly, I accept that real progress has been made in the way in which we deal with special needs in this country. LEAs and mainstream schools are putting more resources towards them and the subject area is rightfully receiving more and more attention.

As I have said, inclusion is right for many children. There are strong lobbies in favour of it: many of them contacted me before this debate. But it cannot be right for all children. As the parent of one such child I know how maddening it is to be told by the LEA that its policy is to include all children in mainstream settings. If the child has, for example, chronic epilepsy and cannot walk, sit up or move in any way, it is pretty obvious that they must be cared for in a special environment. That is just common sense.

Let me run through a list of the concerns that have been expressed, so that the Minister can give a reasoned and careful reply. First, there are concerns linked to the most recent piece of legislation on the issue, the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. The concern is that the Act sets up a bias in favour of mainstream schools, which can mean that parents are not even advised about special schools. The Act states: If a statement is maintained…for the child, he must be educated in a mainstream school unless that is incompatible with…the wishes of his parent, or…the provision of efficient education for other children. I accept that the Act does not say, "Don't tell parents about special schools and what is available". However, the message that some LEAs have received seems to be that they cannot give advice about special schools, but can advise only towards mainstream.

One head teacher at a special school told me that she knew of parents with children aged six, seven and eight and who were in mainstream schools, but who simply had not heard about the existence of her school. Knowing what those parents and their children had missed out on, she believed that the situation was "criminal". What matters, surely, is what is right for each child. Does the Minister think that a more common-sense statement and approach needs to be set out more clearly in the legislation? In one form or another, the schools in my constituency have said the same sort of thing to me. Each such school, whether it dealt with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, or profound or moderate learning difficulties, or whether it was state-controlled or voluntary, said that access to them is being artificially restricted.

I asked one head which of three explanations best portrayed what was happening. I asked whether inclusion was being pursued too dogmatically, whether special schools were expensive, thereby creating an unwillingness to send children there, or whether bureaucratic delays were holding up the system. She said that the answer was a combination of all three. The Minister needs to realise that.

The second concern is that the application process for entering such schools has in many cases become incredibly complex. The process of assessments, panels, reassessments and decision-making timetables can be truly horrendous. Of course one must get the decision right. However, there are times—I stray into my own experience now—when the only people who are not listened to are the parents, who know the child's needs better than anyone, and the special school, which has spent a lifetime identifying and coping with incredibly complex needs. Logic and common sense say that the parents and the school should be at the heart of the process.

As I have said, the problem is due partly to the complex bureaucracy that has been established. As a senior education officer from Oxfordshire county council put it to me in a letter: Falling rolls in some special school nurseries have resulted, in part, from relatively recent compliance with the law on statements and assessments. In the past children have been admitted without statement or even assessment, sometimes without the agreement of an officer". His letter continued: There should be no need for most children at this age to have a statement and indeed statutory assessment may be premature and meaningless, wasting valuable resources and possibly delaying intervention". It is the possible delay in intervention that can be so damaging.

The Mulberry Bush school has put its concern about the delay very starkly. As the head explained: The children we work with need recognition that their emotional immaturity and behaviour needs addressing before they can start to learn". As he rather neatly put the matter: inclusion only makes sense if the child feels genuinely included. Those at the Mulberry Bush school feel that aspects of the inclusion model have slowed down placements at their school. As the school explained in an e-mail to me, for many children the policy of inclusion is a disaster. Time is spent trying to get them to co-operate in situations which they can't manage. So, for both financial and government policy reasons the LEAs leave them in mainstream for longer than they should. When it becomes all too obvious that the child can't cope they then send them off to the Mulberry Bush more damaged. It is far better for us to start the therapy when they are say 6, than later—increasingly we get them aged 9 or 10. We can't keep them after they are 12, and so we have far too short time with them. The aim of the Mulberry Bush school is to get children back into mainstream schools. The point that those at the school make clearly is that it is good if they can do that early.

It is vital that we get things right. As I explained, Woodeaton school is a residential school for children with moderate learning difficulties and a range of behavioural issues. A constituent of mine who works there wrote to me and explained that there is a trend of integrating moderate learning difficulty children into mainstream education, but the majority of our children are not just MLD: they have complex needs and would not cope in mainstream. Some of our children who are in residence would either be in care, on the streets or in trouble with the Police." The Minister must understand that there is a danger of an alliance between educationists who are very committed to inclusion on ideological grounds, and accountants, who want to save money. My concern is that some of the schools will close as a result.

My next concern is about how well mainstream schools are coping. Again, that is vital. If we put children who cannot cope with mainstream schools into such schools, they will suffer and so will the other children at the school. The mainstream schools system cannot always provide the facilities—such as adapted accommodation, specialist teachers and equipment, and multi-disciplinary professional support—that are suitable for every child's needs. I am sure that the Minister will have found, as I have, that what is striking about visiting a special school is that all the therapy—speech therapy, language therapy, physiotherapy, and hydrotherapy swimming pools—is available in situ. All the medical interventions that the children need can take place at the school, so there is a disadvantage when the children begin to be spread right across the system.

Mencap's position on the practical difficulties with mainstreaming special needs children is as follows:

Often, there is either not enough learning support or the school adopts a 'velcro' approach whereby staff work solely and permanently with a pupil with special educational needs. Getting the right balance between providing support and enabling real inclusion is vital if parents are to trust the mainstream system. The lack of health support in mainstream schools presents another major barrier for those pupils with a learning disability with additional health needs. They are often excluded because staff are either not trained in health procedures or are reluctant to administer medicine, which leaves many children at risk. A final concern is that as special schools find the number of children on their rolls falling they may also find that they have to cater for a lot of children with very different needs. For example, at Springfield school they are currently able to separate the very active children with profound and multiple learning difficulties, who may have autism or other conditions that can make children quite hyperactive, from those who are confined to wheelchairs, who may have cerebral palsy and who cannot really move. As a parent of a child with very bad cerebral palsy, I have to say that one of the greatest worries is their safety. Of course, parents want their children to go to school and to have all those benefits, but they really worry whether they will be safe with other children racing around. That is an important concern.

In a nutshell, what I am saying to the Minister is that inclusion and integration are not the same thing. We all want children with disabilities to be included in broader society. Of course, we want that. However, that does not always mean that they can be integrated into every part of it. In fact, by trying to integrate them, we may actually exclude them. We may find that if special schools are not available, some children will not be able to go to school at all. They will be excluded completely because they will have to stay at home. That is my major concern.

In conclusion, I am asking the Minister to do a number of things. Because local education authorities seem to take such a lead from the Government on this issue and pray in aid what they believe Government policy to be, this is one of the rare areas—he will be pleased to hear this—where what he says is almost as important as what he does. I hope that he will be able to say what a good job special schools do and that the Government value their work and do not want to see a further programme of closures. I hope that he will accept that inclusion is not right for every child and that he and his Department will consider whether LEAs are interpreting the law too narrowly and being overzealous in their approach. I hope that we will have opportunities for him to report to the House regularly about this very important matter.

11.14 am
The Minister for School Standards (Mr. David Miliband)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) not only on securing the debate, but on the insight, passion and thoughtfulness with which he presented the issues. He started with his conclusion and I am happy not just to start with my conclusion, but to agree with his—although I might put it slightly differently. His conclusion was that it is wrong to believe that inclusion in mainstream school is right for every child. I agree with that, but would put it differently. Special schools are right for some children. I am happy to put that positively and in an affirming way that recognises the special role of special schools.

I cannot match the personal experience that the hon. Gentleman brings to the debate, but I can, at least, report my constituency experience of a special school for three to 19-year-olds, and special schools that I have visited around the country. I endorse his point about special schools throughout the country doing fantastic work. That is true of Bamburgh school in my constituency.

I should like to add a point that the hon. Gentleman did not have time to dwell on, but which is important. The special schools sector has pioneered educational innovations that are relevant to the mainstream sector. Let us think about how qualified teachers can now work with classroom assistants, how that is being developed in the mainstream sector and how it is greeted in some quarters as a revolutionary change. That has always happened in more than 1,000 special schools around the country. It is important to recognise that the educational practice of the special schools sector has something to teach the rest of the system, as well as offering the right education for its pupils.

I am delighted to hear that my words may have some impact or effect. I hope that that does not go to my head. I welcome the chance to put on the record not just my views, but those of the Government, because it is important that people understand the Government's view of an appropriate special educational needs strategy, that they are clear what we mean by inclusion and that they understand our vision for the special school sector, which we believe can be a resource for pupils in those schools, for the wider system, and for those pupils with special needs who are studying in or are located in mainstream schools.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows about the special educational needs strategy that was published by the Government last February, which suggested how local and national action could deliver long-term improvement. It focused on raising expectations for the educational achievement of youngsters with special needs, those with increasingly complex special needs, and perhaps those that are recognised as complex, as well as some new needs. It talked about enabling parents to feel confident that schools, whether they are mainstream or special schools, can meet the needs of those pupils. We will deal later with which schools children go to. It is fair to say that that strategy, which was led by my colleague Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who takes responsibility in this area, was widely welcomed, whether people are parents, or teachers, of children in the mainstream or special school sectors.

The strategy concentrates on four areas. First, there is a need to intervene early to ensure that children with special needs receive the support that they need from the earliest possible date. That speaks to the hon. Gentleman's use of the example of the age of six. Our view is that children should start at the appropriate point, and if that is earlier than six, it might be better.

Secondly, the strategy focused on the barriers to learning and educational progress that are faced by children with special needs. I was struck by what the hon. Gentleman said about issues of safety and security in school. Thirdly, it is important to ensure that schools have high expectations for children with special educational needs. I think that I am right in saying that a quarter of young people with special needs in primary schools reach level 4 at age 11. Perhaps I could write to the hon. Gentleman if I am wrong. It is important that there are high expectations for all pupils and that the achievement of every pupil is recognised, whatever level they reach, as long as they are fulfilling their potential. Level 4 may not be possible for some youngsters—level 1, 2 or 3 may be an achievement for them—but we should aim high for all of them and celebrate what they achieve.

The third aspect of the strategy was to try to deliver greater co-ordination and collaboration between schools across the special school and mainstream divide. To review the overall situation, 3 per cent. of pupils have a statement of special educational needs—about 245,000 young people. Another 14 per cent. have a recognised special need without a statement—about 1.2 million young people. It is our belief—as well as educational practice for a long time—that there are strong educational grounds for educating many children and young people with special needs and/or disabilities with their peers in mainstream schools. The vast majority of children with special needs are educated in the mainstream sector.

For some pupils a special school is the right base for their education. About 87,000 pupils with special needs are in maintained special schools, the funding for which amounts to some £1.5 billion. However, my thinking about inclusion is that the Government should have a responsibility to ensure that every child, whatever their circumstances, hay the opportunity to fulfil their educational potential, to access the educational resources of the nation and to be included in the educational goals of the country and the educational provisions made by the country. Education is about more than a type of placement for children and young people; it is about an aspiration and about the quality of the educational experience that they enjoy. There are numerous examples of good practice, but I have to agree that there are also examples where practice does not meet the aspirations and we have to try to do something about that.

Inclusive practice and the capacity of mainstream schools to cater for children with special needs are important. The strategy flagged up three areas. First, we have a duty to support mainstream schools through the inclusion development programme, which would bring together education, health, social care and the voluntary sector to help schools meet the glowing demands from pupils with autistic spectrum disorder; behaviour, emotional and social difficulties; speech, language and communication difficulties; and moderate learning difficulties.

I was in Hartlepool two weeks ago, at Kingsley primary school, which specialises in educating and supporting children with autism in the mainstream sector. Its staff talk to other children about what autism is, so that they understand the pupils who are in their class, and work with the parents of the autistic children to ensure that they succeed in school. It was very impressive to see.

Secondly, it is important to make sure that practical tools and materials are available for schools and local authorities for disabled pupils, and we are working with the Disability Rights Commission on that. Thirdly, school leadership has to be armed with the information and ideas to ensure that a mainstream school can meet special needs and we are working with the national college for school leadership to achieve that.

I want to dwell on the role of special schools, which have a special role in our system, and in many ways have led the way in educational reform. We cannot say it enough—we are strongly committed to supporting the role of special schools in our education system. They have a critical role to play in the overall spectrum of provision for pupils with special needs. As the hon. Gentleman said, they have a role to play in educating those children with the most severe and complex needs, but they also share their expertise with mainstream schools, which have the bulk of special needs pupils in their care.

There is a balance to be struck—or perhaps an integration to be achieved—between special and mainstream school provisions. It is important to ensure that both sectors work in close collaboration. There is value in distinctive special school provision, but there is also value in the resources, insights and expertise of the special schools being shared across the divide. Breaking down the divisions is an important aspect of policy—we want not only to celebrate the role of special schools but to share their insights. We hope to do that in five ways, all of which speak to the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

First, staff movement across the special school and mainstream school environment is important. Crossing the divide for employment or training purposes can help both sectors.

Secondly, we want to encourage pupil movement across the sectors by using annual reviews of statements to consider the scope for dual placement or transition between the mainstream and special sectors. Pupils' needs can and do change over time, and the special and mainstream sectors might be right for them at different points in their careers.

Thirdly, we want to encourage more special schools to participate in cluster and twining arrangements with mainstream counterparts.

Fourthly, we want to encourage greater participation by special schools in programmes such as the specialist schools programme and the leading edge partnership programmes. The latter is designed to spread best educational practice across the system.

Fifthly, and importantly, we want to ensure that the capital funding strategy, which is now a significant part of the departmental spend—it includes the building schools for the future programme, which focuses on the secondary sector—helps to bring special and mainstream schools closer together. I have not visited the development in Witney, but the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that on the site of the Ealing academy—a through-to-19 academy being set up in west London—there will be a special school to facilitate the distinct provision and collaboration that I mentioned.

Those five aspects of policy and our commitment to special schools as a distinct sector make clear the important role that we think such schools can play in the system.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there was a danger that the pendulum might swing the other way—almost as if one fashion were replacing another—if we did not take care to ensure that, as we sought to improve things, we do not lose the best. I thought about that image as he spoke, and I hope that it is not overly optimistic to say that neither we nor those involved in the debate about provision for pupils with special educational needs are slaves to the fashion that he described.

Mr. Cameron

I can give the Minister an example of a local education authority whose policy is to include all children in mainstream schools. It may have misunderstood Government policy and may, for reasons of political correctness or money, be being overzealous, but I hope that the Minister takes seriously the issue of whether some local education authorities are swinging the pendulum too far, because children will suffer as a result.

Mr. Miliband

I was about to come to that point. Of course, the owners or governors of the pendulum do not simply reside in Sanctuary Buildings, and there must be real collaboration on this aspect of policy between central and local government.

The hon. Gentleman raised important points about how the assessment systems work, about communication between central and local government and about the quality and variability of provision in different parts of the country. All three issues are the subject of monitoring by not only the Department but Ofsted, which inspects provision by local authorities and schools. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to working with local government and to respecting its constitutional position as the co-ordinator and commissioner of local provision. Provision is best arranged at local level, building on local history, tradition and expertise. However, our starting point must be the quality of the offer to pupils and parents, and we must ensure that it meets their diverse needs.

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to take up particular examples, I will, of course, be happy to do so, but I understood him to be making the more general point that there are communication, auditing and monitoring issues about which we must be zealous. I can assure him that we did not produce the strategy simply so that it could sit on a shelf—we want to work with colleagues in local government to make it happen.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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