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Special Educational Needs

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require that statements by local authorities relating to special educational needs are issued independently of decisions about the funding of facilities and services arising from such needs.

In that context, I declare an interest as the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy who will almost certainly have special educational needs.

Interest in special educational needs in the House since the general election has been reflected in no fewer than 93 written and oral parliamentary questions. In addition, although there has been no debate on the subject in Government time, three debates have been held on the issue, notably those initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on 22 June last year in Opposition time, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on 29 November and the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on 7 March, whose debate covered Asperger’s syndrome in her constituency.

What are the central facts about special educational needs? There are currently 1,230,800 children with special educational needs, but without a statement, in this country. In addition, 242,600 children have special educational needs and a statement. Of course, the needs vary greatly. They can result from learning difficulties, sensory impairments or physical disabilities. It is important to understand that they can be moderate and one-dimensional. However, they can also be severe, complex and multifaceted. We can be fairly sure of one fact in that labyrinthine field: there is no evidence to suggest that any reduction in the number of children with special educational needs is likely soon. Indeed, the evidence points overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. A continuing increase in the number of children with special educational needs is expected.

It is therefore noteworthy and a source of concern that, as a result of direct Government encouragement, the number of new statements of special educational needs is in marked decline. In 1998, 35,650 new statements were issued; by 2004, the figure had fallen to 26,000. It is important for all right hon. and hon. Members to reflect and to come to a view on the statementing process.

I want to make a number of observations that seem to be fair-minded and relevant. First, a great many parents regard a statement as a lever that they can pull, a source of comfort or a guarantee of assistance. I do not sniff at that; it is extremely important. However, large numbers of them are simultaneously gravely concerned by the weaknesses in the existing statementing process. To put it simply, the process is too bureaucratic, too adversarial, too time-consuming, too expensive and, all too often, too vague. As a consequence of those failings in the system, too many children wait too long, are promised too little and receive even less.

We can observe the evidence recently produced in a serious study by the National Autistic Society. It conducted a survey that showed that 31 per cent. of children, according to their parents, are not getting the help that has been promised in their statement, and that only 55 per cent. of children are receiving the speech and language therapy that their statement stipulates that they should receive. In the light of those statistics, it is perhaps unsurprising that 79 per cent. of the parents who appeal, in protest against that lamentable state of affairs, to the special educational needs and disability tribunal—SENDIST—are successful in their appeals.

This is a serious situation. People have to wait a long time and are often promised less than they think is their due. They then find that they are not even to be given what they have belatedly and inadequately been promised. It is incredibly difficult even to enforce the entitlement that they have, in a very delayed fashion, been given. These are serious concerns.

The second concern involves SENDIST itself. Thousands of parents appeal every year. They do so because they have been denied a statutory assessment of their child, or because they have been denied the issue of a statement for their child. They appeal because there is an insufficiency of specific support in their child’s statement, or because they have been denied their preference of school for their child.

Significantly, increasingly and ominously, however, there is evidence of difference in success at the tribunals depending on socio-economic status. To put it bluntly, someone who is educated, articulate and relatively deep-pocketed will do well at a tribunal because they make their appeal, they hire the solicitors, they secure the specialist reports and they fight the system. Those people are successful. However, people who are uneducated, inarticulate and have no money are less likely to go to a tribunal. If they do, they are less likely to succeed, because they are less likely to be able to afford or secure the specialist services that are often a prerequisite of success. They will fail. They will lose.

The time has come to change the system, and I would like to make a number of specific suggestions in the context of adopting a new approach. First, we should dispense with statements and replace them with special needs profiles. The responsibility for crafting such profiles would fall to accredited assessors from the educational psychology profession. They would decide on the level of support that should be provided to the child, choosing from a number of tiers.

Secondly, we need to establish a national funding agency separate from and independent of the arrangements outlined in my first proposal. The necessary payment would come from that funding agency, and it would go with the parent, on behalf of the pupil, travelling with him or her to the institution that he or she attends.

My third proposal is that we establish a special educational needs standing commission. Its role would be to accredit the assessors, to hear appeals and to offer advice—in the light of emerging practice and policy—to the national funding agency about requirements and needs and the increase in public expenditure necessary to meet them.

My central thesis is that that would be a real advantage over the present system, which is weak because local education authorities assess and decide, pay and provide. For the most part, they are in control of the whole process, and we need to make it a great deal more independent. We need to make it quicker and fairer—independent of the Government, independent of local authorities and independent of the sources of supply. That, surely, makes sense.

I do not decry the very real efforts made in the field of special educational needs. It is a complex area, in which there is always a danger of generalisation. There is good practice, bad practice and indifferent practice. Every child is unique; each case is different; but there are serious weaknesses. I politely suggest to the Government that a real problem is now emerging: the desire to cut costs and the elevation of the useful tool of inclusion into some sort of dogmatic edict in every particular, which is grossly damaging and needs to be changed. We are talking not about guinea pigs in some giant experiment of starry-eyed social engineering, but about children who need help, more help and better help, and who need it now. My Bill will help to provide it, so I commend it with enthusiasm to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by John Bercow, Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. Douglas Carswell, Mrs. Nadine Dorries, Mr. Nick Gibb, Stephen Hammond, Mr. John Hayes, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Kelvin Hopkins, Dr. Julian Lewis, Mr. George Mudie and Bob Spink.

Special Educational Needs

John Bercow accordingly presented a Bill to require that statements by local authorities relating to special educational needs are issued independently of decisions about the funding of facilities and services arising from such needs: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 195].