Thursday 26 October 2006
[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]
Special Educational Needs
[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Education and Skills Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 478-I, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6940.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]
Before I call Mr. Sheerman, I should say that many hon. Members have indicated that they wish to speak this afternoon and those on the Front Benches have kindly agreed to try to restrict the length of their contributions to about 10 minutes. That gives us two and a half hours or thereabouts to try to allow everyone to speak. If everyone plays the game, everyone who wants to will be able to take part. Sorry to hold you back, Mr. Sheerman.
I have not served under your chairmanship in this Chamber before, Mr. Hancock, and it is a pleasure to do so. We are old colleagues and friends—because I spend so much time in Southsea, of course.
The debate is taking place because the Select Committee on Education and Skills conducted a thorough inquiry into special educational needs. We had the Government response to the report two weeks ago. I shall start by informing people of how and why we went about our inquiry. Our Select Committee does not randomly pick up subjects to investigate. We try to do things where we can add value, where we believe that an inquiry is necessary and where we can be helpful in a number of ways, not only to the Government but to the people outside the House who need particular provision from the education sector.
It was appropriate for us to conduct a thorough inquiry into special educational needs because we had been away from the subject for a long time. The subject has been neglected; that is a good reason for an inquiry. When I looked back on the work that I and the Committee had done under my chairmanship over the past five years and beyond, I saw that it was quite a while since we had considered special educational needs, and we had been thinking about it.
To be totally honest, a member of the upper House, Baroness Warnock, also made a contribution that got everyone talking about special educational needs again. I shall not rehearse her remarks in too much detail, but she thought that it was time for a thorough review of special educational needs, because some of the things in her original report all those years ago had not quite delivered the service that she had hoped for and met expectations as she had hoped. In some cases, she thought that the reverse had happened.
There were also a large number of myths out there. There were myths that local authorities were closing every special school, that the Government had a secret agenda to close special schools, and that inclusion ruled and was going to be pushed through despite opposition from parents and students or anyone else in the community. It was therefore a good time to try to clear away the myths and do the classic job of a Select Committee.
I need not remind most people here, but I think that it is best to say for the record that our Select Committee does not only consider carefully whether there is scope to add value in an area. We also have what we call navigational seminars to get some of the leading experts together to talk to us about their specialist interest. It should be remembered that our Select Committee covers a vast Department that deals with provision from early years through to higher education, the “Every Child Matters” agenda and much else, so we have a great deal of breadth, but when it comes to a particular inquiry, we need the help of the specialists. So, with a team of specialists, we had a seminar. That persuaded us that a report would be timely, and we got on with it.
This was classic stuff for a Select Committee—apart from, I have to say, the Public Accounts Committee, which has a rather different way of approaching subjects. Some of us think sometimes that the research base on which the PAC conducts inquiries is a little thin. We do not do things that way. We call for oral evidence from anyone we think will be useful to the inquiry and we listen attentively. Of course, we call for written evidence as well. Then we go on the road, looking at good practice and, in some cases, average practice, and sometimes we venture to another country if we have heard that its system can teach us something. That is how we proceed.
There is no secret to a good Select Committee report—we listen. If we listen, we get a resonance from the community and we write a good report. If we do not listen and we do not hear that resonance, we come up with a pretty mediocre report that no one takes any notice of. I wanted to put the methodology on the record. That is what we did. We listened to anyone who would come to see us. We listened informally and formally on the record, and we made visits.
We were rather cross—no, “cross” is too strong a word. We were a little offended by Baroness Warnock when she said that she did not want a parliamentary inquiry; she wanted a commission of inquiry. Everyone wants an independent commission. I believe, however, that some of the best inquiries are done in this House by a Select Committee if it knows its job. That is what we did. We got on with it and I have heard on the grapevine that Baroness Warnock thought that our report was rather good.
We consulted the enormous world outside the House of wonderful pressure groups, interest groups, parents associations, people campaigning for the abolition of every special school by 2020, and people who want to put up the barricades and who would die rather than see any special school close. What a wonderful array of people passionate about their subject. I thank them for what they told us, which is encapsulated in our report.
To put it bluntly, we were very disappointed by the Government response. We were not entirely disappointed—there were honeyed words in the accompanying letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I looked at the letter and thought, “Wonderful. They will not only accept our recommendations, but implement them and do something pretty vigorous in the Department.” However, when I read the response and considered not only the tone but the detailed responses to individual parts of our inquiry, I was very disappointed indeed.
One reason for my disappointment is this: at the heart of what we were trying to find out by listening to people was the fact that something was very wrong in special educational needs provision. There is an interesting argument about where that provision should be delivered. Some people want it to be provided in a special setting, particularly if the special educational needs are more severe. I am sure that you, too, Mr. Hancock, have been visited at your advice service or surgery by people who say, “The last thing in the world I want is for my child to go to a special school.” The very next group of parents who come will say the opposite: “The last thing we want for our children is for them to be in mainstream education.” Views on this issue are polarised.
Our Committee found that we could not come up with a broad-brush policy that gave one answer or the other. The more we listened, the more we found that there was a whole community out there that wanted the appropriate setting for the child. That is not rocket science—the appropriate setting for the child. For some children I saw with severe special educational needs, I could not believe that there was a better setting for them than the one they were in—a special school. We saw some wonderful special schools. The dedication and enthusiasm of the wonderful teachers and support staff made one feel pleased to be part of the education sector in even a small way.
However, we also went to mainstream schools in which children with special educational needs of quite a severe kind were well looked after. That is true. Parents with children in both those settings were happy. People were unhappy when they thought that their child was in an inappropriate setting and they could not do anything about it. That was frustrating for them, and that frustration was at the core of our inquiry. People were frustrated when they could not get their child into the appropriate setting—the setting that not only they but the experts thought was appropriate. Sometimes those experts were local authority experts, but often they were from the health sector or were engaged by parents to give independent advice.
For many parents, the deepest unhappiness was caused by their feeling that their children had not ended up in the best setting for them because of the inappropriate way of deciding what their needs were. Anyone who has delved into this, and everyone here will have delved into it thoroughly, knows that the local authority decides what the special educational needs of the child are, and then provides that special education environment. Even when a statement of educational needs is recommended and, after a long process, awarded, the local authority then has a big part to play in deciding the setting in which that statement should be responded to: locally, far away or in a specialist institution or school. That is at the heart of the unhappiness with the current situation. Those points about the unhappiness with the core of the statementing process form the opening to this debate. However, I shall not speak for too long.
We made strong recommendations in the report, but we are not the Government; we are a Select Committee. We identified what is at the heart of the problem, but the tone of the Department’s reply was probably the most abrasive and challenging that I have ever read in any response to a Committee report since I have been Chairman. The tone was very strange, as though we were not trying to be helpful. I should have thought that any civil servant or Minister who saw our report would say, “Thank God someone has done this and come up with a whole raft of sensible proposals that can help us to guide decent, serious policy.” But we did not get that response, we got one with a tone that said, “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Like me, Mr. Hancock, you probably feel as strongly as I when someone suggests that you have suggested something that you have not suggested at all. The Department’s reply suggested that we wanted an unelected, unrepresentative new quango that would take over that role, but there is not a word about a quango in our report. We do not want a quango. We want the Government to look at the problem and say, “We are the Executive; this is at the heart of the problem with special educational needs provision in our country, and we must do something about it.” That is why we are angry with the tone of the reply and some of the detail in it.
Some aspects of our report have been ignored, and my colleagues and I have orchestrated something of a division of labour on this matter and will each address different points. We made a number of recommendations in the report, all of which are sensible and were picked up from listening to people out there, which was sometimes difficult. A lot of Select Committees listen to the usual suspects such as pressure groups, interest groups and others who are highly visible, but we made attempts to speak to parents. We engaged in a full hour on “You and Yours”—some of my colleagues are smiling—and we had 800 responses by e-mail, letter and phone from parents who feel passionately about the situation with special educational needs.
We also went to places such as Darlington education village: a brilliant prototype, where there is a purpose-built special school at the heart of a new campus which also has an infant school, junior school and comprehensive school. On that campus, children with special needs can join in everything possible, whether that be assembly, swimming or music—whatever is appropriate—and return to the special needs environment when necessary. When we visited the village, we had a special hour with parents to talk about how they felt. However, I do not want to delve into too much detail yet, so I shall conclude.
It has also been said that the Committee called for a new general inquiry—to open the whole Pandora’s box and start again from scratch. Anyone who reads our report will know that that is not the truth. We did not call for that, and we do not want it. Indeed, if only the Government would listen, we could go back to something along the lines of what we had from Baroness Ashton of Upholland three years ago, with “Removing the Barriers to Achievement”, which is not about tearing everything up and starting again. There is a lot of good stuff in special educational needs provision today, but some aspects are really letting down the people who need our help.
The Secretary of State recently told several audiences, including the Labour party conference in Manchester, that our education system must be judged on the quality of provision that we give to the most vulnerable. He emphasised that how looked-after children are treated is a litmus test as to whether we as a society care about children. That also applies to children with special educational needs and whether we look after them and provide the right setting for their education. We must bury the hatchet about whether inclusion or education in a special setting is best, and go back to considering the child and the five pieces of guidance in “Every Child Matters”. Those five points are there, we do not have to invent them, but we want them to be applied to children with special educational needs. That is one of the recommendations in our report, and if we get that, we in the Select Committee will be very happy people.
Thank you, Mr. Sheerman. If there is a concerted attempt for Select Committee members to follow on from each other it would have helped if you had provided the running order that you had decided on, but as you have not, I shall decide it. Secondly, you are, of course, always welcome in Southsea, and long may you continue to come for your holidays and enjoyment.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate and to declare an interest as the father of a boy approaching three who will have significant and probably long-term special educational needs.
It is truly a great privilege to follow the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), because he and his Committee have produced an outstanding report—one of the finest of its genre. It is painstaking, rigorous and insightful. I am aware of his sincere commitment to the issue, and I recognise he will acknowledge that I speak from no partisan spirit when I say that the thesis that he has advanced in the report is a great deal more compelling than the Government’s answer to it. I say that with genuine regret, because I waited with bated breath and beads of sweat upon my brow for the ministerial answer, and I was badly let down by it.
This is, of course, an extensive, almost labyrinthine territory, and one has to try to pick those issues on which one particularly wants to focus in the short time available. I shall focus on three that seem to lie at the heart of the debate and encapsulate those important concepts of power, money and capacity. The first theme, which is all about power—who decides; who controls; who is the instigator; who calls the shots—is the centrality of the position of the local education authority.
What the Select Committee had to say on the subject was both measured and persuasive. The problem at the heart of the system—I do not say that it is the only such problem, but it is significant—is that local authorities are currently in a virtually omnipotent position: they assess and decide, pay for and provide. In that sense, however good their individual attentions and the competence of the particular staff may be, there is an in-built conflict of interest.
The authorities decide at every stage what a child gets, and they have the responsibility, of which they are aware in advance, to pay for it. They often also have a responsibility, and make the choice directly through in-house provision, to deliver what it is judged the child needs and must receive. Throughout the process, whether it be in the course of a parent seeking a statutory assessment or getting a statement, in debating its terms or in parental attempts to secure its implementation, the LEA is in a powerful position. That is fundamentally wrong. We need a system that is independent of government, LEAs, the sources of supply and the means of payment.
What was the Government’s response to this powerful case? The hon. Member for Huddersfield focused on one of the more footling and invalid objections: the Government saying, “Well, this would undermine local democracy. It would remove the elected element.” Given that nothing precise was said about the exact contours of the new policy, but rather the Committee properly concerned itself with identifying a strategic weakness, it was wrong for the Government to jump to that conclusion, although I confess that I do not think that there is anything indispensable about the electoral component.
We are talking about the needs of a particular, significant, important and frequently neglected minority, whose electoral purchasing power is, in any case, not very great, so it is not particularly important whether provision is determined by an elected body. More specifically, this was a bogus criticism from the Government, who then raised all sorts of other objections: would there still be a right of appeal for parents? Would LEAs have a right of appeal? They do not have one at the moment, so I do not see why they should have one in the future. Would what was issued still be called a statement? What would happen to the special educational needs and disability tribunal—SENDIST?
The Government response bore the hallmark of being written by one of those rather clever officials who knows everything and nothing, and takes it as a great personal affront that the judgments at which he or she has arrived have been questioned by a mere inexpert, amateur, interfering set of politicians. It is precisely that sort of overweening arrogance and condescension to which parents are so accustomed. We received a dose of it ourselves. I suggest that the Government take a much more responsible approach in looking at what is a major criticism of the system. It would be much better, as outlined in recommendation 26 and paragraph 99 of the Committee’s report, to break the link.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues did the House of Commons a signal service in highlighting the problem with the Government’s enthusiasm and apparently almost insatiable appetite for the extension of delegated funding for the delivery of special educational needs. We know the argument: if more funds are delegated to local level, decisions can be made more quickly, people do not have to wait in the queue, there is no requirement for demonstrable need, there is not that adversarial contest with the LEA and the school can just get on and deliver.
It must be said that in making that argument, to which there is some weight, the Government have always said that it must be subject to the important caveat that delegated funding results in a better deal, not for schools, but for individual children, rather than in a reduced entitlement. The commitment to delegated funding should not be an ideological, abstract or theoretical one; it should be based on and grounded in the concrete reality of demonstrated improvement in the quality of service in the interests of some of the most vulnerable children in our community.
In that context, the painstaking character of the inquiry bore fruit, for we heard both from Ofsted and Network 81, a respected parents’ representative organisation, of instances in which funding had gone to schools and had not been used for the purposes for which it was provided. If we are to have more of that in the future, before making any such decision, certain clear understandings and guarantees need to be in place. The funding has to be ring-fenced, subject to minimum standards, specified nationally, of what will be delivered; subject to a broad range of appropriate provision; and subject to an adequacy and regularity of training at all levels in the system. That should take place in initial teacher training during periods of induction and should continue as a feature of professional development.
Above all, if we are talking about delegated funding, we need one other thing: oversight. I suspect that other hon. Members know, as I do, of parents who say, “My child got a statement.” The other day, someone said to me, “It took 10 years, Mr. Bercow, for me to get a statement for my child. Our school is now failing to deliver the 25 hours a week, and since 7 September, in the first two weeks of term, Shana received just two hours.” The school denies it and tells the Minister that it is not true, and that everything is delivered, the forms have been filled in and the boxes ticked. That is what the LEA comes to believe too. However, the parent said, “Mr. Bercow, I will provide you with very persuasive evidence that that simply is not the case. It is not happening. The hours are not being delivered. The help is not being provided”.
There must be that oversight and a recognition of the responsibility of the LEA if the funding is to go directly to the schools. It must regulate and police proper behaviour by them. Simply leaving it to parents to complain to the head teacher, to try to appear in front of the governors or to remonstrate with their local Member of Parliament is not a satisfactory substitute. It is not a bad theory or a poor principle, but it has been sloppily applied in practice.
In that respect, for the Government simply to say that they do not think that it is either necessary or particularly desirable to have detailed scrutiny of individual funding on given children is not very persuasive either. Where we are talking about statemented children, to whom specific commitments that have legislative or statutory backing have been given, that provision must be honoured, and we must see that it is being honoured.
I am sure that you and colleagues will be pleased to hear, Mr. Hancock, my third and final point: specialist services and specialist provision delivered by specialists is an important issue. We have a serious problem in that regard. In “Every Child Matters” there are no fewer than 32 references to specialist provision or support, but in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, the Government’s SEN strategy, there are no fewer than 68 such references. We heard the Audit Commission as long ago as 2002 say that there is a “shortfall” in the provision of such specialist services. We know also from the Government’s own strategy, published in 2004, that Ministers recognise how crucial it is first to ensure high-quality, specialist, local provision, particularly to meet low-incidence needs, and to meet the needs of people with severe, complex and multi-faceted disorders, before the number of places in special schools are reduced or whole institutions are closed.
I say to the Minister in the most genuine and sincere spirit that that justified intellectual conclusion and stated commitment by Ministers is not being reflected in the reality on the ground. For example, I know that the MacIntyre school in my constituency, which is a distinguished special school, gets everyone in only because they qualify on appeal to SENDIST. I know that the Nuffield speech and language unit, for which I and others are battling extremely hard in a determined campaign to preserve, is also suffering. It is a specialist facility that looks after people with severe verbal dyspraxia. The Royal Free Hampstead NHS trust plans to close it when nothing substantive is in its place.
Good work is being done in our system by outstanding professionals, but there are serious problems. I want to tell the Government, in a positive and benign spirit, that too many children have suffered too much for too long with too little done to help them. That must change and the prerequisite of change is abandonment of the arrogance of officialdom and the beginning of a readiness to listen.
It is a privilege to follow not only my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on which I was proud to serve and who gave us a broad and eloquent overview of the matters that we were concerned about, but the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) who on this and numerous occasions in the House, not least recently on the Education and Inspections Bill, has demonstrated his commitment to and eloquence on this matter.
I want to touch on a number of different aspects of what we are trying to get across in our report and to touch as lightly as I can on the Government’s response to them. I shall start by talking about collaboration because special educational needs, although highly specific and relating to a particular group of parents and children, resonate in what we do across the whole of education policy. In our report we said that there was no simple solution and no magic bullet for special educational needs, which is why we refused to come down on one side or the other of the sometimes sterile argument about special schools and provision in mainstream schools. We concluded from the mass of evidence and memorandums that children would sometimes be better served in a special school setting and sometimes in a mainstream setting. There is no doubt that when special schools and mainstream schools are able to collaborate—perhaps when they are physically proximate, as is the case in a couple of examples in my constituency—there is a far better chance of good outcomes for children than when they occupy separate silos. The emphasis of the evidence that we heard and our recommendations was on collaboration.
The Government do not say in their response that there is an inherent contradiction between giving greater autonomy to individual schools and collaboration. I accept that, but I also think that there is an onus on them to put some flesh on the bones and not just to say, as they did, that collaboration arises naturally. That sometimes happens when there are good, spirited and committed individuals in both sectors, but the truth of the matter is that we should legislate and plan for the majority, not the fortunate minority who have that sort of leadership. The Government must look at the dangers of schools being given more autonomy and more focus on the standards agenda without considering the position of children with special educational needs. Standards are fine as a long-term focus, but the short-term way of achieving that is to make personalised learning the appropriate provision for every child, whatever his or her needs. If collaboration is to mean anything, there must be some impetus from schools. That is where the local education authority has a role and where the Government’s envisaged schools commission should have a role. I argued for that in another debate on the Education and Inspections Bill.
We received a lot of highly specific and relevant evidence from various sectors on the urgent need to promote training. I welcome the Government’s announcement of new professional standards, what the Minister said and the amendment that was tabled in the other place in response to Baroness Walmsley who spoke the other day. I pay tribute to the detailed and constructive way in which the Minister in the other place, Lord Adonis, responded. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Roger Berry) and I went to see him twice during the passage of the Education and Inspections Bill through the House of Commons and we were genuinely impressed by his response, which has now had flesh put on its bones in the Lords amendment.
That is all very good, but I hope that the current pilots that are envisaged under that will be rolled out as soon as possible. I also hope that when that is done some attention will be paid to the necessary funding and commitment that will be needed and that that is given. The £1.2 million that was originally allocated is a good start, but in no way will it address the degree of SEN and disability training that must be provided through teacher training and ongoing professional development.
I agree absolutely with the Special Educational Consortium—Baroness Walmsley also touched on this—that
“it is the minority of teachers who go through the three- and four-year training courses. SEC would like”,
as would I and, I believe, the Select Committee,
“a much clearer commitment to ensuring that all teachers”,
including those on the one-year courses,
“entering the profession have training on SEN and disability...The consequences of not including SEN and disability are to leave trainee teachers uncertain and unprepared for their work with disabled pupils and pupils with SEN.”
It is terribly important that the Government take that up.
On continuous professional development, again if the ends are willed, the means must be willed. The Government rejected the Select Committee’s recommendation that there should be mandatory timetabling of that. That is fair enough and I accept that it is a broad aspiration, but the onus is then on the Government to return with something more substantive and specific on how all teachers will receive continuous professional development training in SEN.
I pay tribute to Lord Adonis and welcome the guarantees that special educational needs co-ordinators will be qualified teachers and senior management. That is an important development, but again the devil is in the detail and organisations such as TreeHouse, which Lord Adonis and other Ministers visited earlier this year, told me and other hon. Members that they welcome the commitment on training for new SENCOs, but asked about existing SENCOs. We welcome the commitment on support and funding for continuous professional development, but what about teachers who are already in post? We cannot work on the assumption that we must wait 10 or 15 years for a new generation of well informed teachers to deal with those issues in schools. There must be action and support for those who are there now. The Government should carefully consider that.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Does he agree that, as the report says, SENCOs without exception should be trained teachers and, equally important, they should be part of the senior management of the institution, and able to exert power and ensure that the neediest children get what they are supposed to have?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point and I agree absolutely. I would go further and say that there is a parallel here with issues that have arisen in the past about the way we treat disabled people in higher and further education. There is no point in having responsibility at a relatively low level in the management of a university or further education college if that message cannot be communicated to all members of those establishments. There must be a champion at a senior level. That is exactly the point that the Select Committee and the hon. Gentleman are making.
Exclusions trouble me and many others greatly, and those grave concerns led me to table amendments to the Education and Inspections Bill to tease out the Government’s response. The Special Educational Consortium—not the Committee—has said that it
“is deeply concerned that the Government’s response to the Committee’s Report does so little to address this issue.”
I remind hon. Members that the figures are stark and that, according to the pupil level annual school census of 2003-04, two thirds of exclusions are of pupils with SEN. The Audit Commission report, Ofsted and organisations such as the National Autistic Society have given the Government and all of us in the House the same message. The Government cite changes in the statistics as evidence of a reduction, but those changes reflect the way in which SEN is recorded, not changes in the level of exclusions.
It is also important to consider whether provision for excluded children in pupil referral units is appropriate and adequate, because the Committee received evidence that it is not. There is enormous concern about the issue out there, and I am also particularly concerned about multiple and fixed-term exclusions. In seaside constituencies such as mine and, indeed, in inner-city areas, such issues are compounded by people’s enormous mobility and transience, and much of that relates to families with particular problems, who have special educational needs children or disabled children.
The Committee heard quite a bit of evidence about early intervention. We heard about the importance of involving parents, establishing flexible local networks and encouraging LEAs to learn from best practice. Again, however, the Government did not really acknowledge one of the issues that we raised—that of parents with SEN children who might have SEN problems themselves. I have experience of that from my constituency, as I am sure many other hon. Members do. How will such parents be supported and assisted in making decisions on behalf of their children? How will they ensure that their children get the most appropriate provision? I think that I am right in saying that there was no response on that issue, and there should be.
As regards a national framework, the Government have said that “Every Child Matters” should be suitable, and it does, indeed, provide a very good overall view. However, we cannot have a situation in which meeting the specific needs of special educational needs children depends on something that is continuing to grow and that is growing at different speeds in different local authorities. In particular, there is an issue about the continuity between educational support for children with SEN and social care support. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) have chaired a series of parliamentary hearings into the experience of disabled children, and their findings are being published this afternoon. One of the statistics in the responses to those hearings shows that 80 per cent. of the parents who were interviewed believed that the social care response was poor, while 52 per cent. and 48 per cent thought that the education response and the health response respectively were poor. There is no point getting SEN education right for people up to 3.15 pm if we do not get it right for them after 3.15 pm.
As regards the importance of parental involvement, I welcome the Government’s commitment on parent partnership schemes. Again, however, I must echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield. Some of the Government’s responses were condescending in the extreme; indeed, at one point, they said that it was important to “deal sympathetically” with parents. The issue is not dealing sympathetically with parents, but offering the level of specialised provision that they need for their children. At another point, the Government said that one third of parents were dissatisfied with the education of their autistic child. I assume that the situation was seen as satisfactory because two thirds of parents were satisfied, but that is not, and never should be, the case. That clashes with the view of Ministers.
In conclusion, we should be looking in our special educational needs policy to echo the Olympic motto—higher, faster and stronger. We should be aiming higher in what we expect for disabled children, we should be going faster in implementing some of the improvements that the Select Committee report recommended and we should be stronger in the support that we offer. We should not have a dislocation between the understanding and enthusiasm of Ministers and the condescension and over-defensiveness of officials.
Like other Members, I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee. I have been a member of it for most of the five and half years that I have been in Parliament, although I returned to it after an eight-month break and was just in time to help to write the report. However, I did not do any of the hard work or take any of the evidence that led to the report. Certainly, in the time that I have been in Parliament, the most useful things that I have done have been connected with the Committee’s work.
As we have heard, the Government response to the report was extremely disappointing, and if that response was disappointing, then so too would be their response to the Audit Commission reports of 2002 and 2003, which raised many of the same issues as this report. There is also the report that will be launched at 4 o’clock this afternoon in the Strangers Dining Room, to which the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) referred. Obviously, we cannot attend that event, because we are here, but that lengthy report, which was produced as a result of the parliamentary hearings on services for disabled children, touches on a number of points on the same issues of SEN education that we are discussing here and that the Select Committee report considers.
For example, page 41 of that report says:
“Overall, our review took evidence from parents that the statutory framework is not delivering appropriate support to every child with SEN…Access to statements should not be used as a means of rationing resources, nor should the absence of a statement be used as a reason to deny services.”
The subsequent paragraphs refer constantly to the Select Committee’s findings and recommendations, and the authors regret that the Government have rejected them.
The Government response ignores most of the Select Committee report and misrepresents part of it, as the Committee’s Chairman has explained. The response is 80 pages of largely self-congratulatory details about what has already been done, as opposed to what more needs to be done.
The Government’s rosy view bears little relation to the parents’ perspective. The Committee received an e-mail from a parent last week, after the Government response was published. This parent is the mother of a profoundly autistic nine-year-old girl, and she says:
“I am bone tired of the current system. It has sucked our family dry…The fighting with the LEA is endless and highly unpleasant. It wears one out. When I felt most drained your report came out and it was like a breath of life into our house. It felt like some people somewhere are understanding our plight and are fighting for us and for all the other families in our situation. You have no idea how much comfort we took from your report.
Now the government response is out and it has made me so angry and frustrated reading it. I feel eaten with impotent anger. Eighty pages of self-congratulatory backslapping. We parents have never had it so good apparently”.
That response very much matches the views of parents whom I have met regularly over the past 20 years. I was first elected as a councillor in 1987, and for 16 of the 20 years since, I have been an elected politician in various capacities. I have met parents as part of my constituency case work and ward case work, and those who are struggling with issues such as statementing for their children are a regular feature.
In the past couple of months, parents have come to my surgeries about their children who are autistic, or who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or cerebral palsy. Those parents are fighting huge battles to get the specialist education that their children need, which does not reflect the rosy view given in the Government’s response to the report. Neither does my experience of 22 years as a professional in education, teaching in schools of the 11 to 18 age range, before I was elected as an MP.
Before the Minister waxes indignant and says that credit has not been given for what has been done, I do not say that there has been no improvement. In the past 20 to 30 years, there has been a massive improvement in attitudes at every level of society towards such issues. Pupils with special educational needs now get a much better deal than they did 20 or 30 years ago. There is no question about that. In the past seven years, there have been improvements in funding, since the bottom of the 20-year funding pit was reached in 1999, and we have reached average western European spending on education. That is a big improvement on where we were, but it will take a lot more than one year of average investment in education to provide a system that our children—those with special educational needs, and children in general—deserve.
The report identified several major issues, such as SEN training for teachers, which the hon. Member for Blackpool, South has already discussed in detail, so I shall restrict myself to two or three items. One that has been touched on once or twice already is the question of special schools versus integration in the mainstream. For the last two thirds of the 22 years in which I was teaching, I worked in schools with very good reputations for integration. During that time, as a mainstream teacher, whether in year 7 or in GCSE or A-level classes, I had experience of teaching children with a wide range of special educational needs, including children with degrees of autism, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, 20 per cent. sight or Fragile X syndrome, or children who were profoundly deaf—the list goes on. Integration in the mainstream works brilliantly in many situations.
Having been my party’s spokesman on disability for four years from 2001 to 2005 in the previous Parliament, I know that many disability organisations regard anything but total integration as apartheid or segregation—the Committee’s Chairman has referred to such evidence. Their point of view is that there should be no special schools. However, many parents and disability groups do not agree. The Government denied to the Committee that they were pressing for special school closures—clearly they have not officially pressed for them—but the Committee took a lot of evidence from local authorities to the effect that they felt a strong background pressure, even if that was not explicit, to close special schools.
The Committee recommendation is for an appropriate balance: there should be a proper network of specialist schools for the children in question and the parents who feel that their children will gain most benefit from that environment, but there should be full integration in the mainstream wherever possible and where there is parental support for it. That all costs money. Both systems cannot be adequately maintained unless the funding is put in, as opposed to robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Another major issue that the Committee discussed was statementing. The Committee took evidence over and again that dealing with statementing was a nightmare for parents. We heard from the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) about a parent who waited 10 years for a statement for their child. The Government say that it is not a problem, but that is wishful thinking, and everyone knows it. The Committee recommended separating out the LEA role as commissioner-provider—that is, the LEA roles of making the statements and providing the places and cash to deliver them. Inevitably, if the LEAs are delivering both sides of the equation, there will be downward cost pressure on what is provided, and on the number of children who are statemented.
If the Committee’s recommendations are to be carried out—the Government response suggests that they are not—there are cost implications. A couple of members of the Committee argued, almost, for a blank cheque approach, by which whatever statements or recommendations were made the cost would somehow be met. Of course, in the real world, costs must be met, and for all three of the parties represented in the debate it is necessary for the Members concerned to argue the matter with their respective Chancellors and shadow Chancellors, but the funding needs to be made available to turn warm words about SEN education into reality.
For mainstreaming to work, it must be well funded. Last Friday, The Times Educational Supplement contained an article by Fiona Leney, the mother of a child called Oliver, who is deaf and has had a cochlear implant. He attends a mainstream primary school with a specialist deaf unit. She writes:
“Oliver…has…done so well because of specialist support. In class, specialist teaching assistants make sure he fully understands what he has to do. He can be withdrawn from class, with a small group of friends, for parallel lessons taught by a qualified teacher of the deaf.
This is labour-intensive, expensive schooling. It is also what high-quality mainstreaming is all about.”
It works very well, but Kent county council, which runs the service, is consulting parents and educationists about slashing funding to deaf units such as the one attended by Oliver, to put the money towards support for autistic children instead. Fiona Leney comments:
“What sort of view of mainstreaming holds that funds should be cut from one group of special needs children to fund another?
If the government is as committed to mainstreaming as it says, it should realise that quality education for SEN children can’t be done on the cheap.”
All that has parallels in my classroom experience. I could give many examples, but I shall not. In the latter half of the 1980s, more and more SEN children were coming into the school where I taught, and it worked well. Then, because of funding cuts—whether due to national or local decisions—support workers were removed. It was a disaster for a year, until, following a struggle, funding was brought back for particular children. Mainstreaming cannot be done on the cheap. Done properly, it works brilliantly and transforms the life chances of children, but it costs money.
Much of the emphasis must be on the role of central Government, because under the system that has been established we have the most centralised control over local government in Europe, with 75 to 80 per cent. of the budget of any local authority coming as handouts from the Government and clear strings attached concerning what they are spent on. If there is not enough money to deliver the system at local level, the people who are providing 75 to 80 per cent. of the funding must do something about it.
The Liberal Democrat party would rather that the power and the fundraising power returned to local level, but that is a matter for another debate. The Government must set minimum appropriate standards, so that around the country where local authorities exercise different judgments they cannot fall below an acceptable standard on which everyone agrees, although they may choose to invest well above that standard if that is their local priority.
My final point is about league table pressures, an issue that the Select Committee report did not really go into. Many children with special educational needs are very able academically. I could reel off examples of children in that category whom I taught and who went on to university, although some such children will never achieve high academic success because of the nature of their disability. All children with special educational needs, whether or not they are academically able, present schools with extra issues, costs and problems.
There is pressure from the Government in the form of league tables, Ofsted and professional pay reviews—I underwent one of the first of those in my last year of teaching—for which an individual teacher must show how they are achieving group success for the classes that they teach, so that they can get their pay award.
The pressure of all those things on “standards” means that some schools are less open and welcoming to SEN children than they might otherwise be. I could give anecdotal evidence of schools in Derbyshire where that happened, although it would be unfair to do so now, because it was six years ago and the head teacher in one of the schools concerned has been changed, so the policy might also have changed. However, all that one need do is consider the various professional analyses that have been done of, for example, the intake of the top 200 schools in the league tables and compare the smaller percentage of SEN children attending those schools with the figure for other schools.
The Government must think again, they must withdraw their bland, self-congratulatory response to the Committee’s report, and they must listen to and take action on the widespread expressions of concern by parents, disability groups and teachers about how we treat our SEN children.
Thank you, Mr. Hancock, for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), particularly in the light of Chesterfield’s magnificent win in the Carling cup earlier in the week.
The Select Committee inquiry, on which I had the pleasure of serving under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), was extremely important and very popular with the people. We received more than 230 individual submissions all told, which I think is the most we have ever received. That shows the interest in the subject.
Earlier this year, I had the privilege of hosting a reception in the House to launch the National Autistic Society’s first ever education campaign document, “Make School Make Sense”. The reception was well attended, and it featured speeches from me and from the society’s president, Jane Asher. I followed up the launch with the tabling of early-day motion 2228, entitled “National Autistic Society’s Make School Make Sense Campaign”, which has attracted 242 signatures from Members of all parties. I am also fortunate to have the NAS-run Robert Ogden school in Thurnscoe in my constituency. It is the biggest specialist autistic school in western Europe.
When an organisation such as the NAS launches its first ever education campaign document, we must ask why, and why now. The answer is primarily because, in the society’s opinion, the system is failing and causing misery for many of the 90,000 UK children who have autistic spectrum disorder and their families. If we consider the statistics, we can see why. More than 40 per cent. of children with autism have been bullied at school. One in 110 children has autism, but there is no requirement for trainee or practising teachers to undertake any training in autism. More than 70 per cent. of schools are not satisfied with their teachers’ training. More than a quarter of children with autism have been excluded from school, usually owing to a lack of school understanding and awareness.
There are more appeals to the special educational needs and disability tribunal on schooling for children with ASD than for children with any other type of special educational need. Importantly, 79 per cent. of parents who have appealed to the tribunal have won, which says much about the inadequacies of the system.
The main reason for referring to the NAS document is that I want to frame within it my comments on the overall SEN debate. The document makes the point that SEN is complicated, as we have found out from Members’ contributions. The NAS says:
“Autism is complex. Our demands are simple.
1. The right school for every child. Every child with autism should have local access to a diverse range of mainstream and specialist educational provision.
2. The right training for every teacher. All teachers should expect to teach a child with autism and must receive appropriate training to best support their needs.
3. The right approach in every school. All schools should be autism-friendly schools which promote and provide a positive environment for children with autism now and in the future.”
I shall return to those three demands in more detail.
First, on the right school for every child, the Committee believes that the Government should act to ensure that a range of SEN provision is available. The Committee’s report highlighted the huge differences between how individual local education authorities organise SEN provision: from 0 to 42 per cent. in resource provision or units; from 0 to 60 per cent. in maintained special schools; and from 18.9 to 73 per cent. in mainstream schools. That is a broad range, and it shows the diversity of provision throughout all LEAs.
Parents also told the NAS in research for the “Make School Make Sense” campaign that provision was limited: two-thirds of parents believe that their choice was constrained by a lack of provision; half of all parents believe that their children’s placement was not the best school for them; and 30 per cent. of secondary pupils with autism have to travel out of their local authority area to access a suitable school. Those statistics show the scale of the problem that we have in providing the right school for every child.
The second demand is the right training for every teacher. The NAS welcomes the Government’s comments on special educational needs co-ordinators and supports the good-practice guidance on ASD, which is a useful resource. It is good to know that the Government will consider promoting it further.
There is much still to be done to improve provision for children with ASD and with all forms of SEN, and it is important that the Government remain committed to implementing their SEN strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) mentioned the initial teacher training on SEN and disability. I totally agree with him. We must focus not only on teachers who undertake three to four years’ training, but on teachers who take the postgraduate certificate of education, and we must ensure that their SEN teaching is well developed. There must be a clear mechanism to ensure that schools prioritise SEN and disability in their training and development budgets. I would welcome the Minister’s assurances on that important point.
The final demand is for the right approach in every school. Our report highlights the high level of exclusions among disabled pupils and pupils with SEN. I had hoped that, on that point, the Government’s response would have been more proactive, because in 2003-04, two thirds of all school exclusions were of pupils with SEN.
The Special Education Consortium is pressing for two key changes to the relevant legislation: first, a requirement that school behaviour policies show how reasonable adjustments are made for disabled pupils and that special provision is made for pupils with SEN to reduce the risk of exclusion; and, secondly, a statutory requirement to hold an early review of the adjustments being made for disabled pupils and of the provisions for SEN pupils who are at risk of exclusion. That recommendation is in guidance on statemented pupils, and I would like to hear the Minister’s thoughts on those changes.
Teachers with SEN expertise work in a variety of contexts, including special schools, pupil referral units, hospital schools and regular primary and secondary schools. They may also be unattached—based not in one school, but providing specialist expertise throughout a range of education settings. We need greater collaboration between SEN and mainstream schools, more disciplinary work and the sharing of staff expertise as the opportunities recommend themselves.
In recommendations 96 and 97 of our report, we refer to collaboration between mainstream and special schools. The Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, has already referred to our exciting and interesting visit to Darlington’s education village, which has a special school, primary school and secondary school all on the same campus. We referred to the need to provide funding to LEAs to increase their ability to facilitate and encourage collaborative arrangements in communities of schools that work together, sharing facilities and professional expertise to improve the outcomes for children with SEN. I would like to hear the Minister’s comments on that.
I recently met the Barnsley Asperger’s Parents Group on Priory campus, Lundwood, at an exhibition celebrating world mental health day. The group includes 90 families of children with ASD, and they collaborate to ensure that their children get the best education possible. I would like the Minister to provide some feedback on how he feels about such organisations. They do a first-class job for their children.
I wish briefly to mention the important matter of the transition from childhood to adulthood, on which no hon. Member has yet touched. I know that the “Every Child Matters” agenda is addressing some problems that children with ASD and other disabilities face when moving from school into adult life. I am pleased to say that the NAS now has an organisation called Prospects, funded by Jobcentre Plus, which provides placements for those suffering from ASD.
The NAS estimates that a third of a million adults suffer from autism and have left the education system, but only 6 per cent. of them are in full-time occupations. Prospects places young adults with ASD in appropriate work placements—for instance, in administration, finance, research, IT or library work—to suit the problems that they suffer from. There are certain types of job, usually those to do with communication and interactive skills, in which young adults with ASD would have problems.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Does he agree that it is particularly applicable to children who require intensive speech and language therapy for severe disorders? If they do not get early intervention, not only do they not get the potential benefits of that intervention, but they are more likely than not to have emotional and psychological difficulties and suffer persistent communication handicap, lower educational attainment and poorer employment prospects. That is why they are in the NEET category—not in education, employment or training. It is critical that early intervention be provided.
I am conscious of the time, so I shall bring my remarks to a close by saying that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The report highlights the unavailability of speech and language therapists in many local education authorities to provide training, particularly in the early years, for those in that situation. That must be addressed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and other members of the Education and Skills Committee on putting together a report that achieves a great deal. A lot of evidence was presented to the Committee and it was considered in a spirit of cross-partisanship that has produced an excellent report. I hope that that spirit will be carried through into this debate.
The report’s key achievement is to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy about the national policy of inclusion, while acknowledging that inclusion has a role to play. It makes it clear that there is no question of returning to the bad old days, pre-1978, when exclusion was the norm. However, it presents evidence that inclusion is not always right. I was particularly pleased with the Committee’s visit to my constituency in Essex, where it examined special needs education in the aftermath of the closure of The Leas special school in Clacton-on-Sea. Inclusion was used to drive numbers down at the school and to justify its closure, which has created enormous problems for local families and particularly for the children who have been forced into the mainstream as a result of that outrageous decision. Families have had to deal with bullying problems and the disruption of their children’s education, which has caused a great deal of trauma. As one parent said to me, “Life is tough enough as it is, trying to raise a child with special needs. It is a lot tougher when you know that some remote bureaucrat is trying to shut your child’s school.” I commend the report for its recognition that inclusion is not always the answer and that a one-size-fits-all policy does not suit everybody.
The second achievement of the report is that it nails down responsibility. Town halls and local government are not the driving force behind the policy that I call “enforced inclusion.” The report makes it clear that it emanates from Whitehall. It mentions the 2004 SEN paper “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, saying that the Government set out their position in their guidance to local authorities. It says that the policy of enforced inclusion is driven by statutory and non-statutory guidelines that make it clear that it is Whitehall’s policy and there is no point in blaming town halls alone, although I believe that a good measure of criticism is merited for some town halls. The report states that
“it is reasonable for those involved in SEN to assume that the Government holds a policy of inclusion”.
Despite the evidence that Lord Adonis, that famous unelected politician, gave us, he does not really have any wiggle room. The centre must take responsibility for the policy.
My criticisms of the report—they are moderate criticisms—arise because having correctly understood the problem of enforced inclusion, or what I might call “inclusion without choice,” it fails to offer an effective remedy. It falls back on the default mindset of pretty much every post-war politician, recommending more government as the solution, but an intrusive central Government created the problem in the first place. Baroness Warnock was brave in 2005 when she condemned the policy of which she was herself the chief architect, but she was guilty of recommending a top-down solution to a top-down problem. She talked about creating a national commission to find an alternative to the national policy of inclusion. The problem is that the policy of special needs education is formed by remote experts. We should not replace the policy of inclusion with another top-down policy devised by such people.
We know that inclusion can work; we know equally that it sometimes does not. The problem with the term “national policy of inclusion” is in the first two words, “national policy,” not the last. We need to scrap the idea of having a central national policy. It is not a matter of swinging the pendulum back from the centre towards a policy that is slightly less inclusionist; it is about allowing local choices that suit local children. We must rid ourselves of the idea that we need a one-size-fits-all policy on special needs education. There are huge differences between children with special needs. Even within families there can be big differences, with parents choosing to send some children to mainstream schools and others to special needs schools. Even in a child’s school career there can be occasions when both mainstream and special schools suit their circumstances. I therefore oppose the idea of a national framework, which is why I have issued my own version of chapter 5 of the report.
A national framework would set in place the mechanism for policy from on high, when we should be seeking policy from down below. A national framework is unimaginative and is the default mindset. I propose a radical alternative that would allow inclusion and special schools and a co-existence between the two ways of dealing with special needs.
Before I outline my idea, I wish to deal with the matter of the postcode lottery. It is often claimed that that is what we have in the provision of special needs education, and it is true that there is huge variation; one of the report’s findings is the extent to which special needs provision varies depending on where one lives. In fact, it is a lottery in the literal sense of the word: people have to put up with what they are given. It is chance, rather than choice or design, that determines the special needs provision for a child depending on where they live. Giving greater laissez-faire responsibility to town halls without proper accountability to parents would only exacerbate the situation. We need to push power not from Whitehall to town halls but directly to parents. Parental power is the solution, not LEA power. One might say that we need double devolution.
Instead of making LEAs more upwardly accountable to the experts in Whitehall through a national framework, they should be made downwardly accountable by giving parents new legal rights. I propose that we give parents and guardians of every child with a statement a legal right to request and receive control over their child’s share of local authority funding. That would mean a radical overhaul of the statementing process, and would require statements not only to specify in great detail the intended outcome for that child, but to quantify a form of financial entitlement enforceable through the courts.
I am open-minded about who should make the decision and who should quantify the amount of entitlement, and I fully take on board the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made. However, it is the parents and the guardians who should control the money. As one witness to our Committee put it, the money could be velcroed to the child. That would solve the problem of SEN funding dissolving into the system without meeting the needs of the child and in many cases would give a real choice of the setting in which the education was received—mainstream, special school or a mixture of the two.
There is a danger in creating new independent structures to deliver special needs education. It is tempting to say that the system involving town halls and LEAs does not work and to look for alternatives that involve new independent bodies. However, one person’s independent body is another person’s unaccountable quango. Pluralism should be the answer in delivering special needs education. Let 1,000 flowers bloom. Pluralism with choice should drive up standards in SEN provision. It is the current top-down provision that has provided us with the postcode lottery.
Finally, I add two sentences. The tone of the Government’s response suggests a bureaucracy that is at best flustered and at worst somewhat arrogant. I regret the Government’s limited response to the Committee’s important report, which addresses a topic of concern to mums and dads throughout the country who are not too interested in party politics.
It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), to whose comments I shall perhaps return. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for steering us through mounds of evidence and for producing a detailed and informative report. I also pay tribute to other members of the Select Committee for their helpful comments this afternoon and to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who made a number of excellent and insightful statements. I find myself agreeing with him quite a lot these days, although I do not know which of us should be more worried by that.
A great deal of evidence was presented to the Committee, with the written and oral evidence being supplemented by visits. I should like to thank all the staff, students and parents who gave us a lot of helpful and detailed information on those visits. I also thank the Committee for considering the matter very seriously indeed. The report is correct to point to some confusion in Government policy and in messages about special educational needs. We perhaps ought not to be surprised by the confusion, because there have been changes in teaching practices, new challenges posed by new educational needs, and the inclusion agenda, which has been running for 10 years or so and is bound to change over time.
Inclusion emerged as a thorny problem. In retrospect, I am not entirely sure why that was the case, because we were concerned about parents and students who thought that being forced to use mainstream education was inappropriate, and parents and students who thought that being forced to use special schools was inappropriate. It was the orthodoxy—one way round or the other—that was a concern for the Committee and a number of our witnesses, rather than simply the issue of inclusion, so I would challenge some of the comments that the hon. Member for Harwich made. From the visits and the evidence, we picked up on the general support in society for inclusion, providing that it does not prevent parents and students from receiving appropriate support. That is what should be uppermost in our minds.
We also obtained evidence of a number of problems with the statementing process. That evidence related not only to the appeal system or the statementing system, but to the different ways in which local authorities throughout the country apply statementing, to the difference in the number of statements and to the correlation—or lack of it, in some cases—with the incidence of social deprivation.
We became aware that other systems existed that did not have the stark cut-off point of the statementing process. That was combined with a growing knowledge that all children have a continuum of needs, which should be reflected in resource allocations across the board. We considered the Scottish system and thought that it might offer a way forward. We were also concerned about training. One of the Committee’s major conclusions was that there was a need for more teacher training on special needs, with a compulsory element for all teachers.
I draw the Minister’s attention to our perceived need to move to a national delivery model. We put a great deal of time and effort into thinking what might be necessary in such a model. The key issues were minimum standards, local flexibility within a national framework and a review of statementing.
Like other members of the Committee, I am disappointed by the Government’s response and by the tone of that response. The report was detailed and informed and therefore required a detailed and informed response from the Government. I am not clear whether they argue in their response that a national delivery model is necessary or whether they say that it is being delivered already, but through “Every Child Matters”. If that is the case, there is a great deal more for the “Every Child Matters” agenda to do, because the necessary changes on the ground are not being delivered. The degree of local variability was what we were trying to address through minimum standards.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Thank you, Mr. Hancock. I shall do my best to wind up soon so that we can make progress.
Page 56 of the Government’s response states:
“Minimum standards could apply to individual children or children as a whole within a local authority’s area”,
but they then say that they will not comply with that. Given the local variation that we discovered, they need to reconsider that position.
On page 48 of the response, the Government do not give adequate reasons as to why statementing and the process of statementing cannot be reviewed under the alternative approaches that have been piloted. That would be helpful. I would also welcome a stronger statement on co-location and the benefits that it can produce for all children. Several members of the Committee were impressed by the education village in Darlington, and we thought that that model could be usefully applied elsewhere. Again, a clear statement from the Government about whether they believe co-location is helpful would be welcome.
Lastly, we need further comment on the interaction of special educational needs and league tables. I shall not dwell on this as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) eloquently described the problems, which have been too readily dismissed in the Government’s response. There are clear issues for individual schools when there is a conflict between a possible intake and league tables.
Having said all that, I want briefly to list what is helpful in the Government’s response: more involvement of students and parents in the whole SEN process; developments in teacher training; more money for the personalisation agenda; a greater recognition of the problems that are presented by pupils with autism and with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties; and a recognition of the need carefully to consider post-16 transitions.
It is a great pleasure to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and the other members of his Committee for an excellent report. I must apologise to you, Mr. Hancock, to the Minister and to others that I will not be able to stay to hear the end of the debate as I have to see a constituent elsewhere in the building. I wanted to hear what the Minister had to say, particularly his response to the hon. Gentleman’s points and others on his Department’s response to the report.
There are three special schools in my constituency. One is maintained and two are non-maintained. They are all excellent in their own way, but I do not want to take up time boasting about local excellence. I simply want to raise a specific point about the non-maintained special schools sector.
The national body that represents the non-maintained sector welcomes, as do I and many hon. Members in the Chamber, the Select Committee’s call for the Government to clarify their stance on inclusion, in particular what it means for special schools such as the Mary Hare school for the deaf and Prior’s Court school, which specialises in provision for children with autism. Both are in my constituency and are filled with pupils placed there by local authorities that are unable to meet the needs of those pupils within their own provision. It must be understood that such children are the vast majority of pupils provided for in the non-maintained sector. Both those schools are remarkable places. They achieve superb results, and one cannot visit them without being moved by the dedication and professionalism of the staff and the achievement of the pupils. They are doing the Government’s bidding by delivering special needs education, but they are getting a raw deal out of it.
The Government’s response to the report is disappointing, and I share many of the sentiments that have been expressed. Despite continuing to promote a continuing role for special schools, the Government do nothing to ensure that it becomes a reality. Non-maintained and independent special schools consistently produce some of the best contextual value-added scores in the country, even though they are not widely publicised by the Department for Education and Skills and will not be reported in future years. Non-maintained special schools are not included in the Government’s online programme for raising attainment and individual standards in education—RAISE—and they are unable to submit pupil-level performance data. In a climate in which outcomes and evidence are ever more important, non-maintained special schools are at a great disadvantage.
I should declare an interest as a trustee of the foundation that raises funds for the Mary Hare school for the deaf. It recently opened its new performing arts centre, and as a trustee I have been closely involved in the fundraising effort. We had the truly bizarre situation of receiving a welcome and superb grant of £300,000 from the Department towards that project and then having to pay back more than that amount to the Chancellor in VAT, which would not have been payable had the school been in the maintained sector. That money-go-round is a daft waste of civil service time, before one even starts to think of the central absurdity that it demonstrates.
At a time when the “Every Child Matters” agenda should be putting whole-service schools, such as the two I mentioned, at the centre of local and regional planning and provision, the reality is very different. Such schools feel that the focus on their provision is too much on cost alone, with no discussion of values or outcomes. Pressure on local authority funding and on health means that the schools are frequently considered only as a last resort after a child has been through and failed in mainstream education and every other service available from the local education authority.
The Government assure us that they view the development of local authorities more as commissioners than as providers. Despite that, schools are having great difficulty in gaining access to the commissioning process. The Government paint a picture of stable special school numbers and falling SEN and disability tribunals. That is not a picture that is recognised across all non-maintained special schools. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) for his important point about the conflict of interest that lies at the centre of the tribunal process. Almost all the pupil placements in many special schools come through tribunals. Tony Shaw, the principal of the Mary Hare school for the deaf, spends nearly half his time attending, fighting and usually winning at tribunals across the country.
I hope that the Government learn to value the report, develop an understanding of the problem across the special skills sector and understand that children with special needs will suffer if the non-maintained sector is allowed to wither on the vine.
I know that several hon. Members have said that they will be brief, and I will try to do the same. I have three quick points to make.
I commend the Committee on an excellent report. I also commend to the House the work of the Back Benchers who, in the past 20 minutes, have published a report on services for disabled children which supports many of the recommendations and conclusions of the Committee. There are three things that I would implore the Government to take on board from both reports. First and foremost, the experience of families with children with special educational needs in what has commonly become known as the system must be changed. Too often, those families experience bureaucracy and have to cope at home with a disabled child or a child with special educational needs, and then a whole load of other difficulties come up. Many such families are not equipped with the skills to take on officials in education or health authorities or the other agencies that provide services for young people. We must change that experience for the parents of children with special educational needs.
My second point is about statements. I have read the Government’s response to the references to that subject in the Select Committee’s report. I sympathise with the Government’s position that they do not want to diminish the role of local authorities as the advocates of people with special educational needs, and their view that parents should have some comeback on the system and get redress when they do not agree with a decision. I accept that, but there are far too many parents with children who do not reach the statement stage or who wait far too long to reach it. We must bring about a change so that children get the support that they need at a much earlier stage.
We talked about that precise point a great deal in the Select Committee report. The Government have said—the Minister will no doubt say so too—that they have significantly increased spending on special educational needs, but does my hon. Friend agree that if there were greater support and assistance and earlier intervention for parents, some of the money that is spent on trench warfare in tribunals could be redirected into the system at an earlier stage?
My hon. Friend makes the point well. In an attempt to be brief, I shall not comment on it any further than to say that I support that view.
In recommendation 34, the Select Committee has suggested a way forward. There is an opportunity for us to prevent statements from becoming a barrier to children getting the support that they need.
My third point is that we need to empower parents. They need to have recourse to an independent body that can advocate on their behalf. Too often, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, summing up the problem for many parents, local authorities assess, decide, finance and provide. That places parents in a difficult position as they try to challenge a local authority that, for reasons of expediency, as all of us who have been involved in local government will understand, is trying to spread a thin budget widely.
We can understand the pressures that those authorities are under and the decisions that they are trying to make, but we have to recognise that parents and children have rights. To secure those rights, they need some form of independent advocate away from the local authority to ensure that they get them. In short, future funding for special educational needs—I hope that this will be taken on board in the next comprehensive spending review and in subsequent ones—should deal with the hidden problem of children with special educational needs in classrooms and of children who are not given the proper statements that they need, or else we will continue to fail many children. If we are to deliver on our policy that “Every Child Matters”, we must start to make a difference in this area.
I, too, am delighted to speak in this debate and to pay tribute to the Committee’s work. Although I welcome the report, it should not have been necessary to reiterate calls for a review of the statementing process four years after the Audit Commission’s report. Nor should it have been necessary for the Committee to request a specific response from the Government on alternatives to statementing which addresses the issues of
“early identification and assessment of needs, efficient and equitable allocation of resources, and the appropriate placement of pupils based on their needs and taking account of parental preference.”
Those simple processes should already be at the heart of both policy and practice.
The subject is close to my heart for, like my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I have a child with special needs. It is also a subject that I, like other hon. Members, come across almost weekly in my constituency surgeries. The provision of special needs education appears to me to be the last bastion of education ideology. Since 1981 at least, the theory has been stretched to fit the observable facts. The recognition that experience no longer matches a preconceived model is, within certain fields, called a paradigm shift, presumably because it sounds learned. I prefer to call such a realisation common sense.
I am delighted that the Committee has recommended that the Government should clarify their guidance on inclusion. I also welcome what has been somewhat uncharitably dubbed Baroness Warnock’s U-turn on the subject, because it offers some hope that given time even Government policy will be able to adapt in the face of experience. The doctrine of inclusion was intended to recognise that SEN is a broad church, but it has instead sustained a blinkered orthodoxy in which children with a variety of needs are increasingly perceived as a homogenous group.
When I visited Southview school in my constituency recently to open a fantastic new building, one of the messages that both staff and parents wanted me to understand about the challenges the school faced was that their pupils had different skills and complex needs. Just like everyone else, they needed support that was tailored to meet those needs.
It is a damning indictment of the system that even Baroness Warnock believes that
“SEN has come to be the name of a single category, and the government uses it as if it is the same problem to include a child in a wheelchair and a child with Asperger’s, and that is conspicuously untrue.”
Indeed, the only neat category of children with special educational needs seems to be the shameful number of them who are not in education, employment or training—NEET.
The spectrum of needs is most apparent when we consider the autistic spectrum disorder. Indeed, the name gives the uninitiated a pretty good clue about what to expect. Despite that, most people’s preconceptions about Asperger’s syndrome are based on little more than Mark Haddon’s prize-winning novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”. One of my constituents, Mrs. Jayne Metcalf, is one of many mothers fighting for a better outcome for her child. She wrote to me recently about her son Josh, who is nearly eight and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s. The Committee has already invited the Minister to read the 230 written submissions received in the course of this inquiry, but I would like to share Mrs. Metcalf’s observations on the current system.
Despite being diagnosed by a paediatrician in April, only now is Josh beginning the statementing process. In the meantime, Mrs. Metcalf is having to keep him at home. That is not the mainstream school’s fault, she says; it simply does not have the staff or the budget to cope with him. Why, she asks, does he need a statement when he already has a medical diagnosis? Perhaps the Minister can answer that question for her. Better still, perhaps he can abide by the Committee’s recommendation that early diagnosis of children with autism or Asperger’s is preferential to statementing. Mrs. Metcalf also asks why the system is geared towards the easy recognition of physical disabilities and not behavioural issues. Happily the Committee also recommended:
“Schools need better guidance and staff training in dealing with disruptive behaviour by children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, particularly Asperger's Syndrome, and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.”
Perhaps the Minister will take that on board as well.
The irony implicit in the discussion of inclusion is that SEN provision is always perceived as being separate from mainstream education, even when its aims seem to be collaborative. The language of collaboration has itself become pejorative, and it now seems to be a precursor to the pitched battle that so often occurs between councils, teachers and parents.
The Committee heard that statementing is a
“costly, bureaucratic and unresponsive process"
that is conducted in an “environment of conflict”, with parents forced into an “adversarial stance” by the current system. SEN provision in mainstream education seems often to be tacked on as an inconvenient afterthought. As a final straw, in the one area in which separation is desperately needed—between the assessment and delivery of SEN provision, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham alluded—it is absent. Breaking the link between the two is the first of the interim recommendations from the Conservative party’s commission on special needs; and the Committee, too, was unequivocal on that point.
The Government need to bring special needs education into the mainstream education policy agenda instead of simply trying to integrate children with special needs into mainstream schools. I am not coming down on either side of the fence on the issue of inclusion or special schools. Indeed, one of the benefits of the Government’s advocacy of a “continuum of provision” is that there is no need to choose a side, but a true continuum of provision implies a choice of delivery—not a choice to seek the best solution for a child, but the right to see it happen.
My researcher Christian has a mild form of cerebral palsy, but he attended an independent mainstream school because he was not offered the choice of attending a mainstream school within the state sector. I want to see a system in which there is some recognition that parents who have children with special needs are often in the best position to know what those needs are—the very point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell).
The responses received during the BBC Radio 4 programme prove beyond doubt that inclusion suits some children but not others. We need to view special and mainstream schools as being complementary, not competitive. We should not be afraid of returning to a system in which the supply of special schools reflects parental demand rather than provoking a hollow laugh from parents who cannot get their children into one.
On the question of supply, my constituents are fortunate to be well served by two special schools, the Edith Borthwick school in Braintree and Southview school in Witham. A third school, Kingswode Hoe, is outside my patch, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) would not mind my drawing attention to the good that it does for many of my constituents.
The Committee visited several special schools in Essex, but unfortunately none of those in my constituency. I invite the Minister to visit Southview school and to see the new building there. Southview has now reached the halfway point in a campaign to raise £44,000 for new equipment to fit out the building—a task not made easier since Government support for the communication aids project ended. Far from being an inaccessible resource for the few able to attend the school, the deputy head teacher, Paul Ellis, is optimistic, saying:
“With funding, our new building can become a centre for excellence, not just for our students but for the wider community.”
In other words, he is optimistic that Southview can take its place in the “continuum of provision”. I also welcome the Committee’s recommendation that we need to develop a national strategy for minimum standards of access to therapy.
The last letter that I received from Mrs. Elizabeth Drake, the head teacher of Kingswode Hoe school, expressed her despair at the difficulty of continuing to provide sufficient speech and language therapy for the school. That should be one of the foundations of SEN provision, not an optional extra. I urge the Government to undertake the root-and-branch review of SEN provision that they have avoided for far too long. We should ensure that children like Josh Metcalf have access to the support that they need so that, to paraphrase Christopher Boon, they can enjoy more good days than black.
I commend the Select Committee on its excellent report. I intend to be brief, because I want to focus on a specific and extremely important issue identified by the Committee—that of collaboration between, and the co-location of, mainstream and special schools, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and several other of my hon. Friends.
I strongly support the Committee in what it says at paragraph 360. It urges the Government to
“resolve apparent contradictions in its strategy outlined in the Education and Inspection Bill between, on the one hand, giving greater autonomy to individual schools including a greater number of City Academies and, on the other hand, its SEN strategy that urges schools to be working in partnership to build collaboration to share resources and specialist knowledge.”
Those contradictions are more than apparent to two schools in the Oldham part of my constituency, because the lack of joined-up thinking in those elements of Government education policy is seriously putting at risk one of the best and most successful special needs initiatives that we have seen anywhere in the country in recent years.
A few years ago, Oldham council took the wise and bold decision to invest in a new purpose-built school to consolidate its special educational needs provision into one state-of-the-art special school. The boldness of that decision was to co-locate what we now know as New Bridge school on the same site as the existing mainstream Kaskenmoor school in the Hollinwood area. The potential benefits of co-location were rightly heavily promoted by the council during consultation. Co-location is now into its second year, and the gains have exceeded all expectations. Both schools have benefited significantly from being located on the same site, to the extent that they are now a living example of the kind of facility that the Select Committee so strongly recommends.
There are many instances of day-to-day collaboration, interaction and sharing of resources on the campus, which increasingly sees itself as a learning village rather than two schools on the same site. I shall give one example of what that means. Kaskenmoor and New Bridge schools recently entered the Kielder challenge, with a team of four young people from each school. It is an outdoor adventure competition for children aged between 13 and 16, with and without disabilities, from schools and youth centres throughout the United Kingdom. More than 200 teams entered the challenge and the New Bridge-Kaskenmoor team won an award as the team that was
“the most unified, friendly, and integrated throughout the weekend”.
That is the reality and the benefit of co-location and collaboration between special needs and mainstream schools. It is also the realisation of the Committee’s recommendations and of the Government’s ambitions as voiced by Lord Adonis. When he gave evidence to the Committee in March, he referred to Government policies as seeking to
“bring together special schools and mainstream schools in terms of their interaction”,
“special schools and mainstream schools in closer proximity, which through Building Schools for the Future will be more possible as there is a complete rebuilding of school estates”.
I know from what Lord Adonis said to me during his visit to the New Bridge-Kaskenmoor campus earlier this year that he believed he was witnessing the realisation of that policy approach and that it really worked.
Paragraph 360 of the Committee’s report recommends that the Government should
“provide specific funding to local authorities to increase the extent to which they are able to facilitate and encourage collaborative arrangements where communities of schools work together, sharing facilities and professional expertise, to improve the outcomes for children with SEN”.
We are already at that stage in Oldham, and New Bridge-Kaskenmoor is the embodiment of the Committee’s recommendation.
It is no surprise that the local council with the vision to create such a campus is also bidding to be part of the early wave of funding for “Building Schools for the Future”. What is surprising and even shocking is that in its plans for “Building Schools for the Future”, Oldham council proposes to close Kaskenmoor and, in doing so, bring that flagship example of co-location of mainstream and special needs provision to an end. The academy that is likely to serve as the replacement for Kaskenmoor will be on a different site and away from New Bridge.
The main factor causing Oldham council to propose this incoherent plan is that it has been made crystal clear that its best hope for inclusion in an early wave of “Building Schools for the Future” funding is for it to embrace the academy principle. It is being steered towards a bid that, to be acceptable, should include at least two and possibly three academies. The inevitable consequence of that is that several secondary schools will need to be closed to be replaced by academies. The candidates for closure are the schools that have had lower levels of academic attainment and, measured against past performance, Kaskenmoor would fall into that category as GCSE A to C results have been below floor targets. However, this year we have seen a remarkable improvement and attainment levels have doubled. The school is on a clearly improving path and the prediction based on current year 11 performance is for another step change improvement in the next round of results.
It is impossible to prove that co-location and collaboration with a special needs school has brought about those results. Although I firmly believe that that is the key factor, new leadership for the school has also been important. The cohort of Hollinwood children who have benefited from the country’s first ever Sure Start unit are now coming through to Kaskenmoor and, until recently, three of Kaskenmoor’s feeder schools were in special measures. The turnaround of those schools is also having an impact.
The point at which those and many other measures are starting to come together to allow the young people of Hollinwood to succeed is surely the wrong time to talk about closure and depriving the community of the school it so clearly identifies as its secondary school. At the same time, closure would risk destroying the synergy and on-site collaboration that has served mainstream and special needs so well at New Bridge and Kaskenmoor schools.
It is ironic that, as a consequence of an inflexible, ideological attachment to driving through academies as a condition for accessing “Building Schools for the Future” funding, what we are witnessing in Oldham is the exact opposite of the policy that the Committee urged the Government to adopt. It is also the exact opposite of what Lord Adonis predicted when he forecast that special schools and mainstream schools would be brought into closer proximity through “Building Schools for the Future”. As far as Oldham is concerned, Lord Adonis was wrong.
I hope that the debate will encourage a rethink and cause Ministers and officials to take a critical look at the negative consequences for special needs education inherent in Oldham council’s “Building Schools for the Future” proposals. Lord Adonis has a strong commitment to the co-location of mainstream and special school provision and a genuine understanding of the benefits for all the pupils involved. I hope that he will act to ensure that where such provision exists and is clearly working, it is not dismantled in the rush to implement other new initiatives.
As we are short of time, I will try to be brief. Some hon. Members would say I should make the Front Benchers wait—I, of course, would not.
I am pleased to be associated with the Committee’s report. It is a particularly well researched, thorough and detailed piece of work. In that context, I pay tribute to the Committee Clerk and team for their hard work and support for members of the Committee—I certainly found that support invaluable. I also recognise the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) who has now left the Committee. Her minority report was an interesting contribution to the overall debate, as was the chapter 5 submission of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell). His championing of localism and parents does him enormous credit. I also pay tribute to members of the Committee on their diligence during a fairly long inquiry and for accepting so many of my amendments to the report.
Despite being a very good report, most would agree, and have agreed in the debate, that the Government’s response is extremely disappointing. It amounts to a failure to recognise the severity and the scope of the issues raised. Most of the response was written before our report was published or had arrived at the Department for Education and Skills. Hon. Members will know that there have been other good reports from Ofsted, the National Audit Office and the Conservative party commission on special educational needs. When reading the Government response, I felt at times that I was reading a response to somebody else’s report. That would certainly explain some of the misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Committee’s report. I, like the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), felt dismayed by the Department’s defensive tone. While that may be an appropriate response for a Government agency or another political party’s report—although it would probably not be appropriate in those cases either—it is certainly not the response expected by a Select Committee endeavouring to get at the truth.
I suspect that the Minister has felt some embarrassment while sitting in this Chamber and listening to hon. Members. It is not as if there were no large areas of common ground with the Government. There is as much in the report that we agree about as disagree about. The key difference is that the Government do not believe that the system has fundamental issues to address. I do, and clearly the Committee also believes that.
The issue of inclusion ran through this inquiry like a stick of rock. I started with a critical view of inclusion, particularly regarding how it seemed to be coerced or forced on to some parents. Having considered the evidence and sat through the meetings, my view has changed. I now believe that no two children are alike and one child’s inclusion is another child’s prison. But inclusion in a local school may also be the best solution to fulfil that child’s needs. That view does have important caveats. The right level of support needs to be a place for every child. That is clearly not currently the case. There are many gaps at local level, for example, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) said. During the inquiry we found that teacher training in special education needs was patchy to say the least. I want a much clearer commitment from the Government to ensuring that many more teachers entering the profession have the right level of training for special educational needs pupils and for those with major disabilities.
Many schools and teachers do not have the levels of expertise that they need to cope with the many demands placed on them. However, it should not just be the new teachers who get the training; it should be part of a continuing professional development and ingrained in the training and development budgets of schools.
Many of the points about statementing have been made so, for brevity, I want to address the subject of exclusions, mentioned by the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis). Our report highlighted the high levels of exclusion among special educational needs and disabled pupils, and I am deeply troubled by the Government’s failure to address our points in detail. The figures are stark. The pupil level annual school census data for 2003-04 show that two thirds of exclusions are of special educational needs pupils. The Audit Commission has confirmed that.
Like the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, I want gently to chastise the Government, as statistics used by them in the Education and Inspections Bill debates suggest that exclusions of SEN pupils are falling. I am referring to Government figures for 1997 to 2005, which reflect changes in the SEN code of practice which mean that many pupils are no longer recorded as having SEN. They are now simply not in the statistics.
I hope that the Minister will answer my two specific points and deal with the wider issue of the need for fundamental reform of special educational needs provision. I remind him again that the report does not stand on its own, but is part of a long line of such findings. Our report is not negative or substantially different from the diagnosis made by other reviews. Therefore, one can only conclude that we are right that the problems are long standing and deep seated. I hope that the Minister will be conciliatory, but will also explain how and why the Government are right and every other major independent survey is wrong.
First, I pay tribute to the enormous amount of good work involved in special needs provision. Unfortunately, as we all know, not all the allocated provision is giving what individual children need. Secondly, I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), and his Committee on producing an excellent report that is also timely. It is perhaps just in time for some children, and I hope that it is not too late for many others. The report is timely because it is essential that we face the fact that many parents and their children have been and are getting a raw deal.
Many parents have been forced into adversarial situations in which they are fighting for their children’s rights. I recently met a local support group for parents of children with autism and I came away with these words ringing in my ears, “Why do I continually have to fight?” Of course, there are others who have not been in a position to keep up the fight. Why should parents and carers of children with special needs be constantly engaged in battles, sometimes from the moment of birth? I am talking about pre-school, the choice of primary and secondary schools, statements, resources and specialist support in school, including speech therapy, and post-16 education. What choices are offered at that level? That is not to mention dealings with the health service and social services for respite care.
I have been proud to serve on the commission for children with disabilities, to which other hon. Members referred. The Government response to the report makes much of the “Every Child Matters” agenda and the requirement that all local authorities carry out an audit and record in their children and young people’s plan how services will be provided locally according to need. It states:
“The audit should then lead to integrated commissioning arrangements for services through children’s trusts, which involve links to Primary Care Trusts for health services…This is happening in practice”.
I have examples of where it is still not happening as it should. It is incredibly complacent to make that statement in the response, and we have a long way to go. Although I commend the Government on, for example, the early support programme—I am pleased that that will be rolled out nationally—and the endeavours to promote joint working, we are not there yet.
Areas of agreement have emerged between the Committee, many interested organisations and, indeed, the Government in their response. For example, I concur with what many other hon. Members said about the training of teachers. Important points were also made about the SENCO—the special educational needs co-ordinator—being brought into the senior management team. Other aspects of teacher training were mentioned. Of course, it is important for all teachers to receive training throughout their career. Teachers have to be able to understand and respond to the needs of individual children, while having a good knowledge of conditions such as dyslexia, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—obviously, I could go on.
I designate statements as a battleground, and the Committee says that it has been a long time since the flaws in the system were pointed out. To statement or not to statement? I have been a chairman of education and the situation is very difficult. One desperately wants to get the resources through to the children so that one can help to support them, and the statement process can get in the way, but parents do not have any confidence in the system unless the child has a statement. I agree with the Committee that there is a case for a national framework, but I would want quite a lot of local flexibility.
I want to touch on the Committee’s recommendation on what I would call the separation of functions in respect of statementing. There is identification and prescription on one hand, and commissioning on the other. I sincerely concur that there has to be a separation of those functions. Otherwise, the system cannot work, and it does not work. Again, I have agonised about that as a chairman of education, but what surprises me is the number of objections that the Government put up against the proposal. It is utterly unreasonable to throw the whole idea out of the window on what are false arguments. It needs to be investigated properly and we need to see how it can work.
Of course, there is a monetary implication, and although I would not go as far as the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell), we have to face the fact that the cost of giving an individual child the right provision might come to £100,000 a year. That is very difficult for a small authority. We have to get to grips with that, because it makes the conflict even greater when a small authority knows that the budget will go absolutely haywire.
The Government response concedes that statements must be completed in the statutory time scale of 26 weeks. We are told:
“The Secretary of State takes very seriously any failure to meet the statutory time scale”.
Why, then, are the Government not responding to the serious situation involving educational psychologists? At the relevant point in the Government response, I have noted in the margin “outrageous”. As the report says, and as a number of professionals in the area have said over the past few years, there is a crisis in the funding for the training of educational psychologists. How, then, can the statements be completed?
This September, the profession moved from a one-year master’s degree training for psychology graduates with teaching experience to a three-year doctorate for psychology graduates with some experience of working with children. Historically, the one-year programme was funded by local government through a top-slicing arrangement. With the end of that arrangement, no funding mechanism appears to be in place at all. It has been suggested to me that the only way to fund educational psychologist training is for the local authority to employ a trainee on a trainee salary and pay their university fees for three years. The estimated cost over three years is about £90,000.
My contact in a local authority suggests that that funding could be provided only by reducing the number of educational psychologists that the authority employs. That is an enormous crisis. The importance of educational psychologists is covered in many reports. For example, the Steer report on discipline acknowledges how very important their function is.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, because she is making an extremely important point. Does she agree that the issue is not merely, although it is partly, the shortage of educational psychologists, but the fact that if a parent disagrees with the view offered by an in-house, local authority-employed educational psychologist, he or she has to commission a report from one of his or her own? We are talking about expenditure of several hundred pounds or more. That is beyond the reach of many people in this country and it is a grotesque social injustice.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Not only are such fights taken on only by parents who can fight and keep going, but the process costs a lot of money, which precludes many parents from achieving what they want for their children. He highlights the fact that whatever system we have for statementing, we need more educational psychologists, not fewer.
The issue of pre-school education is important to me. When the Childcare Act 2006 was being considered, I was concerned that there would not be enough funding in local authority pots to provide special pre-school education for children with special needs. It is great that that is to be provided, but it is foolish to pretend that it will be cheap to provide and will come just under the grant for free entitlement. It will not.
We all know that that early pre-school intervention is very important. In the recent report “The Cost to the Nation of Children’s Poor Communication”, I Can comments:
“With substantial numbers of children starting school with either persistent and transient communication difficulties, the need for a workforce skilled in supporting their development is crucial, both at pre-school and school phases of education.”
Speech therapists and other support training for communication skills are, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, absolutely crucial, because children cannot progress until those obstacles are overcome. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that primary care trusts and local authorities are equipped to employ adequate numbers of speech and language therapists?
There has been much debate about inclusion and mainstream education, and I am glad that the consensus is that this is not a question of special school education versus inclusion. Everyone has come to the centre and agrees that we have to find what is right for individual children. That is important.
It is worrying that Government policy is not clear. When I was chairman of education for Poole unitary authority, the pressure was to include more and more children. There is no doubt that there was pressure. Even Government documents appear to suggest that the number of children in special schools will fall, but I understand that the ministerial evidence to the Committee was that the Government agenda is not to reduce numbers in special schools. Some clarity is therefore needed from the Minister today.
I believe in inclusion for many children, but that has to be resourced. It has been seen as a cheap option and used as one for local authorities that are hard-pressed for funds, but that cannot be. There has to be adequate support, especially for teachers. It is hard for teachers, and for other pupils in a class, when a child with extreme behavioural difficulties has to be dealt with. We must accept that, because teachers are leaving, a large number of whom have completed only about five years of teaching. The pressures in the classroom come from that. So, an awful lot needs to be done, and we need clarification from the Government.
I agree with hon. Members about the spectrum of support and on the point about collaboration and autonomy, about which we have heard a lot. How will collaboration be promoted? That is difficult. Like the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), I have had representations from the non-maintained sector. I received a letter from Langside school in my constituency, which is run by Scope. The head teacher expressed disappointment with the Government response to the report, and said that despite continuing to promote a continuing role for special schools, they do nothing to make that a reality.
The head went on to say that pressure on local authority and health funding means that our schools are frequently considered only as a last resort, after a child has been through and failed in every local authority service. Why should a good school be a last resort? That is why we need independence in the statementing process.
Much has been said about choice and admissions. I am not convinced by the Government’s response on whether academies are accepting children with special needs when they should be. That is a poor section of the document.
Should there be a major review of special educational needs? I think there should be. The Government are totally wrong and it has been a long time since the last, big change of direction—25 years. We may have had legislation and a 10-year strategy, but much has changed. Evolution and modification are taking place, but we must consider the complexities of special needs today and the fact that we now listen more to parents and children.
There has been so much change that a review is needed, and the statement in the Government response suggesting that that would mean that everything had to stop is ridiculous and nonsensical. We should have an open debate about how much we as a society are prepared to spend on our children with special needs.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who spoke with passion and conviction.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) for the Select Committee’s excellent report, which was also timely. We are grateful to the Committee for its work in preparing the report; as the hon. Gentleman said, it is clear that the Committee has been listening. It is also clear that the Government need to assess their response to the report—all hon. Members have criticised it—and other recent Select Committee reports such as last week’s Public Accounts Committee report on underperforming schools. The Government’s dismissal of that report was quite astonishing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) was right, in his characteristically reasonable speech, to be so critical of the Department for Education and Skills in that regard. Even schools that have read the report are commenting on it. I have here a letter from the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, which was passed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who is chairing a Standing Committee and cannot be here. In the letter, the school says that it is disappointed by the Government’s response, and that despite continuing to promote a continuing role for special schools, they do nothing to make sure that that becomes a reality.
The way in which the system of special needs provision should operate has been called into question by the Select Committee report; by Baroness Warnock, in recent contributions; and by the university of Cambridge report, “The Costs of Inclusion”. In its hard-hitting report, the Select Committee said that
“the SEN system is demonstrably no longer fit for purpose and there is a need for the Government to develop a new system that puts the needs of the child at the centre of provision.”
“significant problems with the current system of SEN provision and high levels of dissatisfaction amongst parents and teachers”
and urged the Government to consider
“a completely fresh look to SEN”.
When I saw those words and compared them with the Government’s response, I thought that the Government really must address how they respond to such reports.
Even the Government recognise the shortcomings in the system. Lord Adonis told the Select Committee:
“I would be the last person to claim that all is well in the system. Almost every day I deal with correspondence from members of the House about difficult individual cases, including complaints about both the quality of provision and the action of local authorities in assessing the needs of individual children.”
In spite of that, the Government refuse to hold a review; I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that they should have a review. They base their view largely on the opinion of Ofsted, which told the Committee that
“if we had a…big review at this time the danger is that it would diversify work and resources and developments in such a way that it could send us back to the point of slow progress that we were having prior to 2004.”
That is the position that the Government are trying to hold, but it is difficult to justify, particularly when it comes to the unwieldy statementing process. The Committee rightly stated:
“Despite the Audit Commission specifically calling for a review of the statementing process in 2002…the Government still says it has no plans to review the statementing process. This is unacceptable.”
That was echoed in this debate by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods).
That Audit Commission report said:
“Statutory assessment is a slow and unresponsive process…Most parents said they ‘had to fight’ to have their child’s needs formally assessed. This was often linked to a perception that the local authority was trying to control its expenditure.”
It recommended that
“Government should establish a high-level independent review to consider options for future reform—engaging all key stakeholders.”
The university of Cambridge came to similar conclusions.
I have heard at first hand, as have many hon. Members, the truly awful process many parents have to go through—the nightmare of it all—not to mention the expense, such as the cost of commissioning their own psychology reports, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) in an intervention. There is also the worry of having to deal with the process while at the same time coming to terms with realising that they have a child with special needs who requires extra help at home.
My hon. Friend also cited a constituent who went through a 10-year statementing process. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) quoted a constituent who said that they were “bone tired” of the system, which had “sucked our family dry”. I am sure that many families could echo those comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) cited Josh Metcalf, aged eight, who despite being diagnosed with Asperger’s in April is only now beginning the process. I hope to goodness that that does not take as long as it has for some.
In another place, Lord Adonis said:
“We considered very carefully whether there was a case for the wholesale replacement of the process, but we decided that that would not be appropriate at present as no proposals have come forward”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 October 2006; Vol. 685, c. 901.]
I can tell the noble Lord that there are proposals. One of my hon. Friends cited the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), when he was shadow spokesman on education, set up a commission on special educational needs under Sir Robert Balchin. The resulting interim report last November made a number of suggestions, including the replacement of statements with special needs profiles drawn up by independent profile assessors, with funding provided by a national funding agency. That addresses the very real conflict of interest to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham referred in his passionate and excellent speech. I have no doubt that other people and organisations could come up with suggestions that the Government could consider.
The Opposition have been calling for a review of the SEN system for some time. Last week, my colleagues in another place voted for amendments to the Education and Inspections Bill that would have provided for a review, accompanied by a separate amendment on a moratorium on the closure of special schools while the review was taking place. Regrettably, that amendment was defeated, and I shall not embarrass the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole by reminding her of which way her party voted on those amendments.
It is also obvious that there is no clear framework surrounding SEN provision. The Select Committee recommended
“a statutory requirement placed on local authorities to maintain, or have access to, a wide range of provision, including a range of special schools, specialist units, and services for low incidence special educational needs.”
My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) needs to consider that point when he is finding a local solution to the problem, as well as the point that the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole made about how the low-incidence cases can be dealt with on a local basis and how expensive provision can be dealt with in a small local authority area.
The charity I Can has said that it believes that the Government cannot devolve SEN responsibility to local authorities without the setting of an integrated national standards framework and a clear implementation and auditing strategy.
It is also clear that existing Government publications such as the SEN strategy have severe shortcomings, in particular a lack of clarity on fundamental issues such as inclusion. The Committee noted “considerable confusion” over the meaning of “inclusion” and felt that the Government needed to work
“harder to define exactly what it means”.
That explains the different attitudes of different local education authorities towards the closure of special schools throughout this country, to which the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), who is a member of the Select Committee, referred.
The Government response is again worrying as it simply means no change. Paragraph 28 of section 3 states:
“The present statutory framework provides for children with statements of SEN to be taught in mainstream schools where this is what their parents want and it is compatible with the efficient education of other children. It provides for parents to seek a special school and to have their preference considered according to the same criteria as a preference for a maintained school.”
However, that is not what is happening on the ground. Baroness Warnock stated in her report:
“Government thinking is set on immovable tracks. Special schools are a place of last resort, only, we are told, for children with severe and complex disabilities. But for other children we must keep them out of special schools by hook or by crook to educate them in mainstream schools.”
So, it is not surprising that the Select Committee found that
“it is reasonable for those involved in SEN to assume that the Government holds a policy of inclusion from which it has given guidance to local authorities to reduce both the proportion of pupils in special schools and to reduce reliance on statements.”
The university of Cambridge found:
“The evidence demonstrates unequivocally that the needs, interest and potential of many children with special needs are not being met”.
It is impossible to reconcile those two views. Although the Government claim to have a neutral policy with regard to special needs provision, many outside Government perceive a one-sided policy that undermines provision in special schools. I strongly believe that it is wrong to imply that mainstream education can cope with all special educational needs. Some children need teachers with specialist training and expertise if they are to fulfil their potential.
My hon. Friend is again making a compelling point. I have visited the Nuffield speech and language unit and met children there, and I know that there is not the slightest prospect in the foreseeable future of those children being able to survive in mainstream schools. If the Government allow the arrogant and incompetent management of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust to dispose of that facility, those kids will be absolutely cut adrift. It is a disgrace.
My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate for that school, and I hope that he is successful in his campaign. He is right in what he says. I can cite other cases. I want to a Percy Hedley Foundation school in Newcastle, which looks after children with severe cerebral palsy. The work that it does with those children to re-teach their brains how to use their limbs means that many of them will be able to walk and learn how to communicate using a computer. If they were simply in a mainstream setting, none of those skills would reach those children and they would be severely disadvantaged as a consequence.
I also know young adults with mild cerebral palsy who can survive perfectly well in a mainstream setting if they have the right facilities for wheelchairs and communication equipment. Such children thrive, and go on to take degrees at university. However, we should be careful if we are trying to close provisions such as the ones that my hon. Friend mentioned.
In conclusion, it is important that parents’ views are paramount and that they have real choices of provision for their children. In addition, local authorities should inform parents of the special school provision available and the statementing process should be as swift, fair and efficient as possible. As the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) said, the Government should aim higher, faster, and stronger. That should be the objective of any Government in this particular field.
Before I call the Minister, I should thank all Members who have taken part this afternoon for the courteous way in which they have treated the Chair, and for the way that they have been generous with each other in ensuring that every Member who wanted to got in. It was a credit to everyone present.
I congratulate all Members, irrespective of whether they are on the Education and Skills Committee, on securing this debate and on the tone in which it has been conducted.
It would be good to begin by talking about the tone of the response, which was mentioned by the Chair of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). It was not the Department’s intention to put noses out of joint. If he and other Members feel that the response was intemperate, I would be the first to say that that was not our intention and to apologise for it. That is not what we were trying to do, even if there are differences and disagreements within the policy. In the coming moments, I shall try not to wax indignant—the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) suggested that I might do so. I shall also give my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield the opportunity to respond.
Unsurprisingly, this has been a passionate and good debate, and many speakers highlighted the difficulties that families may face in obtaining appropriate support for children with special educational needs. It is interesting to see people in this Chamber who have had to go through that process, including the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who spoke passionately about his own experience.
As a constituency MP, which we all are first and foremost, I appreciate how frustrating it can be for families who find themselves in that position. However, it is important to place the real and distressing cases that we deal with in our constituencies in a broader context, and I shall try to do that. It is in the nature of our work as MPs to hear about things going wrong rather than going well. The reality is that the majority of children with SEN have their needs met satisfactorily by their schools. In saying that, I know that we must not be complacent and that there are difficulties that must be dealt with. I shall say a little about that and the path that the Government are taking.
Ofsted has reported improvements since we published our long-term SEN strategy, “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, in 2004. We can see those improvements, for example, in the percentage of children with SEN not achieving at least level 3 in maths at key stage 2, which decreased from 28 per cent. in 2003 to 25 per cent. in 2005. It is important to remember that. Likewise in English, the percentage of children not achieving at least level 3 decreased from 31 to 27 per cent.
Those improvements reflect the Government’s increasing investment in provision for children with SEN. Much has been said in the past three hours about investment and the need to invest. I agree with and support that, but it is important to put it on the record that local authorities’ indicative spending on SEN stands at £4.5 billion in 2006-07. Within that £4.5 billion, more resources than ever are going to schools to support earlier intervention; the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) alluded to that. Figures provided by local authorities show that indicative SEN funding in mainstream schools rose by 43 per cent. from £1.3 billion in 2003-04 to £1.8 billion in 2006-07, and school budgets for special schools rose by 23 per cent. from £1.1 billion to £1.3 billion. That is a 43 per cent. increase in three years.
Having reached a number of the milestones in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, we need to move on, and everyone in the Chamber accepts that this is not a time for complacency and standing still. I shall briefly mention five key areas before returning to some major topics that hon. Members raised.
We must raise the awareness and skills of staff in identifying and meeting special educational needs—my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and others made that point. We must increase access to specialist support; improve accountability for the outcomes that children achieve; improve the quality of support to parents, particularly parent partnerships; and do more to provide advice and support to parents going through the system. I agree that that should be done at arm’s length from the local authority, and we shall try to do that.
We must also improve provision for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties and children with autism. That is a passion of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis), and I was with him at the launch of the “Make School Make Sense” campaign of which he has been a great champion in the House.
I turn to some key questions that I have been asked. Do we need a completely fresh look at SEN policy? In the time remaining, I shall not duck that question, but face it head on. The Committee urged us to take a completely fresh look at SEN policy and to overhaul the system of assessments and statements. I understand entirely why the Committee said that, but while we share its desire to improve things, we do not believe that a review is the right way forward at this time, when progress is being made in improving provision for children with SEN. We believe that that would lead to prolonged uncertainty and halt that progress.
It is not just the Government who are saying that. When Ofsted gave evidence to the Committee, it advised against a major review and members of the Committee will recall that it said that the danger of a big review at this time is that it would diversify work, resources and developments in such a way that it could send us back to the slow progress prior to 2004.
I am sure that the Minister is aware that many organisations are saying that the statementing process is too long and legalistic. It has been jettisoned by the Scottish Parliament and is being reviewed by the Welsh Assembly. Given that scenario, would not the £80 million a year that it costs to fund the statementing process be better spent on children’s individual special educational needs?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I shall come to the statementing process and how I think we could get better value out of it. A lot has been said about it, so it is important that I return to it and comment on it.
On inclusion, hon. Members spoke passionately about special schools and some claimed that the Government have a policy of favouring the closure of special schools. I must make it clear on the record that we do not. Spending on maintained special schools has risen from £891 million in 2000 to £1.3 billion in 2006-07, enabling the quality of provision in those schools to improve. Local authorities spend £506 million on fees for pupils at a number of excellent non-maintained and independent schools. I think the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) asked specifically about non-maintained schools and the support that we give them.
A statistic that surprised me a little, not least in the context of our debate, is that rather than declining, the proportion of pupils with statements who attend special schools has risen over the past five years from 36.3 to 36.9 per cent. Our so-called anti-special schools policy is clearly failing. That is not our policy and I am surprised that during three hours of debate that has not come to the fore.
Just as we have never had a policy of closing special schools, we have never accepted that we must choose between sustaining special schools and improving provision in mainstream schools. In its recent report, “Inclusion: does it matter where pupils are taught?”, Ofsted said that there was
“little difference in the quality of provision and outcomes for pupils across primary and secondary mainstream schools and special schools. However, mainstream schools with additionally resourced provision were particularly successful in achieving high outcomes for pupils academically, socially and personally.”
We are therefore right in our policy of promoting a flexible range of provision that includes mainstream and special schools, resourcing provision within or attached to mainstream schools suited to the needs of individual children and offering choice to parents as far as possible.
I shall comment on statements, not least because my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough mentioned them.
Given what the Minister said, does he think it possible that some local authorities have misunderstood the Government’s policy and are basing what they are doing on previous guidelines from the Department that they have misinterpreted? Should he think about reissuing guidelines to local authorities?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We will send guidance to local authorities, making it clear that they must take into account parental preferences. If they are to close a special school, they must make appropriate provision. I hope that that clarifies where we stand.
On assessment and statements, the Committee set out what it believed to be key elements in any system for deciding support for children with SEN: an effective assessment of needs, efficient and equitable allocation of resources, and appropriate placement in high-quality provision. The current system is designed to meet those three objectives. The Government appreciate the tensions that can occur when managing assessments and statements, and the very real frustrations that they can produce. They are perhaps inevitable in a system with finite resources. However, reviewing and replacing the system is not the best way to improve outcomes for children with SEN.
I take on board the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield made. The Committee in its report did not suggest a quango to undertake the statementing separately; it urged the Government to consider the matter. However, if we move the system away from local government, we must accept that we diminish the local accountability of the present system. We must bear that in mind.
With regard to statements, I note that—
I am genuinely perplexed and nonplussed. What is the nature of that local accountability to which the Minister refers when arguing the case for retaining the current system? Does he suggest that the authorities are somehow electorally accountable for the attitude that they take to that minority of students? Linda Lascelles of Afasic, and Bob Parslow and Marion Strudwick of SOS!SEN in Twickenham, who are well known to me, tell me that they have bulging case files because they undertake adversarial contests with LEAs on behalf of pupils. The LEAs are not in any meaningful sense accountable.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. From my experience of considering such issues and their wider politics, local authorities can be held to account for systems and structures in their locality. If he has an idea or a structure that the Government should consider, I shall welcome a letter from him. I am sure that he will consider that.
It is worth remembering that only 0.25 per cent. of cases end up going to appeal. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned that it is very expensive to reach the appeal stage in the first place. However, it is important to put that idea to bed: it does not cost anything to reach that stage. The idea that one must have lawyers and pay them thousands of pounds to go through that system is untrue. Eighty per cent. of people who go through the tribunal process are successful, but the vast majority choose not to do so. The wider context is that two thirds of statemented children go to mainstream schools, and that is where we must place the debate.
The difficulties, stresses and strains for parents during the six-month period have been mentioned. The draft assessment period to which the performance indicator now relates is 18 weeks, and in 92 per cent. of cases it seems to have made a real difference. We are also considering introducing a performance indicator for the 26-week period during which a full statement is produced.
That is a very good point, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making it. We must take a closer look at that 0.25 per cent. of people, their demographic, where they come from, and whether they are the children of people with special educational needs. I assure the Committee that the Department is keen to undertake that work and to undertake a greater examination of that 0.25 per cent. group.
I am conscious of providing the Committee’s Chairman with an opportunity to respond. I hope that in a nutshell I have been able to cover some of the many and varied points that the Committee made. I accept what hon. Members said about the offence that the tone or the nature of the Government’s reply may have caused. I regret that if it is true. It was certainly never the intention to do so.
There have been many questions, and if I have been unable to tackle any during the short period I have had to respond to the debate, I shall be happy to reply to hon. Members in writing.
The Minister has been very generous in providing me with time to respond.
When we undertake a Committee report, there is teamwork from beginning to end, and we have a very good team. There was nothing planned about the report; I just knew that our team members would, in their unique ways, do a good job of covering all the ground, and so they did. Most people who read the debate will be astonished by the knowledge of, and the differences between, the team members. It is important that there are differences within a team, and one or two members have articulated them. Overall, however, the report contained a unified set of recommendations.
I should not forget that all Committees have another team. In our case, we had two Clerks, two specialist advisers—the researchers—and two administrators. We could not produce excellent reports without an excellent team.
We also had alumni who cut their teeth on our Committee, and Members from all parties are welcome back at any time. They were very good Committee members. We had some very good prospects, too. Like a football manager looking for new talent, I have my eye on some of the people who have contributed today.
So persuasive is the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that I went to the Nuffield speech and language unit, about which he is so passionate. The diminution in the number of pupils sent there is a problem. The money is “velcroed” to the child, and not enough of them are going to the school. It is a shame that such a wonderful and competent group of people are in despair. None the less, I have known the hon. Gentleman for a long time, and if my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) thinks that she is moving towards him, all the signs are that he is moving towards her.
The Minister has not appeared in front of the Committee yet, so I am delighted to hear him respond, very well, to our concerns today. He put our concerns in a nutshell, because many of the statistics that he quoted, which describe how well the Government have done, are in our report. The report is fair. It says that more money is being spent on more resources, and that some very good work is taking place throughout the country. We say also that some closures were down to getting rid of awful, old Victorian buildings and replacing them with bigger, modern facilities. It happened in my constituency. The number of institutions looks smaller, but it is a case of three into two: three institutions have been replaced by two much better ones.
The Committee bent over backwards to be fair. Even after doing so, we find that there is a kernel of truth in our report when we say that, considering all the new resources that we have, the situation is not good enough. Select Committees always seem to Ministers to be whingeing, do they not? They must sit there thinking, “Oh my goodness, it’s another Select Committee report saying what we’re not doing but not saying the good stuff that we are doing.” In this report we did mention the good stuff; it is there for everyone to see. However, as Chairman of the Committee—I believe that I speak for all its members—I must say that it is not good enough. Whether we have phrased things badly or got near to the description that we wanted to give, we will not move away from the fact that the statementing process is plain wrong. If the Minister wishes us to come up with a proposal, we will return with one and see how he likes it. Ours is not a Committee that walks away, puts a report on the shelf and lets it gather dust. We maintain a strong interest in something that we care about.
The Minister is quite new to the job, and I hope that the fact that there is not a more senior Minister here is not an indication of the Government’s interest in special education. He will know that when we suggest a review—one or two hon. Members have mentioned a “root and branch” review—we realise that it does not matter how the situation is made good enough. There could be another in-depth look at the specific problems, putting to one side the things that are being done right. It will be easy for the Minister to read the report and the transcript of the debate. It has shown where the system is rubbing, where it is sore and what people feel unhappy about. I hope that, having done that reading, the Minister will see that there are things that the Department can do to make an awful lot of children and adults a lot happier.
When producing a report, a Committee always stumbles over things that it wishes it had done but did not have the time for. I feel that more about this report than any other. We really should have gone on and considered the post-16 situation. When children with special educational needs cease to be of mainstream school age, they are still challenging.
When I went to the constituency of the hon. Member for Buckingham I spoke to 100 parents of SEN children. A woman stood up and said, “Look, my Charlie will be a child when I am getting older—when he is 30, when he is 40, when he is 50. Every year he gets worse.” There was despair in her voice at the fact that after the age of 16, 18 or 21 there are diminishing resources. I promise the House and my colleagues on the Committee that we will return to the post-16 situation.
We might also return to the attempt to understand the worrying increase in the number of autistic children and those with a variety of problems, some of which I had not even heard of before conducting this inquiry with the Committee. For instance, why do six times as many boys as girls suffer from the syndrome? Why are the numbers increasing? We were unable to look into that. It is a worrying problem for our society and many others where instances of the syndrome are increasing.
I shall use the very last minute of the debate so that nobody can say that there were not enough contributions. I return to where I began by saying that our society will be judged on how well it looks after not only students with SEN but their families. A family with an SEN member is a family under great stress. The mark of a civilised society is that even when it is tough and resources are short, it prioritises vulnerable families and children. That is how this Government and our society will be remembered.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Six o’clock.