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Special Educational Needs

Volume 456: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007

I beg to move,

That this House notes the conclusions reached by Baroness Warnock in 2005 that inclusion has failed many children; further notes the recommendation of the Education and Skills Committee that a major review be undertaken of Special Educational Needs (SEN) provision; further notes the decline in the number of special schools since 1997; further notes that there are currently no plans for a review of the closure of special schools before 2009; further notes that SEN pupils who are not in special schools who do not have statements account for almost half of all permanent exclusions; further notes the non-statutory nature of the new measures to encourage those local authorities planning to close a special school to demonstrate that alternate provision would be better; believes that the inclusion policy of the Government’s Removing Barriers to Achievement document encourages local authorities to shut special schools; shares Baroness Warnock’s opinion that inclusion is failing many children; further believes that resources in many mainstream schools are not adequate to deal with the SEN children in their care; considers that the initial and in-service training of teachers of SEN pupils should be strengthened; and therefore calls on the Government to follow the recommendation of the Education and Skills Committee to conduct a fundamental review of SEN provision, including the statutory provisions for statementing and meeting need, and to put a moratorium on the closure of special schools until that review has taken place.

What an extraordinarily statesmanlike procedure the debate will follow!

The motion reflects the extraordinary frustration and distress felt by many parents of children with special educational needs, and by those children themselves, about what is happening to special needs provision. Those emotions poured out again the other week following the decision by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to send her child to a private special school. We fully understand her right to do that, we support the decision that she made, and it is not for us to inquire into such a personal decision; but her decision did reveal—and this is a matter of legitimate public debate—the gap between the Government’s official claims about the state of special educational provision in our mainstream schools and the reality of the tough decisions that parents across the country must face.

There are, in reality, two very different worlds that clash in any debate about special educational needs. There is the SEN world according to Whitehall, and there is a completely different world—the world as experienced by parents. In the Whitehall world, we are told, everything is calm and everything is orderly, but the real world—the world of which we hear from parents who come to see us in our surgeries—is a world full of the anguish, exhaustion and desperation of those who are entangled in a system described by the Education and Skills Committee, in its excellent report, as “not fit for purpose”.

Does my hon. Friend not think it bizarre that the Government dismiss the Select Committee’s report so cavalierly and contemptuously in their amendment to the motion? The Committee said that a “fundamental review” of special educational needs was required. We can only assume that Labour Members do not have constituency surgeries. Perhaps they could come to our constituency surgeries, and share some of the frustration of our constituents with special educational needs.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the main purposes of the debate is to bridge the gap between the experience that we have, which is reflected accurately in the report of the cross-party Select Committee, and the extraordinarily complacent assertions that we hear from Ministers whenever they are confronted with the evidence on this subject.

The doom and gloom in the hon. Gentleman’s introductory remarks would make the flesh of Private Fraser of “Dad’s Army” creep. Does he not accept that there is a patchwork picture? In Leicestershire, for instance, centrally provided money has enabled new area special schools to be built at Birch Wood in Melton Mowbray, near Hinckley and in Coalville in my constituency, and more are to follow. Surely that sort of initiative and investment should be welcomed.

I do welcome individual initiatives that improve special educational needs, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that in parts of the country the position is getting better, but today we are focusing on national policy and national statistics. We are holding the Government to account for national policies that are leading to the closure of special schools when that is not what parents want, and we are entitled to do so.

Does not the hon. Gentleman’s intervention prove the point that the Conservatives are trying to make—that many parents do indeed face a postcode lottery?

There is indeed divergence between different local authorities. In parts of the country parents can be lucky and find excellent provision, and very persistent parents who are willing to go to tribunals and fight court cases can obtain excellent provision as well, but that is not good enough. We want a national policy that clearly supports special schools and the particular problems of children with special educational needs, and that is what is sadly lacking at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there needs to be a sensible debate about special educational needs provision, but he must get the figures right. As the Select Committee pointed out, in the 1980s and 1990s there was a decline in the number of children in special schools and a rise in the number of children with special educational needs. Since 1999 to 2000, the proportion of children in special schools, the proportion with special educational needs and the proportion with statements have reached a plateau. I think that if we are to have a debate, we ought to have a debate on the basis of the right figures rather than the wrong ones.

It is a pity that the hon. Lady talked about right figures and wrong figures and then referred to those ratios since 2000, because she should be aware that in respect of the figures for the number of children with special educational needs there is a significant discontinuity in 2002-03. Therefore, it is not accurate to quote those ratios because the ratios do not provide a consistent series. The Secretary of State made that mistake—perhaps he is staying away from the Chamber today because he does not want to be held to account for it—and I am afraid it has just been made by the hon. Lady as well.

I will take further interventions after I have made a little progress by setting out my argument.

We understand that inclusion in education is important and desirable, but we should be clear about what we mean by “inclusion” and “exclusion”. One parent said to me of her son that although he is physically included in a mainstream classroom, he is so bullied and finding it so hard to follow what is happening in the lessons that in reality, deep down, he is excluded. That very point about inclusion in mainstream provision not necessarily equating with real inclusion was powerfully brought out in an excellent report by John MacBeath for the National Union of Teachers. He said:

“There was also frequent testimony to exclusion within the mainstream classroom. ‘Just being in a mainstream class doesn’t mean inclusion’, argued one primary headteacher.”

Although we believe in inclusion, all too often the children who are nominally included in a mainstream class are not achieving inclusion. It can be the case that provision in a special school targeted on children with special educational needs is the best foundation for enabling such children to participate and be included in mainstream society as they grow up. Of course we wish to achieve inclusion, but the key question is: what constitutes inclusion?

Will the hon. Gentleman repeat those words to Tory Wandsworth council, which will close two special schools later this year, against parents’ wishes?

I will turn to the evidence of what is happening in local authorities across the country in due course, but what we are focusing on today is national policy—it is the guidelines from the Government for which we are holding the Government to account. We believe that there must be a fair balance between mainstream schooling, which might be best for some children with special needs, and special provision in special schools. Wherever possible, in reaching decisions on that choice we should trust the parent and the child.

After the original Warnock report, we achieved a fair balance and the right framework in the Education Act 1981 and the Education Act 1996; there were, of course, imperfections, but that legislation got the balance broadly right. However, things have gone seriously wrong since then. That is why parents increasingly find that they have to fight desperate battles to get their child into a special school if they believe that its provisions are in the best interests of their child.

Can I give my hon. Friend a little help on that? I have just been through a tribunal to try to get one of my children statemented. I got information from the Library on how many successful tribunals there had been, and it is a pitifully low figure. The reason for that is clear to anyone who has appeared in one: it is a daunting and difficult uphill task for any parent. Does my hon. Friend agree?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Often such parents are in any case wrestling with the trauma and stress involved in having a child who might have serious special problems; to impose on them the additional trauma of having to wrestle with complicated cases in tribunals is to pile distress on distress. The evidence shows that more parents are going through the processes that my hon. Friend describes: the number of appeals has increased by about 55 per cent. since 1997 to approximately 3,500 a year. However, it is not just that the number of appeals is going up.

Let me complete this point. It is not just the number of appeals that is going up; there is also clear evidence of the closure of special schools. There are now 146 fewer maintained special schools than there were in 1997, so there is a clear pattern of their closure. I shall be interested to hear if the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) welcomes that statistic, or if, like me, he is deeply concerned by it.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is very generous in these debates. Does he not accept that one downside of localism is that constituents experience bad local authorities, as well as good ones? My excellent local newspaper, the Wandsworth Guardian, ran a story this week about parents suffering at the hands of a bad local authority. One parent said:

“We have been left to our own devices. It’s as if the Council don’t give a damn about disabled children.”

That council is Tory Wandsworth.

What we are talking about today is a national policy framework, and it would be truly ironic if Labour Members started criticising Tory councils for complying with Labour Government national policy. It is the policy nationally that is leading to the closure of special schools, and that is the issue that we are raising.

Let me make a little more progress; I am trying to explain what is happening to special schools. I referred to the 146 special schools that have closed since 1997; let us compare that with the evidence on the performance of such schools. Ofsted rates eight in 10 special schools as “good” or “outstanding”, and says that only 2 per cent. are inadequate. However, in one year alone—2004-05—26 special schools, which is more than 2 per cent. of the total number, were closed. By way of contrast, Ofsted says that 13 per cent. of normal mainstream secondary schools—of course, there are many more such schools than there are special schools—are inadequate. However, in that same year—2004-05—only 25 secondary schools were closed, which is less than 0.5 per cent. of the total number of such schools.

Let me just complete the point and give the hon. Lady the statistic. In other words, according to Ofsted, special schools are six times less likely than secondary schools to be inadequate, but three times more likely to be closed. That practice does not reflect special schools’ performance, and I ask the hon. Lady to defend it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not accept that Ofsted’s report entitled “Inclusion: does it matter where pupils are taught?” found that effective provision was distributed equally between mainstream and special schools, but that more good and outstanding provision existed in resourced mainstream schools, which he has been criticising?

No, I would not criticise mainstream provision; there can be excellent provision in mainstream schools. What I am asking for is a fair balance that reflects the views of parents about what is in the best interests of their children. The current arrangement is not a fair balance, because what we have is the steady erosion of provision in special schools.

Perhaps I might quote the new statistics that, by good fortune, were released today in answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled a while back. They reveal that the total number of special school places has fallen from 98,250 in 1997 to 89,000 in 2006. So it does not matter about the exact number of individual institutions; the key statistic is a fall of nearly 9,000 in the total number of special school places, as a result of Government policy.

I face an embarrassment of riches. I give way to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith).

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being very generous. He has just quoted the drop in the number of special school places in the last 10 years. During the previous 10 years—1986 to 1997—the then Tory Government closed 234 special schools, so have we not seen the process slow down, rather than speed up?

No, because the crucial statistic is the number of special school places, which is the single best measure of what is happening.

Hang on—let me explain this point, because it is very important. We know, thanks to a parliamentary answer given today, that there are 9,000 fewer places in special schools than there were in 1997. When the Government produced their Green Paper on the subject in October 1997, they said:

“Across the country as a whole, some 98,000 pupils are educated in maintained or non-maintained special schools, a number which has been virtually constant throughout the 1990s.”

In the Government’s own words, provision was constant in the 1990s, but since they came to office it has fallen, as we now know, by 9,000 school places. That is the problem that we are addressing today.

The hon. Gentleman quotes the Committee’s report on special educational needs, and I am grateful, as it was a good report. However, we did not say that we were deeply concerned by the loss in the number of places. We gained much experience from our visits, such as that to Darlington, which has a new complex of schools. New and improved special schools have been built that take larger numbers of pupils, and the horrible, pokey little Victorian schools, which were miles away from any other educational provision, have been closed. It is a complex situation which the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s speech is not properly reflecting.

It is possible that, for example, two small special schools merge and form a new one. That can happen, but I am trying to focus on the number of places. The evidence of the decline in the number of places since 1997 is overwhelming, and that is a problem that concerns many parents. If it does not concern the Chairman of the Committee—although his report is overall very useful—we will have to disagree on that point. However, I have to tell him that many parents and their advisers are deeply concerned by that phenomenon.

The key issue is not the number of special schools places overall, but where they are and what the need is in that locality. Thus in my area a new special school is opening that is bigger than the one that it replaces, because the growth in the population of Milton Keynes has resulted in a need for more places. Will he accept that that is the issue? Simply saying that the numbers should be kept constant regardless of need is a fatuous and illogical point.

There are two different points at issue. I am willing to accept change if it means that one special school merges with another, resulting in new investment in special provision. I am willing to accept that the new provision should emerge in parts of the country where the population is growing. I am trying, however, to look behind the figures on the number of special schools—bad though it is—to the underlying issue, which is the number of total places, which has fallen by 9,000 without any evidence of a decline in need. The only attempt that has been made to relate the number of places to need—a ratio of the children in special needs relative to the total number with special needs—is an unreliable statistic, because the total number of children with special educational needs is an unreliable series. It cannot be used to trace back historically and that is why we cannot use that statistic.

The hon. Gentleman is still confused about the complexity of the situation. What we discovered from our visits, and the oral and written evidence, was a complex picture. In some areas, parental views on what they preferred—special school or inclusion—changed if the inclusive provision improved. The situation is complicated and that is why we did not perceive a particular problem in the falling number of actual places.

Two points are clear, and the Opposition understand them. The first is that the total number of special school places, having remained stable in the 1990s, has been cut by 9,000 under this Government. The second point is that parents come to see us at our surgeries deeply dissatisfied because they cannot get their child into a special school when they believe that that would be in that child’s best interests. We have frustrated and unhappy parents who want special school provision for their child and 9,000 fewer places. The nature of the problem is therefore clear.

The hon. Gentleman is very interested in the statistic for the number of pupils in special schools, but has he taken account of the 20,500 pupils being taught in specially resourced provision or special units? That number has risen considerably in recent years.

I recognise that those new units exist, and that some of them have received good Ofsted reports. I salute the work that the best of them do, but we agree with the Audit Commission and the Select Committee about the need for a review to determine whether those special units are working as well as is claimed. The Minister makes an assertion for which, as yet, there is very little evidence.

Although parents believe that special schools are best for their children, they are often unable to secure that provision because 9,000 places have been cut since Labour came to office.

I am disappointed with the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, although I agree with much of the text of the motion. The people who come to my surgery do not talk only about getting a place in a special school: more often, they want to talk about getting access to the expert help and support that their children need so that they can go to a mainstream school. The problem therefore goes beyond mainstream schools versus special schools.

Teachers with the specialised training who are needed to teach a child with severe autism, for example, are a specialist resource. I agree that parents ask for people with those skills, but they are much more likely to find them in special schools because that is where they are concentrated. Sadly, the chances of finding them in mainstream schools are much lower.

The facts are clear, and the Government should accept their responsibility for what is going on. Across the country, local authorities are implementing the policies that the Government have been imposing since their first policy statement on the subject in 1997, which said that

“we shall promote the inclusion of children with SEN within mainstream schooling”.

On this matter at least, the Government’s policy has been consistent. In document after document, they have said that, wherever possible, they want children with special needs to be educated in mainstream schools. That is what the Government’s guidance on inclusive schooling is all about; their 2004 document stated that

“the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time”.

That is the Government’s aim. Ministers should not try to dispute the statistics; instead, they should admit that we are confronted today with the consequences of the Government’s deliberate policy.

In my previous constituency of Cannock and Burntwood, there was a magnificent special school called Maple Hayes hall. It was a private school, catering for dyslexic boys. Because the boys attended a special school—not a mainstream school—with their peers, their performance improved enormously. Many of them said that they had been saved by going to that school, and many local authorities, including Labour ones, sent boys there.

My hon. Friend is right. We are all aware of similar examples, and the evidence is overwhelming that such environments often allow children to flourish the best. We know that parents want their children to go to schools such as the one that he described. We also know that 9,000 places have been lost, as a deliberate result of Government policy.

Indeed, some Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills seem to be changing their position and recognising that the policy is wrong. Lord Adonis—the Minister in the other place—has particularly started to do so. I have a soft spot for the noble Lord and, from reading The Spectator, I think the feeling may be mutual. I have great respect for what he is doing in the Department for Education and Skills; he clearly recognises that there are problems due to the rate at which special schools are closing, which is why he has tried to produce guidance about slowing down the rate of closure. However, he may be wrong in doing that—much as it pains me to say so—because his warm words will not stop the closure of special schools, when the Government’s policy framework and the legal requirements are still in place. That is why we need a review of all special needs provision, and while that is happening there should be a moratorium on the closure of places in special schools.

A series of outside experts has constantly called for such a review. The Audit Commission called for one in 2002. The Select Committee report on the subject said:

“Despite the Audit Commission specifically calling for a review of the statementing process in 2002, four years on the Government still says it has no plans to review the statementing process. This is unacceptable.”

We think it is time that the Government complied with the requests from the Audit Commission and the Select Committee—requests with which we agree and that we would take further.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we called for an inquiry into the statementing process, but I have to tell him again that we found that often the right place for a child with special educational needs was with their peers in mainstream education, with the right support. The position that he has enunciated would deprive children from being with their peers, where their education would be the richest possible.

The Chairman of the Select Committee and the Select Committee have called for a review in the clearest possible terms. The Audit Commission has called for a review, but the Government have refused to implement one—a position that the Select Committee described as “unacceptable”. It is absolutely clear to us that the policy implemented by the Government has led to the loss of 9,000 places in special schools, which has caused enormous distress to parents and their children. The policy requires the review that has been called for by the Select Committee and the Audit Commission. I invite the House to vote for our motion to put further pressure on the Government to implement that review and, meanwhile, to impose a moratorium on the closure of places in special schools.

I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

“notes the conclusions reached by Baroness Warnock in 2005 but does not agree that inclusion has failed many children; does not agree with the view of the Education and Skills Committee that a fundamental review is needed of special educational needs provision or of the system of assessments and statements; welcomes the fact that in 2004 the Government put in place a long-term strategy for improving outcomes for children with special educational needs and disabled children that is already having an impact on their achievement; acknowledges the record levels of spending by local authorities on special educational needs of some £4.5 billion in 2006-07 that are underpinning the strategy; welcomes the measures announced in the Government’s response to the Education and Skills Committee on providing better training for staff working with children with special educational needs including a national programme of continuing professional development, nationally accredited training for Special Educational Needs Coordinators in schools and measures to increase access to specialist teachers; further welcomes the announcement of an additional 15 special schools with specialist status to share expertise and raise standards and the increase in specialist and unit provision for children within, or attached to, mainstream schools; commends the Government’s plans for ensuring that local authority proposals for changing special educational provision must show how they will improve provision for children with special educational needs; and considers that a moratorium on closing special schools would prevent locally elected authorities from improving their provision for children with special educational needs.”

There can be no more important task for a Government than ensuring that society protects the interests of its most vulnerable children, which is why, for example, we published the Green Paper on children in care, and why we are committed to continuing the real improvements we have seen for children with special educational needs under the Labour Government.

I am sure that during the debate, Members on both sides of the House will highlight the difficulties that families can face in getting appropriate support for their children with special educational needs; as a constituency MP I hear stories from families in my own constituency, and I know just how frustrating that can be. Although there is much more to do before we can be satisfied that all children with special educational needs are receiving the support they need, and although there is more to do to ensure that parents are confident of that, we must not lose sight of the real progress that Ofsted reports that we are making in that regard.

The Opposition seem to be saying that we are complacent—indeed, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) used that very word—and that we should throw everything up in the air, stop all special schools closing and create new quangos to assess children’s needs. The Government could do all those things, but I ask the House to consider whether they would actually improve outcomes for children with special educational needs.

In evidence to the Select Committee, Ofsted said:

“If we had a big review at this time the danger is that it would diversify work, resources and developments in such a way that it could send us back to the point of the slow progress we were having prior to 2004.”

Similarly, Brian Lamb, the highly respected chair of the Special Educational Consortium has said:

“We don’t need a radical review. We want to make the system work better.”

He went on to say that the action set out in the Government’s response to the Select Committee would help.

I wrote my own minority report. Would the Minister agree with what I pointed out, which is that

“Parents of children with special educational needs are increasingly turning to the independent and charitable sector to ensure their children receive an appropriate education for their needs”?

I am not sure that parents are increasingly doing that. As far as I am aware, the balance is roughly right, but I would be interested to see any detailed statistics.

Our priority is to build capacity throughout the system. That means making sure that staff have the skills that they need to recognise and meet children’s needs earlier and to gain access to specialist support. Building capacity means planning for the long term. That is why we developed our 10-year SEN strategy “Removing Barriers to Achievement” in 2004, and also why our response to the Select Committee sets out our priorities for action over the next three years.

May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that if there is to be early identification of special needs, there must be far more training of staff in identifying those needs? I urge him to accept the Select Committee’s recommendation that SEN training should not be optional in initial teacher training, but should be a core compulsory module within it.

I broadly agree with what my hon. Friend says. We set out in our response to the Select Committee that we have committed an extra £1.1 million to the Training and Development Agency to develop exactly what we have been talking about.

Will the Minister comment on what the Chairman of the Select Committee said about the Department for Education and Skills in the report—that when the problems with special educational needs are so serious, it is not acceptable for the Government to say that there is no better alternative, because it is the Government’s duty to look for a better alternative?

I was about to say that we understand the arguments for a review. We set out our 10-year strategy in 2004. We have just launched personalisation and progression, and we think it appropriate to allow that to take its course, because we see it as critical to dealing with the individual needs of all children, including those with SEN, in the classroom. After that, we have asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools to carry out a review in three years’ time—and we believe that the timing is appropriate.

Let me put it straight to my hon. Friend. Baroness Warnock called for a totally independent review, and we said that we did not think that necessary, because we would carry out the review. What we called for was a review of statementing. I think that we did a good review of SEN provision; it was on statementing that we took issue with the Government—and still take issue with them. The issue is not about the generality; it is the specific question of the local authority’s dual role in statementing.

I will deal with that point later. I cannot promise to satisfy my hon. Friend, but I will certainly come on to the point about reviewing statementing.

I am grateful to the Minister, and I declare a continuing interest as the parent of a statemented child. I would like to reinforce the observation made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman). Given that local education authorities are in a virtually omnipotent position as the bodies that assess and decide, pay for and, ordinarily, provide the services that a special educational needs child will receive, can the Minister not see the wisdom of accepting recommendation 26, relating to paragraph 99 of the Select Committee report, which says that we must separate the link between assessment and funding? What we require is a system independent of Government, independent of LEAs, independent of the source of funding and independent of the means of supply.

I see the intellectual logic of that separation, but there are real difficulties in working out how the accountability and resourcing of such a system might operate in practice. I will deal with that a little later.

We have asked Her Majesty’s chief inspector of schools to take stock of progress at the end of the period, and we will not hesitate to take further action in the light of her findings. Real progress has already been made since we published “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, which clearly shows in improvements in attainment. For example, among low attaining pupils, 75 per cent. of children with special educational needs now achieve at least level 3 in maths, and 73 per cent. achieve at least level 3 in English at key stage 2. Those improvements reflect increasing investment. That is why local authorities’ indicative spending on SEN stands at £4.5 billion this year. Within that funding, more resources than ever before are going to schools to support early intervention. Over the past three years, the indicative amount of SEN funding in mainstream schools has risen by 43 per cent. and the school budget for special schools has risen by 23 per cent.

Having reached some of the early milestones that we set out in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, we are now focusing on a number of issues. Those issues include building staff skills in identifying and meeting SEN; increasing access to specialist support, as I indicated in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones); improving accountability and the quality of support to parents; and improving provision for children with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties and children with autism. I will talk through some of those ambitions in more detail in a moment, but first I want to address some of the Opposition’s rhetoric.

Special schools play an incredibly important role in meeting the particular needs of some children. I want to make it clear that, contrary to the Opposition’s claims, we absolutely do not have a policy of closing special schools. In fact, over the past six years, spending on maintained special schools has risen by about £400 million to £1.4 billion, improving the quality of provision in those schools. The proportion of pupils with statements who attend special schools has actually risen over the five years. Ninety new special schools have opened in the last two years alone. If we had an anti-special schools policy, clearly it would be failing—and I would not have opened three new special schools in the west midlands in a week over the summer, or be looking forward to opening a new special school on the site of a mainstream campus in my constituency shortly, or the extension to another special school in my constituency in March.

If we were against special schools, we would not have created a strand of the highly successful specialist schools programme specifically for special schools so that they can share their expertise in particular types of SEN with other, mainstream schools. We have announced today that a further 15 special schools have joined the programme. More than 40 special schools now have an SEN specialism. They will work with both mainstream and other special schools to spread best practice and raise standards. In the end, what the hon. Member for Havant is after—rather than getting obsessed by special schools—is ensuring that there is specialist teaching that understands the needs of individual children. We can use special schools and the network of specialist special schools to develop that expertise in mainstream as well as special school settings.

Does the Minister recognise that special schools are not a homogeneous group? Some good work is done in different types of special schools, including schools with 16-plus provision and residential schools, such as Broomhill Bank school in my constituency. Does he recognise that diversity of provision is important in the sector, and does he share my concerns that the sector is becoming more uniform, as well as having fewer places available?

That diversity is important. It is important that when local authorities make local decisions about provision for children with SEN, they take proper account of diversity and commission services accordingly. It is always local authorities that decide on changes to special educational provision, following local consultation and in response to changing local needs. They close special schools on wholly unsuitable sites and in unsatisfactory buildings and build new ones, or co-locate them with mainstream schools. They also develop specially resourced units in or attached to mainstream schools, which Ofsted says is often the best scenario for the children concerned.

The Minister was a councillor many years ago in Mendip, so he will know the geographical area of Somerset. Two special educational needs schools have been shut in west Somerset, at one end of my constituency—he knows the area well. Children now have to go all the way to the far end of the constituency to get to special needs schools. The county cannot afford that, yet the schools had to be shut because of funding problems. The Minister cannot have it both ways. Which is more important: that we try to keep those other schools open and move the children a long way, or that we try to keep a school locally for the children in the greatest need?

It is up to local authorities to take such decisions. The hon. Gentleman talks about funding, but throughout my county of Dorset, which has more problems with per capita funding than Somerset, there is an excellent range of special educational needs provision. In my constituency it is possible for pupils with a range of needs to access that provision relatively locally.

My hon. Friend says that local authorities are closing special schools in unsuitable locations, but my local authority is closing a popular special school in a very desirable location, although The Vines has been thriving. It received an excellent report from Ofsted, and although it was praised by the local authority as one of the best schools in the authority area, plans for its closure were announced a few months later. Sadly, the school will close in August. Although the local authority has tried to blame Government policy for the closure, the real reason is the value of the site on which the school is built, which is £6 million.

Hon. Members have talked about Wandsworth council’s proposal to close two special schools. I have said that these are local decisions, and it is not for me to say whether the proposal is right or not. However, it is interesting to compare the actions of that Tory flagship council with Tory Front-Bench policy. Perhaps the Tory leadership now disowns Baroness Thatcher’s flagships.

In the recent report “Inclusion: does it matter where pupils are taught?”, Ofsted noted that there is

“a mistaken view that local authority reorganisations involving special school closures mean an inevitable loss of specialist support and fewer good quality choices when in fact they try to develop a range of provision to meet changing needs.”

Tory-controlled Hampshire’s policy goes further. It states:

“there is an expectation that the proportion of children educated in special schools may fall over time as mainstream schools grow their capacity to meet a wider range of needs, but flexibility of provision is key.”

The Minister cannot have it both ways. He is showing that Conservative councils are complying with his national guidance. The statement that he attributes to Hampshire is an almost verbatim quote from the Government’s strategy for SEN; that is why Hampshire is doing such a thing. The Government say:

“the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time”.

That is what the Minister is requiring local authorities to do. He cannot stand behind them when they take decisions that comply with his policy. He will be on the picket line next, trying to stop them doing it. The authorities are delivering the Government’s policy.

The hon. Gentleman has to understand that local authorities need to respond to local needs. If, as democratically accountable bodies, they decide to do something different, they have the power to do it. They are responsible for school organisation, and these are decisions about school organisation.

Leaving aside the contradiction between what the Tories say in the Chamber and what they do in power, what would the official Opposition’s policy of a moratorium on special school closures do to improve outcomes for children with SEN? It would certainly mean that Ministers in Whitehall, rather than elected local councillors, would take decisions about meeting local needs. During deliberations in the other place on the Bill that became the Education and Inspections Act 2006, Baroness Buscombe tabled a new clause titled “Closure of special schools”, which would have provided:

“No special school may be closed, unless by special consent of the Secretary of State”.

I do not understand how Conservative Members think that that policy would work. If, God forbid, the Department for Education and Skills should ever become Tory controlled, such a policy would mean that the Department would spend a ridiculous amount of time taking local decisions that were insensitive to local needs. Local authorities would be prevented from replacing old and out-of-date facilities.

Under such a moratorium, Oldham would not have been able to close three small special schools to create New Bridge school, a special school for 284 students aged 11 to 19 with a range of needs. Among the pupils are students with profound, severe and moderate learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorders and physical difficulties. The school offers excellent facilities and is located on a site with a mainstream secondary school—that is excellent practice. The school has been praised by Ofsted for its

“excellent array of extra-curricular opportunities and the wide range of suitable vocational courses available to students, alongside a key skills and leisure curriculum”.

Is that the sort of development that the Opposition want to blight through their policy of moratorium, which is mentioned in their motion?

Ofsted found little difference in the quality of provision, and in the outcomes for pupils, across primary and secondary mainstream and special schools, but it noted that mainstream schools provided with additional resources to cater specifically for children with particular types of need are

“particularly successful in achieving high outcomes for pupils academically, socially and personally.”

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. Our policy is to promote a flexible range of provision, including mainstream schools, special schools and resourced provision in, or attached to, mainstream schools.

Does the Minister agree with the view, expressed by Baroness Warnock in her recent book, that there is often a complicated trade-off between the social benefits of inclusion and the educational benefits of being educated at a special school, where a child can receive specialist support that may not be available in the mainstream? If he agrees with that view, does he also agree that the best person to take the decision is the parent of the child concerned?

It is important for us to make sure that the parents’ voice is heard, and we are keen to ensure that it is. That is one of the priorities that we set out in “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, and one of the areas on which we are focusing.

We will issue guidance to local authorities on the factors that they must take into account when reorganising their special educational provision. When Lord Adonis announced the guidance recently, he made it clear that local authorities wishing to close special schools would face an improvement test. Under that test—Opposition Members should pay attention to this—any plans for reorganising local special educational provision, including any proposals for closing special schools, must improve existing provision. Local authorities must also show that appropriate alternative provision is ready before schools close. Is that not a sensible pragmatic approach that safeguards the needs of those who rely on special schools, without blocking change? Is it not a substantial policy, in contrast to what the Opposition propose?

That would work if it were the policy, but it will not work if it is not the policy—and that is what I politely suggest to the Minister. I accept the logic of his overall view, but I put to him the case of an institution that is not formally a school, but operates as such, the Nuffield speech and language unit. There are currently three children at that school with severe speech, language and communication impairments, and they face the threat—it is almost a certainty—of being kicked out of that institution, without being provided with substitute provision of the same quality to meet their needs. That is the consequence of arrogance, incompetence and insensitivity, not on the part of the Government but on the part of the Royal Free Hampstead NHS Trust, and it should not be allowed.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s close interest in that facility, and his effective advocacy on behalf of it, but the guidance that I mentioned will be statutory, and I hope that that gives some comfort to Opposition Members who have concerns about the subject. The guidance will safeguard the interests of children with special educational needs. It will provide added protection and will guarantee local communities, children and parents that provision in their area will only get better.

One system with which some parents experience difficulties is the assessment and statementing process—a subject that I promised I would cover. I recognise parents’ real frustration, but I do not believe that we are talking about a symptom of a whole system in crisis. As we have heard, the Select Committee on Education and Skills asked us to revise the statementing system. I understand its perspective, and I want to reassure the House that we considered the issues carefully before we made our response. I ask Members to consider just a few of the practicalities of changing the assessments and statements system. If local authorities were no longer responsible for statutory assessments, it is likely that we would need another agency to carry them out.

Because someone would have to carry out the assessments, and it would need to be a credible, accountable and independent body. There would be no point in providing the independence that Members ask for if we did not set the system up in an independent form. Obviously, we are always willing to listen to ideas, but having thought about the subject, I believe that we would need another agency. How could that agency guarantee local accountability in the same way as a local authority? If the assessment agency specified the provision to be made for each child, what would happen afterwards? If parents were provided with a voucher—Opposition Members may support such a proposal—what would happen if it was not enough to buy the appropriate provision? Those questions have not been answered convincingly, in the House, in the country, or internationally.

May I probe my hon. Friend a little further? The Select Committee asked for a review, and it suggested that it should be possible to come to a better arrangement than one in which the local authority both conducted the evaluation and provided the resources. The Government said that we were asking for a quango, but that is not the case. If a group of serious people sat down and discussed alternative methods of assessment, they would not propose a great quango. A small independent committee system might be the answer, but the Government could opt for various solutions. We were aggrieved at the implication that we were proposing a quango, because we were not. There must be another way of dividing assessment from the provision of resources, and I believe that men and women of good will could find a system that was both simple and effective.

As ever, I heed the wisdom of the Chairman of the Select Committee. As I told the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I can see the intellectual attraction of that separation, but when I have tried to think about practical arrangements—obviously, I am a bear of limited intelligence—I have not been able to determine what they should be. The Select Committee made a strong case for the division, but it did not offer any practical proposals as to how it would work. I am willing to discuss the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), but first I need some practical suggestions.

If my hon. Friend is challenging us to do what we thought the Government would do and come up with a series of measures, will he give us an assurance that he will take them seriously? If we do that quickly, will he assess our suggestions quickly?

I always take the Select Committee seriously, as does the Department. If its members can deal with the issues of accountability and practicality and propose a system that will work properly in the real world, obviously I will listen.

I am grateful to the Minister of State, who has been exceptionally generous in giving way. It is always baffling when a brilliant Minister is characterised by a sudden and inexplicable timidity. It is perfectly possible for a group of well-intentioned people from all parts of the House to get together and produce an effective and practical blueprint. The Minister would not need to get rid of the local education authority role altogether if he did not want to; he would simply have to ensure that the LEA was not in a position of virtual monopoly. Whatever arguments he advances for the status quo, I urge him not to talk about accountability. Special needs parents do not have great power.

I shall move on, Madam Deputy Speaker, but as ever, I will bear in mind the comments of the hon. Member for Buckingham.

Staff training is critical to ensure that children receive the standard and quality of teaching that they deserve and to which they are entitled. The standards for qualified teachers are being reviewed by the Training and Development Agency, as I said, and we expect the new standards to recognise the importance of trainee teachers having a knowledge and understanding of SEN and disability, as well as the skills to vary their approach to meet the needs of individual children. We expect SEN and disability to be a national priority in the framework for continuing professional development. This year, we will introduce the first ever national programme of continuing professional development for staff supporting children with SEN, which will be delivered through the national strategies and will begin with training in speech, language and communication difficulties, followed by training on autism and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.

We are strengthening the role of the special educational needs co-ordinator—SENCO—in schools, making it a statutory requirement for schools to have SENCOs and setting out our expectations in regulations. Those developments are in addition to the £1.1 million programme with the TDA that I mentioned, which will build staff skills at all levels, from initial teacher training to continuing professional development.

With our autism working group, we are developing a resource pack for teachers to meet the needs of children with autistic spectrum disorders.

Will the Minister extend the training programme to include, for example, passenger assistance on transport carrying children with autism?

I cannot give the hon. Lady a response now, but I will drop her a line if we are unable to give her an answer before the end of the debate.

Access to specialist support is essential to enable all children with SEN to make progress, so we are supporting the development of regional centres of expertise and promoting collaboration between local authorities and other agencies to provide for children with the most complex needs.

We are piloting a trust model, drawing in private sponsorship, to help train specialist teachers in dyslexia. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is no longer in his place, mentioned a school that he used to represent. These specialist teachers will make a real difference not just in their own schools, but in families of schools.

Parents rightly want to know how their children are doing. We are improving accountability to parents by making better data available to schools through a common data set to monitor and evaluate children’s progress. This means that parents can see how each child’s progress compares with that of their peers, and make judgments about any additional support that should be put in place. We are encouraging schools to discuss this information with parents at meetings each term.

Finally, we will improve the quality of parent partnership services and strengthen the “arm’s length” nature of their relationship with local authorities by setting clear expectations for the way in which such services are provided.

Real progress can only be made through a sustained long-term programme of action. I hope that I have illustrated that commitment today, and that I have done justice to the comprehensive system of support that we are building—a system that will deliver real improvements for children with special educational needs and their families, rather than the stop-go policy of the Opposition, which seeks to stall all improvements in reviews and moratoriums.

I begin, perhaps a little unusually, by thanking the Conservatives for using one of their Opposition days to debate this important topic. It is useful for us to have time to discuss such matters in detail. Notwithstanding the relatively brief debates that we had in the course of the Education and Inspections Bill, since our last major debate on the subject on the Floor of the House two significant reports have been published that have been highly critical of the Government’s provision—the Education and Skills Committee report and the Ofsted report on inclusion. Those reports follow hard on the heels of reports by Ofsted in 2004 and by the Audit Commission in 2002, which highlighted serious flaws in standards and access to provision for children with special educational needs.

I agree with much that is in the text of the motion. It touches on many of the issues that I shall raise in relation to the training of staff and the need for the Government to review their statementing process. However, as I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), I regret the framing of the debate, which is polarised between provision in mainstream schools or provision in special schools. By polarising the debate in that way, we are in danger of missing many of the more complex failings in the provision of education for children with special educational needs, which many parents come to discuss with me in my surgery. I often laugh at the fact that the hon. Gentleman has a habit of writing comments with which I agree, but when he speaks he has a tendency to talk me out of supporting him. I shall attempt to resist that urge today and be more conciliatory.

I shall deal later with the Government’s inclusion agenda and the Conservatives’ proposal for a moratorium, but first I shall make some general points about the quality of education in all settings. At the end of my remarks, I shall speak about the reform of the statementing process and the financial support that goes with it.

Let us be clear from the beginning that the division between mainstream and special schools is crude. Children can learn in a variety of settings—in a mainstream school, with additional support; in a mainstream school with a specialist facility; in a mainstream or special school with additional part-time support at a unit elsewhere, such as the Hope centre in my constituency; at a special school co-located with a mainstream school; or at a special school. Collaboration between mainstream and special schools is possible and desirable, albeit that it does not happen often enough. I therefore fear that the debate that we have had so far is rather a false one.

The key issue, as highlighted by innumerable reports by Ofsted and the Audit Commission, is that of quality—or a lack of it, or at least variations in it. Variations in quality exist between and within different types of school. Sadly, there is good and bad provision in mainstream and in special schools, and bad provision in either is unacceptable. For me, Ofsted’s most damning statement about education for children with special needs concerned the low aspirations about, and poor understanding of, what constitutes good progress for children. Why should children with special needs be short-changed on standards and rigour? Critical to the success of children in all schools, whether mainstream or special, is the quality of teachers and the quality of leadership. The level of expertise and training is the key factor in standards in schools, regardless of type.

The Government failed to respond to many of the Select Committee’s criticisms, but I am pleased that they at least responded to criticism about the training of the work force, as the Minister outlined. That is welcome, but I suspect that we have a long way to go. Last September, I spent a day shadowing teachers in Manor special school in my constituency, and one of the things that shocked me was the amount of time that senior management are required to give to training staff—all staff, not only teachers—who work within a special school setting. Many arrive with no prior knowledge of special educational needs. The burdens of headship are very great in any school, but greater still in a special school, where the leadership team are required to take such an enormous role in staff development.

Many children with moderate or severe learning difficulties also have complex medical needs that a school must deal with effectively. For those children, as well as for many others with primarily physical disabilities, seamless working with the local health service is essential. It is therefore an issue of enormous concern that many local authorities find their joint working with the primary care trust pushed to breaking point as PCTs try to find any service that they can cut to cost-shunt on to councils in order to meet the impending deadline to clear their deficit. In my own local authority, since last September the PCT has, without any consultation, withdrawn speech and language therapy from 160 children and reduced occupational therapy provision to special and mainstream schools by 50 per cent. It now proposes to decommission music therapy for autistic children and mental health services for young people with a learning disability. There is a real danger that short-term cost cutting will have an impact that will last a generation, and I dare say that the situation is not unique to Brent.

Let me turn to inclusion. It should go without saying, although it has not been said enough so far, that the key to good provision is that it is child-centred and focuses on the whole child and the family’s wishes, not on the disability. A child with special educational needs is as unique as a child without special educational needs, and though two children may have very similar diagnoses or statements, they may require a very different type of educational setting in order to thrive. However, that approach is surely at odds with a policy objective clearly aimed at placing children in mainstream provision and reducing the number of places at special schools.

The Minister said that the Government do not have such a policy. However, the 2004 special educational needs strategy, “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, clearly states that the proportion of children educated in special schools should “fall over time” and that there should be a “reduced reliance on statements”. The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 and the 2001 SEN code of practice outline a similar approach. If the Government have changed their policy, as the Minister claims, I wish that they would simply come clean and say so. As the Select Committee observed in its report, if they are saying that they play no role whatsoever as regards local authority reorganisation or decisions to close schools, that is surely an abdication of responsibility. The Government set the national framework. If they have changed their stance on inclusion and now favour—as the Minister for Schools says—a broad continuum of flexible provision, which I hope most hon. Members welcome, they should make that clear to local authorities, which have to interpret the strategy on the ground.

I do not agree that education in a mainstream setting has failed so many children so badly. Education in mainstream schools, without the sort of expert support and high quality specialist teaching that Ofsted noted and to which I referred earlier, has done that. That failure to support inclusion leads to exclusion in an inclusive setting. Lack of teacher training and support led to the appalling mistreatment of, for example, Jade Chambers, who was restrained 45 times in six weeks. Such lack of training and expertise leads so many children with communication difficulties to go undiagnosed. The frustration of those children, which is inevitable if they do not receive appropriate support, leads far too many of them to develop the sort of behavioural problems that make exclusion inevitable, too.

Between 20 and 30 per cent. of children with autism are excluded from school for precisely the reasons that I outlined. We are failing those children badly. Lack of support, appropriate training and adequate leadership makes bullying children with SEN inevitable, as the Warnock report stated. That was possibly the most depressing statement in the report. It is a depressing admission of failure to say that it is inevitable for a child with SEN to be the victim of bullying.

Inclusion has all too often been treated as the cheap option. The root of the problem lies with the flawed statementing process and financial constraints on councils. The Select Committee was right to be disappointed with the Government’s response to its report. It was hardly the first to point out that the statementing process is flawed, yet the Government have refused to review it. Like many Members of Parliament, I meet countless families in my surgery who are battling to get the help that they believe that their child badly needs. The lengthy, bureaucratic, highly adversarial process leads in many cases to a long-term fracturing of the relationship between the family and the local authority. That relationship is essential if they are to work together to get appropriate education and care for the child.

My party is considering reviewing our policies on the matter, but I am sympathetic to the arguments that the Select Committee and others made for a clear division between the body that advises on need and the body that provides the resources to meet the need. My sympathy for that derives mainly from my work in science policy before I was elected. Many of the crises that developed in scientific aspects of public policy began with a loss of confidence in expert advice because one cannot clearly delineate the point at which expert advice ends and political decision making starts. For expert advice to be credible, one needs to separate carefully fact, expert advice and policy based on that advice. One needs to be able to track an audit trail through all the stages involved in making a decision, with clear accountability lines at each point, to pick up on the Minister’s point. For the same reason, I have always felt uncomfortable with the conflation of the roles in the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence of ruling on the efficacy of a treatment and determining its cost effectiveness. That problem causes much anxiety.

We cannot continue with a process that allows local authorities to delay statementing for as long as possible or draft statements in imprecise language to lessen the expense on the authority. I understand the Minister’s point that separating the roles may create a mismatch between those defining need and the budget that must pay for it. However, if we separated the roles, perhaps we could have an honest debate about how big the budget should be, instead of continuing with rationing based on the extent of parents’ motivation to fight the system. If the statement of need were separated from the payment of resources, we might be able to break the trap that leaves many children to begin the battle again every time they move house. That applies especially to families in temporary accommodation, who may move from one local authority to another, and looked-after children, who are especially vulnerable.

That point brings me to the question of resources. Hon. Members will know that, in general, I support the delegation of funding from central Government to local government. However, the situation that we are discussing today is analogous to the commissioning of specialist services in the NHS, in that we need to find a practical and pragmatic way around the issue of hard-to-predict or rare and expensive cases. It plays havoc with the budget of a small local authority if a child requiring high levels of support moves into an area in the middle of a financial year. If we had a central pot from which to support such cases, the pressure on local authorities would be much more manageable. As I have said, my party is looking at these issues at the moment, and we will bring forward more detailed policies shortly. I only hope that the Government will do likewise.

As I said at the outset, I have great sympathy with much in the text of the motion that we are debating today. However, I thoroughly disagree with the Conservatives’ proposal for a moratorium on the closure of special schools. Ofsted was quite clear that there is good and bad provision in special schools. A moratorium would effectively make it impossible to close a school with poor facilities or poor standards, or to rebuild the school or move it to a unit co-located on a mainstream site. Nevertheless, we will support the Conservatives today because we support the substantive points raised in their motion and their call for the Government to review their provision for special educational needs, and perhaps also because we could not support the self-congratulatory and rather complacent amendment tabled by the Government. The Government’s record on this issue is lamentable and their response to the Select Committee report was woeful. It is time that they responded properly.

Order. May I remind all right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute time limit on contributions in this debate? However, in view of the time factor, Members might wish voluntarily to reduce the length of their contributions to the debate even further.

I welcome the opportunity to debate provision for special educational needs. I am proud of the progress that has been made in the past 10 years, often with the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Indeed, this is a subject about which the public are especially impatient with partisan point scoring, both because it is obviously an area in which personal and professional experience and ideas are not confined to party lines, and because effective policy demands co-operation between central Government and local education authorities, regardless of political complexion.

This is also an area in which debates on matters such as mainstreaming versus special schools have often distorted the reality, as the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) has just said. It is pretty obvious to most people that we need special schools and mainstreaming, and that we will get the best choices and the best outcomes where there is close collaboration. That is the position set out by the Disability Rights Commission in its briefing for this debate, and it is the view of the overwhelming majority of concerned parents in my constituency.

Progress on inclusion is being made in our area, hand in hand with special school provision. A high proportion of special schools in Oxfordshire are co-located with mainstream schools, increasing the chances to mix. The number of tribunal cases is low, and has halved to 20 over the past four years. Contrary to the argument in the Opposition motion, in Oxfordshire there have been no special school closures under successive Administrations for decades. It is true that the excellent Ormerod school for physically disabled children is now technically closing, but its special circumstances illustrate an important and positive point—it has had falling numbers because parents and their children have chosen mainstream provision. However, it is being changed into a special needs base and will continue to admit physically disabled children while also taking on those with other needs—notably related to communication and autism—from whom demand is increasing. There was not a single objection to the change. I have also checked the numbers relating to special schools in the county. In April 1996 it was 916, and in April 2006 it was 915.6, which demonstrates a quite remarkable stability.

However, on important questions of special needs choice, availability and collaboration, there is one specific and pressing challenge facing pupils, parents and the local education authority in Oxfordshire on which I want to focus. Alone among English education authorities, Oxfordshire has no post-16 provision in special schools. Thirty years ago, the LEA decided to develop post-16 provision exclusively in further education colleges. I am not knocking the education provided in our FE colleges. Many students transfer successfully, and many parents and Ofsted are satisfied with their support. Equally, however, many parents, especially those whose children have more complex needs, are unhappy. Indeed, the time approaching transition is often a period of enormous anxiety, and it is easy to understand why. Special schools in the county have a good record of providing education in a particularly supportive environment, in which those who might find it difficult to make their way in mainstream surroundings develop the security and confidence to make the most of their abilities.

Two special schools inspected last autumn—Ormerod and Frank Wise—were assessed as outstanding. Two more—Fitzwaryn and Northern House—were also given top grades, and Iffley Mead special school in my constituency is good and improving. Indeed, I presented awards for the young enterprise business projects in central Oxfordshire on Saturday, and Iffley Mead school was one of the few state schools represented—its project won an award. Yet, at the age of 16, Oxfordshire students have to leave these supportive schools, with their more sheltered provision, and move to the environment of an FE college. These colleges are often some distance from their homes, have more students, and have a social ambiance which, with the best will in the world, will not always be easy for a student with complex special needs. It is recognised that such colleges are not suitable for some students, but that means that their parents have to make the case not only for alternative provision, but for out-of-county provision. In general, Oxfordshire has one of the highest levels of provision for in-county SEN, yet nearly half of those who are educated out of county are post-16, at a cost of £1.4 million a year, because their needs cannot be met within the county.

Parents campaigning for change in Oxfordshire have worked through a very effective voluntary organisation, Choice, which is committed to disabled young people post-16 being offered the same educational choices as those without disabilities. The county council and learning and skills council responded by commissioning a review by Dr. Matthew Griffiths. The review set out options for the future, and Choice conducted a consultation with parents, who overwhelmingly favoured special school-based provision.

The LEA decided to support the principle that

“school based provision should be provided as soon as possible”,

and last month agreed interim proposals to enable some courses for some pupils beyond 16—those with the most complex needs—to be taught in their existing special schools from this coming September, even though the pupils would be on the roll of the FE college, effectively sub-contracting back to the schools. This is a step forward, and while there have been fears over whether responsibility would lie with the school or the college if something went wrong, the council has made a commitment that each pupil will have a document setting out their entitlement and the way in which parental concerns will be addressed.

What we really need, and what most parents want, is real choice for children to continue as a school student at a special school—a choice that is available elsewhere but not in Oxfordshire. However, the county’s proposals are a genuine attempt to make progress by opening up the school route without destabilising the FE provision. The financial implications of all that are that an extra £150,000 will be required in the next financial year, rising to an additional £1.1 million in 2010-11, even if only students with the most complex needs have places in special schools. It would be twice that amount if all special schools had the age range extended to 19. There are additional capital costs involved as well.

Oxfordshire is in a unique position in terms of provision, so it has ended up in a uniquely disadvantageous funding position in relation to funding. No one is suggesting the Government have deliberately brought that about—the situation is clearly a product of the very unusual trajectory that provision in Oxfordshire has taken. On the one hand, the county’s grant from the Department for Education and Skills through the Learning and Skills Council is very low because it has historically spent less on post-16 special needs students, because they went through the FE route; on the other, the further education colleges only receive funding in line with colleges elsewhere, despite the fact that in Oxfordshire they are effectively providing special schools on their roll. As a result, county officers advise me, Learning and Skills Council funding for post-16 special needs in Oxfordshire is £15 per head of the 16 to 19 population, compared with a national average of £63 and an average of £48 for our “statistical neighbours” among other shire counties.

Therefore, there are crucial questions for Ministers to answer. As Oxfordshire grows special school post-16 provision into the system, will funding be increased to a fair level comparable with other areas? Will those who continue in FE, whether through choice or compulsion, get fair financial provision compared with their peers in other areas who are in schools? There are basic questions of equity that must be addressed. In November, I wrote to the Secretary of State to seek a meeting with an appropriate Minister on that matter, and I hope that in his reply my hon. Friend will tell me both that Oxfordshire’s unique position is recognised and that he will be pleased to have an early meeting with me and other Oxfordshire MPs to examine those questions.

Special educational needs provision in this country has come a long way in recent years. There is still more to do, as we heard earlier, to ensure that every child can readily access the educational, social and psychological support that they need. While there is much good progress to be pleased about in our area, with more special needs students getting qualifications, assessments completed on time, and much good special needs provision helping young people to fulfil their potential—and let us not forget to praise the teachers who are working with the young people to achieve that—there are issues of fair provision and funding post-16 that must now be sorted out.

I declare an interest, as I am a father of a seven-year-old who has special educational needs and is on a statement. We had to go through a tribunal to organise his current programme. I agree with the praise that the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) gave to the teachers in his constituency. I also praise the teachers in my constituency, although my boy did not go through the statementing process in Norfolk; we went through the process in London. I will not say which borough is involved, but the school is doing a superb job.

Every parent who has experience of this problem realises how vital early intervention is. That is why so much stress is involved in the whole statementing process. As I understand it, a remarkable 236,700 children in this country have statements—2.9 per cent. of the total. Nearly 1.3 million children in this country with special educational needs do not have a statement, and nearly 6 per cent. of those who do have a statement are in mainstream education. As the Minister and most Members will know from their constituency surgeries, the whole process is long drawn out, hugely time-consuming and traumatic. The vast majority of those parents who come to my surgeries, month in and month out, to tell me about their children, paint a picture of their family being at an all-time low, totally stressed out at a vulnerable time, and faced with a wall of bureaucratic paperwork. As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) pointed out, the process is often very daunting.

I speak from experience, because I happen to be a qualified barrister, and we were able to afford an experienced solicitor. We went to the local authority, and we did not receive the statement that we felt was appropriate. We then went to a tribunal. Even for two people with professional qualifications, that was a trying and exhausting experience. While that was taking place, I wondered all the time how many of my constituents would have coped, and do cope, in similar circumstances. Often, they do not cope at all.

The system is in urgent need of reform. Although Her Majesty’s Government have promised a review of the statementing process and framework, I understand that it is likely to be delayed until 2009. Why is that? I praise my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) under whose leadership our party has set up a special educational needs commission. The findings of that commission’s interim report are well worth considering. The commission recommends that statements should be replaced by a special needs profile, which should be drawn up by independent, accredited profile assessors using objective criteria. The child in question would be allocated to one of approximately 12 levels of support, each of which would attract funding that would be provided by a national funding agency. Vitally, the child would then carry those funds to a mainstream or special needs school. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) feels strongly about that point.

One of the attractions of our proposals is that much of the bureaucracy in the statementing process will be removed, and parents will be given far greater choice. I hope that we will therefore move away from a slow, laborious, adversarial appeals system, to one that is fast and non-adversarial.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the statementing system, which I have also experienced, is that it is very legalistic? One often has to analyse a particular paragraph, phrase or nuance to see whether it will allow for the breadth of provision that one wants one’s child to have. How can we expect people who do not have the necessary education or articulacy to persist and persist again to ensure that that they get the formula that will best suit their children? Does he agree that we must have a review?

I agree entirely. The Government should listen to what our party is saying, and consider the report and recommendations of our commission. My hon. and learned Friend and I both speak from experience. We are both barristers—he is an eminent Queen’s counsel, and I am only a former junior barrister, although I had the privilege of practising for a number of years. Even with the knowledge that I accumulated at the Bar, the tribunal faced us with a very large amount of paperwork, which required a great deal of digestion. My hon. and learned Friend is right to ask how many parents can even begin to cope with the process.

There is a related problem entailed in this conflict of interest. Is my hon. Friend aware of the common phenomenon of local education authorities telling parents not to worry, because the problems will disappear, recede or be overcome, and that one cannot know for certain whether that assertion is motivated by intellectual conviction or the desire to preserve filthy lucre?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not want to speak any more about my case, because the House will get bored quickly, but I also deal with a large number of constituency cases, and I am left to conclude time and again that the local education authority puts every conceivable obstacle in people’s way at every turn. The LEA is not driven necessarily by the primacy of the needs of the children; it can also be driven by the cost implications of the statement. The extra intervention and help will always have a cost implication. That is why our proposal takes a great deal of pressure away from the LEA through the setting-up of a funding agency, and enables the child to take that funding stream with him or her to either a mainstream school or a special school.

That brings me to the issue of special school closures, which has been discussed at some length. There is no question but that special schools do a superb job. I understand that they are six times less likely to be classed as inadequate, and yet they are three times more likely to close. North-West Norfolk has two special schools. The Alderman Jackson school caters for children with special needs ranging from those who are seriously disabled and who require 24/7 attention day in and day out, through to those who are still disabled and have serious special needs but on a more moderate scale.

Ethel Tipple school is in the same part of King’s Lynn, not very far away. The pupils range from those with mild special educational needs to those with moderate SEN. Many have come from mainstream education: typically, they have been in mainstream education throughout their primary careers. When they move to secondary school, they find it difficult to keep up. They may end up being bullied, or distracting the class. The attention that they received as a result of their statements in primary school, in smaller classes where other children may have had less inclination to pick on them, enabled them to settle, but they find it difficult to settle in secondary education and consequently move to Ethel Tipple school, where some have been given back their confidence and self-esteem and, as a result, have returned to mainstream education.

Our local education authority is now obeying the instructions of the Minister’s Department and is merging the two schools. To be fair, there will be a brand spanking new school on the site of Ethel Tipple, but Alderman Jackson school will close. All the special needs children, including those who are seriously disabled, will be taught in the same school. Of course I look forward to the new school opening in due course, but I think that the jury is out. We are moving into uncharted waters. The process of closing a school that was able to give hands-on attention to children with serious special needs and disabilities and moving them into a general special school will be fraught with problems. I hope and pray that it works, but obviously it will be a question of waiting and seeing what happens as we step into the unknown.

Speech therapy is a vital part of the whole early intervention process. I understand that 58 per cent. of children who have speech and language therapy written into their statements receive it. Time and again I meet parents in my constituency whose children have speech and language therapy written into their statements, but do not receive it. I recently met a group of North-West Norfolk parents from the spectrum group allied to the Norfolk branch of the National Autistic Society. There is mixed provision for their children, most of whom are on the autistic disorder spectrum. They range from children who are completely non-verbal to those with mild dyspraxia, mild dyslexia or mild autism.

One of the recurring themes at that meeting was the total inadequacy of speech therapy provision. Charlie is six and is totally non-verbal. He is in mainstream education. His statement entitles him to full provision of speech and language therapy, but he has received none whatever. Tom is also six and also in mainstream education with a statement. He is articulatorily dyspraxic, and his speech is very poor indeed. He was promised four days of speech therapy per week, but is receiving only two days. He is slightly luckier than Charlie, who receives none at all.

The problem is very simple. A few months ago the primary care trust decided to keep a speech and language therapy position unfilled until the new financial year because of pressures on it. A letter that I have received from the county council explains that the problems caused by reconfiguration of the PCT have led to many difficulties. Another big problem is the extent to which the local education authority liaises with and talks to the PCT. There are lessons to be learnt. The good news is that the post is to be filled, but there will be a backlog—a legacy—of problems.

I hope very much that we will approach this issue on a non-partisan basis. The public are very irritated by politicians who are too confrontational about it: they expect us to be pragmatic, innovative and imaginative. I hope that the Government will listen to Members throughout the House.

I shall try to be brief, as I was allowed to intervene on the Front-Bench speeches. I noted that in the special Christmas edition of Private Eye I was described as a windbag and that my Education and Skills Committee was described as “soapy”. Perhaps I will dispel that reputation by being brief today.

I was a bit disappointed—in fact, my emotions were mixed—when I saw that this subject was to be debated on an Opposition day. I felt it was fantastic that we had secured another debate on special educational needs, but the feeling was tinged with sadness that we were dragging the issue into the realms of “We are better than you” and “You have done worse than us”. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) was absolutely right: we need a consensus.

In fact a consensus is emerging, and we should not avoid it. There is an emerging consensus between what was said by the Select Committee, what was said in the interim report of the Leader of the Opposition’s group, and much of the work that the Government are doing. We have seen change and more change since my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) became Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills. What caused my big disappointment was the way in which the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) concentrated on the number of children in special schools. The evidence, the visits, and all that our Select Committee did suggested that the position was much more complex.

Those who visit as many schools as we do—as I do, certainly—will know that there is poor provision in special schools. They are in awful, tumbledown Victorian buildings miles from any other school.

I will not give way, because I am going to be brief. I am awfully sorry.

There are also bad modern special schools. Someone from a London borough to whom I was talking recently told me proudly “We are building a new special school.” I said “That is interesting. Where is it?” “Oh, about a mile from the nearest school.” What we need is co-provision—buildings that are on the same site, or close to each other. It should be possible to do what was done in Darlington, and build a special school in the heart of another school.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. In the interests of building cross-party consensus, will he confirm that he too thinks it is time for the Government to review the statement process radically, to make it much less of a battle for parents to get their children assessed and to empower parents? Parents of children in Harwich and Clacton—which, as he knows, the Select Committee visited—are having to fight to obtain statements.

The hon. Gentleman is a very good member of my Committee, and he knows that I agree with him. That was a cross-party recommendation, and I have intervened a number of times in an attempt to make the point. We wanted an independent review to deal with it, although I think that the review that we produced was very good.

The position is complex. Things are moving quite fast, including the school building programme: 800 new schools have been built since 1997, which has allowed a great deal of fine provision in mainstream schools, and special schools are also being built. I want to be totally fair to the Government on that score. What is essential, however, is early and speedy diagnosis of a child’s needs. That is what every parent wants. Wherever parents may be, they want a speedy, highly professional diagnosis as early as possible: at nursery school, in the very earliest years. As for statements, we want the balance to be changed, and if there is to be an appeal process, let us make the darn thing fast. We ought to be able to give parents a guarantee that they will have to wait for only a short time.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right about the need for early diagnosis as a prerequisite of early intervention. Does he agree that, as part of either the early-years framework or the common assessment system, there should be a screening test to identify speech, language and communication impairments, which Afasic recently recommended?

Yes. As long as the tests are the right ones, I think that early use of them is very important. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have visited a school about which he is passionate, and I agree with what he has said.

Both the statementing process and the appeal process must be fast. If personalised learning means anything, and if we are to learn anything from it, it must relate to special needs. That is the very heart of personalised learning—indeed, the best personalised learning in special needs is the model for what we eventually want for every pupil. Such personalised learning is crucial for children with challenging conditions.

We must also look at costs. We have underrated that issue, and it has not been alluded to in the debate. The cost of failing to identify problems and of not providing proper provision must be considered. That leads to many children being excluded from school. The figures in that respect are very worrying; I think that I am right in saying that 27 per cent. of those excluded have special educational needs. Exclusion is expensive. Although it is expensive for a young person to get special provision within a particular framework, it also becomes expensive if that young person starts truanting or gets involved in crime. We should also consider the NEET category—those who are not in education, employment or training. A high proportion of NEETs—as high as 80 per cent. in some areas—have a history of special educational needs. My Committee also conducted a prison education review last year. It showed that about half of the people in prison have a history of poor education, lack of education and special educational needs. Therefore, the cost to our economy and to society is great.

If those conducting an inquiry do it right, they do not write it themselves; instead of dreaming it up, they listen to people out in the world. Members of my Select Committee read the evidence and take account of the oral evidence and go on visits, but we also listen. If a Committee gets things right, it picks up a resonance, and we then report that resonance—we write it down and tell the Government about it. We faced great difficulty in breaking through the usual suspects—all the pressure groups and the people who want to abolish all special schools and those who do not want to close any. We listened to voices from such extremes but we did not accept what was said.

However, we did listen carefully to parents; we did so as much as we could. Indeed, one Saturday afternoon I even went to Hampton Wick in the constituency of the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and listened to 120 parents who told me in no uncertain terms about what it was like to have a child with special educational needs. I was told that in some cases that means that they have a child for ever, and about what happens at 16 and 18 and when education runs out, and about what happens when there is no work or no special provision—and about how the woman in such circumstances has often been deserted by her male partner, and she has to look after that child until he is 40 and then 50 and so on until her own life is finished.

The catalogue of stories that I heard revealed to me that if we do another special educational needs inquiry—we always find that there is another inquiry that should be done—it should be on provision for those post-16 years of age. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) highlighted that in the case of Oxford. In terms of profound special educational needs, we need to take a careful look at what happens to children when they reach 16, 18 and beyond.

Finally, we discovered something very disturbing. What is happening in our society that leads to increasing numbers of children suffering from very serious and sophisticated problems in terms of the ability to learn? Let me refer to autism. The spectrum is increasingly becoming understood; it is a wide spectrum, and there are some especially worrying features. Why do six times more boys than girls suffer from some form of autism? We did not have time to probe that.

No, as I believe that I can only give way twice.

Might a Committee other than mine—or a Department—start looking at the scientific facts in respect of the problem I have referred to? What is the medical or scientific analysis of what is happening in this complex area of special need?

I have galloped through my speech in order to give other Members a chance to speak.

Like many colleagues in this House, I have a child with significant special educational needs. I have also been a school governor at two schools where I was responsible for special needs education, and for the past 20 months many people have come to talk to me about the issue.

Given that communication is one of the crucial tools for children with special educational needs, we all know that speech and language therapy must be at the core of what they require. As the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has said,

“without shared communication, there is automatic exclusion and isolation”.

The Government’s aspiration for inclusion for all children is admirable, but, unfortunately, their policy of removing barriers to achievement is not working.

I wish to talk briefly about my son, Max, because his experiences and what I, as his parent, have gone through are instructive. He is 14 years old. For the first nine years we tried very hard to keep him at the same school as his three other siblings. Unfortunately, year after year his confidence went down. We struggled; we fought with the school to keep him, and it played ball with us by keeping him there. Unfortunately, in the end neither Max nor the school could cope, so we moved him. We were lucky; we were able to move him to a specialist school. Over the next four years, he improved dramatically—his self-confidence in particular improved—and last year, when he was 13, we were able to bring him back into the mainstream. The problem with the current system is that there is no flexibility for children who do not have parents who have the ability—perhaps such as me—to fight hard for their children and who have the financial wherewithal to move their children to specialist schools. Many of my constituents cannot even articulate the problems that their children have.

However, for children without severe needs, the Government’s strategy has been working. Many schools in my constituency do a great job for children who do not have significant educational needs, such as those with dyslexia. Mainstream schools now have the ability to help to support children with such special needs. However, Baroness Warnock has said—and I must agree with her—that special educational needs

“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.”

Unfortunately, for children with severe needs, the system seems—for whatever reason—to be failing. Schools are shutting down, and there is a lack of qualified teachers to help children; there are even staff cuts. Last weekend, I met one of my constituents, Pauline Hicks, whose nine-year-old daughter, Darcey, is severely deaf. She showed me a letter that she had received from the speech and language therapy manager of Mid Essex primary care trust to the head teacher of her daughter’s school that said:

“I am writing to let you know that our service is currently undergoing a review following changes in the NHS and as a result of staff shortages. This means we will be offering a restricted service.”

Because of a lack of resources there is now nowhere for her to take her daughter to receive the support that she needs. The problem is that, with the best will in the world, if the Government want to deliver on their objectives, they must put in the necessary resources.

Chapel Hill school in Braintree was in a very poor area. It went into special measures, and when it did so, I decided to become a school governor. Of the children attending Chapel Hill, 42 per cent. had some form of special educational needs, yet when I arrived there was not a single special educational needs teacher. We eventually found one who had had six weeks’ training, but it was too late. The school had to close and the children and the community were ultimately broken up—in some families three children ended up going to three different schools.

Southview school, another excellent school in my constituency, has just built a beautiful new building, yet the Government have made its task of kitting it out more difficult by ending the excellent communication aids project. The problem is the lack of consistency in Government funding. There is no point in funding for one or two years; there must be consistency.

However, the biggest challenge, as we heard from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), is statementing. Although most of our children learn their ABC, children who need statementing—and their families—are learning a less benign version of the ABC. It begins with “Assessment”, goes on to “Bureaucracy” and ends with “Complexity”. This is a big issue.

As the report of the “Parliamentary hearings on services for disabled children” said of those with special needs,

“Access to statements should not be used as a means of rationing resources nor should a statement be used as a reason to deny services”.

The Education and Skills Committee’s report on special needs identified

“an inbuilt conflict of interest in the system”

and recommended that

“The link must be broken between assessment and funding”.

The problem is that the system involves reverse engineering. The approach taken is, “Let’s figure out what pocket of money we have today—what pool of money—and let’s see how we can allocate it”, instead of putting children’s needs at the front and centre. I therefore ask the Government to conduct a fundamental review of special educational needs that puts the child’s needs first and foremost.

I, too, am very pleased to be able to debate this topic, which is of critical importance to everybody in the Chamber today and to every Member of the House of Commons. It is acknowledged in all parts of the House that we still have some way to go on this issue. I agree completely with the Select Committee’s conclusion that we need a review of statementing policy, and I hope that at some point, the Government will agree to conduct one more quickly than they have already promised to do.

However, the issue is not just the statementing process; we must also acknowledge that there are sometimes problems with the implementation of statementing decisions. I, like many Members who have spoken today, will refer to the personal problems that I have experienced with the statementing process. My sister’s little boy was unable to speak at all by the age of two, and by the age of three he was still living in a world of silence. The general practitioner, the health visitor and the nursery school staff would not believe that little Tom had a problem. In this case, the mother—my sister—knew that something was wrong, but all the professionals refused, up to the point of school entry, to do anything about it.

In the end, a statement was arranged, and the question whether my little nephew was on the autistic spectrum was investigated. At one point, it looked as though he would be placed on that spectrum, but in the end, a statement was arrived at and the school put some support in place. However, the support and the statement were inadequate, and in the end, my sister had to go to a tribunal to get the situation sorted out. I was going to be a witness at that tribunal, but an advocacy service supplied by a charity from Hull sorted out the various issues before the tribunal took place. One point that has been overlooked today is that the tribunal process, adversarial as it is—in fact, it is a sign of the failure of the system—often resolves such issues. In the end, local authorities back down; they do not like tribunals. If a good advocate is available, the issues can be resolved. That bright little boy, who was trapped in that silent world, is here with us today. Because his mother was prepared to fight, he has got over his problems, is off the statement and is doing very well at school.

The problem with the existing system is that, far too often, parents have to fight for the statement and its application, and to fight continually to keep that statement in place. I know of cases where the reviews of statements at the point of transition to the secondary level have led to a downgrading of the support that should be available to enable a child to be placed in the mainstream sector, rather than in the special school sector. When a parent is so desperate that they have to visit their MP’s surgery to argue the case against a review ruling and to get things put right, we know that the system has gone wrong.

Parents surely need the insurance policy of provision that is detailed, specific and quantified. Does the hon. Lady not accept that one of the endemic failings of the statementing process—not in all authorities but in many, and of both major political complexions—is the tendency to use words such as “frequent” and “regular”, which are gloriously unspecific? Christmas is regular, but it does come only once a year.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, I was about to say that it is important to distinguish in this debate between the Government’s general policy approach to special educational needs and the specifics of how authorities are implementing SEN policy. The statement is at the heart of that process. We should always remember, in trying to evaluate how well we are doing in delivering the best possible services for children with special needs, that local authorities are responsible for developing SEN practice.

Government policy on SEN is clear; “Removing Barriers to Achievement” emphasised the continuing role of special schools and stressed the need for a flexible range of SEN provision, with special schools acting as centres of excellence for spreading good practice across all maintained education provision. That, to some extent, is why I do not understand the position of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) and her party, who say that they will vote with the Conservatives on the moratorium. Our policy is to encourage a broad continuum of provision, and anybody who disbelieves that will have to explain why Sheffield has been awarded substantial capital funding in the past five years to build five new special schools.

We are building those five new special schools because our previous provision, which was located in a particular part of Sheffield, was in the wrong place and that meant that children living in the far north of the city were travelling great distances to get to school. Anybody who has dealt with children with special needs knows that travel to school is one of the biggest and most difficult issues in SEN policy. It takes some children in Sheffield an hour and a half to get to school in the morning. That is why we have to redevelop our provision, and why a moratorium would be disastrous for my city. As a result of it, we would not be able to close down the old schools and build new ones in the right places, in order to give our children the best possible chances in the education system. Moreover, three of the new schools will be close to mainstream provision, thereby making it easier to offer a really flexible range of learning opportunities for students. In many cases, a mix of mainstream and special provision is best. Even in the mainstream sector, my city is developing integrated resources and the usual mainstream provision for special needs students.

On top of all this, the city’s schools are expected to work together to deliver for SEN kids on an individual level. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was the important one. If we get personalised learning right for SEN children, we get it right for all children. If we get learning right for children with dyslexia in state schools, we get it right for all children. I have taught English post-16, and I have taught people with dyslexia. If a person with dyslexia needs yellow paper in order to read more easily, everybody in the class should have handouts on yellow paper. That improves outcomes for the dyslexic individual, and does nothing to harm the learning of all the other children in the class. It is not rocket science—we can do it.

I am convinced that the Government have got the right strategic approach, but they also have a responsibility to ensure that local authorities and schools deliver the best possible learning opportunities for all children with SEN. There is no doubt that we have further work to do on that point. Too often parents complain that in the cases of non-statemented children—the issue of dyslexia becomes more relevant here—provision in mainstream schools is poorly developed and inconsistent in application. That is why the Government were right to respond by promising more effectively trained SENCOs; an entrenchment in schools of personalised learning, so that all children can be catered for; and more rigorous internal monitoring and evaluation by school of pupils’ progress.

Making it mandatory for SENCOs to be teachers is critical. There is no point in having teaching assistants as SENCOs in schools. Teaching assistants do a fantastic job, but being a SENCO is a job for a teaching professional. It is a key leadership role and the use of teachers in that role is right.

We will have to await the impact of the Government’s measures on improving the delivery of SEN education for children in the classroom, but what is certain is that parents are the key. They should be fully involved, and any decent school will fully involve parents in putting together the individual education plan for their child. Parents should be involved in monitoring and encouraging progress, but we also need to think afresh about how to strengthen even further the voices of parents with SEN children in the system. What does a parent do when the LEA refuses to believe that a school is doing something wrong? The parent goes to the governing body, which sides with the school. As a cabinet member for education in a local authority, I received letters from parents of children with special needs, complaining about schools. It happens in all authorities. I would demand that something be done and the officers would say, “You are the LEA, so you have to defend the school.” Incidentally, one good thing about the Education and Inspections Act 2006 is that it separates the schools from the local authorities and makes those authorities the champions of parents in challenging schools to deliver for SEN children. However, we still need to do more and I challenge the Government to find new ways of breaking the cycle of powerlessness that parents experience when things go wrong in schools. They are the first ones to know, and we should always listen to them when they say that things are not right.

The contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) about post-16 provision was right. It is woefully inadequate. Sheffield has the same problem as Oxford, and we have children going over the border to Derbyshire because most of the post-16 provision is in the local college. The college does its best, but if there is an argument for pastoral education for the general range of 16-plus children, there is even more of an argument for making that sheltered provision available for special needs kids—

This has been a good and informed debate in a very sensitive area, on a subject that can at times be over-polarised between those who believe in total inclusion and those who believe in none. As with most issues, the answer lies somewhere between the two poles.

As the right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) would no doubt agree, there are many children with special educational needs who most certainly should be in a mainstream school, including many children with physical disabilities, children with mild cerebral palsy who have good communication skills and cognitive ability, and children with very mild learning difficulties or mild Asperger’s. For such children, inclusion in mainstream schools is very important and beneficial. It may mean that some adjustment is needed by the school, but it will be worth it to ensure that those children have access to a full curriculum and to the social benefits of being with a wide range of children, including being able to socialise with children who live in their neighbourhood, and all that goes with that, such as parties, sleepovers and weekend sporting activities.

However, there are other children whose needs are such that they require very specialised teaching, and providing that is not just about training, but about the experience gained in a career devoted to teaching children with particular problems and needs. In October I visited the Percy Hedley Foundation in Newcastle, a special school that educates children with severe cerebral palsy. It uses an advanced form of the Hungarian conductive method, which uses physical therapy to re-educate the brain to operate the muscles and limbs. There is a lot of one-to-one therapy by highly trained and dedicated teachers.

Many children with cerebral palsy are intelligent, but their physical difficulties mean that they need that specialist education to help them to overcome those problems. Children who are permanently confined to a wheelchair when they start at the school can learn to walk. Children with no communication ability can be taught to use a computer with a switch operated by touching it with their cheek. No mainstream setting could give that sort of training, and therefore access to a full education.

Which type of education is most appropriate must depend on the needs of the child and the wishes of the parents. The whole “race to inclusion” which occurred after the Warnock report of 1978 was a reaction to a legitimate problem. One of the great successes of the post-Warnock era has been the fact that disabled children are now integrated into a common educational framework. It has also led to an emphasis on the specific needs of the individual, rather than making assumptions based on medical diagnosis. But the problem with how that inclusion has been adopted in practice is that it has become an end in itself, rather than being focused on the needs of individual children. Because of that, the inclusion movement risks discrediting the concept of inclusion. It is naive to believe that it is possible to teach all children with serious and profound learning difficulties in the same classes, learning the same lessons, as their mainstream peers. Some disabilities, such as more severe forms of autism, make communication and interaction almost impossible. Forcing such children to interact in a mainstream school with hundreds of people can be extremely damaging for them.

Even today, the prevailing view in most local authorities is that they should reduce the number of statements and reduce their use of special schools. That very point was put to me by local authority officials in Bromley yesterday despite the revised statutory guidance mentioned by the Minister.

In the 2004 document “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, the Government told us that

“the proportion of children in special schools should fall over time”.

Is that still Government policy? The Education and Skills 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.”

Baroness Warnock has criticised the Government’s position. She said recently:

“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.”

That is why we have seen the closure of so many special schools for those with moderate learning difficulties.

Cedar Hall school in Benfleet, Essex is an example of a highly effective MLD special school. Many children at that school had horrific experiences in mainstream education. I met children who had attempted suicide at their previous mainstream schools, so miserable were they. At Cedar Hall, with its specialist and experienced approach, those children flourish. They have friends for the first time, and their education is rigorous and effective. My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) has spoken about his personal experience and his son Max, who thrived in just such a special school, to such an extent that he was able to return to mainstream education when he was 13.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) was right to say that we need to try to reach a consensus on these issues. In his best—if I may say so—non-windbag style, he was right to point to the effectiveness of co-location of specialist schools or units with mainstream schools. That provides the best of both worlds, with specialist teaching and expertise as well as the potential for social interaction for the children.

The hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) was one of many hon. Members to criticise the statementing process, and she was right to do so. She called it lengthy and bureaucratic, saying that there were deliberate delays to lessen the burden on local authorities, and rationing on the basis of parental commitment. There is a widespread suspicion that that is what the Government’s approach is all about.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) spoke passionately and from personal experience about the horrors of the lengthy statementing process. He said that dealing with all the bureaucracy was a very trying and exhausting experience, and he referred to the special educational needs commission established by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), when he was shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Last year it recommended the removal of the conflict of interest in statementing—a change also recommended by the Education and Skills Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) reminded the House with his usual accuracy.

The statementing process is clearly in need of urgent review. It has become a Kafkaesque nightmare for parents, who have to cope with finding out that their child has special educational needs, and then with meeting those needs, at the same time as they are navigating the labyrinth of the statementing and appeals process.

Since 2002, report after report has exposed the shortcomings of the current system. The Audit Commission’s 2002 report stated:

“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 the

“Government should establish a high-level independent review to consider options for future reform—engaging all key stakeholders.”

The need for a review was also emphasised by the Education and Skills Committee in its report last year, which said:

“the SEN system is demonstrably no longer fit for purpose”,

and found

“significant problems with the current system of SEN provision and high levels of dissatisfaction amongst parents and teachers.”

The report went on to urge the Government to

“consider a completely fresh look to SEN”.

The Government’s response to the report was disappointing. The hon. Member for Huddersfield summed up his Committee’s view when he said that the Government’s response was

“the most abrasive and challenging that I have ever read in any response to a Committee report since I have been Chairman.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 26 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 492WH.]

That is an awfully long time. By rejecting a review, the Government rejected one of the most fundamental and important findings of that entire Select Committee report. They are promising an Ofsted report in 2009, which means that two more years will be wasted, with little done in the interim.

The Opposition seek only two things from the Government this afternoon, and if they deliver them they will have our full backing. The first is a moratorium on any more closures of special school places until a review has taken place. We do not want the stop-go process that the Minister for Schools described but merely a pause, to ensure that we are going in the right direction. Our second requirement is a fundamental and immediate review of SEN provision.

I hope that the Government will concede to these demands. By doing so, they can improve the education available to thousands of special needs children, and ease the burden on their parents just a little.

I shall begin my remarks by commending the contributions by hon. Members of all parties today. We may differ in our opinions about policy, but we share a common ambition to improve the educational attainments of children with special educational needs and disabilities. We also want to improve their health, safety and well-being, and to increase the extent to which they are able to contribute to society.

I pay tribute to the skill and dedication of the staff in our schools and early years settings, and of the professionals in the education, health and social care services. Working together, they do their best to ensure that children with SEN and disabilities are able to make the most of their time in education. I also pay tribute to the parents of children with SEN and disabilities; there are some such parents in the Chamber today. They know their children better than anyone else, and they sometimes feel that they have to battle to get them the support that they need.

It is worth taking stock and looking at the context of the Select Committee report. The Government have taken positive action as a result of it, although other initiatives—some of them were mentioned at least tangentially in the debate, while others were not—were under way already.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools was right to say that support and training for SEN is an integral part of introductory teacher training. We are also working with the Training and Development Agency on a programme worth £1.1 million to ensure that people in the early stages of becoming teachers have opportunities to secure placements in special schools. We are also working to create an information portal so that they can share best practice.

We are keen to do more to promote access to specialist support. My hon. Friend the Minister for Schools earlier mentioned the 15 new specialist schools that we will be creating. We are also keen to work with special schools, and to tap into the expertise of their staff, so that more outreach work with mainstream schools can be undertaken.

We want parents to enjoy better accountability and support—a common theme in this debate—and we will achieve that in part through the parent partnership services. They play a really important role: they can help parents who are unsure about whether their child has special needs, or assist them with the statementing process. In addition, they can provide support for parents who, believing that the school to which their child is being sent is not the best option, go through the special educational needs and disability tribunal process. We want those services to remain at arm’s length from local authorities, and we intend to beef them up.

In addition, we are working with the National Autistic Society’s autism working group, and many hon. Members will have attended the launch of the society’s “Make School Make Sense” campaign. We are working closely with local government organisations, teaching groups and the NAS to prepare better resource packs for teachers so that they can identify children with autistic spectrum disorders and subsequently support them in the classroom.

We are also doing a lot of work with statementing, and are introducing a new performance indicator for the full process. A performance indicator is already in place that requires a local authority to have a draft statement ready 18 weeks after a statement is first requested. The new indicator will set out a maximum end-to-end period of 26 weeks for the statementing process.

No, as I have only a little while left.

The debate has not covered the amount of investment that the Government have made available. Ofsted has reported improvements since the publication in 2004 of “Removing Barriers to Achievement”, our long-term SEN strategy. For example, the percentage of children with SEN who do not achieve at least level 3 in maths at key stage 2 has fallen from 28 per cent. to 25 per cent. between 2003 and 2005. For English, the proportion of children with SEN who do not achieve at least level 3 has fallen from 31 per cent. to 27 per cent. That shows that the Government’s policy is making a difference in attainment.

Those improvements reflect the increasing investment that the Government have made in provision for children with SEN. Local authorities’ indicative spending on SEN rose to £4.5 billion in 2006-07. Of that total, £1.3 billion is delegated to maintained special schools, and £1.8 billion to mainstream schools. Budgets for special schools are rising by 23 per cent., from £1.1 billion to £1.3 billion.

The hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) talked about statistics, and about the effect on parents of the statementing process. When considering the context, it is worth bearing in mind that of the 1.3 million children with special educational needs, only 3,215 have gone through the SENDIST—special educational needs and disability tribunal—appeal process, and only 332 did so on the grounds that they were not happy with their choice of school.

In the short time available for my response, I hope that I have been able to get across the facts about the extra money and extra resources that we are putting in. We are making a difference for children with special educational needs, and as Ofsted says, the right time for a review will be 2009-10, when we can effectively measure the differences and changes that we have made. In the meantime, the moratorium that has been mentioned by many Members would result only in the scrapping of new developments and new schools, such as the facilities in Leicestershire and Oldham, so if that is what Opposition Members want, they should bear in mind that it will be on their consciences.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House notes the conclusions reached by Baroness Warnock in 2005 but does not agree that inclusion has failed many children; does not agree with the view of the Education and Skills Committee that a fundamental review is needed of special educational needs provision or of the system of assessments and statements; welcomes the fact that in 2004 the Government put in place a long-term strategy for improving outcomes for children with special educational needs and disabled children that is already having an impact on their achievement; acknowledges the record levels of spending by local authorities on special educational needs of some £4.5 billion in 2006-07 that are underpinning the strategy; welcomes the measures announced in the Government’s response to the Education and Skills Committee on providing better training for staff working with children with special educational needs including a national programme of continuing professional development, nationally accredited training for Special Educational Needs Coordinators in schools and measures to increase access to specialist teachers; further welcomes the announcement of an additional 15 special schools with specialist status to share expertise and raise standards and the increase in specialist and unit provision for children within, or attached to, mainstream schools; commends the Government’s plans for ensuring that local authority proposals for changing special educational provision must show how they will improve provision for children with special educational needs; and considers that a moratorium on closing special schools would prevent locally elected authorities from improving their provision for children with special educational needs.