[2nd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee (Progress reported 21 July)
[Dawn Primarolo in the Chair]
Payments under Academy agreements
I beg to move amendment 70, page 2, line 26, at end insert—
‘(1A) Payments may be made in respect of capital expenditure under an Academy agreement to an additional school only where the Secretary of State has first consulted with—
(a) local parents and children,
(b) the relevant local authority,
(c) any other persons deemed appropriate.
(1B) The purpose of the consultation under (1A) shall be to establish whether there are outstanding requirements for capital investment for existing schools in the area where the school is (or is proposed to be) situated.
(1C) Where a need is demonstrated the Secretary of State may not make payments with respect of capital expenditure under subsection (1).
(1D) A school is an “additional school” for the purposes of this section if—
(a) it does not replace a maintained school that has been or is to be discontinued, and
(b) it is not a school in respect of which an Academy order has effect.
(1E) For the purposes of subsection (1D)(a) a school does not replace a maintained school if it provides education for pupils of a wider range of ages than the maintained school.’.
It is a privilege to be back standing here as the hon. Member for Gedling—
We will never look at the shadow Minister in the same way again.
I know. Perhaps it is the way I speak. Anyway, it is a delight to be back here. It does not seem long ago that we were finishing the debate last night—[Interruption.] No, it was not long ago. I am sure we have all had plenty of opportunity to enjoy ourselves in the intervening period and not think of anything but the Academies Bill and all the other relevant papers and documents.
Amendment 70 is an important amendment, particularly given the fiasco—frankly—of the past few weeks with respect to the Building Schools for the Future programme, the cuts to it, the reassessments and the other problems with the list. I will not rehearse those problems, but the relevance of and the need for the amendment are even more acute than they would have been had it not been for what has happened over the past few weeks. Schools up and down the country were expecting capital moneys to be provided for them to improve schools and tackle problems with school buildings. Many of those proposals were developed by local authorities, and many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber will have helped to work up those plans over a number of months and, sometimes, one or two years, because the school-building programme was linked to school reorganisation for school improvement. But of course that was all dashed by the lists published and the review announced by the Secretary of State for Education in order to prove that he could cut budgets.
The Government are now looking to create new schools using money from their budgets. Their defence is: “Don’t worry, this isn’t coming from Building Schools for the Future money. It’s actually coming from cuts to low-priority computer programmes”, and they talk about £50 million. However, neither the Secretary of State nor the Schools Minister ever add that the £50 million is up until March 2011 only; and neither do they mention that there have been, I understand, 38 expressions of interest to the New Schools Network, which has since sought to talk to the Department. Is it 38? When he replies to the amendment, will the Minister tell us how many free schools he expects to open? I understand that the first is due to open in September 2011. How many such expressions of interest have there been so far? How many of those have changed from expressions of interest to applications? How many does he expect to open in 2011? Alongside that, how many does he expect £50 million will pay for? What will that £50 million mean for those 38 schools?
Has my hon. Friend seen the podcast on the Department for Education website by the Secretary of State, where he says that all schools will get more money, more efficiently and more cheaply? How is that possible, given that he has just cut the BSF programme?
Frankly, the reality is that it is not possible. What we are getting from the Secretary of State is an explanation for what he has done on the grounds that the money was not there in the budget for the Building Schools for the Future programme, when the letter from the permanent secretary to the shadow Secretary of State quite clearly points out that the money for BSF was set aside in the proper way. The school rebuilding programme in my hon. Friend’s constituency has not been cut; it has been absolutely massacred. That money was there, and the permanent secretary—this is an extremely important point that will bear repeating on a number of occasions—said in the letter to the shadow Secretary of State that if the proper procedures had not been followed according to Treasury rules, the permanent secretary would have required a ministerial direction to proceed with the policy, as my hon. Friend knows. The permanent secretary at the Department for Education has confirmed that, in fact, no such ministerial direction was given, so my hon. Friend now knows the reality.
As for this £50 million, we are now being told, “Don’t worry, it’s not going to affect school budgets. It’s not going to be a problem with respect to school buildings.” However, free schools are already being affected across the country.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He was very generous yesterday too, and the Committee appreciated the answers to some of the questions. However, he is talking now as if, under Labour’s proposals, the money for Building Schools for the Future was already in the bank—that is, already in the Department. However, it was made clear time and again that the money for Building Schools for the Future would be made available from savings made elsewhere. He talks as if the money was already in existence and had been earmarked, but that is complete and utter nonsense. It is now being spread about that schools would have been assured of that money, but the previous Government gave no such assurance.
The hon. Gentleman and I often agree on education matters, but on this particular matter I do not agree with him. He will know—not only from his experience in the House, but from his local authority experience, which he had on a local education authority, as he reminded us yesterday—that when we talk about money being available, that means money being accounted for in the proper way, so that proposals to do certain things in the future are made according to the rules laid down by the Treasury. The Treasury will not allow anyone to say that they will involve schools in various waves—for example, in Building Schools for the Future—unless they conform to certain rules. The point that I was making to my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) is that the then Secretary of State—now the shadow Secretary of State—conformed to all the Treasury rules to ensure that when those schools became ready for rebuilding, the money was there in the proper way.
I was also making the point that free schools, which are the Secretary of State’s preferred route forward, are already saying they are feeling the consequences of the changes that the Government have made. In the Yorkshire Post on 9 July—I will not read out the headline, in order to save the Secretary of State from embarrassment—it was reported that free school pioneers are worried about the impact of the changes that the Government are making and feel that they have “dealt a blow” to their proposals to establish a free school in Kirklees. Whether it is right or wrong to have a free school in Kirklees, it is not just those on the Opposition Benches who are saying that the position with respect to Building Schools for the Future has caused problems for existing schools. People whom one would have expected to support the Government—indeed, to come out dancing on the streets about what they are doing—are now turning round and saying, “Actually, the route the Government are pursuing is causing a problem.”
One of the good things about being in Committee is that it gives us the opportunity to look at things in detail. When the Minister replies to this debate, I wonder whether he will comment on the terms of reference for the capital programme, which I want gently to share with the Committee. I do not know whether my hon. Friends or other members of the Committee have had a chance to look at the terms of reference for the allocation of capital funds—they might want to refer them to their constituents, because they are contained in one of those papers that gets tucked away, but which has huge significance—but there are five of them. The second is:
“To consider how to generate sufficient places to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand”—
that refers to free schools or additional schools, or whatever we want to call them. The fifth is
“To enable the establishment of new schools.”
I do not know about my hon. Friends, but the Minister might need to tell us how the Government can reassure us on that. He has turned round and said, “Don’t worry, the Building Schools for the Future money has nothing to do with free schools or additional schools.” However, we then read in the terms of reference for the review group that the Department has established that two of the five criteria by which decisions on how to allocate capital funds are made refer to how capital funds are to be allocated to these new schools. Anybody looking at that would say, “What’s going on there?”
When we look at the criteria under the heading “Distribution of capital investment”, we read the following:
“To increase choice locally determined by parental demand”.
When we read more about the review, we see why amendment 70 is so important, especially as it talks about allocating capital money. At the moment, there will be no consultation with local parents, the local authority or anybody else about what will be done; it will just be the Secretary of State determining that a free school in an area would be a great thing to have. A few people will get together, write out a bit of an application—a few hundred words here, a few hundred words there—and then go the Secretary of State, who will say, “Oh, what a good idea! We’ll set the free school up.” However, I would again like to share with hon. Members what the document that I have quoted says. I look at this with incredulity, especially after the great fanfare with which the Secretary of State made his announcement. In that document, the Secretary of State says:
“To review and reform the requirements on schools including the building/School Premises Regulations”.
What that actually means is as follows—and this is why amendment 70 is so vital.
When the Secretary of State and the Schools Minister talk to parents about establishing schools and so on, they should make things clear. Perhaps the Schools Minister’s constituents are different from mine, but I do not get many parents coming to me and saying, “Can I be on the fifth floor of a tower block?”, “Can I be in a disused Tesco?”, or, “Those portakabins are pretty good—can I pop round there?” Most people I speak to want to get rid of the portakabins. However, the Secretary of State’s vision of this new school world—this free school nirvana—is this: “It doesn’t matter where you establish schools; it’s fine.”
We all know—my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) often makes this point, and quite rightly so—that, at the end of the day, what really turns a school around is not its structure, and often not the buildings, but the quality of teaching and learning, and the quality of leadership. However, there is no one here who would not also point out to each and every one of us—there was a survey about this a couple of days ago—that the quality of school buildings is an essential part of how we, as a civilised society, provide the standard of education that we would want in our schools, for ourselves, our teachers and our children.
When we came to power in 1997, the quality of school buildings in general across this country was, frankly, an absolute disgrace. Does that mean that we have reached the point now, in 2010, where every single school is at the standard and level of quality that we would want? No, it does not. But I can stand here as a proud member of the previous Government and say that our record on capital investment and school building transformation was second to none, and I am proud of that. People from Liverpool, the north-east and elsewhere in the country are talking to us about this Government’s attack on the school building programme. Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members will have the same problems. Even at this late stage, however, we hope that the attack on the programme can be reversed.
The amendment proposes consultation with “local parents and children”, and with “the relevant local authority”, as well as with any “other persons deemed appropriate”. If those people were consulted and told that a free school was going to be built, other parents in the area might ask where it was going to be. They might well then be told, “Oh well, it’s going to be in some disused building.” To be fair to the Secretary of State and the Minister and the Schools Minister, I agree with some of the things they say and I would not castigate them for everything, but I think that this proposal is completely beyond the pale. I find it astonishing.
These regulations are called “Reducing the burden on schools”, but they should be called “Putting kids in substandard buildings”. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Halton is still here, because he and I have always taken a keen interest in these matters. At the end of the regulations, we find out that they deal with not only building school premises regulations and design requirements, but “playing field regulations”. I cannot remember a time when Members on both sides of the House have not become incandescent about the selling off of school playing fields—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) wants to intervene, that is fine.
The Labour party was famous for selling off school playing fields. To return to Building Schools for the Future, the majority of those building programmes were carried out under private finance initiative schemes. They were never put on the Government’s balance sheets. They are all off the capital account, and are being paid for out of the revenue of the next 25 years. So how can the hon. Gentleman say that he had the money for those programmes, when he did not know whether he would have that money over the next 25 years to pay the rent on the schools that he built?
I have already answered the point about money for schools. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes round to the schools being built through PFI schemes and tells them, “We don’t want you in here building a school through PFI.” The programmes delivered through PFI, through local authority funding or through Building Schools for the Future have transformed the quality of school buildings, and over the next decade they would have transformed the whole of the secondary school estate, either through rebuilding or refurbishment. This is a choice that we have to make: the hon. Gentleman can oppose the programme, and that is absolutely fine. He can stand up and oppose it—
Not now! This is one of the good things about being in Committee—we can get excited and nobody really minds.
The hon. Gentleman can oppose the Building Schools for the Future programme and say that what the Government have done over the past few years has been a waste of time, but I would say to him that we have a tremendous record and that Building Schools for the Future would have delivered that transformation.
Returning to the point about playing fields, it was our Government who introduced regulations to ensure that there was agreement, including from sporting bodies, on any such land that was sold, and that the money was reinvested in the school. In one or two instances, I supported the sale of playing fields in my area when schools were being rebuilt with gyms and all-weather courts as a consequence of the money that was realised from the sale. Often, land that was labelled as playing fields was nothing more than waste ground. Numerous Members from across the country asked whether it would be possible to sell off such land as long as the money was reinvested in sports facilities in the local area. I would have thought that the hon. Member for Burnley would have supported the amendment because it would introduce consultation with local people, the local authority, parents and children on any activities where capital expenditure is moved to fund the free schools.
However, my point is that tucked away inside “Reducing the burden on schools” is the fact that the capital review will cover not only school premises regulations and design requirements but also playing fields. Does the Minister therefore envisage some free schools being set up with no access to playing fields or other outdoor sports facilities? I have heard him quite rightly highlighting the essential role in the curriculum played by sport. How on earth is that to be delivered in the light of these regulations? I know that he will get up and say that they do not mean that at all, but I can tell him that that is exactly what they mean. This is exactly what the Secretary of State said when he was talking about capital moneys being made available for free schools. He wanted the schools to be able to be set up very quickly and cheaply, and that would involve changing the regulations that local authorities would normally have had to abide by. He wanted to reduce the central requirements so that a huge number of free schools could be set up as quickly as possible, funded by moving money from one departmental pot to another. Our amendment would ensure that that choice was made apparent to local people, and I know what their decision would be if they were asked those questions.
Order. This is an interesting and important debate, but it would help the Speaker and the Hansard writers enormously if we knew who was rising and who the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) was giving way to.
Given the Government’s strategy for the use of disused sites, does my hon. Friend agree that there will now be a perverse incentive to let schools on valuable sites fail, so that they can sell off their land and use the funds to set up other schools in disused premises? Under Labour, certain schools on good sites had difficulties, but their infrastructure was supported. They might now be asset-stripped to pursue the new strategy involving free schools on disused sites.
That is certainly a possibility. If we change the regulations, anything is possible. The Minister will no doubt say that that will not happen, but the thrust of our argument is our desire to place certain statutory requirements in the Bill to protect the quality of educational provision, including the provision of playing fields. Any weakening of the regulations or of the findings of the capital funding review could be very damaging.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. With your indulgence, Dawn—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] I have a problem saying your surname, because I have a problem with Ps and Rs. Sometimes when I have addressed you in Committee, it has disturbed the Hansard writers. They wondered who the hell I was talking about. With your indulgence, I would like to make a couple of points. The first is about private finance initiatives in schools. Any local authority that has a PFI school building programme will know of the huge impediment that that brings, as well as the restrictions on developing anything in the school without enormous knock-on costs. I hope that no one is running away with the idea that everything about PFI is perfect, because that is far from the truth.
My second point is the more important, however. I agree with most of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but so far he has not raised the question of what happens if a local authority is forced into the invidious position of allocating certain resources from LEA funding, limited though it is, and one of the schools then fails. Who will pick up the pieces? Nothing in the Bill suggests the existence of a fail-safe system enabling those pieces to be put back together once the whole has been torn apart by the establishment of a free school.
I was not trying to suggest that PFI was a panacea for all ills, and I know that it has sometimes led to problems. I was merely suggesting that it was one of the options that had allowed some local authorities to build new schools that might not have been built otherwise.
I was going to deal with the question of what will happen if a school fails, but the hon. Gentleman has made the point well enough to save me the trouble of making it myself. I entirely agree with him. As we discovered yesterday, one of the main drawbacks of the Bill is the huge amount of detail that it contains. In relation to one clause, we were told not to worry because a committee—I cannot remember what it was called—would be set up to examine all the issues that had been raised, as the Government did not know the answers yet. We as a Parliament, however, are being asked to pass the Bill.
Some of the problems with the Bill were illustrated very effectively by the comments of the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock), and other Members will doubtless make similar comments later. Moreover—let me make this point again to the Schools Minister—we cannot amend it. We can table amendments, but for a number of reasons the Government do not want it to be amended.
Does the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) wish to intervene?
Thank you, Ms Primarolo. [Laughter.]
The Government are seeking to save money by cutting the Building Schools for the Future programme, but they say that this expenditure is nothing to do with those cuts. They say that they are economising on low-priority IT projects. That will provide £50 million, and they have already received 38 expressions of interest.
I do not think any of us believe that that really adds up. The £50 million is only until March 2011, and because of the comprehensive spending review, no one has any idea what will happen after that. On 20 April 2010—apparently everything has changed since then, but I think it useful to draw attention to this—The Independent quoted the Secretary of State as saying:
“The capital cost”—
of new free schools, that is—
“will come from reducing spending on the government’s extremely wasteful Building Schools for the Future programme by 15 per cent.”
I know that when a party gets into power things change a little, but the Secretary of State cannot really have believed that there was not a budget for him to use if he wanted to fund his free school experiment. He did not say that last year; he said it on 20 April 2010.
Is not one of the saddest aspects of the debate on Building Schools for the Future the fact that it is being portrayed as simply a capital programme? It was never intended to be that. It was intended to bring about a transformation of secondary education. It was intended to improve the curriculum, improve inclusion and raise standards. Nothing that I have seen suggests to me that that will happen as a result of the free school programme. The Bill is being pushed through the House at great speed, and we are being given no evidence or details.
My hon. Friend made a number of valuable contributions yesterday, and she is absolutely right to remind us of those facts. As I pointed out at the beginning of my speech, Building Schools for the Future was not just about school buildings; it was about transforming opportunities for young people.
I have visited some of the most run-down and socially disadvantaged areas in the country—as other Members on both sides of the Committee will have done, and as the Minister will no doubt be doing—and seen the transformation that can be created by the building of a new school, at a cost of perhaps £30 million. Local people have told me, “This is the first time for years that the state has invested any significant sums in our community.” We tend to say, “Perhaps we can save a bit of money here and save a bit of money there”, but the symbolism of those schools in those areas cannot possibly be underestimated. That, I think, is what my hon. Friend meant when she said that Building Schools for the Future was not just about buildings, but about transformation and improving opportunities and life chances.
The fact that 26 of our schools in Liverpool missed the boat and had their BSF projects cancelled was not due to the bureaucracy to which Government Members keep referring. A detailed reorganisation ensured that we now have the right number of schools for the right number of students in the right areas. We do not need any more schools in Liverpool, but we do need schools with suitable buildings in which young people can learn. It is an absolute disgrace that young people in Liverpool will miss out on those suitable premises on the whim of this untested, untrialled free school process on which there has been no consultation.
May I ask my hon. Friend—
May I ask my hon. Friend, very briefly, whether he agrees with what was said the other day by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes)? The hon. Gentleman said:
“It would be a nonsense to take money that could be used for improving existing schools to create new schools where, on the ground, the will of the local community is for the existing schools to continue.”
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the devastating impact of the cuts in the Building Schools for the Future programme on Liverpool, although, of course, it can be seen throughout the country. She is also right to draw attention to the comments of the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, who asked why money should be withheld from perfectly adequate existing schools to create new schools. That is a question that the Minister responsible for schools will have to answer.
The budgets of three schools in my constituency—among others—have been cut: Stopsley, Putteridge and Denbigh. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a question not just of new school buildings, but of capacity? In the Luton local authority area, 11 new schools have been cancelled—and, unlike the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), my constituency does need more schools. Is not the free schools policy a perfect storm for areas such as mine which need new capacity? The building of free schools is the only option for us now.
That is exactly the point. If free schools are to be built, the money must be found somewhere, and the Government are struggling at the moment. They have raised £50 million by scrapping a few computer projects, which were described as low-capacity but would have been important to the people who would have benefited from them, but where will the money come from after that?
A week or two before the election, the Secretary of State said that funding the free schools programme would require cuts of 15% in the Building Schools for the Future programme. That is a direct quotation. It has not been corrected, and I have not heard it claimed that it was taken out of context. As I have said, that is really where the money will come from.
I am trying to be helpful to the Government and the Committee. We oppose the Bill, but we recognise that the Government will probably push it through. Even if that is the case, however, the whole point of the Committee stage is to try to improve the Bill by amending it, and to raise issues of great importance. That is why it is so disappointing that Members—on both sides of the Committee—cannot amend the Bill. I recognise that the Bill has come from the Lords, but it is astonishing that we will have spent three days debating it on the Floor of the House and not one amendment will have been allowed. I am not a political or legislative historian, but I cannot imagine that many other Bills can have spent three days on the Floor of the House without amendment. I say in all honesty to the Minister that I will not be surprised if we find sneaked into the Bill that will be coming in the autumn a couple of little measures tweaking and putting right one or two things in this Bill, because that is what usually happens when Governments rush through legislation—afterwards they think, “Oh dear, there is a problem.”
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are 75 amendments and five new clauses on the amendment paper, and the Committee is perfectly entitled to pass any of them.
The hon. Gentleman and I have debated other Bills—indeed, we have served on Bill Committees together—and on those occasions he has made one or two good points to which I have said, “That’s quite a good point, and I’ll come back to it on Report,” and then a Government amendment is introduced. That is the usual process in the House, and when it happens everyone tells this joke: “If it was such a good amendment and the Government have come back with their version of exactly the same proposal, why did you not accept it when it was moved by the Opposition?”
The situation with this Bill is totally different from how the Minister has just described it. Not all the amendments on the amendment paper are in my name—some have been tabled by his hon. Friends, and comments have been made by other Members as well—but we are totally unable to amend the Bill. Let me say to any new Members on the Government Benches who might be tempted to strike out in a spirit of independence by organising to make a change to the Bill through proposing an amendment and seeking to press it to a Division that it would not be very long before those who traditionally sit on the far end of the Treasury Bench came to see them to explain that that was probably not the best thing to do. I just say in all honesty to the Minister that I think it is deeply disappointing that we cannot amend the Bill in the way that many of us would want.
I understand my hon. Friend’s surprise, but the Government have form on this. We have just completed our debates on the Finance Bill, all of which were taken on the Floor of the House, which never happens, and not one amendment was accepted—although, to respond to what the Minister has just said, there were many proposed amendments to the Finance Bill as well. There are two major Bills, therefore, that did not go upstairs to Committee for detailed scrutiny and to which not one amendment was made, because the Government are determined to steamroller both through the House.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I was going to say that what is happening in respect of the Academies Bill is a one-off, but he has pointed out that this happened in respect of the Finance Bill as well. One would hope, however, that it is not a precedent of how other Bills will be dealt with.
I have tabled amendment 70 in order to try to be helpful. The amendment does not say that no capital moneys can be paid to free schools. In fact, it says capital moneys can be paid to free schools, but before that money is paid there has to be the agreement of “local parents and children”, the “local authority” and
“any other persons deemed appropriate.”
I thought that we were all in favour of the new localism and local decision making, and the point of the amendment is to allow the local people and communities along with the local authority to determine whether the capital moneys proposed to be used to set up a free school—that will be agreed by the Secretary of State—should be spent in that way, when it might have been used for the benefit of other schools in, for example, Liverpool, Halton and Luton.
I am trying to be helpful to the Government, therefore. I am saying to the Government, “You establish the free schools—the ‘additional schools’ as the Bill calls them—but if you’re going to take capital moneys away from other schools in the community to establish the free schools, then let’s see whether the local people and the local authority agree.” Given the furore we have seen over the cuts to Building Schools for the Future, with communities throughout the country seeing their new school buildings taken away from them, I wonder what they would say when asked whether they would wish to see their new school buildings sacrificed on the altar of a school experiment that is unproven and supported by no evidence one way or the other. I know why the Government will not accept this amendment, therefore: because they would be frightened of the answer they would get from local communities, who would turn around and say, “We want capital moneys spent for the benefit of the whole community, not for the benefit of a few.”
I have some questions linked to the amendment for the Minister. How many free schools does he expect there will be? How much money does he expect to spend on each free school? What do the changes in the review of capital expenditure actually mean? Are there going to be any regulations or are we going to allow children to go on the 13th floor, let us say? I note that the head of Tesco property offices is one of the advisers to the capital review group, and we will see what happens there. Can the Minister confirm that he expects the first free schools to open in 2011? Does he expect to spend all of the £50 million? Does he expect that to be enough money to develop the 38 schools in September 2011?
While we are talking about Building Schools for the Future, may I also ask the Minister to confirm how many academies have been affected by the BSF cuts? Looking at the list, it appears that while many local authority-maintained schools have had their BSF money stopped, lots of the academies are listed as under review. Will the Minister take this opportunity to explain to us exactly what is happening in that regard?
How much does the Minister expect the free schools to cost not only over the next six months or year, but over the next five years? How much money will the Department for Education be trying to get from the Treasury in the next spending review? What evidence does he have that the moneys to be invested in free schools is a policy worth pursuing and that it is worth taking money from the vast majority of schools to fund what I regard as an educational experiment?
We look forward to hearing the Minister’s response, and the comments of other Members who may also want to contribute to this important debate. At the heart of the debate on all the amendments, including amendment 70, is the fact that there are those of us who wish to try to ensure that opportunity and excellence for all is made a reality in every single community. There is a difference between the Government and the Opposition on this. Sometimes we are characterised as wanting to pull down those who can excel. Far from it: we want all children to achieve, including those who have talents and ability. We want all children to have school buildings of which they can be proud. The amendment before us seeks to ensure that, where the Government want to divert capital moneys from one set of priorities to another, that is done on the basis of local support—the support of local parents and the local authority—and not done at the whim of the Secretary of State.
May I say how much I, as a new boy, have enjoyed the Committee stage and how useful I have found it as a mechanism for at least asking questions and trying to clarify points? Yesterday’s proceedings were long, but very useful to me in trying to understand how this process works.
There is value in this amendment. It is always important to spend public money as wisely as we possibly can. There will be disputes about policy initiatives and priorities, but whatever the priority, we need always to get the best value for the money we spend. If that was ever important, it certainly is now. In the spirit of the Committee, I shall not go into why we are in the difficulties that we are in, but most people accept that we are in a time of great austerity where we face cuts, tax increases and spending decisions that require careful thought.
Priorities are the real issue, and they are well highlighted in the amendment. We have a good opportunity to find out where hon. Members’ priorities lie. It is very difficult for some to hold the line on the Building Schools for the Future programme, although not in terms of reviewing the BSF process. Many of us have been critical of that process for a long time because of its bureaucracy and value-for-money elements. It is useful to consider that this is an existing proposal, because although we have been told by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), that the BSF parrot is very definitely dead, we have also been assured that the investment in school buildings is not. One of the purposes of the BSF review is to examine where we can still spend money, although probably in a better way. That issue touches many hon. Members from all parts of the House, because we have local schools that are caught up in the BSF programme and whose funding has been frozen.
We cannot have everything that we want in life, particularly when times are hard, so the question becomes one of what we actually spend and the priorities we make. The amendment proposes that a new subsection (1B) to clause 2 should state:
“The purpose of the consultation…shall be to establish whether there are outstanding requirements for capital investment for existing schools”.
I know of 19 schools in the Bradford district that are part of the BSF programme and have outstanding requirements, six of which are located in my constituency. Two of those are special schools that most certainly have outstanding requirements for capital investment. I am using the amendment to find an answer to the question: where do the priorities lie?
In a recent interview with “Channel 4 News” the Secretary of State said:
“We’re allocating £50 million of capital over the next year”.
It came as somewhat of a shock to me that at this time of austerity, when we are rejecting many other worthwhile proposals, such as the extension of free school meals, because we have not got any money, all of sudden £50 million could be conjured up to support an initiative. He went on to say that that allocation would be
“up to April of next year, in order to help get some projects off the ground”.
The crucial bit came when he went on to say:
“And then in the future this will be, obviously, a priority for our capital expenditure.”
That relates to my question. We may not be able to afford all the projects that are included within the BSF programme, and we need to carry out the review, but where do the schools involved in that programme stand in the pecking order against this proposal to put new money into the new schools that are being created? We have had the debate on the principles, the philosophy and the ideology of this thing, so this thing is likely to happen. This is not simply about rushing through legislation, but about its implementation. Where does the funding for these particular proposals stand in relation to the huge expectation and demand that has been created by the BSF programme? Where does it come in the pecking order?
That will be crucial when we have to go back to schools at the end of the review and say, “I am sorry. We carried out the review and we have not got any money for you.” How will they receive that response if, at the same time, we are investing in other schools—in new schools that are being opened? Such schools may be in areas with surplus places—in other words, there may not be a demand for a new school. The value of the amendment is that it allows us to discuss our priorities and where this particular initiative stands in that list of priorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) will recall that we both made our maiden speeches on Labour’s flagship Bill in 1997. He will also recall the optimism that existed in the country then for education and for the incoming Government. How different the mood is today. My constituency, which has been devastated—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) might laugh, but he is laughing at the fact that 11 schools have been taken out of the project, with three under review, and at the impact that that has had on more than 7,000 children in my constituency. Frankly, I say to him that this is no laughing matter and I shall ensure that my constituents understand that the coalition thinks that it is.
As the shadow Minister said, what has happened in constituencies such as mine has resulted in absolute devastation. The amendment is very interesting because it allows us to discuss the capital programme and how we should see that in relation to what has happened to the BSF programme and how we spend capital in the future. What is also interesting is that this Government are having a review of capital expenditure, yet they are pressing ahead with the Bill. Both have an impact on each other, so this is a remarkable situation.
Let me deal with what is being done and what is being spent. In yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Education talked about lavish expenditure on schools. I think that our schools deserve lavish expenditure. When he tried to say that somehow this was inefficient, I pointed out to him that last year’s National Audit Office report said that the cost of BSF schools was no more than any other programme and, in fact, was cheaper than the original academies that were built. It is not the case that these schools were in any way inefficient or that the money was not available.
I am slightly curious about the hon. Gentleman’s comment that our schools deserve lavish expenditure. What on earth was going on during the past 13 years, when so many schools were allowed to be neglected and none of the resources that were needed were coming from the Government?
I am surprised at that intervention, although I suppose I should not be. In the past 13 years, £24 million has been spent on schools in Halton. Let me give the hon. Gentleman one example. Ditton primary school waited years for a new school building, and once Labour came into power it got one built. A number of schools have had major building programmes and major improvements made, so it is not the case—it is plain incorrect—to say that Labour did nothing until the BSF programme. In fact, significantly more was done under Labour than was done in 18 years of a Tory Government. His party now supports such a Government.
I am sure that I am not the only person in the House who worked in education during the time of the previous Tory Government. I remember what it was like in those school buildings, where I was putting out buckets in the hall when it rained and excluding children from the hall because it was dangerous. I said that BSF is not about a capital building programme—it is a transformation programme. Our school buildings say what we think about our young people. To have children in office blocks, disused buildings and old schools—
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall come to when I ask the Minister how his handling of the amendment will affect that specific point, which is very important.
I am not sure how the Bill or, to some extent, the amendment will address the problem of school places and provision. The cancelling of the BSF project caused major problems for schools such as St Chad’s Roman Catholic school and the Heath specialist technology college in Runcorn in my constituency, which were going to expand. How will they now expand? They are popular and successful schools that have seen increases in their GCSE results—the Heath had a success rate of more than 82% last year. Problems were also caused for the likes of Bankfield in Widnes, which is my old school and has been told this week that it has an outstanding report from Ofsted. How can that school expand?
Wade Deacon school has a 100% pass rate in GCSEs at A to C and serves both an affluent area and a disadvantaged area. The previous school, Fairfield, is now being closed down and will amalgamate with Wade Deacon. They were going to be built on one site. How will that happen now? It will mean a split site and all sorts of difficulties, with 400 pupils displaced. That is the consequence.
I am not sure how the Bill and this clause will help the situation in my constituency, and that is a consequence of the decision that the Government took. This amendment is about ensuring that parents’ and the LEAs’ views are known and taken into account. Parents and LEAs will take account of the sorts of buildings that schools need, and that was what BSF was delivering. They were consulted on the buildings, they had a lot of say, and the buildings were designed to suit the ethos of the school and what it wanted to deliver. In particular, they were designed to suit other parts of the community’s involvement in them.
Just last week, I was able to visit Springwell community school, a school that is being rebuilt in Staveley in Chesterfield, which is quite a deprived area that, at one time, had terrible problems. On 1 November, it expects to receive the keys to its new Building Schools for the Future school and all involved are incredibly excited about the facilities that they have there. I have been around the new facilities and they are not in any way lavish, but they will be taking delivery of a high-quality establishment. What was important to me was that they said that the whole BSF programme enabled them to reassess not just what buildings they wanted, but the whole way they did education. Is that something that my hon. Friend has found? The BSF process was about much more than just getting buildings up.
Derek, even, Mr Caton. I am happy to be associated with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), but I must say that we are not from the same branch.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) makes an important point, as he has before. For instance, all the schools discussed with other bodies in the area, such as the health authority, how they could improve the provision of health care and how community involvement could be increased. In areas such as mine, although we have seen significant improvements in education over the past 10 years, the average school gets more than a 72% pass mark at grades A to C, which is above the national average. For a borough that is the 30th most deprived in the country, that is some achievement, which has been given no recognition by the Government in the Bill. That has been an important part of the process. Getting the community involved and getting adults involved to improve the educational ethos and get parents and families to take an interest in their young people—many do, but many more need to—was an important part of the involvement with the schools, too.
Health is particularly important in Halton because we have some of the worst health problems in the country. We have the highest teenage pregnancy rates. That would have been an important part of the programme. These schools were not just educational establishments; they were community establishments that would have dealt with some of the problems that affect the communities in their localities. How will the Government deal with that through this Bill?
The important part of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling is that, if we are for localism and getting people and communities to make their own decisions, why would the Government object to local parents and children, the relevant local authority and other appropriate persons being involved before decisions are made? That was exactly what BSF did. Why would the Government object to that? The amendment seems perfectly reasonable.
Parents and communities as a whole can best make a judgment about whether what has been delivered under BSF could be delivered under this Bill and this clause. I am interested to hear the Minister’s explanation, because parents will not be consulted in the same way, and neither will schools or LEAs. How is that an improvement on what was there previously?
The Government seem to suggest that standards were falling. They should come to Halton. I know that the Minister is very thoughtful. Why not visit my constituency and see some of the problems on the ground? He could see the inability to expand unless we put in mobile classrooms, the problems with amalgamations, and the problems with special schools that would have been placed in the same buildings as secondary schools, offering a more inclusive education. I know that he is a big Simon and Garfunkel fan, so while he is there he can visit Widnes station, where Paul Simon composed “Homeward Bound” and see the plaque next to my plaque at that station. I offer that invitation to him.
In seriousness, I cannot describe in words the devastation caused by this decision. I have mentioned lots of schools, but not St Peter and St Paul, a very important Roman Catholic comprehensive school in my constituency, or the primary schools on which these decisions have an impact. The consequences are devastating and the amendment, although it is not perfect and will not get us all the way to where some of us want to be, is a message to the Government and gives them the opportunity to roll back a bit and to consult on BSF, which they should have done in the first place, and to think again about how they approach the system of school improvement and ensuring that we have capital invested in our buildings.
Let me finish with this point, which I raised before. The Secretary of State said on his website that schools would get “more money”. How will that happen when the Government are saying that the money is not there for BSF in the first place? Those schools that follow his line will get more money and the rest will be left with none.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Caton, as we debate in a little more detail the Government’s proposals on additional school provision. I have made it clear, both yesterday and in earlier debates, my position of being sceptical—
Personally—yes, absolutely—I am sceptical about this sort of additional provision. However, the coalition agreement sets out our intention to explore avenues to make these opportunities available to communities where there is demonstrable demand for them. The Secretary of State has made it clear that he has received proposals from people in certain areas of the country who want to explore this idea and move forward, so it is sensible to make provision to do that.
Yesterday, I asked for clarification whether, in areas where such schools are to be brought into existence, the facilities will be of a high enough standard that any young people enrolled in those institutions will have the same sort of protections as other young people. I hope that any providers that wish to enter the market will make sure that, as far as possible, they provide sufficient resources for that rather than seeking to draw down moneys that might otherwise have gone elsewhere. That is the sort of provision that people might expect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) has laid out some of the political realities of the situation and the difficulties that some have in understanding where the money might come from in the current situation. Given some of the comments and remarks that Opposition Members have been making, one would have thought that everything was perfect under the previous Government and that everyone was getting all the resources they wanted in both capital and revenue terms. The school funding in my constituency was about £300 or so below the national average, so people there feel strongly that they have not had those resources. I expect that you will rule me out of order, Mr Caton, if I continue down that line, but it is important to get on the record that although some hon. Members might have experienced huge investment in their constituencies and although I welcome the fact that the Government put resources in when the money was available to do so, that money did not reach all people and not everyone was satisfied with the deal they had.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comments because we in Derbyshire are also campaigning for more funding for our schools. He says that north Cornwall did not benefit from Labour’s investment; is he saying that education funding has not increased dramatically in north Cornwall in the past 13 years?
I am talking about the funding formula. As we have been talking about different parts of the country benefiting in different ways, I thought it important to get on the record that my students were disadvantaged by that formula.
The amendment is useful in that it has prompted a discussion on these issues, but there are problems with it. I note in passing the phrase in proposed subsection (1A)(c):
“any other persons deemed appropriate.”
In yesterday’s debate, the Opposition argued that it was not sufficient to deem people appropriate and that the list should have been much longer, and included staff, for example, so a little inconsistency is apparent.
Putting that point aside, the problem with the amendment is that it is a little vague. Essentially, it relates to situations in which anyone in the local community might think that their school needs a bit more investment for a project, but no level of investment is specified. I can see how the amendment could kick in when a school has been identified by Ofsted and everyone else as needing drastic investment, but it talks about
“whether there are outstanding requirements for capital investment”.
Presumably, the consultation would leave it up to those who responded to a request to define what they deem to be “outstanding requirements”, so the amendment would effectively mean that if anyone said, “We want a bit more in our existing school for this”, no money would be provided. The amendment is intended to toughen up the criteria governing such requests, and I am tempted by that, but it is flawed because, in practice, it would act as a block.
I am sympathetic to some of the issues that have been raised, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them and clarify how local people may be reassured that the Government’s proposed capital programme will meet as many demands for improvements to existing schools as possible.
I want to support the amendment and I am concerned about the implications of the Bill on the review of expenditure on capital programmes into the future. In my borough, five Building Schools for the Future secondary school projects have been cancelled very recently. The first one that I want to talk about is the proposed amalgamation between two schools, Ryton and Hookergate, which are on the western fringe of the borough and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson). That proposed merger was the result of prolonged negotiations regarding those two schools, and the cancellation is a matter of grave concern.
Hookergate—a school that has long served the communities of Chopwell, Rowlands Gill, High Spen and Greenside, as well as many smaller, isolated rural settlements—is sadly subject to a declining pupil population, and it was set to be amalgamated with a school a few miles to the north, in the town of Ryton, on a site that the local authority was negotiating for with several landowners in the area.
Ryton school serves a very broad catchment area, including Ryton and Crawcrook. It also serves communities on the western fringe of Blaydon such as Stella, and the areas of Clara Vale, Stargate and Emmaville. Indeed, the formal part of the consultation on the local authority’s proposal for amalgamation was due to start the day after the Secretary of State made the announcement in the House cancelling the programme.
Another school affected by the cuts proposal is Whickham comprehensive, a large, successful school with some 1,500 pupils in the town of Whickham. It serves surrounding villages such as Marley Hill, Byermoor and Sunniside. It is very popular, but it is in grave need of renewal, as it is in a 1960s CLASP-style building, CLASP being the consortium of local authorities special programme. It is also bursting at the seams, having suffered a fire in one of its blocks several years ago.
St Thomas More Catholic comprehensive school is very popular and successful, with high levels of academic achievement, despite the poor and cramped conditions on its site. The Joseph Swan school, named after the inventor of the incandescent light bulb, who lived in Low Fell in Gateshead, is a successful school serving the community of central Gateshead and Low Fell, where there are three Liberal Democrat councillors. It was to have its dining block and humanities area rebuilt, on the back of the highly successful rebuild of the school’s main body through the traditional capital programme of the late 1990s.
Government Members have criticised us for not investing enough in schools during the 13-year tenure of the Labour Government. In my borough, we had the five schools that I mentioned left to do, but Lord Lawson of Beamish school was rebuilt using the private finance initiative; Kingsmeadow comprehensive was completely rebuilt using PFI; and the Heworth Grange and Thomas Hepburn schools are at the on-site stage. I have to declare an interest: I am still nominally the chair of governors of Thomas Hepburn school. The steelwork is now being erected so that the school can be rebuilt. Numerous primary schools were rebuilt or refurbished through combinations of old-style capital spend and PFI.
The £80 million that was due to come to us as part of Building Schools for the Future included the opportunity to adapt four schools to ensure that they were able to offer inclusive education for children with special needs, where it was the choice of parents to include youngsters with SEN in mainstream schooling. That was part of the transformational aspect of BSF to which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) referred. That additional SEN money that BSF talked to us about recognised the SEN review in our borough, and our ability to deliver; we could generate, according to the ready reckoner, approximately £10 million to invest in special schools, thereby completing our secondary school investment programme.
In Gateshead, we have built the angel of the north, a millennium bridge, and the Sage Gateshead concert hall and music complex, at which many Members from across the House have attended conferences. We have completed many capital projects, but what I am most proud of is the improvements in education for the children of our borough, and I hate the prospect of that improvement coming to a halt.
When the Secretary of State announced the axing of BSF, and when hon. Friends and I first raised the issue, Government Members accused us of feigning anger and outrage. After 27 years as a local councillor in Gateshead, and after a decade as the lead member on education serving the Gateshead community, I can reassure all Members of the House that I am not feigning anything. In particular, there is no pretence in my profound sadness that the much-needed continued investment in schools in my borough has been snatched away from the children who we all seek to serve.
I welcome the undertaking given by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday to meet the borough’s MPs and discuss this issue. I hope that at that meeting he will reassure us that the Building Schools for the Future programme for Gateshead has a future and has not been sacrificed on the ideological altar of investment in academy school buildings or new free schools for other, more favoured parts of the country.
In that vein, I was struck by the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, on the BBC last week that he would use his influence to lobby on behalf of places such as Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle—all places where the Liberal Democrats have had a significant foothold in local government representation. I hope that the Government will demonstrate transparency and that such decisions on school funding are made on the basis of fair criteria rather than behind-the-scenes deals.
I am sorry, Mr Caton; I was rather taken aback. It must be something to do with men with beards.
I hope that the amendment is pushed to a vote because I, for one, will support it, and for a number of reasons. First, however, I shall address some of the comments made by Labour Members. In the past 13 years, one or two Bills went through the House for which no amendments were taken.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the former Minister, said that the futures of Conservative and Lib Dem Members who tabled amendments might be harmed because people with the position in this Government that the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) held in the last Government would be emotionally attached to them for some time, trying to persuade them not to do it. Interestingly, the hon. Member for Leeds East made an intervention on that point; I could see a smirk on his face that broke out into a full grin. It brought back those lovely moments when he was able to exercise his persuasive powers; Members might have weakened, taken the advice of the Labour Front Benchers and tabled amendments.
I say to my coalition colleagues, particularly those in the Cabinet, how sad it is that these two debates have been so intertwined and what a mistake it was to link the Building Schools for the Future fiasco and its associated problems with an idea that might have got greater support if the two issues had been divorced. Nearly every contribution during yesterday’s and today’s debates has linked both issues.
Earlier, I was listening carefully to the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who suggested that a school could not henceforth get capital funding unless it was prepared to be an academy. Under the last Government, it was known that if the local authority was not interested in having an academy, there would not be much in the way of BSF funding. The issues have always been connected, by both parties.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is strange how things can change and memories can lapse in a short time. I am disappointed that Labour Members have not been more forthright in apologising. The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) suggested that we were laughing at what he was saying, but that could not have been further from the truth. Certainly nobody on these Benches was laughing; we were nearly in tears over what was happening.
If any Member laughed, I would be angry. I feel that in the past 13 years we have wasted opportunity after opportunity. Like the hon. Gentleman, I was full of enthusiasm when we heard the words “Education, education, education” coming from No. 10 —not once, but umpteen times. What did that really mean? Why did it all go so manifestly wrong? Why were schools in my constituency that were desperately in need of help not given it? Why did the city council go cap in hand to Ministers on three occasions begging for the resources to build a new King Richard school—not in my constituency but in that of the then Labour Minister? It was not given the resources that the school desperately needed.
I am sad that this debate is intertwined with the awfulness over what has happened to our schools as regards Building Schools for the Future. I agree with the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) and others who have spoken that this is not just about the quality of education. Schools provide a cocktail for children. As well as a good education, they provide a safe haven and a structure and buildings which give a community a sense of being. That is particularly true of large comprehensives. I have comprehensives in my city with close to 2,000 children in some of the most densely populated areas of Europe, let alone Great Britain. A school is seen very much as a focal point and an important aspect of community life, and it is very sad not to have the resources to rekindle its ability to serve several more generations.
The amendment is correct because it does more than probe. It spells out the inadequacies of the Bill, which does not talk about failure, but about taking resources from other areas. It presents a threat. If the idea of free schools gets off the ground, then fine—if that is what people want, let people choose to have it. I do not support it, and I cannot believe I ever will. However, I do not want to see resources taken from the schools I represent, which are desperately in need of new buildings and more equipment. I do not want those kids or those parents to be persuaded to go to a school that will not have science labs or outside space, and will not allow children to develop to their full potential. There is nothing in the Bill that says a free school will have to ensure that every child who goes there will have every opportunity to fulfil their potential in whatever direction they want to go in educational terms. That is a fundamental failure of the Bill.
I admire the Secretary of State enormously for his gung-ho approach to things. It was long overdue that we had Ministers who were prepared to fight their corner in the way that he does. Even when he is wrong, he comes out fighting. He is prepared to take a few blows, but he also likes to deliver a couple back. His deputy Minister, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), has done an excellent job on this Bill, despite the fact that he must understand, like many of us, that the extreme frustrations felt in this House are mirrored a million times over around the country. There is a lot of uncertainty in the education family, whether teachers, governors or whoever, about where the proposals will lead. In many ways, it is a mistake. That is why I will be supporting the amendment, which I commend to the whole Committee.
I strongly echo the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock), and I welcome the amendment.
The Government’s announcements on Building Schools for the Future and the progress of this Bill, which have happened roughly at the same time, are very much related to each other. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) said, Building Schools for the Future was not just about new buildings— it was about school improvement and educational transformation. I understand that that is the Government’s thinking on the Bill.
These developments are having significant impacts in schools in communities up and down the country. On Second Reading, I mentioned three examples of schools in my constituency in Liverpool. De La Salle Catholic boys’ school in Croxteth, an outstanding school that was due to become an academy under the Building Schools for the Future programme, now does not know whether it is going to get the extra investment, which it desperately needs. Another school, St John Bosco, also in Croxteth, and also an outstanding school that was due to be rebuilt under Building Schools for the Future, also needs that investment. Last weekend the head teacher asked me, “Should we now apply for academy status?” That is not because those at the school have a new plan in addition to their previous plans on educational transformation, but simply because they think that might be the way to secure the extra investment that they were going to get under Building Schools for the Future.
Does the hon. Gentleman not feel that there were people who thought exactly the same when the previous Government were in office? There were conversations such as that. I know that the current Government will be listening closely to what he says, and I am sure they will want to underline the fact that there will be a wider capital programme but, as other Members have said, what the hon. Gentleman describes was surely sometimes the perception under the last Government.
The difference on this occasion is that the schools affected have worked for years on a programme for their own improvement, and they came together in Building Schools for the Future. Now that has all been stopped, except for schools that will potentially have academy status. The problem is the uncertainty. I want schools to make the decisions that are best for them. The head of De La Salle wants his school to be an academy and sees the educational advantages, whereas the head teacher and chair of governors of Holly Lodge, another school that was due to be rebuilt under Building Schools for the Future, have decided that they do not want that for their school. I do not want schools to make such decisions simply on the basis of whether the extra money is available.
I wish briefly to make a point about where we go from here. Although there is a real sense of loss and devastation in Liverpool that we are not getting Building Schools for the Future funding, there is also a hard-headed pragmatism. We recognise that there will be a new show in town, and we are starting to consider what the alternatives might be for securing the much-needed capital funding for the city.
Is it the hon. Gentleman’s understanding that Building Schools for the Future would have carried on precisely as originally envisaged had Labour been in power, and that the 50% reduction in capital spending that the last Government had pencilled in, in broad terms and with no details given, would not have had an impact on it?
I am being tempted to take a lot of interventions, but I understand that Members of all parties may want an early vote because they need to be somewhere else a little later this afternoon. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but this will be the final intervention that I take.
The hon. Gentleman ought to see that the answer to his question has been given in the debate. The Government are already indicating that there will be extra money for free schools. They could have said, “We don’t think Building Schools for the Future can be afforded, so we’re going to do this in a different way over a longer period.” They could have gone ahead in the form that we had proposed, but spread over a longer time. That would have meant that the type of work that we had done in Liverpool, and that had been done in Durham and elsewhere, would not have been wasted, and we could have moved forward on that basis.
I was making a point about where we can go next. It would be useful if the Minister could inform the Committee of what the key factors will be when the capital review team considers the criteria for schools such as Holly Lodge, St John Bosco and De La Salle in my constituency. Will it be to the advantage of a school if it is willing to seek academy status? Will deprivation be a factor in whether a school is given priority, and will educational improvement be a significant factor, as it was under BSF? Will the Government consider links to the wider economic policy in a region? If Liverpool is to get the private sector growth that is crucial to our economic future, we need investment in our education. Will the capital review team consider that factor?
I urge the Committee to support this sensible amendment, which would enable local voices to be heard as important decisions are taken about the spending of large amounts of public money.
The amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult local parents and children, local authorities and others before making payments in respect of capital funding for any additional free school.
We have been clear that we want to improve choice in education. A free school proposal will be required to demonstrate parental demand and support, and where there is such demand for a free school in an area, we will not turn down a proposal simply to protect other local schools. However, I reassure hon. Members who are concerned that money from BSF will be used to fund free schools that that is not the case. We have reallocated £50 million from the harnessing technology fund to restart the standards and diversity fund established by the previous Government in 2008 to promote new schools. That fund will provide capital funding for free schools until the end of next March. Any free school projects that require up-front capital outlay will have to demonstrate a compelling and strong value-for-money case to support the investment and provide evidence of genuine parental demand.
Let me deal briefly with some of the issues that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) raised. He asked how many expressions of interest had been shown in new free schools. We have not announced figures for free school applications or expressions of interest, although the New Schools Network has done so, but we have made it clear that all proposals for free schools will be published on our website.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the terms of reference for the capital review, which are there for all to see on the departmental website. I shall read briefly the review’s opening purpose. It is:
“To review… the department’s existing capital expenditure and make recommendations on the future delivery models for capital investment for 2011-12 onwards.
The overall aim of the review is to ensure that future capital investment represents good value for money and strongly supports the Government’s ambitions to reduce the deficit, raise standards and tackle disadvantage.”
The hon. Gentleman cited two of the five bullet points. The other three are:
“To evaluate the extent to which value for money has been achieved in capital expenditure to date… To review current methods of allocating capital (for example, by formula to local authorities)… To consider options for reflecting Government policies on carbon reduction”.
As the hon. Gentleman said, the other two are to bring in new providers and to establish new schools.
The hon. Gentleman asked about new capacity. When local authorities need to expand primary schools to accommodate demographic changes, the capital will, of course, be funded in the normal way for such basic need. He asked about the criticism of the shadow Secretary of State’s stewardship of the Department’s finances. We have had to deal with unrealistic and unfunded spending commitments for 2010-11, for which funding relied on under-spends through the end-year flexibility system.
The hon. Gentleman asked about playing fields. We are committed to competitive sports and our new free schools will have to show that they can provide a broad and balanced curriculum and that pupils will have access to playing fields and appropriate facilities. He asked about academies’ capital funding. Funding that has been itemised is currently being discussed with sponsors, and the results will be announced before the recess.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) asked what would happen if a free school failed. We would look to support a school to try to prevent its failure. The model funding agreement has intervention powers, which would allow the Secretary of State to appoint a majority of governors to the governing body of the academy. They would look to turn around the school or terminate the funding agreement and enter into a new one.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) asked about the priorities for capital spending. That is exactly what the capital review is designed to investigate. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) asked about school funding. We have been clear about the principle that academies are funded at a level that is broadly comparable to that of maintained schools in the local authority area, taking account of their additional responsibilities. We will review the future funding of academies later this year, in consultation with partners, to ensure that local authorities and academies are properly funded for their respective responsibilities. Of course, capital will be the subject of the review, the terms of reference of which I have just read out.
I remind the hon. Member for Gedling that clauses 9 and 10 deal with consultation and the impact of the proposals on neighbouring schools. With those few words, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.
I will be very brief, because I know that other things are taking place this afternoon. I will press amendment 70 to a Division to test the Committee’s opinion, and I thank those who have contributed to the debate on it, including my hon. Friends the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), and for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). The Minister will know that it is not just my hon. Friends and I who believe in the necessity for more local consultation on the Department’s capital spending priorities, because we also heard the concerns of the hon. Members for Bradford East (Mr Ward) and for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) about the Government’s proposals.
Amendment 70 seeks only to allow local people to determine their priorities for the spending of capital moneys. As I said, the new politics and the new Government were supposed to be about localism, but at one of the very first hurdles they have come to, they are clearly failing that test.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
On a point of order, Mr Caton. I would like to raise a question that I have raised already with the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) and the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The issue concerns the London living allowance and the fact that it would appear to be impossible to backdate any claim from the date of election to the date when a Member can first log on to the system. I am still awaiting a response from IPSA and seek your guidance, Mr Caton.
My name was mentioned in the Chamber, Mr Caton. I would like to apologise to the hon. Lady and the House for the misinformation that I provided in that answer. I am trying to get at the right information, but that is no excuse for my behaviour in providing the wrong information. I apologise to you, as the Chair, and the House for what I believe is misleading the House.
On a point of order, Mr Caton. It was impossible for myself and a number of other people to make the very important Division just now, because of the large numbers of people coming out and pushing against us as we entered from the Portcullis House end, and because of a number of Members who, unfortunately, instead of vacating quickly, decided to hang around talking, preventing people from getting in. As a result, a number of people just missed a very important vote. I would like to put on the record my concern at the eight-minute time limit and the fact that people are not getting out of the way quickly enough to allow Members from Portcullis House to vote.
Further to an earlier point of order, Mr Caton. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) has rightly apologised for having misled the House. However, if he is to be able to do his job, he must have the necessary information from IPSA, for which he must answer in the House. If there is a delay in providing him with the accurate information, he and the House are put in an impossible position.
I beg to move amendment 71, page 3, line 7, at end add—
‘(7) Before making any payments under an Academy agreement the Secretary of State shall make an assessment of the extent of centrally-provided SEN provisions that, were the school to operate as a maintained school—
(a) would be required by a school with the likely pupil profile of the proposed additional school, or
(b) is currently called upon by the maintained school which is converting to Academy status.
(8) Before making any payments under an Academy agreement the Secretary of State shall make an assessment of the likely disruption to centrally-provided SEN services that might result from equivalent reductions in local authority budgets.
(9) Payments made under an Academy agreement must reflect the assessment made according to subsections (7) and (8).’.
We come to another important amendment. However, before I start, I should like to welcome the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) to his new post. He has just been allocated a ministerial post in the Department for Education, as the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning. I congratulate him on that appointment, which I gather will involve shared ministerial responsibilities with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I very much welcome his appointment to that position, and I know that he will work with diligence and determination. He and I have known each other for a long time. We go back over a number of years, in our various roles in Nottinghamshire, so I sincerely hope that he does well. I wish him the best and wish him good luck with things over the next few months, years or whatever it turns out to be. [Interruption.] Well, maybe not decades—I certainly will not be here if it is, but that is another story.
I have tried to be conciliatory and reasonable in the debates on amendments that we have had so far in this Committee stage on the Floor of the House. The debate, on a whole series of issues, has so far been of a high standard, with contributions by Members from all parts of the House, as is appropriate for the Committee stage, which in many respects is different from the full debates that we often have on motions. The Committee stage is about trying to ascertain what the real meanings of clauses are and what the consequences of different parts of the Bill will be, and to see whether we can adapt, change and improve the legislation, or at least the guidance that goes alongside it.
Nowhere is that more important than in special educational needs. I do not doubt for one minute that Members from all parts of the Committee will have at the front of their minds how we can ensure that the provision that we make for special educational needs—particularly through the changed arrangements, with the academy model proposed in the Bill—protects those with special educational needs. Again to be reasonable, we also know that the Government made some amendments in the House of Lords that significantly improved the Bill. If I might say so, those changes—made as a consequence of the debate and discussion in the other place—have made a significant difference to the Bill, a point that is also worth putting on record.
The point of amendment 71 is to try to understand in more detail the consequences for special educational needs provision of the changed arrangements for schools, with more schools opting out, becoming academies—or free schools—and being independent of local authorities. We want to know what that will mean for the provision of services for those young people who we would all want to ensure received the quality of education and support that we would want them to receive.
There is no doubt—I am sure that this would be true whatever the challenges that existed—that we can all point to the quite exceptional services provided by local authorities to support young people with special educational needs, either in school or through their families. Often, the important thing is not just the support that the child receives in the school, but the support that the family receive to support their child in that school. Clearly, the local authority’s role in that is crucial. I am sure that we can point to many excellent examples, but I know that we could all identify instances where things have not worked out so well, and where a local authority has not provided the standard of service that we would want. Overall, however, the role of the local authority in co-ordinating support is extremely important.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there are far too many young people across the country who still have not even gone through the assessment process with their local authority and been identified as having special educational needs?
That is a very good point. I mentioned yesterday that this is not simply a question of young people being assessed by a local authority and not receiving a statement, even though most people think that they should have received one. I have no professional expertise in that area, however.
To be fair to the Government, the inclusion in clause 2 of proposed new subsection 8A, which deals with low incidence special needs, is important and significant. We are talking not only about the young people who everyone would expect to have statements for their special needs, and for the first time the Government have put into the legislation the term
“low incidence special educational needs or disabilities”.
That represents a significant improvement to the Bill. I know from my own experience that young people with low incidence special needs often do not receive the support that they deserve, and neither do their families. They often do not receive the kind of educational or social support that they need.
I will in a moment.
Proposed new subsection 8A is very well intentioned, but clause 2(6) also states that the Secretary of State may intervene when
“a local authority fails to secure satisfactory provision for pupils with low incidence special educational needs or disabilities”.
What does that actually mean? It is all very well to put that proposal into the Bill, but how will it be funded, organised and co-ordinated? How are we going to decide in a meaningful way what
“low incidence special educational needs or disabilities”
means? This is a huge problem. I am not criticising the Government; I think the inclusion of those words is very good. I would rather have the problem of trying to identify what they mean than not have them in the Bill, which would risk people not having those needs met.
The inclusion of the provision raises the serious question of how it is to be funded. Where will the funding come from? How much is it expected to be? Who will co-ordinate the arrangements if, instead of the local authority, we have lots of independent academies, special schools and free schools? How is this part of the Bill going to be achieved?
The hon. Gentleman has partly anticipated my question. Does he agree that our looking at how to cater for low incidence special needs in the Bill is symptomatic of the much wider question of how to deal with programmes such as School Action and School Action Plus? I am sure that they represented a well intentioned move away from statementing and the closure of special schools, but their results were questionable. Does he agree that this wider problem needs to be addressed, and that the Bill provides a spectrum through which to look at it?
We discussed special schools and the number of special school places yesterday, but let me say this. I approve of the policy objective—which has been shared across the House for a number of years—that, when appropriate and given the proper safeguards in regard to such matters as parental choice, we should include as many young people as possible in mainstream education. It is clear that, if that objective is implemented, the number of special school places will fall. A more difficult question is whether we are all certain that, in every single case, a young person has been placed in mainstream education rather than being given the opportunity of going to a special school, and I think that the answer to that is probably no.
The hon. Lady is right to suggest that this raises questions about special schools and about inclusion. I think that the policy of inclusion is right, but that does not mean we should not ensure that the process by which it is decided where a child should be educated is a matter for discussion and agreement, involving the child’s parents, rather than diktat.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. As he says, we go back a long way, and as he knows, I have a great deal of respect for him.
We will discuss inclusion when I have a chance to speak at greater length. As I know that, rightly, you will not allow me to do that now, Mr Caton, let me simply say that the statementing process is critical to all this. A statement must be clear about the detail of needs, because the specificity of its analysis bears a direct relationship to the extent to which we can quantify and deal with those needs. Historically the standard has not been good enough, but the Government will consider it carefully in the light of what the hon. Gentleman has said.
That is a fair comment, like the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) about the number of special schools, special school places and statements in process. All that needs to be kept under review.
The Minister should bear in mind—he may wish to discuss this when he winds up the debate—that new paragraph 8A and subparagraph (6) do not necessarily concern young people for whom a statement would be thought appropriate. They concern young people with low incidence special educational needs, which can involve a multiplicity of conditions and which will, I think, prove difficult to define. Certainly the criteria to be employed in the making of a judgment will be a matter for considerable debate. However, as I have said, I would rather have a debate about the meaning of the subsection than see it excluded from the Bill. It constitutes a good and brave step forward. However, as my amendment makes clear, it also raises questions about local authority co-ordination and funding.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. My own points are, first, that that should not be used as an excuse for not statementing children who would benefit from a statement for the reasons that I gave earlier, and secondly, that we should be as determined to help children with low incidence special educational needs as we are to help those facing more profound challenges. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, we need to be clear about the mechanisms that will be required, but I do not consider that to be incompatible with any of the provisions in the Bill.
I do not disagree with the Minister, but I think we would all agree that statementing has not always taken place when it should have. It is always necessary to examine the process and see how it can be improved. Ultimately, irrespective of the severity of a child’s need, we must ensure that that need is met. For some that will require through statements, for some it will require special school education, and for some it will require inclusion in mainstream schools. The inclusion in mainstream education of as many young people as appropriate—which was supported by the last Government and the last Conservative Government and, I believe, by the present Government—is absolutely right, as long as it does not cause us to conclude that it must take place irrespective of the wishes of parents or the needs of the young people themselves.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. I entirely agree about the fallacy that will be perpetuated if the Bill leaves the House without a clear definition of low incidence special educational needs. The lack of clarity has been used as an excuse all along, which is why so many children have not received proper assessments or statements. It has been too easy to find a way around the wording, because it has been so vague. If the Bill leaves the House without a refinement of that definition, the lack of clarity will once more be used as an excuse, and those who are on the edge or the cusp of special educational needs will once more be left adrift. That will be the case not only during the first stage of their education, but throughout their educational career. I am with the hon. Gentleman 100 per cent. in trying to get clarification, but does he agree that it would be wrong for the Bill to leave the House without such clarification being written into it?
I very much agree and it is important, given that the Government will not amend the Bill, for the Minister to read into the record the criterion that will be used to assess whether a young person has low incidence special needs. I say this as someone who thinks that it is very brave of the Government to propose the measure. But as the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) said, if there is no defining criterion, we will have a well-intentioned measure, but what will it mean? That is extremely important.
There was a big discussion in the House of Lords and the measure was included in the Bill. A large number of Lords spoke about it and said that it was important. The Government accepted that but the situation has moved on. The hon. Member for Portsmouth South is right; for a local authority or school to be obliged to support a young person with low incidence special needs, do they need a statement? If not, there is no legal obligation—I am not an expert on these laws—on the school or authority to provide anything for that child. Yet everybody, including the Government—they have included it in the clause—thinks that there are young people with low incidence special needs who need additional support that they are not getting through the system.
This is a real problem for the Government to address; it is crucial. I am not trying to be smart or trying to attack; I am just saying that if we want to improve the Bill and we want to make a difference to those with low incidence special needs, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth South said, we have to try to define that, at the very least by the Minister reading it into the record.
I wanted to add to the points about low incidence special needs, as there are other reasons why it is important to spell out the protection of services provided centrally. In those councils where the cancellation of centrally provided services has taken place on the assumption that schools would buy services back in, there has been a failure to take up that buy-back option, which affects SEN in particular but also other services. That is an important reason why we need that protection to be in the Bill. If not, as my hon. Friend says, Ministers need to take the matter on board so that there is robust protection for centrally provided services. Otherwise, those services will disappear.
I agree with my hon. Friend who re-emphasises my point. This is part of the tension within the Bill; independence is to be given to schools. Some may agree with that; we have difficulties with the haste with which it is being done. But what mechanism is there to ensure that local authorities provide for these young people in a way that gives them the support they need?
Following the Education Act 1993, we have had codes of practice for SEN whose provisions are important in ensuring good practice. In the halcyon days when I was shadow Schools Minister, I was able to debate those codes of practice and the Government listened to some of the Opposition’s arguments. That is one important aspect of protecting SEN students and their parents. But also if the Secretary of State were unhappy with the provision, he retains the powers to intervene.
That is true, and it is stated in the Bill that where a local authority fails to secure satisfactory provision the Secretary of State may intervene and make “alternative arrangements”. The problem is what does “low incidence special educational needs or disabilities” mean? How will a local authority or a school—an academy or special school—know whether they are meeting the expectations of the Secretary of State without a definition of what that actually is? Without that, the response will just be subjective, with people saying, “That isn’t very good” or “That isn’t working,” which is clearly unacceptable.
The Minister might not be able to do this today, but it is extremely important that at some point—even late on Monday—something is read into the record that defines what that term means. Other Members may disagree, but it is my view that for that to be done otherwise through guidance or a letter will not be sufficient. The force of Parliament needs to be behind some definition and criteria for the term, over and above its mere mention in the Bill and, even with the best intentions, something in a code of practice. I cannot say how important that is to making this bit of the Bill work.
What I say will to some extent reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). For a host of reasons, not the least of them financial, local authorities will already decide how well to staff the team who go out and make the assessments, and if there is any wriggle room whatever they will wriggle: they will avoid putting resources into that team or department. It is therefore crucial for the future of some of the most vulnerable children in this country that we get something on the record today so that local authorities—of whatever colour—cannot wriggle out of their responsibilities.
That is right, and my hon. Friend’s comments highlight that we are not trying to make a party political point. We want to ensure that that is the case for local authorities of all political colours and types; that is fundamental and crucial. As I have said, however, I accept that it may not be possible to do this today, as the lawyers will, no doubt, need to check it.
I think that I share some of the shadow Minister’s concerns. Low incidence is not about the acuteness of the need; it is about the fact that it is pretty rare. One of the risks of having funds devolved to the individual academies is that they may see this rare condition only once every five years, when suddenly a pupil turns up out of the blue with that need. That is why there is an issue about the difference between where the resource lies and who has the incentive to deliver the service. We need reassurance as to how we will have the system and incentives in place to ensure that, without the Secretary of State having to intervene at a local authority level to assess the whole authority’s failing, the needs of the parents and child concerned are met and there is not a big fuss in doing that.
I totally agree, and the hon. Gentleman makes his point very well. However, I am unclear about the legislative mechanism that we will use to try to stop bad situations arising. I cannot be sure what it will be without there being something either in the Bill or, perhaps, in statutory guidance.
Such is the silky charm of the hon. Gentleman and the persuasiveness of his argument that even in these few minutes he has already extracted the following from me. He is right that that needs to be set out clearly on the record. He is absolutely right about the code of practice in respect of SEN reflecting the fact that we now have reference to low incidence special needs in the Bill, as he has acknowledged, and about the funding agreement that was put in place for an academy reflecting not only the obligations in the Education Act 1996 but that code of practice. I make that commitment today, and he can claim that in this useful debate he has encouraged me to that end—although it may be an end that would have been reached in any case in my discussions with my fellow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), who, of course, takes the lead in these matters. However, I would not want in any way to understate the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to that process.
I thank the Minister for that. Perhaps he could clarify in his winding up exactly what he meant. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I am not trying to be rude. Is he saying that an existing code of practice is to be amended? If he is saying that, I gently say, again, that that illustrates one of the problems with the Bill, because most of us would like to see what amendment he is proposing to the code of practice.
There is a huge debate—the Chair of the Select Committee mentioned this—about what the term means. Does it mean a rare condition? This debate is not only about low incidence SEN, because the Bill also refers to low incidence disabilities. All I am saying is that this is a difficult area.
I complimented the hon. Gentleman—it was not flattery—but I do not want him to get too insistent as a result. I will, however, give him the assurance that I will deal with this matter when I sum up and that we are absolutely clear that the code of practice is salient. I do not want to tease him too much, but he will know that when he was the Minister, and when his predecessors were Ministers, the codes of practice were always published separately and debated in this House separately—indeed he and I have both participated in such debates. Of course I will speak about this again when I sum up.
I thank the Minister for that. We will all wait to see what is said in the wind-up, because we are all motivated by a desire to see how we can make a brave amendment in the Lords a reality. We must not create something that is extremely difficult for ourselves. For too long, many of us, from across the country, have seen special educational needs not met, including those of people with profound difficulties. If we are making provision in respect of low incidence needs, we need to address how we ensure that we meet them.
We seem to be having an outbreak of cordial co-operation in the Committee. Paragraph 8A is an improvement on where we were at the beginning of the Bill’s proceedings, and it deals with low incidence SEN and disabilities. Has the hon. Gentleman considered whether it ought also to include looked-after children, to ensure that the provision of services for them in any academy means that they are getting the expenditure and support that they need?
That is an extremely interesting and good point. As I say, the problem is that there are a number of points like that. That one would be worth testing with an amendment to see where it is catered for in the Bill or, if the Bill does not cater for it, where it is catered for in any document relating to the Bill. For example, I think I am right in saying that the new model funding agreement does not contain a requirement for there to be a teacher responsible for children in care, whereas the old funding agreement did contain one. If I have got that wrong, I will correct it. All sorts of little changes sometimes take place in the documents, letters and guidance that go along with such Bills. The changes are sometimes not debated to the extent that they need to be and they then turn out to be crucial. Even Ministers get to the point where they try to do something and are then told, “You can’t do that because section (c) on page 48 of the guidance that you passed says you cannot.” They find that a little change that they had not properly noticed, which may have been implemented with good intent, has unintended consequences.
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) was right to make the point that he did. One of the organisations that I shall refer to in a minute has made representations to us about how we ensure that the needs of children in care and of children with other associated needs are met within the new academy model arrangements that the Bill proposes. All sorts of questions like this arise, particularly if we strip out, as the Bill does in essence, the role of the local authority and devolve the funding to individual school. One unanswered question goes to the heart of the Bill: what is the co-ordinating mechanism at a local level to try to ensure that some of these things happen? That is not in place, and that is a real problem.
On a slightly different track, is the shadow Minister aware of evidence that, despite the vast increase in the number of learning support assistants, the more time children with special educational needs spend with learning support assistants and the less time they spend with a teacher, the worse is their learning experience? One of the dangers of a centrally co-ordinated system is that schools that challenge a child’s being taken off for special support might deprive that child of being in the classroom with the teacher and, perhaps, having a better opportunity to learn. We must get the balance right between ensuring provision and not having a monolithic delivery that stops innovation, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society who are too often failed.
I do not disagree with that. Again, the freedom for a school to determine the appropriate mix between teachers, teaching assistants and other staff as well as the appropriate delivery method is a matter for the school. The Chair of the Select Committee is right to say that. However, it does not negate the fact—I think he was making this point, too—that alongside that there is a need for some sort of co-ordinating mechanism. He is quite right that there is a need for balance and there will be debate and discussion about where that balance should be and where the line should be drawn. However, part of the problem is that, as I said yesterday, this is a bit of a leap in the dark. We are almost being asked to take a leap in the dark and being told, “Don’t worry, it will be okay.” There are some fundamental questions that Ministers have been unable to answer, even though they have the best of intentions, because the Bill is permissive and just says, “Well, we’ll allow this to happen but we are not quite sure where it will go.”
A number of concerns were raised by different organisations. We have heard concerns from the Adolescent and Children’s Trust about children in care and about how these services will be met. It is seeking assurances about looked-after children and young people in academies, and it says that it wants recognition from the Government that there is a need for a local agency to assess need and to plan and cost education support services and that necessary resources must be not only identified but ring-fenced.
The Association of Educational Psychologists has also written to us, extremely concerned about some of the changes to local education funding and about how we can ensure the protection of educational psychologists if all the money goes to the schools. The National Autistic Society has made many of the same points about protecting young people in schools. TreeHouse, another charity for autism, is concerned about what it will mean if funds and resources are devolved to individual schools.
Then we come to funding. The Local Government Association states in its briefing, which all Members will have received, that
“90% of funding for schools goes, via the local authority, directly to schools with the remainder allocated back to schools following consultation with schools through the local Schools Forum…Around 20% of this ‘central spending’ goes to private, voluntary or independent nurseries, and the majority of the rest (60%) is used to provide services for pupils with special educational needs, and those who are excluded from mainstream education…In the debate around the advantages to schools of seeking academy status much has been made of the advantage to schools of retaining this 10% of ‘central spending’. However, it is important to understand that this is funding to meet the need of the pupils with the greatest needs. It is crucial that this funding is distributed in a way that does not unfairly benefit academies over maintained schools.”
I do not know whether hon. Members have had a chance to look at the Government’s impact assessment, but tucked away, where it states that local authorities will face a reduction in the moneys that they receive for the provision of such services as it will be distributed to schools, it states the assumption that the savings to local authorities in administration costs will be negligible. So, although they will have fewer resources to provide for special educational needs in an area, they will not make any savings from an administrative point of view either.
It is also totally unclear exactly how all this will be worked out. What will a school that chooses to become an academy receive? I know there is a ready reckoner on the Department’s website, but will the Minister explain how it works? [Interruption.] That was not done yesterday: we asked, but there was no time to do it, so I am asking again today because I think we would all like to know how the ready reckoner works so that schools can understand what they will receive.
What proportion of the money that those schools receive would have gone to local authorities to provide, centrally, services for children with special educational needs? What proportion of the additional money they receive will go to schools and will not be retained centrally by local authorities? How will that be worked out given that every school that is fast-tracked to academy status is outstanding and has, as the Centre for Economic Performance has said, lower numbers of pupils with SEN?
How will schools that have a lower incidence of SEN and that apply to become academies be funded? Will it be on a per pupil basis or a needs basis? If schools are funded on a per pupil basis rather than on a needs basis, big schools with a low incidence of SEN that convert to academies will receive exceptionally high amounts of money that would previously have been retained centrally to provide SEN services to the pupils and children across the local education area who needed them. Why did The Times publish an article on 12 June saying that there was considerable confusion among local authorities and schools about how much money schools would receive? Why are some local authorities saying that when they add together all the amounts that the ready reckoner comes up with as being distributed to schools on the basis of centrally provided services the total is sometimes more than they receive? We need some explanation from the Minister about that.
The hon. Lady will know that I praised the Government at the beginning of my speech for making some amendments in the House of Lords. The amendment that applied measures in the Education Act 1996 to academies was a good one, as were the amendments that introduced paragraph 8A and subsection (6). I shall not argue with her about that.
I am saying that the existing state of play is not good enough and that the amendment that was made in the House of Lords to apply the 1996 Act to academies was a good one. We are debating the further changes that the Bill will make to delegate funding straight to schools rather than via local authorities—money that would have been retained centrally to provide services. Government Members—not only Front Benchers, but Members such as the hon. Lady—need to explain how SEN services that are currently provided centrally will be protected if all that money is delegated out to schools. How will that work? The point of this Committee is to understand the Government’s thinking about how that will happen.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who is extremely generous in allowing interventions. My apologies for labouring the point, but I think that it is crucial. My view is that we have not made enough central provision for special educational needs services. My fear is that the measures, instead of going further and strengthening the central provision of SEN services, will water it down.
I agree with that, and it goes to the heart of the debate. To be fair, that is the point that the Chair of the Education Committee made about where we draw the line. Where do we draw the line between a school innovating, and a school having the ability to use its budget to provide for children with SEN?
I know that this is not being suggested, but we would not want the Secretary of State to make thousands of individual decisions about the right mix of teachers and teaching assistants, the curriculum, and so on; that would be a matter for the individual school. However, my hon. Friend is quite right: alongside that consideration, where do we draw the line to ensure that there is money for the central provision of services—local authority provision—so that we can ensure that the support that is sometimes needed is available? That is a difficult balance. The point of this Committee is to try to test the Government’s thinking on where they draw the line, and on what the funding amounts are. At the moment, we have a ready reckoner, but nowhere in the impact assessment, or anywhere, do the Government lay out exactly what they think the cost will be.
It is absolutely right that the central provision that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) mentioned will continue, but the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) should not underestimate the capacity of academies to purchase that provision. He will know that that already occurs; I think that it happens in Walsall, for example. The peripatetic services that a school will require can be purchased, and I do not underestimate their calibre and their appeal to academies. I do not think that he does either, does he?
I am not trying to make the point that there are not perfectly reasonable people in academies, or in schools that may become academies, who would be able to purchase services. I do not disagree on that, but it does not answer the questions. Where do we draw the line between what we provide individually for schools, so that they have the freedom to innovate and take forward their provision for SEN, and what should be centrally provided? What is the estimated cost of all that? Is it all funded, particularly given that the Government have now included low incidence special needs and low incidence disabilities? Where is the extra money for that, and how much will it cost? How will it be co-ordinated? What does it actually mean? What are the criteria? How does that relate to the statementing process? The problem for the Government is that that has not been thought through.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has taken that tone, because that was not the policy intention of the last Government or the previous Conservative Government. I am sorry to bore people who have sat through Committee proceedings for the past day and a half, because I have said this twice, but the policy objective—he may disagree with this—was not to close special schools. It was to ensure that people had the choice of being included in mainstream schools, if that was appropriate for them. That was the policy of the previous Conservative Government in the ’90s, as was absolutely right, and of the Labour Government until 2010, as was also absolutely right. I hope that it will be the policy of this Government.
Of course, that will mean that the number of special school places will sometimes go up, and sometimes go down. As long as that is done on the basis of having determined what is in the interests of the child, it should not matter, because it is the policy objective that is important. I tell the hon. Gentleman this: if there are 10,000 places in special schools—I do not know how many there are—and it was properly, and with parental agreement, felt that 3,000 of those 10,000 places should be in mainstream schools, I would be happy to stand at this Dispatch Box and say, “I support the reduction of special school places from 10,000 to 7,000,” but that is on the basis of need and individual choice, not on the basis of ideological diktat.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he was also generous yesterday. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), he acknowledged and paid tribute to the fact that the Government have strengthened the law so that academies will have the same SEN obligations as maintained schools. Will he also pay tribute to how the new model funding agreement also strengthens provision? It provides the Secretary of State with the power to direct academies to comply with any SEN obligations that were not in the previous funding agreements.
I tried to make that point at the beginning; otherwise, we would not make any progress. I said that there had been improvements to the Bill and that there would have been improvements in some of the documentation associated with academies. That does not change the fact that, when it comes down to it, the Government are not clear on what the funding arrangements will be, how they will work and the correct balance between centrally provided services and the academies.
As the Chair of the Education Committee asked, where do we draw the line and what is the balance between those issues? The Government have not given us any definition of what they mean by
“low incidence special educational needs or disabilities.”
In Committee, we have to tease out those sorts of issues from the Government, to ensure that the legislation that we pass in this Parliament is as robust and effective as it can be.
May I introduce one other aspect? The discussion is seemingly taking place on the basis that there is an abundant supply of learning support services and professionals. That is simply not the case. In many cases, the authority has to carry out a difficult rationing role. A good example is educational psychologists, of whom there is not an abundant supply. It is worrying that that rationing process, which most local authorities treat in a fair way, may now face a situation in which schools can simply buy in precious resources to the detriment of other schools in the district.
That is right. The issue is not only the quantity of support services for children with special educational needs, but their quality. There is also the issue of the effectiveness of some interventions. This big area of debate is no doubt outside the scope of what we are discussing at the moment, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the provision of quality.
Whether we are talking about SEN provision, looked-after children, educational psychologists, behavioural support or other issues, what concerns me and many other Members is how we guarantee that the support will be there when it is needed, whether at school or centrally. There is also the matter of whether that can be legislated for or not. The Minister was beginning to drive at that point in his last intervention. That is what I want to hear about and I am sure that other Members are thinking the same thing.
I agree with my hon. Friend; no doubt the Minister will try to pick up that issue in his remarks.
How will special educational needs be monitored? What is the role of the Young People’s Learning Agency? How will schools get help? How effective is the YPLA in respect of the quality of local, centrally provided services? What experience and expertise does the agency have? How will we ensure that all these things are effectively fulfilled? How much will it all cost? Who will be responsible for intervening if a school is not offering effective provision? How will the Secretary of State know that something is not being done? Who would make the decision about any of these failures? There is a huge raft of questions that I hope the Minister can begin to address.
Our amendment is simple. It tries to ensure that a decision is made about the effect on the provision of centrally provided services of decisions about what money should go to individual schools. At the heart of that is the need for better information from the Government about where the balance should be. The amendment seeks to clarify the situation by saying that we must retain sufficient resources at a central level within the local authority to provide the necessary level of support and help for children with special educational needs, notwithstanding that the Bill will delegate large sums to them. What will be the impact of that? It is a leap in the dark—we simply do not know. Frankly, the Government have not provided the level of detail that the Committee requires because they have not had time to do so.
A man may not make a maiden speech twice. Due to a misunderstanding in Westminster Hall, I appear to have lost my maidenhood, so I apologise to the House. I would like to speak about amendment 71, but very briefly, with your permission, Mr Caton, I would like first to pay tribute to my predecessor, David Maclean of Penrith and The Border, and then bring my remarks back to this important amendment.
In Westminster Hall, I was unable to recognise the extraordinary service that David Maclean paid to this House over 27 years. I thought that I was stepping into big shoes, but I had no idea how large. I remember climbing up a snowdrift in December last year feeling like Scott of the Antarctic reaching an isolated farmstead to find that David Maclean, like Amundsen, had already been there before me, and repeatedly. As I have moved around over the past few weeks, I have seen the incredible care that he paid to his constituents. Every time I pick up a sheaf of documents, I can see that he has written no fewer than 11 letters of astonishing energy and specificity. During the debate over the past two days, I have often heard the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) ask people to answer the question. On the basis of the letters that I have seen, Mr Maclean answered the question repeatedly, and with vigour and honour. When asked, for example, about windmills, he did not simply say, like an ex-civil servant such as myself, “On the one hand, but then on the other,” but instead attacked the technology and the proposal and ensured that people organised as a social committee to oppose it.
Let me conclude on the subject of my predecessor by saying that his greatest moment was during the foot and mouth crisis, when, with his staff, which he and I would call a cromach, in his hand, he moved across our landscape, denuded of livestock, with funeral pyres burning on the border, and defended his constituency—the ancient constituency of the Western March, that ancient mediaeval frontier—like a warden of the Western March.
In relation to amendment 71, I have been charmed by the reasonableness of the hon. Member for Gedling. I entirely agree with him about the importance of special educational needs provision; I have personal reasons to do so. I agree also about some of the dangers that he has mentioned, such as the potential confusion between funding arrangements and the responsibilities defined within the Bill. He and the bodies that he cited are absolutely right to be concerned about special educational needs provision. I am no expert on the subject, so these comments are meant respectfully to him.
As I say, I am not an expert on education, nor am I a lawyer, but it seems to me, as the hon. Gentleman has already accepted, that many of the things for which he is pressing have already happened under clause 1(8)(a). Some of this—again, I am not a lawyer—seems declaratory in nature rather than necessary. The focus on recognition of the condition and the right of appeal is central, but with respect I would say that there is some confusion about the amendment, and that it would not achieve the purposes that he wishes. He has talked at immense length about his concerns over funding, quality, and the definition of low incidence special educational needs. Amendment 71, to my non-lawyerly eye, would not achieve any of those objectives.
In fact, if one listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, one heard him focus repeatedly on the word “mechanism”. He is very interested in process, and on that we have a philosophical disagreement. Instead of beginning from where we are and what academies are actually doing, and accepting that the Bill will improve rather than decrease the performance of academies in relation to special educational needs, he is obsessed with central processes. He seems to believe that local authorities are the ideal mechanism.
Reading the amendment carefully shows that it is not really as the hon. Gentleman implies. It is an attempt to do things that have nothing to do with the law. A lot of what he talked about from the Dispatch Box would be absolutely right for him to consider if he were the Minister, such as the importance of considering funding arrangements and ensuring that definitions are in place, but a lot of the detail of the amendment is about administration, not about the law. The purpose of the law is to define the objective, which, broadly speaking, is to delegate.
I notice that the hon. Gentleman does not like the word “delegation” and is not comfortable with it. He is not, as he suggests, simply asserting the importance of special educational needs, nor even the necessity for a process or a mechanism. He is setting out a specific process and mechanism, namely local authorities. His amendment repeatedly requires the Secretary of State to assess all the current local authority provision and the support that it provides, and to focus in that assessment on any funding requirements attached to that.
That is a classic example of what was wrong with the previous approach. Instead of focusing on a special educational needs outcome with which we all agree, the hon. Gentleman is attempting to micro-manage the process with a preference for the local authority.
With respect and much gratitude, I thank the Committee.
The amendment is on a really important matter, and the fact that so many Members are present after 4 o’clock on Thursday shows how important.
Given my background in this area, I wish to start by saying that a lot of it is about definitions. I welcome what the Minister has said, but as someone who is steeped in the issue and has worked in special educational needs for many years, I have to say that I am sorry, but it just is not enough. SEN is a notional term—it is almost in the eye of the beholder. It is not defined in law. There is a huge code of practice intended to give the term feel and shape, but that code of practice is nothing more than guidance. It mentions the responsibilities of local authorities, but not necessarily those of schools or academies. If we are to rely on the code of practice, it will need to be rewritten with those things specifically stated.
SEN is also a disputed term. The very fact that we have an SEN tribunal, with which local authorities struggle all the time, and which is large, growing and very costly, and that SEN cases are in the courts all the time, suggests that the term is not defined now and will become less defined in future.
I have gone into many schools, some of which achieve incredibly highly, and found that 50% of their children are on their SEN register. That is clearly nonsense, and there are all kinds of reasons for it. It is the teacher in the classroom, or the head teacher, who defines whether a child has SEN and places them at school action or school action plus. In many cases, they do not even advise the parent. That is illegal, but it happens. Head teachers do that for myriad reasons, including that they feel it will improve the school’s contextual value added and its standing with Ofsted.
Some local authorities still delegate funding on the basis of school action and school action plus, however stupid that may seem, as I tell them. The number of children who are at school action or school action plus or defined as having SEN depends on so many different contextual issues in different places.
That brings us to the comments about who gets a statement and who does not. In defence of my former colleagues, I have never dealt with services that do not want to do a good job or want to prevent children from getting the support that they need. However, they are rationed services and they have to prioritise. No matter how much money the previous Government and the Government before them put into the more severe and complex end of SEN, which is growing, it inevitably drifted off to the less severe end. That is why there is a problem of children with statements who should not have them, and others who need them but do not get them. I hope that the Government can resolve it, but previous Governments have not been able to do so. One can put as much money as one likes into the hard end of SEN, it will inevitably drift off to the mild end of the spectrum.
As the Chair of the Select Committee rightly pointed out, low incidence SEN is exactly that—SEN that occurs rarely. It is sometimes called, “low incidence; high need; high cost.” Low incidence SEN services are generally classified as services for deaf and hearing impaired children and for blind or partially sighted children. Autistic spectrum disorder is not classified as low incidence SEN. It was in the past, but it is the fastest growing SEN. What will happen to autism services? If the provision is not defined, services for children with autism may be delegated.
I am listening with great interest to my hon. Friend’s extremely well-thought-out speech, which clearly shows her vast knowledge. Does she recognise the situation that I came across in one of my surgeries at the end of last week? A family came to see me about their 18-year-old son, who is now, sadly, in the criminal justice system. It took until he was 14 before he was diagnosed with autism—far too late for the proper interventions to be made. He is now 18 and in the criminal justice system.
Sadly, that happens far too often. Unfortunately, when children are diagnosed with ASD or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, whether they are put through the behaviour system or the autism system greatly depends on family background and the clinical specialist they see.
That is a difficult question. The more severe and complex end of SEN is growing quickly, for all sorts of reasons. For example, we are the binge capital of Europe, so why are we surprised when there is an impact on complex and severe needs? I think that the figure is approximately 0.06% of the school population. It is a small proportion. The figure for children who experience some special educational need during their education is between 18 and 20%. That does not mean that all those children have SEN throughout their career. However, vulnerable children who under-achieve are a much greater proportion of the population—approximately 30%.
Let me revert to low incidence SEN. Special educational needs and admissions are the biggest parts of the ombudsman’s work. Local authorities sometimes get them right and sometimes get them wrong. They are the most contentious areas in education. I predict that the only people who will get anything out of this measure will be lawyers. Defining low incidence SEN is a lawyer’s dream. If we do not get that right now, the House will end up returning to the issue later in the year, as someone rightly said, but in the meantime, parents and children will lose out.
Educational psychology is not defined as a service for low incidence SEN pupils. Given the degree of cuts that my local authority needs to make, it is currently looking at what percentage of the educational psychology service it can reasonably cut without damaging front-line services. Low incidence SEN services do not necessarily cover autism—depending on the local authority—educational psychology services, or children with physical or medical difficulties. The Bill mentions “low incidence…disabilities”. I worked in children’s services for most of my adult life, but I have no idea what that means. I guess we must leave it to a lawyer to decide.
One thing that I am very concerned about is that parents are not involved. I have learned over the years to my cost—I have done things wrong in the past that I have learned from—that the most important people in such procedures are parents, but they will not be consulted under the Bill, which is being rushed through the House without any consultation with the organisations that support parents or with parents themselves. Frankly, the Government will come to regret that.
The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) talked about the code of practice being an administrative issue. If he had a child with SEN, he would not see it that way. The code of practice is about children’s lives and chances, and if we lose it, it will not come back.
With respect, I have a sister with SEN. I intend no disrespect at all, but the question we are addressing today is how best to serve such people. When I make a distinction between administration and law, I am making a distinction between the end—our objective, which is to help those people—and the means to that end. I am afraid that Labour Members have confused the two. They imagine that the only means to that end is through the current local authority processes. We agree on the objective and the rights of the child and the parents, but we will achieve our objectives much more accurately if we do not try to micro-manage the process here in the House.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but his view is not mine. I am opposing the Bill not for the sake of it because I am a Labour Member—I have learned over the years that it is not what makes me noble that matters, it is what actually works for children. If evidence were presented that convinced me that academies will deliver for SEN children or that free schools would make outcomes better for them, I would support them, but with my years of experience, I have serious concerns.
I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Lady, who I can tell is both experienced in, and passionate about, this matter, but it is important that she sets out her views on what the existing academies have done. If she is so concerned about the effect of academies on SEN, does she feel that there has been a deleterious affect on the interests of SEN children as a result of the previous Government’s academy programme?
If the Minister had been here—was it yesterday or the day before?—he would have known that I gave a very detailed speech on my concerns about academies. Children with SEN only very rarely gain admission to academies and there is concern about monitoring the progress of those who do, and a much higher proportion of SEN children are excluded from academies. That was an issue when we had only 200 academies, but if there is a much larger number, we will make the problem that much bigger. In addition, we would effectively exclude SEN children from the most high-achieving and outstanding schools.
I am enjoying the hon. Lady’s speech, but I wish to pick her up on one point related to exclusions. The latest figures from the Department suggest that in academies the exclusion rate for pupils with SEN is five times higher than for pupils without SEN, whereas in the general maintained sector it is nine times higher. So the evidence suggests that academies are less likely to exclude pupils with SEN than the maintained sector as a whole.
I would argue that academies serve poorer neighbourhoods and it is more difficult to get into an academy in the first place. People may argue that academies take a higher proportion of children with SEN than maintained schools, but as I argued earlier it is up to academies to define who is SEN and who is not, and they may have a very different tolerance level from that of maintained schools—that has certainly been my experience.
I mean no disrespect to the hon. Lady’s expertise or passion in this area, but she suggests that the existing academies make it harder for children with SEN to get in than other schools. However, the only data that we have suggest that that is not true. She suggests that academies may block children with real SEN getting in and then falsely nominate children as having SEN afterwards. She needs to substantiate that, because it is a serious allegation and if true should be looked into in more detail.
Not only do I agree with my hon. Friend that some academies are artificially changing the arrangements—I am choosing my words carefully, and perhaps the Select Committee should look into this—but many maintained schools have been doing the same thing. That is something that I am familiar with from where I used to live, where schools would artificially depress the number of children described as having SEN, under pressure from local authorities, for financial reasons. There is a danger that this legislation would see that continuing with the academies. That should be looked at in greater detail, as the Chairman of the Select Committee suggests.
I agree with my hon. Friend.
The biggest body blow to centrally supported specialist low incidence SEN services came from delegation targets. In order to reach delegation targets, which were mandatory, local authorities arbitrarily put over the side into schools anything that would take them to the magical 96%. In some local authorities, specialist services were lost and they have never recovered.
I am enjoying and being informed by the hon. Lady’s contribution, which is based on her experience. On both sides of the Committee, there is a recognition that SEN provision is inadequate. I did a study a while ago that showed that children on school action plus had higher exclusion rates than those on other forms of SEN statementing. We need to tackle a range of issues in this area, and I wonder whether we are looking at a large problem through the small angle of one clause in this Bill. The problem may be solved only by—to use the cliché—a root and branch review of the entire SEN system. That would improve the role of academies in that area as well. Perhaps the Minister could address that point as well.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, and there are many deficiencies in the wider SEN system. My concern is that if the issue of low incidence SEN is not defined properly, the situation will be made much worse. In some respects this is not a party political issue, because we are all here to do the best that we can for children with SEN and their parents, whose lives are a struggle without making things worse.
We have lost good specialist services over the years, when funding was delegated to schools but they did not buy the services back. I have learned to my cost, when these things have happened, that we simply cannot get those services back quickly. Teachers of the deaf and the visually impaired and blind do not hang on the back of cupboard doors; they take years to train, and it is hugely expensive. Building those services back up once they have gone, particularly if the local authority does not have the funding to do so, will be impossible and will severely disadvantage these groups of young children.
Are there not examples of local authorities—one thinks of Suffolk—where the arrival of academies has not damaged SEN provision? So it does not need to be that way. Some academies have the ability to buy back services from the local authorities, but where that does not occur, does one not have to question the quality of the provision?
There are two issues there. First, in the past it has depended on the number of academies. With all these arguments, there is a critical mass issue. If enough academies go and take their funding with them, it will no longer be possible for organisations, whether the local authority or some other body, to provide that service to the standard required. Have I answered the hon. Gentleman’s question?
Yes, the hon. Lady answered the first part of my question. The second part was: is it not of concern to her that, when academies choose not to buy their services from local authorities, those services might not be of the requisite standard? That, in itself, is a concern.
No doubt there are variations in the quality of service across the country. However, in my experience, the low incidence, high-need, high-cost services across the country are usually very good and valued by schools. The difficulty is that, at the moment, there is not a market place for it, so if we lose these services and a school finds that it needs them—for instance, if a blind child comes to the school—but has no idea about Brailling, specialist services, disability or any of these things, it will not be able to buy them from a market outside.
Yes, it could, and yes, it should. However, as the hon. Member for Bradford East (Mr Ward) said yesterday, sometimes good people do bad things, and head teachers are not always as forward thinking as we would like them to be. Obviously, the best ones are, but if a school does not have any blind children, why would it buy in to a sensory service? It could also argue that, if a child wishes to attend that school, it cannot meet their needs.
I must say this is a fantastic debate. I was not sure of the right time to introduce this point, but it is not always the case that, if a school has its own budget, it will do the best thing by the children. The best example is probably the provision of education social work. It might seem that the school is the client of the education social worker, but of course it is not—the child is the client. Very often, if a school is offered the money, it will buy in its own education social worker, who will be a door knocker for getting those kids into the school. Once a child is on the roll and the school is getting the funding, some schools will say, “Actually, we’re not too bothered if that person doesn’t turn up today.” Believe me, it is true! It happens—because, in many cases, schools are forced into doing it. But the child is the client, and if the best place for the child is in school, the education social worker will try to facilitate that to the best of their ability. However, if that education social worker is employed by the school, sometimes the school will let the child in, but sometimes it will not be too bothered. I have known young children who have been out of school for two years—
Order. Interventions, by their very nature, should be short.
I hope that I can reassure the hon. Lady, as I am anxious to achieve an Hegelian synthesis between our positions. There are two things, really. The first is that the Government will be issuing a Green Paper to look at the whole issue of SEN. She is right that we need to consider it in the round—it is an issue that the Government take seriously—and that is what we will be doing. Secondly, with your indulgence, Mr Evans, let me say that the amendments to the Bill that the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has suggested would mean that academies would have an unqualified duty to admit pupils with SEN statements. I just wanted to place that on the record so that we can make progress.
I will wind up now. I welcome the amendment that has been made. It does help and it will give confidence to parents and teachers working in the sector. However, I have real concerns about the lack of clarity. The people who will gain will be lawyers, and there is a lot more work for the SEN tribunal to do. Parents and local authorities will yet again be left without clarification, and in many cases they will be left to find their salvation in their own way. There are good local authorities and there are not so good local authorities, and it is the children in those authorities who I am concerned about.
Thank you for the opportunity to address the House—through this Committee—for the first time, Mr Evans, in this important debate. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), on making what I believe is his second maiden speech, and the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass), who has added considerably to this debate. I do not think that I shall be able to add as much, in terms of detail.
As hon. Members would expect, I have studied previous maiden speeches and, not surprisingly, found them to be very formulaic. Although I do not intend to stray far from that formula, it would be worth recognising that change has come to this House. I look around and I see my new colleagues brimming with enthusiasm, optimism and energy—[Interruption]—well, some of them—and for this opportunity I will be eternally grateful to the good people of South Basildon and East Thurrock for sending me here. They have put great trust in me. I intend to repay that trust by being open and honest with them, and accessible and available. My one aim is to ensure not only that they have a voice, but that that voice is heard.
South Basildon and East Thurrock is based on the old Basildon seat, which has rightly been seen as a bellwether seat for many years. Despite the recent boundary changes, it is still able to claim that title, as I believe it represents a marvellous cross-section of this wonderful country. Situated just 30 miles down the Thames from this place—and yes, I have heard every single Essex joke going, so we do not need to go through those—my constituency is made up of two halves. The Basildon half consists of Basildon new town and the wards of Vange and Nethermayne, as well as Langdon Hills and the established town of Pitsea. To the south, on the Thurrock side, I have two main towns—Stanford le Hope and Corringham—and a number of rural villages, including Fobbing, Orsett, Bulphan, Horndon on the Hill, Linford and East Tilbury, and an area called The Homesteads.
The area is one of great diversity and although much of it is new, it has a rich and varied history. Basildon, as hon. Members probably well know, was one of the new towns founded in 1949, following the shortage of housing after the second world war. However, the name Basildon dates back to Saxon times and can be found on many ancient maps. Although many of the other towns and villages that I have mentioned can also claim that, with hundreds of years of history, there is one that particularly stands out: Fobbing, a village where one of the first of the uprisings that eventually led to the peasants’ revolt took place—a revolt led by Wat Tyler, who incidentally gives his name to an important local country park. Those uprisings were the beginning of the end of serfdom. How appropriate it is that just over 600 years later it is this new Government who have decided to return some power to their citizens before there is another revolution.
It is customary in a maiden speech, and indeed a pleasure, to pay tribute to one’s predecessors, which I fully intend to do. However, as South Basildon and East Thurrock is an amalgamation of three seats, I might just need a little moment to do that. First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), from whom I have inherited approximately 30% of my seat. He represented Pitsea and Bowers Gifford for nine years, from 2001 until May this year. I would like to thank him for the care and attention with which he served his constituents over that time. I also want to thank him for the support and help that he gave me in my years of trying to win that part of the constituency. I hope I will be able to serve as diligently and as well as he has done.
I would also like to recognise the contribution of the former Member for Thurrock, from whom I inherit the villages of Linford, East Tilbury and Muckingford. Although he and I would have sat on opposite sides of the House and been totally politically opposed to each other, we would have shared one desire—namely, to serve our residents, which I know he did so well for so long.
Finally, I must pay tribute to my opponent at the election, the former right hon. Member for Basildon. First elected in 1997, she served the local community with great distinction as well as making a significant mark here in the House. Her contribution to the House has been recognised, as she has recently taken up a seat in the other place. Indeed, she made her maiden speech there only this afternoon. Over the 13 years, she worked very hard to highlight local issues and to support the local community—something that I intend to emulate. She also demonstrated unstinting loyalty to the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)—something that I do not intend to emulate. But she never forgot who sent her here, and neither will I.
I am sure that hon. Members would agree that one of the best parts of our job is having the opportunity to support the local community, and to go round and thank local charities, groups and organisations for the work that they do on behalf of the community. Indeed, one of my first official functions was to attend a celebratory dinner to mark the 20th anniversary of the opening of St Luke’s hospice. It is an incredible place, as are all hospices. But St Luke’s is perhaps slightly more incredible than most, because it was the result of one woman’s single-minded determination to turn an idea into reality. With only 25p in the kitty, Trudy Westmore-Cox, together with a small but dedicated committee, went about establishing what is today one of the most respected and supported local charities. It provides a fully functioning multi-discipline hospice offering in-patient care and home care. This requires about £3 million in funding each year, much of which is raised through the support of the local community. This is big society in action, and just one of the examples of the numerous organisations I have had the privilege to support over the years.
We are also a very industrious area, in which business plays an important role in the community. Indeed, many hon. Members might have seen the Basildon sign, of “Have I Got News for You” fame. It marks the gateway to an incredibly industrious area that employs about 45,000 people in some of the most dynamic and innovative companies around. Those companies thrive on having a supply of well-educated, enthusiastic and aspirational people. It is our duty as politicians to provide an education framework that delivers that, and I believe that the Bill that we are scrutinising today will do exactly that. It feeds into the need to provide a well-educated work force for the future. It is through our businesses and through innovation that we will get our country back on track.
I understand the sentiment behind the amendment that we are discussing, but I believe it is ill-placed. From my experience of discussions with governors, staff and teachers, I know that they are desperate to show that they know what is best for them and their pupils, and that they know how best to serve their local communities. We must give them the opportunity to do that. I fear that the amendment would hinder that process and deprive my constituents of the chance to access academies at the earliest possible opportunity.
These issues are vitally important to my constituents. Essex attracts many preconceptions: I think that many people misunderstand it. We are a proud county. We have our foibles, but I think that, as well as being proud, we are hard-working, industrious and generous. Those traits—combined with the opportunities that I believe the Bill, unamended, gives us—will help us to emerge from the challenges of the past 13 years.
Finally, let me extend to every Member, both in and outside the Chamber, an open invitation to come and see my part of the world. I invite Members to come down and see what a fantastic part of the world south Essex is. I shall then be able to demonstrate to them that what we are discussing here today, and what is being discussed in Government, will make a real difference to the people in my constituency, and to the pupils and staff of my local schools.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on the way in which he presented his maiden speech. He made an offer that a dozen or so Members may find hard to refuse. An offer of hospitality at his house for a weekend, just as the recess is starting, is one that think many Members should be persuaded to take him up on. He will be able to show them round his wonderful constituency. Let me also say how right he was to pay tribute to his predecessors. Making a maiden speech is never easy, and it is a pleasure to be the first to congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) spared a few moments in his speech to remember David Maclean. Those of us who knew him here will have respected him not only as a parliamentarian, but as a man of enormous courage who bore the injustice of the illness that beset him with great fortitude and—I genuinely believe—real courage. I saw the way in which he battled with his illness over a number of years. I had very little in common with him, but I always admired the formidable way in which he coped with it, up until his very last days in the House. It was a great pleasure to hear what the hon. Gentleman had to say about David Maclean, and he was right to remind the House of his commitment to his constituency.
It is not often that we feel humbled both by a Member’s commitment to the issue being discussed and by the amount of knowledge that the Member brings to the discussion. It was a pleasure to witness the forthright and passionate way in which the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) presented her case. I was opposed to the idea of the Bill’s being dealt with by a Committee of the whole House, but if ever there was a reason for such an arrangement, it was the hon. Lady’s speech today. If it had been made in a Public Bill Committee, it would have been lost to the wider world. That is a tribute to her, and perhaps to the system that has allowed a larger audience to appreciate the words that she uttered, and has allowed her to bring her experience of these matters to bear. We should be grateful.
Nevertheless, I have a niggling anxiety that the Bill has not received the scrutiny that it ought to have received. The debate that we have had, splendid though it has been, is unlikely to prove helpful, because some members of the coalition will see it as a formula for future legislation. I hope that that will not come about, and that this will prove to be the exception rather than the rule. I do not think that allowing the whole House to deal with legislation is helpful to Back Benchers in particular, or to the substance of the debate. The issue of special educational needs, for instance, is fundamentally important.
The Minister told us, courteously and properly, that he would make helpful statements that would address some of the issues in the amendment. Nevertheless, the amendment poses significant questions. If a Committee had considered it over a number of weeks, and a number of days in each of those weeks, it could have been dealt with properly before being returned to the House on Report, and could have been agreed to. We could have had a much better Bill. Like everyone else, I am delighted that the Bill has improved enormously.
I spent 10 of the happiest years of my working life working with young people with extraordinary personal difficulties—children and adults with extreme special needs, ranging from those who had been institutionalised for their whole lives—some had spent 50 or more years in an institution—to babies whose parents had recently been told of the problems that they faced and the lifetime of care and devotion they would have to show to someone with severe disabilities of one form or another. When I was doing that job, people used to ask me what I did. I said, “I bully for people who cannot bully for themselves.”
The one thing I learned at the beginning of my work with children, and with parents in particular, was that they expected so little from society. They did not ask for the earth or for things that could not be obtained. They simply asked for a fair share of resources when they were needed, whether that was in nursery, primary or secondary education, or in proper health care. Every single part of that was a struggle and continues to be. That goes back to the Education Act 1944 and to the formulation of the national health service. People with learning disabilities and those with mental health problems were neglected. They were ignored. They were put aside. They were institutionalised and forgotten. It has taken us 70 years to draw that system towards reality.
The hon. Member for North West Durham was right; the striking anomaly is that parents have not been mentioned. The parents need to be consulted and will need to be convinced. I used to try to convince parents of young people aged between 20 and 30 that they had to let those young people go. They had cosseted them with all their love and care but they had to let them go. Those parents were starting to realise that their children would outlive them and would need to experience some risks. Young people, particularly those with acute needs, must experience such situations at the youngest possible age. I want to be convinced by the Bill that free schools will accept their part of the obligation. I am not convinced by the way in which the Bill is formulated that it will give the certainty of care that people want.
I am disturbed by the fact that there seems to be some ambiguity about the interpretation of some of the words. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border said that there was clarity in terms of subsection (8)(a), which addressed the issue. It does not. Who will challenge the provision? Who will have the right to say whether the proper provision is being provided? Who will step in? Where will the Secretary of State put suitable alternative arrangements if those arrangements do not exist because resources have been siphoned off elsewhere? Will he put new money in?
As usual, the hon. Gentleman is speaking with insight and I want to be clear with him. The Bill and the Government have no intention of diminishing the status of special educational needs or of the people who endure that, including the parents. There will be no relaxation of the statutory responsibilities in respect of admissions and statementing. Pupils with SEN statements must be monitored by local authorities; that is a statutory responsibility and there is no diminution of that. The hon. Gentleman is right; we must be determined to redistribute advantage in society, and we will.
I am delighted, and it was remiss of me not to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his ministerial position. I apologise to him. It is not often that an MP makes a point here and not only gets a Minister to put him right but also hears the Minister state for the record what the Government will do. That is to be welcomed. I only hope the eating is as good as the preparation seems to have been. I have some doubts about that, however, because I know from experience, from my lifetime of 40-odd years in local government and a working career that involved spending a lot of time addressing this subject, that promises have been made but so many of them have failed to be kept.
I have experience over the years as a local authority representative and also a school governor, and I have come across all too many children whose parents do not even know that they do not have aspirations for their child. Particularly in deprived communities, many parents, and consequently their children, accept the lot they are given. They have a stoicism, and also a lack of understanding about how the systems work and how they could make things better. Because of that, they do not have the fortitude or understanding to pursue improvement for their own child, and in such a scenario who will look after the child’s interests in respect of these independent academies?
I 100% agree. Sadly, I have seen that so many times—somebody who has devoted their whole life to their child, but to caring for them in their home environment so that they have never really tried to develop their true potential. Mencap’s slogan was about everyone having the opportunity to achieve their true potential, and all aspects of SEN education must always involve offering every child the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
I think there is a problem for existing schools that have a very good record of trying to facilitate proper care and to provide suitable and proper education for people with SEN. Some of them might find that because of the establishment of an academy or free school and the attractive way in which they are promoted as being something better, parents will take their children away from their old school and move them into the new academy or free school simply because they have been told that it is the thing to do and that that is the way the future will emerge. That will cause damage to the fabric and set-up of the existing school, and some of them will suffer greatly.
I am wholly in favour of trusting parents; it is the silver-tongued politicians I am worried about, who make the suggestions to people that this is like manna from heaven and that the whole world will be changed. Politicians have more than once talked with forked tongue and parents have been misled into believing that a certain direction was the way to go only to fall foul of a politician’s promise, which was usually made before or during, rather than after, an election campaign. Very seldom have such promises been made after an election campaign, and very seldom have they been fulfilled.
I can talk from the experience of being a parent of a child with special educational needs, and also as an MP representing lots of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. My eldest child had trouble with his arithmetic; he would get 3s and 7s the wrong way round. I was told by the teachers that it would be okay and he would work his way out of that, but I became concerned as he got older and reached the ages of eight, nine and 10. I therefore asked about getting the SEN specialists and an educational psychologist to take a look. That did not happen; the school refused to do that because they said there was nothing wrong with him. After another academic year went by and nothing happened, I decided to employ an educational psychologist myself, and it was clear that my son had SEN issues. The local school and local authority were quite happy to take and run with the document from the independent educational psychologist —for whose services I and my family had to pay several hundred pounds—and the SEN statement was therefore put in place.
The Bill will change the way things happen, and they did not work in the past, certainly in my area. I hear what the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) says about his concerns and the remarks of the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), but I believe this Bill will put checks and balances in place to prevent what they fear from happening. The system does not work now and it did not work in the past, and this Bill is an opportunity to sort it out.
I have nothing but admiration for the hon. Gentleman for having both the ability and the courage to take on the system on behalf of his children. Parents get worn down by the system, having been frustrated by it time after time. They are physically worn out—as young people, in some instances—because of the struggles they have had to make. He was lucky that he had both the courage and the resources to take on the system, because so many parents do not have that and are always relying on somebody else to fight their battles for them.
I realise that this does not directly relate to the amendment, but part of the Bill deals with additional schools or free schools. There are parents of children with autism who are very much looking forward to setting up a free autistic school. That will benefit other parents of children with autism in their area who would wish to send their children to a particular school but whose local authority has not recognised that need until now. They have had their ambitions stifled by a local authority system that may not be working.
I would love it if we had an autistic school in the heart of Portsmouth. However, what happens if the autistic school is on the other side of Dorset and suddenly somebody has to pick up the bill for sending a child there? It simply will not happen and this provision will not be there. This approach is okay in London, where travelling is not a problem. Setting up specialist schools for autistic children would be great in closely defined neighbourhoods, but if these schools have to cover a large area, they will be very expensive to set up, extraordinarily expensive to staff and expensive for local authorities to fund places for or for parents to have to pay for.
I must agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie), because on Friday I had a meeting with two teachers, both of whom have children with special educational needs, and they are very keen to set up a free school to provide for children with such needs. Such a school would help not only their children, but others in the local area. So this situation is not uncommon.
I can understand that. I share the frustration of those parents with the current system, but this problem will not be solved by one or two people, or a group, believing that they can solve it by setting up a free school. That is because such a school will not help the greater number of children, for example, the increasing number of children with autism.
The hon. Member for North West Durham took an intervention about autism when she was explaining how difficult it had been to make progress on dealing with it, and she was asked what she thought about the Bill. I think that it will retard the benefits that have been introduced, particularly in respect of autism. It is difficult to get resources for people with autism into schools; lots of schools simply cannot cope with it.
One hon. Member, who is no longer in his place, intervened to talk about his own experience; he discussed the role of child psychologists, and how it was very difficult to get them and for schools to have them. Once again, that shows one of the flaws that we must address. I was delighted that the Minister said that we would have a Green Paper and an opportunity to discuss, in some detail, the fuller implications of special educational needs. We have to protect and serve these young people now and in future generations.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the problems with provision caused by an increase in the number of diagnoses, and he also said that the Bill will retard the situation. Is not the fundamental problem relating to the diagnosis of autism the patchwork delivery across the country and a lack of specialism in certain areas? I can cite a part of the country where that applies. In Cardiff, until recently, there was no such thing as a “female child with autism”. That was not because there were no female children with autism, but because the specialism was not available in the first place. That is a question of medical and other provision, and is surely not germane to this Bill.
Once again, in all the years that I have been here I have seldom been in the House on an occasion where so much common cause has been put by people who care so passionately about the issue. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. There is a widespread lack of clarity about who diagnoses, about who is prepared to do it and about who is really suffering. For years, autism was seen as something that kids would grow out of. It goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) about his son’s failure to be able to do his maths properly. The old adage of, “He or she’ll grow out of it”, was used for years as an excuse to people whose children had autism. That was a complete failure of the medical and educational systems in this country.
Will the hon. Gentleman get rid of my confusion on one issue? There seems to be inconsistency in the attitude towards parents. On the one hand, there has been concern that parents are not key in the Bill and that they have not been consulted enough, but on the other hand, when it comes to empowering parents the same enthusiasm is not shown. Speaking from my experience, I find that parents do not want to be consulted so much as to get what they want. The measures in the Bill to enable parents to do that are, according to my experience of what parents want, far more important to parents than just being listened to and not having what they want happen after that.
That is the story of the past 60 years. Parents were spoken to but they were not listened to, so they ended up not getting what they wanted. When parents are consulted, particularly parents who have children in this situation, they are only too aware of what they would like to see happen. They would like to see services without having to arm wrestle for them and without having to fight the system and to appeal. That has happened with the failure of many local authorities properly to carry out assessments and to provide statements for children. Why should parents have to struggle to get a statement for their child, as they have to, simply because they disagree? I have been to statement conferences on children where none of the officials in the room had met the child. They were all talking from somebody else’s notes, which had been provided by people who had met the child. The parents were sitting there in total disbelief and I just told them, “Let’s get up and go,” and we walked out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way yet again. I find that the debate is again moving towards a general complaint about the whole system of SEN provision and I want to thank the Minister for his announcement today that there will be a Green Paper to look into this matter. Once we have the whole system of SEN sorted out, the issues that we are facing with this Bill will become much clearer and much less problematic.
The hon. Lady is a formidable supporter for the Minister, and one that the House will have to learn to deal with. She is fighting his corner and that of the coalition very well, and I would probably be grateful for it except on this occasion I do not agree with one word of what the coalition has come up with.
How do I follow that? On the issue of parents, I said earlier that I am someone who has been humbled and that I have made mistakes. That is why I am saying to the Minister that there is an important role for parents. It is always harrowing to listen to the stories of parents when they know that there is an issue and that their child has needs but those needs are not being addressed. There is always a dilemma. We hear a lot about how hard up we are, about how there is very little money and so on, but there is not enough money in the world for SEN. We must face that. It becomes about priorities.
I have never met a parent who did not want the best for their child. Sometimes they have not always been able to display that in the best way—sometimes they have been very aggressive—but they still want the best for their child. In all my years of experience, however, I have never once been approached by a parent who said, “I want to open my own school”—never once. That is not to say that it does not happen because, as I said earlier, there are good local authorities and poor local authorities. I sympathise with parents who live in those areas where there is a lack of provision, particularly for autism.
Oh, right—can I make one quick point? Where special schools have been set up, whether by parents or by other organisations, the difficulty is that we all want to put money and resources in at the hard end, but what inevitably tends to happen is that that drifts away. When we look at schools that have been established, with the best of intentions, for the children with the greatest need, the children tend, in some cases, to have less severe needs.
I am grateful for that intervention, and for your patience, Mr Evans, in allowing two interventions on the jump, so to speak. The hon. Lady makes a valid point. She is honest enough to say that she has made mistakes. There have been some big mistakes—I have made some very bad judgments in cases that I have fought. I remember a particularly harrowing case that we did not win because of cost: one child’s care would have cost more than £120,000 a year, which is a formidable sum of money in any circumstances. Everyone agreed that the placement was right, but the local authority simply could not contemplate spending more than £1 million over 10 years on one child. As we walked out, I asked the parents what they wanted to do and the father said, “Well, Mike, it’s about time you and I decided to rob banks to get the money for these kids to have the care they really need.” No parent should have to think that the help their child needs will not be there. I wish Ministers all the very best, because I believe that they are well intentioned, but this is a big issue.
I shall come back to amendment 71 for the benefit of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who could become a bit difficult if he pulls that trick too often in Committee; he will not be very popular if he starts asking about the relevance of comments to amendments. The importance of amendment 71 is that it poses questions that are not answered in the Bill. People want the reassurance of having those measures in the Bill because this is about laws and the way they are interpreted. The amendment would make it clear that parents have a right to be properly consulted and would make clear where the various aspects addressed in the amendment would be delivered.
I know that my hon. Friend is reaching the exciting peroration to his speech and I do not want to interrupt the seminar that he and the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) are offering us, but it is important to point out that we take autism seriously and that academies do not prevent appropriate planned provision, including for autism. He might know that Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College academy has an autism unit that provides not only for pupils there but for those in the wider community. I want to give an absolute assurance that the Government take autism seriously and that they will look at it in the context of the Green Paper I have mentioned.
I never doubted for a minute the Minister’s sincerity or his commitment to it. What I do doubt is the ability of any Government to deliver properly the provisions we want, and I do not want to be seen to be supporting something that I think falls short of what all the parents we have been talking about expect from us. They want to see clarity of thought, a clear direction of travel and a means by which academies and free schools can provide this education without detriment to other schools in their area or to other young people with similar difficulties. That is why amendment 71 should be pursued. I hope that it is not withdrawn; I hope that it is voted on and that the House gives it a fair wind, because it would substantially help the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) on making his maiden speech. I have been to his constituency and I used regularly to visit a secondary school there in Pitsea. I recommend that he should go and visit it. I am not sure if it still has the same head, but he used to sing in a famous pop group in the 1960s. I cannot remember the name of the group but it was very famous at the time—
Very memorable, yes. From time to time, he would entertain his school in assembly by taking up his guitar and singing some of the songs for which he used to be so famous. I suggest that my hon. Friend visit him. As that was one of the first grant-maintained schools to go, I am sure that it will become an academy school as soon as possible. However, it is in a poor area. My hon. Friend has not just got nice leafy areas in his constituency; it is quite a mixed area, so I wish him well.
There are to be guidance notes on SEN when the Bill becomes an Act. I have a few questions about SEN, because there are many children in schools who have not just SEN but health needs. I cannot see anywhere where that has been addressed; I guess that it will come in the guidance notes. I urge the Minister to clarify what legislation there will be that impacts on the health funding that currently supports special needs children, and how that funding will continue in academies. It is very important that health needs are met, particularly in residential special schools, because it is expensive to educate children in that way, and the health authorities have an obligation to fund the meeting of some of the needs. I am not quite sure how that dovetails with the funding for schools from the local education authority.
I will deal with that matter when I sum up—some time in the distant future, no doubt—but to be clear, the hon. Lady’s point is profound, because not only does it apply to children who have special needs from birth, but it deals with the important issue of acquired special needs. It emphasises the fact that special needs are dynamic, because the conditions that children and young people face are themselves dynamic. We will certainly consider those matters. I will say a little more on the subject when I sum up.
I thank the Minister for that assurance. I am sure that many parents will be interested to hear what he said, because the issue is important to them. There is also the issue of funding of residential special school places. I mentioned that there are residential schools that cost an enormous amount of money. Some of that money comes from health funding, and that is an issue that he will deal with, but I would like to know—again, this will probably be in the guidance—how we will fund residential special schools. There are quite small schools that are very important for the children who go to them, who often have complex special needs that it is difficult to meet in anything other than a residential school.
So that I do not have to say too much when I sum up, perhaps I ought to make it plain that the law is clear that when a child is statemented, and their needs are specified, there is a duty to ensure that those needs are met. That might include provision outside the local authority area. Indeed, I spent a great deal of time in the 1980s, when I was a councillor in Nottinghamshire, fighting for parents, families and children who wanted their needs met outside the county. That does not change as a result of this legislation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that assurance, as I am sure parents have concerns about security of funding for schools that wish to become academies. If one has a child in such a school, and one wants continuity, it is extremely difficult when there is any sort of worry about whether funding will continue.
I should also like to ask my right hon. Friend—
Sorry. Perhaps in time. I know that under the Academies Bill, special schools will not become academies immediately; they must wait another year. I think that was said yesterday. What about independent special schools that wish to become academies? Will they be allowed to become academies at the same time as schools in the maintained sector? Will they be allowed to become special schools within the academies system at that same time, or will they have to wait a bit longer?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) for his excellent maiden speech. I am from the north and I know his beautiful constituency extraordinarily well. I also know David Maclean, who was a fantastic MP, and I pay tribute to him, too. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), whose constituency I know slightly less well, although I think that it is somewhere near where “Dad’s Army” used to be filmed.
One thing that I have picked up from this debate is that Members on both sides are concerned about special educational needs. The hon. Member for Gelding, the shadow Minister, made that clear. [Laughter.]
I am sorry about that. I am deaf in my left ear, and I always assume that that is some excuse. Very many apologies. I am from Stroud, and that sometimes gets mispronounced, although not as significantly as the hon. Gentleman’s constituency can be.
Amendment 71 has a couple of problems. Funnily enough, the shadow Minister—I shall not make my mistake again—emphasised that. It is too much about assessment rather than provision. Assessing things raises the question of how long it will take and what the implications are. The problem with the amendment is that it will delay the arrival of academies. I believe that a step is being taken in the direction of improving special educational needs provision, and that is one of the points that I want to make. We need to talk a little about history.
I agree very much with my hon. Friend. I want to share what happened recently in one of the schools in my constituency. A severely autistic child had been in the mainstream for many years—from reception and through years 1, 2 and 3. It was becoming apparent that he needed more care than could be given in that school. The community is close-knit; everybody knew the child and the family. However, the length of time that it took the local authority to come up with the statement was a complete disgrace. Eventually, it made the right decision and said the right things, but we could see the angst on his parents’ faces when they came to collect him from the playground. Do we have to put parents through that, when even as lay people we know what the answer will be? Why cannot the authorities that currently have to make the decisions make up their minds more quickly?
My hon. Friend’s point is exactly correct; local authorities can and must start addressing those issues.
I also want to talk about special schools, which have been mentioned. Of course going into mainstream education is preferable to going to a special school, but the fact is that there is a place for special schools. Some time ago, when I was a parliamentary candidate for Stroud, we were fighting a battle to save Bownham Park, a special school that was providing an excellent education—not for a huge number of pupils, but for a number large enough to justify its continuation. It provided education to a range of children from the ages of seven to 16. That school was closed. The parents wanted to keep it open, but the Government were effectively behind its closure and the local authority, under a Labour administration, was pivotal in ensuring that that happened. That is the sort of history that we have to bear in mind when we consider the performance and decision making of local authorities. It emphasises my hon. Friend’s point. Local authorities are sometimes responsible for poor decisions, and we cannot allow that to continue.
Another school in my constituency is Vale of Berkeley college, which has a closure notice. Roughly 40% of its intake have special educational needs. Again, it is not a huge school. It could take some 400 pupils; it now has about 260. Of course, with the threat of closure, pupil numbers are diminishing. The decision to close the school was largely a result of the Badman report, which was instigated by the previous Secretary of State for Education—or “Children, Schools and Soft Furnishings”, as somebody called the Department. Vale of Berkeley college is another example of forces outside the local authority and our county making a decision for people with special educational needs that is not in their interests.