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Special Educational Needs

Volume 523: debated on Monday 7 February 2011

13. How many applications his Department has received to establish free schools for children with special educational needs. (38230)

My Department has received a number of proposals from groups and individuals interested in establishing free schools wholly or mainly catering for children with special educational needs. We have received more than 240 applications overall.

It has been a pleasure of mine to work with two groups that are hoping to take advantage of the policy. One of them, the Lighthouse project in Leeds, this weekend submitted an excellent application to open a school for young people suffering with autism spectrum disorders. It is eager to do so in the autumn, but after what it has heard from the Department, it is concerned that there may be some delays. It does not want to lose momentum. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and representatives of that organisation to see what we can do to progress the application?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the Lighthouse group. I have to stress that it is important to ensure that all the issues surrounding the establishment of any new school are successfully navigated. Opening any free school in September 2011 is a challenging timetable. Under the last Government it would take between five and 10 years for a new school to open, so it is remarkable that so many may open within a year. I will look closely at the matter, but I suspect that given the complexity of some of the issues involved we may not be able to open in September 2011. However, let us discuss it and ensure that we can support—

Order. May I gently ask the Secretary of State to face the Chamber, so that I can be the full beneficiary of his eloquence?

Will the Secretary of State bear in mind the fact that successful special educational needs provision depends very much on integration with other schools? That was the finding of the former Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. We very much support good SEN provision, but it must be integrated with the local schools that take other kinds of children.

I absolutely recognise that when we are talking about children with special educational needs, there is such a broad and complex spectrum that one solution will not fit all children. I had the opportunity to visit Redcar community college on Thursday, and I saw there an imaginative proposal to co-locate Kirkleatham Hall special school with that college. That seems to be the right solution there, but different solutions will apply elsewhere. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) for his impassioned advocacy of those two schools.

Further to the Secretary of State’s answer, is he open to suggestions for replacing provision offered by pupil referral units in some parts of the country? Outcomes at such units are variable across the country.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and one thing that the Education Bill will do is make it easier to ensure that we can have high-quality provision for students who are excluded for whatever reason.