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Special Educational Needs: Wiltshire

Volume 655: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

Society can be judged by the quality of the provision it makes for its most vulnerable members. I therefore welcome this opportunity to raise the situation of vulnerable people in my constituency, particularly those who have special educational needs.

Last week, the consultation ended on Wiltshire Council’s plans for a dramatic change to the provision for children with SEN in the county, and I would like to begin by highly commending Wiltshire Council for prioritising special needs and for being prepared to pledge serious money—£20 million—on a root-and-branch upgrade to provision for children who have complex and severe learning and physical disabilities. That does Wiltshire Council a great deal of credit, and I pay tribute to the councillors and officials involved in trying to make things better for some of my most vulnerable constituents.

However, the edge was taken off that for me when I was summoned at the end of last year to hear precisely what the council was planning to do with the money it wants to spend. I wish to take some time this evening discussing that and impressing upon the Minister how important it is that the council thinks again. Survey data shows just how unpopular the council’s approach is, closing, as it does, two well-loved schools that are at the very heart of their communities in order to create a very big one in a relatively remote location. I hope the local authority will listen to concerns expressed and adopt a different model for my most vulnerable young constituents that retains at least one of the threatened schools.

I want the Minister to help, because the Government have already been quite helpful: they have helped with £350 million in new funding for SEN announced in December; they have helped through the dedicated schools grant, with an 11% uplift in real terms for high needs between 2014-15 and 2019-20; and they have helped through the Children and Families Act 2014.

A key feature of that legislation was the SEN “local offer” that local authorities are now required to make. The offer has to be developed in partnership with the children and young people involved, their families and the relevant professionals. The attached code of practice is clear: it expects the local offer, from birth to age 25, to be developed and revised over time through regular review and consultation. Indeed, that collaborative, consultative approach runs through the legislation like a vein through granite. It is mandated; it is not an optional extra; it does not mean the local authority making up its mind and presenting users with faits accomplis. It suggests a collaborative, consultative approach that does not waste public money on working up a case that is so clearly contrary to the wishes of its intended beneficiaries.

Wiltshire Council has for some time wanted to close smaller special schools. We got wind of a warming-up exercise last year, when a member of the council made some adverse remarks about the inadequacy of hoists at Larkrise School in Trowbridge—claims that were incorrect and had to be retracted. It all runs contrary to the approach encouraged by the 2014 Act and its associated code of practice. Wiltshire Council’s vision for special education in Wiltshire is in many ways an exemplary document—it says all the right things—but at its heart it would close two schools, one in my constituency and one in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan): Larkrise in Trowbridge and St Nicholas in Chippenham.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this issue forward. As Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, he will know only too well the experiences we have had in Northern Ireland in relation to special needs education. The increasing demands on special needs education are exceptional. In England, some 1.3 million children are in special needs education and needing it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need sweeping reform of the support available to pupils and schools to ensure, as he, I and everyone in the House would agree, that a pupil is not prevented from reaching their potential because of a lack of support services available in their postcode? What he needs in Wiltshire, we also need in Northern Ireland.

I of course agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was once a governor at a special school, before I was elected. If I reflect on the provision then and the provision now, I am quite clear that matters have improved, but that does not mean to say that we should be complacent. What the hon. Gentleman said is correct: we need to ensure that every child has the ability to reach his or her potential. That is as true of a mainstream child who is going to become a doctor or a lawyer—or even a politician—as it is for a child at a special needs school whose horizons, in a classic sense, are necessarily going to be rather more limited. They are equally important and their potential needs to be maximised.

The proposition before the council is that it closes two schools and builds a big school on the site of a third one. That would be a very big school by SEN standards, and many of us have concerns about that, because this particular subset of the school population undoubtedly benefits from a provision that is more intimate than perhaps would be necessary for their mainstream compatriots. That would necessarily not be the case were this big school to be created in place of the ones it would replace. The council refers to the big school as a centre of excellence, but my contention is that we already have a centre of excellence in my constituency—it is called Larkrise School.

The claim is made that Larkrise is bursting at the seams and that its facilities and equipment are insufficient, but there is more to a school than bricks and mortar, and there is more to a special school than hoists. The school community understands that, which is why it is so opposed to the local authority’s prescription. It is clear that, being strapped for cash, the council has to balance the books. Rightly, it worries about the financial deficits that have been projected for each of the special educational needs schools, but deficits are projected at several mainstream schools, too, and nobody is suggesting that the solution is to close them.

The county’s financial position is not helped by its having to place 300 special educational needs pupils outside Wiltshire because of the long-standing insufficiency of in-county provision. Those of us who represent seats in Wiltshire will be well used to people attending our advice surgeries to discuss that. The council wants to remedy this out-of-county placement situation by creating a new school with 350 places serving the north of the county. Although the way that the numbers are presented in the consultation documents makes comparison very difficult, 350 places seems inadequate to cope with the planned closures, the out-of-county placements and the growth that is projected given local population increases, housing demand, and the recently announced moves of the residue of the British Army in Germany largely to Wiltshire and the need to accommodate them. Even by its own arithmetic, the council appears to be set on under-provision. That means that out-of-county provision is bound to continue, that projected spend on the new school will be greatly exceeded, or that the new school will very quickly become overcrowded, or, more likely, a combination of all three.

The plans anticipate no sixth form. Instead reliance will be placed on the county’s further education college, Wiltshire College, for 16 to 19 provision, together with a vaguely defined private provision. No further details are given. For example, we do not know how many days a week pupils aged 16 to 19 will have.

All this is of great concern as SEN pupils across the UK have been let down historically in our system in the transition from school to adulthood—from school to life as supported young people in the community. Provision for 16 to 19 is absolutely crucial in this transition. Wiltshire Council’s consultation document asserts that the new centre of excellence will be able to provide what is called

“outreach capacity to support mainstream schools.”

It is not clear what is meant by that. On the face of it, there is a risk that resource will be diverted from the severe and profound to the milder end of the SEN spectrum. That is surely not what is intended. If it is, it needs to be stated in plain terms. The perception is not helped by the confusing terminology used in the text and the apparent misunderstanding of which schools currently offer what, in what is admittedly a complex and overlapping needs mix. Response to the consultation has rightly honed in on that.

Last month, I took part in a march in Trowbridge in support of the threatened schools. Predictably, there were children, parents and teachers, but what struck me was the number of ordinary citizens with no direct link to the school. The orthodoxy is that society wants people with disabilities of the kind that special schools deal with to be hidden away. The orthodoxy is that society is embarrassed by them and that they make it feel uncomfortable. Well, that may be the orthodoxy but it is not true in Trowbridge. Larkrise has a very special ethos. It does not believe in the hiding away of kids with the most profound difficulties. Its students are part of the local scene, out and about in the community. Nobody gawps at them, looks away or crosses the road, because they are an accepted and expected part of the community. They are recognised, welcomed, and helped in the shops, and that does not happen by accident.

We must not hide special needs children away in remote large, impersonal facilities, miles from their homes and communities. That is the very opposite of inclusion. It is segregation. Now I know that that is not the intent of the council, but it would be the consequence of its plans as drafted. Mobility today means that, like as not, children in mainstream schools will make their adult lives away from the towns in which they grew up, but children with special educational needs are much more likely to remain. Where they are is where they will be. Larkrise understands that, which is why its staff, ably led by headteacher Phil Cook, have put so much effort into local involvement and ensuring that their children are integrated in the community. I know that a similar situation applies at St Nicholas.

It is not surprising that, in its latest report, Ofsted rated Larkrise as “good”. It is surprising that the council believes that shutting this good school in Wiltshire’s county town should be part of its plans for raising standards. That is particularly so, as the council’s own task group stated that

“it would not be appropriate to combine all three schools into one site”,

and its “School Places Strategy” document says that children are best educated at the heart of the community—absolutely.

Over the year, parents with statemented children, and now children with educational health and care plans, have been to see me in my advice surgery. Invariably, the issue is not directly about care or education, but about transport.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and speaking out so passionately for his constituents in Trowbridge. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on speaking out for the parents from St Nicholas. Does my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) accept that there are a great many children with special educational needs throughout the county for whom Rowdeford would actually be a great deal more convenient than either Trowbridge or Chippenham, and that what the county is proposing—a £20 million investment to build a really state-of-the-art school—might well be welcomed by children with special educational needs across the whole of the northern county, leaving aside his own town of Trowbridge?

I am particularly grateful for my hon. Friend’s presence here today, and the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham. I join my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) in welcoming the extra money that is going into special educational needs, and I commend the council for that, but it is counterintuitive to suppose that the replacement of effectively three schools with one at Rowdeford would reduce travel times.

It has been a constant throughout my 18 years as a Member of Parliament that transport is the overwhelming preoccupation of parents with children at special needs schools. It is difficult for many of us who do not have direct contact with children with special education needs to understand how important it is. For the parents of a mainstream schoolchild, getting their child to school may be difficult, but for the parents of a child with special educational needs, it can be a preoccupation. It can be the cause of anxiety, distress and behavioural difficulties, and it can be the key focus of the parents’ day. Sometimes we forget how vital it is to ensure that the impact of travel-to-school times is minimised in order to enhance the quality of these young people’s school experience. That is why the council needs to think again about the plan to replace the three schools with one school, as it seems intuitive that that will increase the trauma that travel to school causes.

The council has made great play of getting more therapists into the proposed new school, and it is right to want to improve the level of service for children in school, but it is not clear how that will happen, since the principal difficulty with therapists right now, as I am sure my hon. Friends will agree, is a county-wide shortage of suitably trained staff. How will the council magic up physios, occupational therapists, and speech and language specialists at the new establishment when it cannot at existing schools? To what extent has it taken into account the disincentive introduced by increased travel-to-work times for them? As a rule, therapists are not wealthy people. They tend not to live in premium price market towns such as Devizes and associated villages. They do live in larger settlements such as Trowbridge and Chippenham.

Local campaigners have produced a helpful map to evidence precisely that. Wiltshire Council is rightly concerned about the number of SEN out-of-county placements and the cost, but it is not clear that the new mega-school will help. By the council’s own figures, it will be inadequate to satisfy demand. The council has not published evidence that it has consulted with other local authorities to see whether a model based on collaboration might be possible given that the administrative borders hold very little interest for a mum or dad trying to get their child to school.

In many ways, Wiltshire Council has been showing the way. It has grasped the 2014 Act imaginatively and worked on its version of the local offer, from birth to 25, all the way to placement in the community. I applaud it for that—I really do—but I also believe that it has temporarily lost its sense of direction. Its plans to close Larkrise School and for a new super-school are plain wrong. Its action and its conduct in this matter is wholly out of character. I expect the council to respond to the consultation fully and openly—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

I expect the council to respond to the consultation fully and openly, and I expect it to be prepared to change course in accordance with the intent and the ethos of the 2014 legislation.

I extend an invitation to the Minister to visit Wiltshire to see the good work that has been done and to better understand the SEN vision of service users, their families, and staff. I invite him, furthermore, to visit Larkrise School—a good school, according to Ofsted—and to view the council-owned site next door on Ashton Street that is the very obvious place to spend some of the £20 million to expand provision in Wiltshire. I hope that he will apply his good offices to assist the council in matching its very good intentions with a plan that genuinely improves the lives of the vulnerable young people I have the very great privilege to represent.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on securing this important debate. He has spoken eloquently and passionately about Larkrise School and about special educational needs and disability—SEND—provision in Wiltshire. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who is unable to speak on behalf of St Nicholas School in her constituency because she is a member of the Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire will know, SEND is a key part of my ministerial portfolio and an area where this Government have made significant reforms in recent years. I am sure that he would agree that all children, whether or not they have special educational needs and disabilities, should have a good start in life. We want them to achieve well in school and in later education. As adults, it is important that they find employment and lead happy and fulfilled lives. The reforms that this Government introduced in 2014 were put in place so that those ambitions could be achieved.

We have done much to help to implement these reforms. We have invested £391 million in local areas to support implementation since 2014, and £252 million has been provided direct to local authorities. We have also invested in supporting families. For example, in November 2017 we confirmed two further years of funding for parent carer forums—£15,000 per forum per year, or £4.6 million in total. Those forums started modestly nationally with about 500 individuals, and over 90,000 are now involved. Between June 2018 and March 2020, we are providing £20 million to improve the quality of local information, advice and support services and to provide a national helpline and online support services for families who have children and young people with SEND.

Local authorities such as Wiltshire County Council are critical in ensuring that the SEND reforms succeed. In this respect, as my hon. Friend said, Wiltshire is a council that has done much of which it can be proud, and there is significant evidence for this. In early 2018, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission conducted a local area inspection of Wiltshire’s SEND provision. The report of that inspection, published in March that year, stated that the senior leaders were working together constructively to deliver and improve services and demonstrated ambition to deliver high-quality outcomes.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for reminding us of the great work that Wiltshire has done. Other strengths identified in the report included effective joint commissioning arrangements, children achieving well in early years, the local area’s website for the local offer providing a wealth of information and guidance, and safeguarding being a priority for the council, where concerns are swiftly acted upon.

The latest figures from January 2018 show that 3% of pupils attending schools in Wiltshire had an education, health and care plan or a statement of special educational needs, which is just above the national average of 2.9%. In the latest figures available, from 2017, Wiltshire’s performance on issuing education, health and care plans by the statutory deadline of 20 weeks was 91.8%, which is well above the national average of 64.9%. In 2017, the number of appeals to the SEND tribunal was 0.8% of appealable decisions, which is much lower than the national average of 1.5%.

Wiltshire is doing excellent work on engaging with local parents in strategic decision making in relation to special educational needs and disabilities. Working with families in that way is a central theme of the SEND reforms that we introduced. By the end of its 10th year, in March 2018, the Wiltshire Parent Carer Council reported that it had grown its membership to 2,448 parents. Sixteen parent carer representatives sit on strategic boards and are involved in tasks groups across health, social care and education. Both the local authority and the local health authority provide funding to support the WPCC, on top of the £15,000 per year that the Government provide.

I had the pleasure of meeting representatives from Wiltshire Council and the Wiltshire Parent Carer Council in October last year. They demonstrated a number of things that they were doing in co-production to improve SEND arrangements in the local area. For example, they told me that a new short breaks scheme designed by parents led to increased take-up from families of this important service. Fewer than 100 families were accessing short breaks schemes in Wiltshire before 2008, and that has risen to more than 1,500 families over the years. Importantly, over 98% of those families said that they were happy with the short breaks they accessed.

All this is evidence of a council that is embracing the SEND reforms and making a success of them. Like many other councils, Wiltshire faces significant challenges, but it is clearly making considerable efforts to overcome them. This strong track record is very much to Wiltshire’s credit, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, and I am sure it is appreciated by local families.

Local authorities have a duty to ensure that there is sufficient provision in their area to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND. I am aware of the council’s proposals published for consultation in November 2018 to close two schools for children with complex needs and disabilities and create a single so-called super-special school. That proposal has been challenged locally, and I understand that the grounds of challenge include failure to properly consult before publishing a notice of closure, breach of public sector equality duties, breach of statutory provisions for the welfare of children and appearance of predetermination. I note the concern that if the change proposed by the local authority is implemented, it could have implications for some children who may need to travel further to school. That point has been made forcefully to me by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire tonight and by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham, on behalf of children in her constituency. I must, however, be clear tonight that I cannot intervene in or comment on this decision; this must be left up to the courts and the local authority.

We recognise that local authorities, including Wiltshire County Council, are facing high needs cost pressures. In response to these pressures, we have allocated an additional £250 million of funding for high needs over this year and next year—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire for commending us for this further funding—and this is of course on top of the increases we had already promised. Wiltshire will receive £2.3 million of this additional funding.

Of course, our response to these pressures cannot simply be additional funding. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote in December to local authority chief executives and directors of children’s services to set out our plans. These plans include reviewing current special educational needs content in initial teacher training provision and ensuring a sufficient supply of educational psychologists trained and working within the system.

We will shortly be issuing a call for evidence on the financial incentives within the current arrangements, in particular on the operation and use of mainstream schools’ notional special educational needs budgets up to £6,000. We of course want to continue to engage with local authorities, along with schools, colleges, parents and health professionals, to ensure that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities get the support they need and deserve.

I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire for raising this important issue. I am particularly grateful to be able to offer praise to a local area through the work not only of the local council and other statutory authorities, but of local families and the voluntary and community sector organisations that make such an important and positive difference to the lives of children and young people with SEND and to their families and friends. The collective efforts they are making to implement these important reforms will have a lasting and positive impact on families locally.

I am pleased to see that, while there is clearly still much to be done, many other areas across the country are also making strong positive efforts, and they are to be applauded. The Government will continue to play our part in supporting all local areas to succeed. I hope that my hon. Friend is content that the Government understand the issues he has raised in this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.