HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc579-95

'Educational development plans shall contain a plan for Special Educational Needs, which shall outline:

  1. (a) the mechanism by which the LEA identifies special needs within its area;
  2. (b) how it intends to meet current legislation including requirements of codes of practice;
  3. (c) appeals mechanisms; and
  4. (d) how it will meet the statutory requirements of the statements process.'.—[Mrs. Browning.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mrs. Browning

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss new clause 20—Special educational needs'(1) The Education Act 1996 shall be amended as follows. (2) In section 316 (Children with special educational needs normally to be educated in mainstream schools) (a) for subsection (1) there shall be substituted— Any person exercising function under this part in respect of a child with special educational needs who should be educated in school shall secure that the child is educated in a school which is not a special school unless that is incompatible with the wishes of the parent and the needs and ascertainable wishes of the child. (b) subsection (2) shall be omitted.'.

Mrs. Browning

New clause 14 would establish a clear obligation on local authorities to identify, in education development plans, areas of special educational needs for which they have responsibility. It is important that that is included in the plans. In Committee, we expressed our concern about the general principle of education development plans, but it would be unrealistic for us to assume that they will not be part of the Bill. From that starting point, we tabled new clause 14 for addition to the Bill.

Before Christmas, the House had an Adjournment debate on a Friday morning on the Government's policy on special educational needs, based on their consultation document, "Excellence for All Children: Meeting Special Educational Needs". It is clear from the document and the consultation, which has now concluded, that the Government intend to introduce changes to the range of policies that affect children with special educational needs. The Minister has said on other occasions that the Government's recommendations on any changes—which, I understand, will be available in the summer—will not be part of any primary legislation. It is, therefore, important that a local education authority's education development plan, which will be approved by the Secretary of State, should encompass its responsibilities for special educational needs.

As new clause 14 makes clear, it is important that local authorities outline the mechanism by which they identify special needs. Many LEAs are unable to say how many children with different types of disability they provide for, and it seems a sensible starting point to have a mechanism for identifying special educational needs and, more specifically, the variety of needs that they have to meet. It is also important that the provision made by LEAs meets current legislation. The Minister has made it clear that the SEN code of practice is likely to be changed—we do not object if it is improved—but it is incumbent on LEAs to show how they intend to comply with the current code of practice.

Appeals mechanisms are especially important to parents and details should also be included in LEAs' education development plans. LEAs should also include in their plans details of how they intend to meet the statutory requirements of the statementing process.

The Government's Green Paper summarises some of the changes that they anticipate will be made, possibly after the Bill has received Royal Assent. Four key points are set out on page 42 and we believe that they should be incorporated in education development plans. The Green Paper states: A revised version of the SEN Code of Practice will be in place, preserving the principles and safeguards of the present Code, while simplifying procedures and keeping paperwork to a minimum. There will be renewed emphasis on provision under the school-based stages of the Code of Practice, with support from LEAs and greater assurance for parents of effective intervention, particularly at stage 3. The Government claim: The result of these improvements will be that the proportion of children who need a statement will be moving towards 2 per cent. I do not wish to rehearse the debate on statementing that I have previously had with the Minister—and will have again when she makes known the outcome of the consultation—but it is clear that the statementing process will be retained. It is, therefore, important that LEAs identify clearly in their education development plans how they will undertake the statementing process. The Green Paper also states: The great majority of SEN assessments will be completed within the statutory timetable. It is important that that requirement is included in the Bill.

The Green Paper states, on page 70: The Government has a central responsibility for raising standards and promoting progress for all children, including those with SEN. We do not disagree. That wording is almost identical to the explanatory notes in the Bill when it describes the responsibilities of LEAs to provide an education development plan for submission to the Secretary of State. The Bill states that education development plans are a statement of proposals for developing provision of education by raising the standards of education and improving the performance of schools. The two definitions are therefore compatible.

5.15 pm

It is fair to say that special educational needs were discussed only in passing as they were covered by clauses in the Bill. No section referred specifically to SEN and, although one or two amendments were debated in more detail, it is important that the Government recognise that, in legislating for the future, they should include consideration of special educational needs.

From the cases that Members of Parliament take up on behalf of children with special educational needs, it is clear that parents are often in dispute with their LEA over their child's statement or individual requirements. If more clarity can be achieved in making LEAs aware that they have to follow codes of practice and legislation, and submit their plans for doing so to Secretary of State for scrutiny, that can only assist parents and the Minister, especially when we learn the details of her proposals once the result of the consultation on the Green Paper is known. I hope that new clause 14 is non-controversial and that the Minister will accept it in the spirit in which it is tabled. I also hope that its main beneficiaries will be children with special educational needs.

Mr. Willis

Liberal Democrat Members support the comments of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning). If new clause 14 is pressed to a vote, we shall support her in the Lobby. I hope that it will not be pressed, because I trust that the Minister supports most of what the hon. Lady said.

I begin my remarks on new clause 20 by praising the previous Government. It is unusual to hear such praise in the House, but there have been remarkable advances in working with children with special educational needs over the past 20 years, particularly since the Education Act 1981. It is difficult to think that, 20-odd years ago, we categorised young people in terms of their disabilities for the whole of their school lives. Worse, some children were categorised as incapable of being educated. It is important to put on record the fact that we have come a long way in addressing the problems of teaching children with special educational needs and including them in our education system. I am sure that the Minister supports those comments.

We owe Baroness Warnock and her committee a tremendous debt of gratitude for the work that was done in producing their report. The 1981 Act did not bring about all that we wanted to result from the report, but it put into legislation the requirement for local education authorities and schools to meet more effectively their responsibilities to children with special needs. Subsequent legislation and, in particular, the code of practice have embedded good practice towards children with special educational needs in our education system. New clause 20, and new clause 14, would further embed good practice in legislation.

The number of statemented children who are in mainstream education has risen to 134,000, which is remarkable. Another achievement in which the previous Government played a part is the doubling since 1991 of the number of statemented children in mainstream schools.

Unfortunately, there has been no corresponding decline in the number of children in special schools. There is a feeling that having statemented children in mainstream schools has caused a decline in special schools and the number of places in them. Several hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), have pleaded strongly for the retention of special school provision. Although the number of statemented children in mainstream schools doubled in the 1990s, the number of children in special schools has remained constant at 98,000.

I want more children to be educated not in special schools, but in mainstream schools wherever possible, and the new clause deals with that matter.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Baroness Warnock told the Select Committee on Education and Employment during the previous Parliament that her suggestion of total integration had gone a little too far, and that she had changed her mind slightly?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that so many statements have been issued over the past few years because parents, particularly vociferous middle-class parents, have realised that statementing is a good way to ensure that resources are directed to their child, and have pushed for statementing? When I was head of a special school, it was difficult to get parents to agree to statementing, because they believed that their child would be stigmatised by it. The increase in statementing is a reason for the decrease in the number of special school places.

Mr. Willis

I agree with both of the hon. Gentleman's points. I have never supported 100 per cent. integration, and do not believe that the Warnock committee meant it to come about, because mainstream education will never be appropriate for some children. I agree that more statements have been issued because of middle-class pressure, which has been the case in my local education authority, but I would like to think that the increase also came about because parents want the best for their children. I do not blame parents for using the system to help them.

The number of statemented children who are educated in mainstream schools differs between LEAs. In some, less than 0.5 per cent. of statemented children are educated in mainstream schools, but in others, the figure is as much as 2 per cent. There are stark differences between individual schools. At John Smeaton school in Leeds, where I worked before being elected to the House, 5 per cent. of the 1,600 children had statements of special educational needs, and a further 220 were on level 3 of the code of practice, which is a significant number. We offered specialist provision, particularly to children with severe learning difficulties, and a facility to children with visual impairments. There was a feeling that many schools copped out and encouraged parents to ask my school to admit their children rather than fight for places at local schools which, in many cases, could have provided for the children equally well.

I recommend to hon. Members recent research carried out by Mel Ainscow of the university of Manchester, Tony Booth of the Open university, and Alan Dyson of Newcastle university, which shows the advantages that can be gained by children with special educational needs who are educated with their peers. Education is more than learning skills and acquiring knowledge; it is about developing and changing pupils' attitudes and behaviour towards each other, and evidence shows that inclusive education is the greatest force for such development.

At one school in Cleveland, I worked on the integration of children with physical impairments. A thalidomide child named Ricky Corner came to the school. He had no arms, and wrote with his foot. At first, that was a great cause of amusement and embarrassment to staff and students, but having him at the school was a great advantage, and the memory of the great joy and the understanding of his problem that he brought to his peer group and to staff has remained with me for many years.

It is a great pity that the Secretary of State is not here, because, seven or eight years ago, we had the pleasure of undertaking pioneering work with children who were totally blind and coming into a mainstream set-up. Mark Lister, who was from an incredibly disadvantaged family with immense social problems, came into my school in Leeds. Several years later, that young man went to Keele university to read for a law degree. He had a long-distance relationship with a girl in Poland, and is now married with a child. He spent all his time in a busy and difficult mainstream setting.

Thousands of examples could be given to illustrate why the Government should accept the new clause, and make inclusive education a pillar of the structure of raising standards. For parents, there is the immense satisfaction of having their children taught in mainstream education. There is no doubt that, although some parents still prefer their children to be educated in special schools—often for "protectionist" reasons—the vast majority aspire for their children to be educated alongside not just their peers but, if possible, children who live in the same street. That should be the ideal.

5.30 pm

In many ways, the barrier to the development of an inclusive education system is attitude—not legislation, and, if I may say so, not even resources. However, the Education Act 1981 gave local education authorities and schools an opt-out by making integration subject to an efficiency clause. Sadly, that has been used all too readily to deny children access to mainstream education.

The new clause is intended to make the Government's position and intention clear. It is intended to make it clear that all children should be given the opportunity to be taught in mainstream education, unless that is incompatible with the wishes of parents and the needs and ascertainable wishes of the children. The new clause does not fetter parents' right to send their children to special schools if that is considered best; nor does it give parents an unfettered right to send their children to the school of their choice. Parents would still be subject to the schedules of the Education Act 1996.

What the new clause does is provide an entitlement for every child in the country to a mainstream place, and tell every local education authority, every education action zone and every school to plan their resources accordingly.

Mrs. May

I support the new clause, and hope that, given the spirit in which it was moved, the Government will look favourably on it. It sends a clear message about the importance that we all attach to special educational needs, and about our view that every local education authority should include SEN as a natural part of its consideration of the development of education in its area.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, when we discussed educational development plans in Committee, valid questions were raised about whether they were appropriate. As the Government want to press ahead with such plans, however, I think it important to send a clear message that it is not simply a question of developing standards and performance targets that relate only to mainstream schools. The Bill should specify that the same criteria will relate to special educational needs, whether they are catered for by special schools or by mainstream provision. If the Government accepted the new clause, they would, indeed, send a clear message about the importance of LEAs' including SEN in their plans.

We have already discussed the question of special schools versus mainstream education for children with special needs. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned that debate and, indeed, made a passing reference to my contribution. The topic is important, and I am glad that it will be focused on, but we need to think carefully about what should be done. I am interested by new clause 20, tabled by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. In the document entitled "Excellence for All Children"—I hesitate to say whether it is a White Paper or a Green Paper, because I always seem to get it wrong—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Estelle Morris)


Mrs. May

I thank the Minister for correcting me from a sedentary position.

In that Green Paper, the Government presented their vision of an inclusive policy for children with special educational needs. I am sure that we all agree about the importance of ceasing to assume—it has been assumed in the past, but in recent years our attitude has changed—that the only way in which to teach a child with SEN is to send that child to a special school. We must accept that mainstream education is beneficial where it is possible, and where it is right for the child concerned.

I must, however, add a word of caution. I do not want a policy of inclusion to become a mantra, followed purely for the sake of it. We must recognise not only the requirements of children with SEN, but the requirements of other children in the mainstream class and, indeed, the rest of the school.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough spoke of the benefits that could result from educating disabled children in the mainstream system. I have seen those benefits myself. I was a governor of a primary school to which a blind child was brought. My example is similar to that given by the hon. Gentleman. The parents were clear about their wish for the child to be educated in the local primary school, and extra resources were provided to enable that to happen.

I well remember the meeting of the governing body at which the head teacher listed the benefits that had been gained not only by the child who had been able to be educated among his peers, but by the other children who had been able to relate to him. Attitudes had changed. Earlier this week, I talked to another head teacher in a school in my constituency. She told me that, when a child in a wheelchair was introduced to mainstream education, a change took place in the other children. Instead of saying, "Here comes the girl in a wheelchair", they said, "Here comes Melanie". They recognised the person. We cannot overestimate the change in attitudes and the benefit to other children, which will stay with them for the rest of their lives. We should not shy away from it.

Having said that, I must add that there are some children with SEN for whom inclusion in a mainstream class is not appropriate. The inclusion of some children would cause great difficulty for the rest of the class. Such circumstances are most likely to apply to children with particular behavioural difficulties, who would be disruptive. It might be difficult for teachers to cope with such children; or they might receive the bulk of the teacher's attention, while the others failed to be given the attention that they needed and deserved. While recognising the benefits of mainstream education, we must also recognise that what is right for the child and the school must be taken into account in any decision.

It is a delicate balance. We do not want head teachers simply to say that they will not take a particular child with special needs, because they think that it will be difficult to cope with that child in the classroom, and to shut that child out. We want to ensure that the right attitudes are taken, and that inclusion is possible where it is right. I continue to believe, however, that special schools will always be needed for some children. We should not give the impression that we do not think that they are appropriate for anyone. A balance must struck in assessing the specific needs of every child, to determine what is right in each child's circumstances.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has moved new clause 14. Special educational needs provision should be clearly dealt with in the Bill, clearly stating that local education authorities must not sweep SEN to the side or believe that it is a secondary consideration. SEN must be part of their work in developing educational development plans for their area. It must be natural for local education authorities to consider, as part of their process of developing education, how they will provide for SEN and how they will develop that provision.

My caveats on the inclusive policy proposed in new clause 20 are based on my belief that LEAs should be required in the Bill to give equal consideration to special educational needs, which should be part of their education development plans. I hope that the Government will accept new clause 14 in the spirit in which it was moved.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I agree entirely with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), especially her comments on the importance of spelling out in the Bill the importance of special educational needs and of striking the right balance between mainstream and special schools. I strongly support both new clause 14 and new clause 20, as they would add considerably to the Bill. As my hon. Friend said, they would also send a clear message that education authorities must explicitly consider special educational needs.

In my previous constituency, I had experience of a school for dyslexic children, which was in the independent sector, and was greatly concerned to learn of the many cases in which parents struggled to obtain the right education for their child. So often, some education authorities refused point-blank to accept that a dyslexic child had a special educational need, although an independent school could have met that need. Although some authorities—curiously, they were Labour-controlled authorities, such as Derbyshire—were strongly supportive and realised that a certain school could meet a child's needs, other authorities were not supportive.

Local education authorities too often feel that they can cope within their own boundaries with almost any difficulty that a child may face, but they cannot. I wish that local education authorities would own up to the fact that they cannot possibly meet every special educational need, as children may have one of many difficulties.

I should like there to be much greater co-ordination between local education authorities so that, although they cannot provide for every special educational need, they can join other authorities in providing and rationalising special provision for children. That would not only relieve them from thinking that they must make all provision within their boundaries, but greatly extend provision by producing economies of scale. Consequently, special schools in the maintained sector could attract children from a wider area and become viable, as counties would not be competing with one another.

My own constituency is in the extreme north-east of Hampshire and abuts Surrey. For some of my constituents, the closest special educational need provision in Hampshire is 10 or 20 miles to the west, whereas precisely the right provision is available only a couple of miles away, just across the border in Surrey. However, Hampshire county council says, "That school would not be appropriate for that child, and we are not prepared to make an out-of-county placement." I therefore hope that the Minister will use her persuasive powers on local education authorities, so that they realise the benefit of rationalisation, which I am sure is the answer.

5.45 pm

I hope that the Minister also appreciates the points made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) on the role and importance of special schools. There are, of course, advantages in educating children in mainstream schools, not only for children with special educational needs, but for those without such needs. Children with special educational needs in mainstream schools do not feel that they have been separated from other children. However, I agree whole-heartedly with the hon. Gentleman that there is a case for children being educated with their peers if he means that those with a specific disability benefit by being educated with others with a similar disability.

At Maple Hayes hall, which is a school for dyslexic children in my previous constituency, I met children who had behavioural difficulties. I met one child who, at his previous school in Essex, had stabbed a Biro through the hand of the child next to him. The act was attributed to behavioural difficulties, but that was wrong. He was expressing frustration because his special educational needs were not being met. Fortunately, he was able subsequently to attend Maple Hayes hall. He told me, "This place saved me. If I hadn't come here, I probably would have ended up in prison."

I therefore believe that there is a case for children with some special educational needs to be educated together. They would not have to explain anything to their peers, and would derive enormous self-confidence by being with others with a similar disability.

I hope that the Minister will listen to the case that has been made—almost by both sides of the House—for passing the new clauses. The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) made an interesting and useful speech. Including the new clauses in the Bill would send a clear signal that, although educating children in mainstream education is preferable, there is a very strong case—educationally and socially—for encouraging schools that provide for specific educational needs.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I support new clause 14. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) generously commented on how greatly knowledge and understanding of special educational needs have increased in the past 20 years—the truth of which is undoubtedly reflected in the emphasis that we are giving to the subject in this debate and have given in other debates in the House in recent months.

The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) adopted a rather tired and old-fashioned agenda in his concern about which element in society has benefited most from the attention that has been given to special educational needs. It was inevitable that, as awareness has grown of what can be done to improve the performance of children with SEN, some sections of society have become more aware of those needs than others. Although, hitherto, middle-class families may have benefited more from the resources given to special educational needs, those benefits can be extended to all families.

It is negative to imply—as Labour Members have occasionally in our debates on the subject—that expenditure on SEN is a middle-class fix and the result of special pleading by middle-class parents for an extra share of the education cake. That is not the case at all: the children have a genuine need and we have to recognise it.

The situation would be improved if new clause 14 were implemented, because in the course of agreeing education plans with local authorities, a wider awareness of best practice could be generated. If plans were discussed with a particular focus on special educational needs, there is no doubt that the success stories would spread to other areas and thereby SEN provision could be improved across the board.

Mr. Steinberg

I am sorry if I unintentionally gave the wrong impression. I was trying to say that, in many cases, statements were being made for children because their parents had insisted on the resources. I do not want to bring too much politics into the debate, but resources have been scant in mainstream schools because of the unfortunate policies of the previous Government, and statements were one way in which parents sought to obtain extra resources. I was not saying that they did not deserve those resources or that they were cheating the system; I was merely making the point that that was one way of getting resources and that it was the vociferous middle class who realised that.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I am not sure where that leaves the hon. Gentleman's concerns. Certainly on other occasions it has been implied that a disproportionate advantage was being taken, but I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has been able to clear that matter up.

Provision for special educational needs in the mainstream falls into three categories. There are children who have some physical handicap but tremendous academic potential. It must help the whole school to learn to cope with, and help the development of, such children and to see them develop alongside their peers. Then there are children who have latent academic ability but suffer from a mental block that needs to be overcome. In such cases, special educational attention within the mainstream ensures that their problem is overcome while in other aspects of their development they continue alongside their peers.

There will, however, always be a group of children for whom being in the mainstream is not appropriate. It has to be recognised that it may be appropriate to take them out of the mainstream for a short period. Skills can be developed to enable those children to go back into the mainstream and the objective of many people working in the sector is to ensure that children who come into their care are enabled, so far as is possible, to return to mainstream education. That is where it becomes important that the children's problems are discovered and recognised as soon as possible. The longer problems are allowed to build up, the longer it will take outside the mainstream sector before they are well equipped to re-enter it.

One of the objectives of new clause 14 is to improve what might be called the response time of local education authorities when parents alert the LEA to the fact that they believe that their child needs special educational provision. In previous statements, the Minister has indicated her belief that too much money is spent on the assessment of special needs and on the appeals process and that redirecting those funds alone would unlock a rich purse that could be spent on actual provision, although Conservative Members have expressed scepticism about that. What is important is that methods of good practice are promoted by her Department to ensure that there is prompt recognition of need by local education authorities throughout the country. I have received representations from interested bodies who have found that LEAs' response times and willingness to respond is patchy and varies significantly from one area to another.

It would be helpful if the Minister clarified the Government's attitude towards the provision of special educational needs by the independent sector. We are not certain about whether the Government are in favour of building bridges with the independent sector or are in favour of blowing them up, as they have done or have tried to do on several occasions. There is clearly an important role for independent schools in special educational provision. A great deal of progress has been made and it is likely that some of the discoveries will emerge from schools that are outside the remit of local education authorities and the state system. It is important that, in developing plans that spell out how special educational needs are to be addressed in any area, a role is identified for such schools so that their innovative work can be encouraged and built on for the benefit of all children with special educational needs.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I support the principle of LEAs having a responsibility strategically to plan special needs provision in the context of their overall plan for educating children in their area.

My hon. Friends the Members for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) and for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made a valid point about the significance of the new clause in terms of the message it broadcasts to the wider community, but there is an even more important point about LEAs' overall role in planning school places and admissions, the relationship between special needs provision and the mainstream, and LEAs' critical role in the analysis of individual children's needs. All those factors necessitate LEAs incorporating special needs provision into their strategic plans.

One of the good things that have emerged in special needs education over the past 20 years is the statement. My interest in the subject started when I first became a member of an LEA in 1985—I am still a member of that Nottinghamshire LEA. The statement is undoubtedly a positive thing for parents and children. I do not want to digress into talking about the Green Paper, but there are real concerns about the dilution of the statement. It needs to be said that many parents of special needs children feel that the statement is their only binding guarantee of a decent education in line with their child's needs. That is another reason for supporting the new clause; it would require LEAs to consider the definition of need for children with special needs in the context of their overall education planning.

I have heard many arguments about integration into the mainstream and I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), whose arguments have been advanced many times. There are many good social and cultural arguments for integrating children with special needs into mainstream schools. Many parents support that and many children benefit from it, but I have to say that cultural and social reasons cannot be elevated above the individual educational needs of the child. It may be socially desirable for a child to be integrated into the mainstream, but not if that is detrimental to the child's educational progress.

There are many parents of special needs children who take the firm view that their child's special needs are best met by specialist provision which, in practical and educational terms, can be best met in special schools. I endorse my hon. Friends' comments on the need to retain special schools where those are proven to be the best way of educating children with special needs.

Local education authorities have variable records on special needs provision. That is not a party-political point. Some Conservative LEAs have a less good track record on special needs, as do some Labour LEAs, and there are some controlled by both parties that have excelled. There is great variation in how effectively different authorities have addressed special needs provision and how quick they have been in statementing children. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford was, however, too generous in that the issue is not just the time that it takes, but the willingness to statement at all. There is considerable variation among LEAs on that as well, which is very worrying. That, too, is not a party-political remark.

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Like other hon. Members, I should like to mention a constituency case. A child was in mainstream education in Nottinghamshire where, as I have said, I am still a member of the LEA. I was delighted to be able to assist that child, who was suffering bullying at a good mainstream school, not a tough school. I helped the child to transfer out of the mainstream to special needs provision in my constituency in Lincolnshire. The parents uprooted and sold their home to move to Spalding so that their child could be educated in a special needs school and avoid some of the problems that they had encountered in mainstream education, so we must remember that there can be movement both ways.

The biggest growth area in special needs provision—this needs emphasising—is children with emotional behavioural difficulties. A range of studies has illustrated that. They can be the hardest to integrate. LEAs must have a coherent policy on dealing with such children. Provision is pretty patchy and variable across LEAs. Some sweep the issue under the carpet, while others have taken imaginative and innovative approaches, dealing with the problem very effectively. We must have an honest debate about how to deal effectively with what is, sadly, a growth area.

The new clauses would help by obliging LEAs to focus on the issue and build it into their strategic planning.

Ms Estelle Morris

This wide-ranging debate has barely touched on the new clauses in some respects. I do not want to incur your wrath, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or that of hon. Members by spending the rest of the evening debating special educational needs. Suffice it to say that I am grateful to all hon. Members who have chosen to make a contribution on this important issue.

I am pleased to join the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) in acknowledging that Governments and local councils of all parties have made tremendous progress on SEN provision in recent years. There is unanimity in the House on the importance of the issue and how much there is to be done. That cross-party approach has been evident today. I shall respond to a few of the points that have been raised and then address the new clauses. I shall not ask the House to accept the new clauses, not because I disagree with much of what has been said but because this is not the time for them. There will be other opportunities to propose them.

We should not be having today a further debate on the Green Paper on special needs. There will be a time for that. I do not seek to run away from that debate and I have not done so since the Green Paper was published; I am merely trying to be cautious with our use of time. Our response will appear in June. We are busy analysing more than 3,500 responses from organisations and individuals. Apart from that from the major organisations, I have not even looked at the analysis yet. What I say today should not be regarded as a response to the consultation on the Green Paper.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) talked about primary legislation. I do not yet know whether the consultation on the Green Paper will necessitate primary legislation. We have not analysed all the responses and I do not know what the Government will want to take forward, but I have consistently said that if primary legislation is needed we cannot include it in the Bill. My Department will have to take its turn in the search for parliamentary time.

Mr. Dorrell

The Minister has missed the boat.

Ms Morris

We had an important decision to take. We wanted to include SEN provision with other legislation, but we did not feel that we could do it justice in time for the White Paper in June. The two should be regarded as sister papers.

I should like to pick up some of the main strands of the debate. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made a good case for regional planning for SEN. The problem is particularly noticeable for some of the smaller new unitary authorities. With the disabilities and special needs that are increasingly common with medical advances and as more children survive with problems and disabilities that might previously have caused them to die, I am convinced that groups of local authorities will need to join up to plan initially for low incidence disabilities and then, if it works, for more common disabilities.

We suggested pilot studies on regional planning in the Green Paper. We intended to run two pilots on regional planning for SEN, but such has been the response from local authorities that we shall run more than two. When I last looked at the issue, four seemed the likely figure. We have already secured the money. We are currently negotiating with local authorities on a regional basis. We shall be able to announce the local authorities in which the pilots will take place soon.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am delighted that the Minister has taken that initiative. When might she announce the pilot areas?

Ms Morris

I see no reason why I could not make that clear once agreement has been received from the local authorities. We have not yet ascertained whether that is the case, but the latest progress report is that there is a high level of interest. I shall not deliberately hold the issue up. The hon. Gentleman is clearly keen and has a constituency interest. I shall ask my officials and let him know whether his local authority has expressed an interest.

I am enormously optimistic about the developments. Hon. Members have talked about local authorities hiding from their responsibilities and being reluctant to go for a statement, or even to acknowledge that there is a need, let alone to begin to find the solution. That has been caused either by a feeling that a single authority's resources cannot effectively be used to meet that need or because the local authority does not have the know-how. Regional planning will be important to ensure progress on that.

There is a danger that we will all stand up and say that inclusion is good and feel happy about that because being inclusive makes us feel that we are doing the right thing. All hon. Members who have spoken in this debate started by saying that inclusion was a good thing—and then went on to say "but". The views ranged from those of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who thought that inclusion was almost entirely a good thing, but not quite, to those of the hon. Member for Aldershot and some of his hon. Friends, who said that it was a good thing "but", and went on to stress the importance of special schools.

New clause 20 illustrates the problem. It must be good to integrate children with special needs with their peers in mainstream education. If that can be done well, there is no reason why we should not do it. Some hon. Members say "but" because parents have different wishes and children have different needs. We must avoid integrating SEN children badly. We must not integrate before all the partners in the education service are ready. I shall refer to that later.

I reassure the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), who is not in his place, about the role of special schools in the independent sector. I do not know why I need to, because I have already done so time and again. I suspect that he might not have been listening. I see that he has returned to the Chamber. Quite honestly, we could not manage without the contribution that independent special schools make to overall provision.

I remind the hon. Member for Guildford, as an indication of the importance of such schools, that, although they secure capital from independent sources, they rely on local authorities for 80 per cent. and more of their revenue costs. Local authorities refer and buy places in the independent sector, which enables such independent schools to keep going. That partnership between the maintained and independent sectors precedes anything that is being talked about now and is an example of good practice. How it has arisen is for a different debate. Suffice it to say that such good practice and innovative work leaves a bolt hole for schemes such as HIGASHI, which happens overseas, and which some of our parents want to access. Such provision can always be introduced in this country through that channel. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the independent sector's role is vital and will continue, and that we shall continue to make use of it.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, and applaud her for saying, that if we are serious about meeting the needs of special needs children and being more inclusive we must incorporate their needs in all our planning and stop regarding them as extra. That is what we have done in education development plans. Some of the things that new clause 14 asks us to do should not rightfully be in education development plans, not because they concern SEN but because of what they are. Such things should be done elsewhere.

I remind the House that education development plans essentially ensure that local authorities set targets for improvement and let us know how they intend to meet those targets and what strategies they will put in place to raise standards for all children. Due to the importance of education development plans, we must be careful to be clear and focused about what we ask them to do. They cannot embrace every responsibility of a local authority. That would be wrong and it would dilute their main thrust.

I refer hon. Members to pages 5 and 9 of the draft guidance on EDPs, which states clearly that one of the things about which we will want to know is how pupils with special education needs are supported. The guidance goes on to mention gifted and more able pupils. We debated the definition of special needs. In the section on school population characteristics for each of the main types of school, the guidance states that we will require LEAs to let us know about both statemented and non-statemented children in mainstream and special schools so that there is a clear, year-on-year pen portrait of children with SEN in the area. It is quite clear in the document that targets must be set for special schools and for special needs children in mainstream schools.

I have never been entirely happy—I think that hon. Members will share this view—that there is sufficient fine tuning of targets for GCSEs and key stages to help us recognise the progress of special needs children. That is why we have already set in hand work with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to fine tune key stages 1, 2 and 3 so that children who might make progress at those stages will probably have targets set for them by the end of their school careers. Target setting for children with special needs is included, as it should be. I do not want new clause 14 to be accepted because it asks us to do things that are not appropriate for education development plans.

6.15 pm
Mr. Hayes

The point that needs to be emphasised is that the target setting process—the development of measurables and deliverables—is intrinsically linked to a particular LEA's view of the number of special needs schools it provides, its school places policy and its strategic approach to SEN. Target setting in individual schools cannot be separated from the overall strategic approach to SEN because the overall approach is bound to impact on it. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) because the point that we are making is that, by trying to separate the two areas—although I acknowledge what the draft guidance suggests—we are not emphasising the interrelationship strongly enough.

Ms Morris

Local authorities need to bring together the different plans that they are required to make. The hon. Gentleman did not serve on the Committee, but he may know that we debated how local authorities and others provide sufficient places for children in their areas. I am sure that he will be reassured to know that we have stated clearly that local authorities must take account of the special educational needs of the children in their area and plan accordingly.

Education development plans are essentially about target setting to raise standards. The key element is that children with special needs are explicitly included. If they were not, I would be unhappy. We are consulting on the guidelines and listening carefully to ensure that we get it right for SEN children. We shall obviously reflect on the comments as we receive them.

I have tremendous respect for the work that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has done with his school. He is an evangelist in both his commitment and his trail blazing, which shows where the rest of us can go. John Smeaton school, of which the hon. Gentleman was head, is an example of good practice to which we should all be looking.

New clause 20 would remove the provision that we should consider the efficient education of other children. People have talked about sending messages. I have tried to send messages of inclusion and of valuing special needs children. I do not think that we would be doing special needs children any favours if we sent out the message in this debate that their inclusion should be considered without regard to the efficient education of other children. The greatest asset of inclusion is that it benefits both groups of children. We must accept that schools must be equipped and ready in attitude and facilities to meet the needs of SEN children. It can be done; it will be done more, but we must move sensitively and have regard for some of the concerns expressed by hon. Members and in consultation.

One thing amused and interested me in our consultation on the Green Paper. One member of my advisory committee attended two consultation meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday of the same week. Both were very well attended. At the first, he was hauled over the coals about why we had not gone for total inclusion. At the second, he faced a group of angry parents who wanted to know why we were threatening the closure of special schools. Those are the two fears; we must do everything we can to make progress without alienating any of those people. Both groups have rights, fears and expressions of interest.

I hope that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough will accept that I am committed, as he is, to ensuring that the Government, with the co-operation of others, deliver our pledge to offer children who can benefit—and parents who want it—an opportunity to take their place in mainstream schools as they will in mainstream society. That is the bottom line.

This has been a useful debate. I hope that the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton and for Harrogate and Knaresborough feel that I have answered sympathetically and that they will accept my assurances that the issues that they have raised ought better to be met in different areas of Government education policy.

Mrs. Browning

I am naturally disappointed that the Under-Secretary feels that she cannot accept new clauses 14 and 20, and I must seek some reassurances on various points that she has raised.

The Minister said that local education authorities will be required to provide a snapshot of their special needs provision. Perhaps that would be more appropriate for conclusions to the consultation. I hope that the Minister will look carefully at disaggregating special needs statistics. I see the Minister wrinkling her nose as she does not like that idea—and I understand why. The problem is that, even now, some LEAs do not recognise specific learning disabilities—they refuse even to recognise the terminology. Unless the guidelines require LEAs to demonstrate clearly how many children with specific disabilities they are making special needs provision for—whether statemented or not—they will continue their current bad practice.

Ms Morris

I have noted the hon. Lady's initial comments. I wrinkled my nose because, following previous exchanges in the House, I talked to the advisory group about disaggregating the statistics. It seemed ridiculous that no one could tell me how many autistic children were in mainstream schools, but nothing is as easy as it sounds. The answer that I received from academics—some of whom were mentioned by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and one of whom serves on the advisory group—is that it is not as easy to define groups as we might imagine. It is very difficult to distinguish children with emotional and behavioural difficulties from those who are naughty, disturbed or mentally ill. I shall continue to reflect on that matter, but the task is not as easy as I first thought.

Mrs. Browning

I fully accept that, but I urge the Minister not to let go. For years, some LEAs have deliberately flown in the face of medical diagnoses. Parents may have pieces of paper from qualified doctors or clinical psychologists stating that their child has been diagnosed with a particular illness, yet that terminology is not recognised by the LEA from which that child seeks education provision. We must address that problem. I urge the hon. Lady to keep at it—I assure her that I shall support her to the hilt.

The Minister also said that, when she concludes the consultation process, there may be a need for primary legislation and that her Department would have to wait its turn. Today's national press carry details of the Government's agenda for the next parliamentary year—although I do not know how accurate it is. When education legislation is before the House, the Minister should use that opportunity to introduce primary legislation on special educational needs; otherwise, she may have a long wait. I urge her not to let any opportunities slip: if she feels that primary legislation is necessary, she should do her best to bring it to the Floor of the House at the earliest possible opportunity. We do not want long delays.

I am disappointed by the Minister's decision, but she has promised further time for debate on the Floor of the House before any major decisions are made about changing SEN significantly. The Minister will report in June and I hope that, if there are significant changes, she will bring them to the House when it returns after the summer recess. Those changes should not go through during the recess as hon. Members must have an opportunity to voice their opinions and contribute to the proposals. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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