§ 1. Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
If he will make a statement on the Government's plans for special needs education. 
§ 6. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
What proposals he plans to bring forward following the consultation on the Green Paper on special educational needs, "Excellence for all Children". 
§ The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)
Following consultation on our Green Paper, "Excellence for all children: meeting special educational needs", and in the light of advice from the National Advisory Group on Special Educational Needs, we published earlier this month "Meeting Special Educational Needs: A Programme of Action", stating the practical steps that we shall take to support and promote developments in SEN. The action programme will be supported by funding of almost £60 million in 1999–2000.
§ Mr. McCabe
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. She will be familiar with the excellent work of the Dame Ellen Pinsent school in my constituency. At a recent meeting with parents at the school, I was struck by the number of them who feared that an inclusion policy might result in the school's closure. Will my hon. Friend assure those parents—all parents—of children with special needs that the Government will play no part in forcing the closure of good special schools, or in forcing children with special needs into mainstream schools? Will she assure those parents that any inclusion policy will ensure that they are totally involved in and fully consulted on that policy?
§ Ms Morris
I am delighted to give those assurances. Both my hon. Friend and I have children in our constituencies who attend the Dame Ellen Pinsent school, and I should like to add my warm words about its work. The thrust of the Green Paper on inclusion is to give parents a genuine choice. Many parents currently do not feel that they have the choice of educating their children in a mainstream school because that school is not able to 1092 cope with their children. However, not one word in reply to the Green Paper should cause any special school to feel under threat. Parents will retain their right to express a preference for a special school.
I should say also that there is at Dame Ellen Pinsent and other schools so much expertise in their teachers. We want to ensure that that expertise is used not only in special schools but in mainstream schools, to support a wider range of students. Special schools are safe if they are good schools and parents wish to send their children to them, but like all schools, special schools must accept the need to change and to offer high standards for our children.
§ Ms Morris
Exactly. Our motivation is to give choice to parents and students and a good quality of education to every child with special educational needs. I am delighted to have this opportunity to say that not one word that I or other Ministers have said should lead any special school to fear that its future is in doubt. If parents wish to send their children to special schools, they will retain the right to do so. Any change to any school, regardless of whether it is a special school, is subject to local decisions, and it will be even more so in the new framework. I am happy to give those assurances, and am pleased that I have had the opportunity to do so.
§ Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)
I was interested to hear the Minister's reply. In Gloucestershire, there is pressure to close a very good school, Alderman Knight school, which provides an excellent service for children with special educational needs. As the Minister will be aware, many of those children also suffer physical disadvantages. Will she make it clear to all local education authorities that the policy she has just stated to the House is the Government's policy? There is much doubt in LEAs about what that policy is.
§ Ms Morris
There can be no doubt about it on the part of anyone who has read either the original document or the action plan that we have launched subsequently. I shall say again something that I have said many times before: no local authority, no school and no governing body should be quoting anything from either our documents or our words to imply that special schools should close on a point of principle. I do not know the circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I cannot be expected to know them. However, there are bound to be changes in the pattern of provision of education in local authority areas as times change and as parents express different preferences.
Of course, there may be occasions when the pattern of provision for children with special educational needs is such that a reorganisation of special needs provision is the best thing. Nothing that I have said suggests that special needs provision should be set in stone, but we are not sending a message that special schools do not have a future. They do have a future because they meet the needs 1093 of some parents and pupils, and many of their staff have great expertise that we want to use across the school system.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
What assessment has the Minister made of the advocacy services, which are very often provided by the voluntary and charitable sector, to support parents through the statementing process when they are, for example, lodging an appeal? She will know that the service is patchy in parts of the country. Although the Department issues very good written advice about parents' rights, what plans does she have to make sure that there is uniform support and provision for parents going through what, for them, is often a very distressing process?
§ Ms Morris
My judgment is that the advocacy services often provided by voluntaries bodies are excellent and that they support parents at a very difficult time. I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Lady that, as part of our action plan, we have made funds available for a parent partnership in every local authority area. We have restored a provision that was cut by the previous Government.
The financial resources that we have provided have ensured that that facility will be made available to parents. I have made it clear that I want and expect every local authority to develop parent partnerships to support parents in the way that the hon. Lady described. If, in due course, that has not happened, we shall look for legislative time to give the provision statutory force.