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Mrs. May: I am sure that the matter will be the subject of an interesting debate in Committee. I look forward to considering a Government amendment that clarifies the words in the Bill, which currently state that independent special school places cannot be paid for by a local education authority. If the Secretary of State is saying that that is not his intention--[Interruption.] He remarks that he said what he said, and I accept that, but I suggest that he asks his officials to consider the wording of clause 1. I do not believe that his intention, which I welcome, is reflected by that wording as it currently stands. I look forward to debating the matter further and to considering an appropriate amendment.

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As I said, I welcome the Secretary of State's statement about the intention to keep independent special school places available to parents. I trust that he will consider the code of practice with regard to parents' ability to express a preference for an independent special school, as well as to the information that local authorities must make available to parents in respect of the special schools that are suitable for their children, whether they are in the independent or state sectors. I also welcome his comments about the terms of the code of practice in relation to the nature of the statement. Despite the letter that he circulated before Christmas, the issue has continued to cause anxiety among parents. We were previously placed in the difficult position of having to consider the Bill without knowing the content of the code. I am grateful to him for setting out what the Government intend to include in the code to ensure that the ability to specify provision in the statement remains.

Another continuing concern to which hon. Members have referred is the future of special schools. During the debate on the Queen's Speech, the Secretary of State said:

I welcome that statement, but many Opposition Members, parents, teachers and governors are worried by the fact that a number of local education authorities have decided--some claim to be under behind-the-scenes pressure from the Department--to pursue an inclusion agenda that leads inexorably to the closure of special schools. I have visited a number of special schools, some of which were concerned about that issue and about the possibility of closure. Government figures show that there are now 1,000 fewer special schools places than there were in 1997. If parents are to have the real choice that the Government want to establish through the Bill by saying that parents' wishes should be met, there must be diversity of provision for children and it is vital that special schools can be maintained.

As more children are integrated into mainstream education where that is right for them, the number requiring special schools is falling. However, a more worrying process is at work. Local education authorities simply stop statementing children or so drag their feet over statementing that children do not enter special schools. Those schools then close, not because parents have chosen another school but through a process of stealth. That point was specifically made to me by the parents and governors I saw from Alderman Knight special school in Gloucestershire, who said that that was happening in the county.

Parents of children at Kingswode Hoe school in Colchester, whom I met recently with my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), are also concerned about that. In a letter to the Secretary of State, a member of the Kingswode Hoe action group said:

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The same concern has also been raised by parents from Alderman Knight and other special schools--those who are members of the Gloucestershire special schools protection league--who clearly make their point:

that is, mainstream provision--

That is where the balanced approach is important.

I fully accept that, over the years, some children with special educational needs and some disabled children who would have flourished in the mainstream have not had the opportunity to go into mainstream education and develop their potential in the way that was right for them. However, in remedying that wrong, we must make sure that we do not create another wrong for those children for whom special schools are the appropriate provision. Ensuring that that choice is available is extremely important.

We must also ensure that the needs and best interests of the child are at the heart of our actions. The wishes of the parents must be accommodated in the best interests of the child when it is right for that child to attend a special school.

I want briefly to touch on two issues. The first is the cost implications of the Bill, which have been referred to in a number of interventions. The Government have given the impression that putting the Bill into practice will have few cost implications, but if its consequence is a significant shift towards more children with special educational needs being educated in the mainstream, there certainly will be a cost implication, and inclusion without the necessary resources is less likely to work. That is not in the interests of the child and it will also put enormous strain on teachers.

As a result, a child with special educational needs or other children in the class may not receive the quality of education that they deserve. I do not want the Bill to raise parents' expectations only for them to be dashed because the resourcing and funding needed to make it work properly are not available and because the Government have not made a proper assessment of the implications of the cost of that legislation.

Secondly, we must also ensure that teachers are involved in decisions on whether educating a particular child in the mainstream will affect the education of other children. It is important that teachers' professional judgment is involved in that decision and in making such assessments.

The official Opposition support the Bill's intention to ensure that children with special educational needs whose interest will best be met by a place in a mainstream school

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are able to access such a place, but we must not be driven by some dogmatic inclusion agenda that pursues inclusion for its own sake rather than for the benefit of children. We shall give the Bill the fair and detailed consideration that it deserves and I hope that the Secretary of State will respond, as he said this afternoon he would, to the concerns that we have raised. Above all, our comments and any amendments that we might table will be driven simply by the best interests of the child.

6.6 pm

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): I welcome the Bill with great enthusiasm for two simple reasons--it will strengthen the right to mainstream education for disabled children and children with special educational needs, where their parents wish it, and, under part II, it will outlaw discrimination in education on the ground of disability. Thus, it will put right a major flaw in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995--namely, the exclusion of education from part III.

The objective for us all is to create a society in which everyone can participate fully as equal citizens, but we have a long way to go in respect of disabled people, who are twice as likely to be out of work and to have no formal qualifications. Education provision for disabled children and disabled adults is central, and appropriate education in an environment free of discrimination is essential, as it is the foundation on which so much else rests.

Therefore, I welcome the great changes being introduced by this radical and progressive measure. I congratulate the Government wholeheartedly on the Bill, the high priority they have given it and on the extensive consultation. It has given rise to much debate and my files, like those of every other hon. Member, are full of comments from the detailed consultation exercises.

The Government have done the most thorough job imaginable and the consultation has secured overwhelming support for the Bill. Therefore, I was genuinely saddened and not a little angry to read the amendment tabled by the Leader of the Opposition, which asks hon. Members to decline to give the Bill a Second Reading. I know of no organisation in the country, apart from the Conservative party, that wants the measure to be blocked tonight.

The special education consortium, which represents 247 bodies including the major disability organisations, parents' groups, children's groups and local authorities, says, "We want this Bill and we want it now." I have the privilege to be secretary of the all-party disablement group. I therefore checked our minutes carefully and the SEC told us that this is the Bill that

the year of the much-flawed Disability Discrimination Act.

The SEC wants the Bill on the statute book

The organisation, which speaks for virtually every disability group and for parents, local authorities and children, is not the only one that wants the Bill. The Disability Rights Commission has said:

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The Royal National Institute for Deaf People very much welcomes the Bill and has also said:

Scope has said that the Bill

and wants it to have a "swift passage". The Local Government Association has welcomed the Bill, and the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation has called for no delay in its implementation. Skill, the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities,

and wants to see it become law as soon as possible. I will happily give way if the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) can name one organisation of disabled people or one parents' organisation that does not want the Bill to get a Second Reading.

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