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8.30 pm

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) on a contribution that was obviously well informed. Clearly, she takes a keen personal interest in the matter. For my part, I should like to declare an interest, as I am married to a teacher who teaches children with severe learning difficulties. Whenever I am at home, the joy, achievement and frustrations of the Pear Tree school at Kirkham, about which I shall say more in a moment, fill our house. On Sunday, we had the pleasure of looking after one of the school's pupils who came home after a school concert in the outskirts of Preston which was attended by teachers. It was a joy to see what the school had done for that young man.

Labour Members have made many critical remarks about the amendment. The title of the Bill states that it is intended


I have not heard my hon. Friends say anything to make me believe that we do not support the principal purpose of the Bill. In another place, Baroness Blackstone said:


She went on to say that


Those words seem entirely compatible with our amendment, which states that we want the Bill to contain provision to


Nobody disagrees with this aim or has suggested that it should not be our principal objective. However, as the amendment points out, the Bill


The reason that Opposition Members have criticised the Bill was reflected in the comments of hon. Members who pointed out that the philosophy that underpins the changes in special education, such as the move towards a more inclusive regime, has caused much concern and worry among people with good experience of special schools. The hon. Member for Colne Valley spoke about the review that is being conducted by her local authority. A similar review is occurring in Lancashire, where there is considerable anxiety about the threat that it carries with it. I believe that one London authority has already eliminated all its special schools--

Mr. Boswell: Newham.

Mr. Jack: People have seen what can happen. There may be good reasons for what happened in Newham, and I do not want to debate that specific case, but people are worried.

Mr. Berry: What does the right hon. Gentleman believe would be achieved if the amendment were agreed to and the House declined to give the Bill a Second Reading? What would happen next?

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Mr. Jack: If the Bill were not given a Second Reading, we would be the Government. We would not have introduced a Bill containing such measures in the first place. The hon. Gentleman has a selective memory. I seem to remember that the previous, Labour Opposition often tabled amendments to good Bills. That is the only mechanism that Her Majesty's Opposition can use to register a point of principle about a Bill. He shakes his head. I am sorry if my comments are inconvenient to his argument, but I reiterate that we are simply registering a point of principled disagreement about an aspect of the Bill and are not objecting to Second Reading itself.

Mr. Boswell: My right hon. Friend may recall that we also tabled a reasoned amendment on Second Reading of the Learning and Skills Bill--the Act of 2000--which was also introduced in the other place. Although I make no presumption as to our actions after this evening, I remind the House that we did not vote against that Bill on Third Reading: we abstained. We had reservations, we expressed those reservations and, to some extent, they were met.

Mr. Jack: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. To conclude my remarks to the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), were we lucky enough to win the vote and were the Government to remain as committed to the Bill as they say they are, they would reintroduce it in a modified form that we could all support. No doubt the thesis behind our amendment will be discussed in Committee, but to try to label us as being against making further progress is wrong. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Kingswood should not laugh at us, because some of us speak with passion and a degree of understanding of the subject, just as he did. We want to protect both the interests of the children and some remarkable educational establishments.

I put on record my appreciation of all teachers, particularly those in special schools. They not only deal with the nice side--the happy, smiling children at the Christmas concert--but clean up after an incontinent child, administer the valium when a child has a fit, and deal with the child who may have a violent outburst through no fault of his own. Such teachers are dedicated and sometimes their role can easily be forgotten as we take a broad-brush approach to these matters.

Teachers are ably assisted by many others from the health services. Certain provisions will create a need for more assistance from a further army of occupational therapists, speech therapists, physiotherapists and educational psychologists. All are in short supply, but that point was not dealt with by the Secretary of State.

May I take the House on a brief trip to Pear Tree school? I want to paint a picture by using not my words, but those in a recent Ofsted inspection report. Pear Tree is an all-age community school with 61 pupils on the roll, and Ofsted observed:


How often does Ofsted describe a school as inspirational? The word "excellent" is used 18 times in the report, and only one lesson out of 72 observed was anything other than satisfactory. That is a tremendous testament to Mrs. Jean Cook, the head teacher, and her staff, in terms of what the school can achieve.

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Parents speak about the school in remarkably glowing terms and Ofsted said that the leadership and management are excellent, that the teaching


and that inclusion for pupils is very good. The school is complimented on its efforts to ensure that a


That is what a centre of real excellence in the world of special education can deliver, but hon. Members should consider how Lancashire's review of special educational needs is being conducted. The council


In the world of special schools, however, a growing paralysis is setting in. People are uncertain as to what will happen. The review has been inspired by the consultative exercise and, indeed, by the Bill. There is a great need to try to remove some of that uncertainty.

There may be an argument for special schools in Lancashire to be re-examined, but I am worried by the apparent assumption that more and more pupils will move to the mainstream, to the extent that many special schools such as Pear Tree might not be viable and there will be no choice for parents when they have to make up their minds about what is best for their children. When parents show their passionate support for Pear Tree school, as adjudged by their comments to Ofsted, they are speaking on behalf of the consumers of education--sadly, some of their children cannot articulate their feelings themselves. Those parents know the tremendous contribution that Pear Tree can make.

What worries me about the Bill is the provision on guidance to parents to enable them to make up their minds about what is right for their child. Will the Minister comment more specifically on clause 2, which refers to local education authorities making arrangements to provide parents with information on SEN matters? Who will provide sufficiently dispassionate advice to enable parents to make their minds up?

Parents are not a homogeneous commodity. Some of the parents whom I have had the pleasure of dealing with at Pear Tree are articulate, well resourced and remarkable people, and will fight to the last for what is right for their child. Some children come from fractured homes where there may be only one parent and the child does not always get the attention that he or she deserves because there are many siblings and the family does not have the resources. Who will explain the arguments in an understandable and dispassionate way so that a proper choice can be made? There needs to be a debate so that we can avoid any stigmatisation, but we must also ensure that the right advice is given to the parents of a child with special educational needs so that a proper choice can be made to meet that child's needs.

Mr. Willis: I have listened carefully to the passionate and cogent argument that the right hon. Gentleman has put. How is it compatible with the policy of members of his Front-Bench team--of getting rid of local education authorities and taking away that plank of advocacy which has hitherto been the central role of the LEA on behalf of the very children to whom he has rightly referred?

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