|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Leigh: I take the point that in the past children may have had to travel long distances to special schools. That is why nobody is arguing in principle with the thinking behind the Bill that it is good to try to encourage children into mainstream schools, if they are nearby, funding is available and the right education and care can be given. However, it must be done properly and that is why we need some serious arguments from the Government about why new clause 2 is not acceptable.
Mr. Leigh: That is a debating point. The reality is that discussions will take place at the statement stage and the course of action that is in the best interests of the child will become apparent to the parents. After all, few parents go out of their way not to put the interests of their child first.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: My hon. Friend mentioned the need to travel long distances to special schools. Will he speculate why parents and children might be prepared to travel those distances? Could it be the special treatment and care that children get at those schools? Parents and children often have to travel at their own expense, but they consider it to be well worth it.
Mr. Leigh: That is a fair point, and I know that my hon. Friend also represents a rural constituency. In fact, there is a special school in Gainsborough. My constituency is geographically the same size as Greater London, which has 73 constituencies, but parents will travel many miles to that school because they believe that it meets the special needs of their children.
The fundamental issue is funding. Teachers in my constituency are, on the whole, extremely sceptical about the promised funding from the Government to implement the admittedly desirable objectives of the Bill. Teachers do not think that they will receive enough funding to meet all the extra demands placed on their schools by the policy of inclusion, and nor are they impressed by the training on offer to equip teachers to cope. The Bill needs to be covered by adequate funding if it is to work and our children are to get the best possible education.
If funding is inadequate, the law will be made to look an ass. Schools will refuse to take on more SEN children because they cannot afford to financially; or because it would push the school over the edge of teachability, as one head teacher in my constituency fears; or because schools would be unable to cope with children with special educational needs, who would be far worse off than if they had stayed in their special schools.
Paul Strong is the head teacher of a large, successful comprehensive school in my constituency. It has come high up the league tables and recently, with my help and that of others, has acquired a sixth form. Mr. Strong has said:
By contrast, Mainstream schools have classes of 30 children, regardless of the range of need within those classes. One teacher may be supported for some, and in Early Years possibly all, of each day.
However, every school can now expect to be obliged to accept children with any type of SEN, and be required to provide as best it can for their varying needs. Buildings may not be appropriate, resources and equipment may not be available, and staff may have
The Government must give assurances that they will not water down the specificity of the statements that are given to children. The Government backed down in the Lords and now refuse to say when they will issue the code of practice that will outline the rules. Those rules must not be watered down to obscure the funding that a child deserves. Parents must be able to see clearly their child's entitlement and what they can claim from the local education authority.
Another school in my constituency is undersubscribed and has been struggling to attract pupils, for various reasons that are not the fault of the school. I must make it clear that it is a different school from the one I mentioned earlier--William Farr school--which is a highly successful and oversubscribed school. The head teacher of the less successful school told me that inclusion was a very good principle and was necessary for the good of society, but he also said that his school could not take any more SEN children. More money would not help him because he cannot employ staff as it is. He spoke of a vicious cycle in his school in which more SEN children means standards and behaviour declining, which means good pupils and teachers leaving--
Mr. Leigh: Labour Members may not like that, but they must listen to the reality of the education world. We cannot frame legislation simply on the basis of good intentions. I am reporting the views of a head teacher of a comprehensive school in this country and he says that good pupils are leaving, making more spaces for SEN children and so the cycle continues. Some comprehensive schools could be pushed further into unpopularity.
Mr. Levitt: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will regard this comment as helpful. If what we have heard is a genuine description of what is happening in two of his schools, I recommend that he invite Ofsted to look at the situation immediately.
Mr. Leigh: That, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind me saying so, is a rather silly point. A very successful, oversubscribed school is, in principle, prepared to have more children but it needs the funding to do so, while the head teacher of another school is doing his best in a difficult situation but could be pushed into taking action that would make the school unpopular. It is a vicious cycle. These people must be listened to; it may be difficult, but life is difficult.
Mr. Leigh: I am not saying that. I am simply trying to describe the real situation. Often we may not like the real world as we find it. However, the fact is that schools nowadays are competing with each other for pupils, competing for teachers in a very difficult job market and competing in the league tables.
The head teacher I mentioned was not against the principle of the Bill--he is all in favour, in principle, of inclusion. He is simply saying that we should be careful, pause and not rush into a situation in which, in the real world, SEN children may be dumped into certain mainstream schools. [Interruption.] Yes, dumped. I have to use that word. It is no point Labour Members looking shocked. This sort of thing goes on, I am afraid. There is no point in framing legislation full of high ideals if, in the long run, children with special needs suffer.