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Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): The hon. Gentleman says that in the real world SEN children are dumped into mainstream schools. Will he advise the House which local education authorities behave in that way?

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman has deliberately misrepresented what I said. I said that if the Bill is enacted, and if the interests of children are not paramount, that is what may happen. I am delighted that what I have said appears to have stirred up a hornets' nest on the Labour Benches. I have obviously touched a raw nerve. Many children receive first-rate education in special schools but there is a danger that if this process continues, they may not receive sufficiently good education.

Mr. Berry: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leigh: I do not want to delay the House but as the hon. Gentleman is anxious to intervene of course I will give way to him.

Mr. Berry: The only reason that I intervened is because the hon. Gentleman referred to "the real world". His description is inconsistent with anything that any local education authority I have ever encountered would do. He talks about dumping children with special educational needs in mainstream schools as if that were the practice of local education authorities. If that is the case, he should either name the local education authorities concerned or apologise for what I regard as a deep slur on what the professionals are trying to do.

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman has altogether too thin a skin for this House.

Mr. Berry: The hon. Gentleman is throwing insults around.

Mr. Leigh: I am not. I am simply describing what may happen unless we are very careful. I am perfectly entitled to articulate my point of view, and I will not be bullied into taking it back.

Mr. St. Aubyn: I have listened with great interest to what my hon. Friend has told us happens at the sharp end.

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Labour Members are forgetting that it is no longer LEAs that choose which schools children go to but parents. That is where the problem arises. If there is an imbalance in the number of children of a certain type at a certain school, that may impact on the school's success in attracting a broad range of children and therefore on its success as a school.

3.45 pm

Mr. Leigh: My hon. Friend has summed up the situation much better than I could. That is what happens in real life, as I was trying to explain.

I have already mentioned Paul Strong, the head teacher of William Farr. Another head teacher, Barry Tointon of Caistor Yarborough school, said that it was essential for adequate money to be provided. They both said that there was nothing that they could do to incorporate more SEN children into their schools without more money and more resources. They do not have any more money lying around to spend on more assistance. They both appreciate the benefits that can be gained but say that it is not possible to do it without the relevant support, funding and training for them and their teachers.

Cherie Taylor, a new SEN co-ordinator in my constituency, said that training was very hard to come by but that she had been fortunate to get a course for a master's degree in the subject. She is in favour of inclusion but emphasises the need for funding.

If the legislation is to be a success, the Government must ensure that sufficient resources are made available to prevent the law from becoming ineffective and damaging to children. The £70 million promised for 25,000 schools per year amounts to an extra £280 per school--hardly a lot of money. It is not enough for the inclusion of more SEN children.

There is no point in the Government producing worthy legislation and putting more burdens on teachers and local authorities without providing the means to make the Bill work. The constant refrain of the teachers I have talked to is to give them the money and they will do their best to carry out these requirements in a difficult situation.

Other fears voiced by SEN teachers include the widespread belief that the Bill does not allow or sufficiently encourage the communication and co-ordination that we have become accustomed to hearing about, but not seeing, in what is supposed to be joined-up government. They believe that there is a need for more communication between the many different agencies that may be involved in a single child's case. That would encourage them to share their information and expertise and to work for the holistic and rounded treatment of a child with SEN. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members agree with that point of view. Such co-ordination is also needed between the NHS and the Department for Education and Employment to ensure that there are enough staff to meet all the child's needs. For example, there may not be nearly enough occupational therapists or speech and language therapists to meet the demands of schools for their children with SEN.

Let me make a point about regulation which also concerns the interests of the child. A teacher told me that he had been raising money for a stair lift over the past few years and had finally got the necessary funds through

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voluntary fund raising, and so on. However, it was not allowed to be installed by the authorities because the stairwell was too narrow by less than 20 cm. The chair lift was deemed to be inappropriate and could not be installed for the use of children with special educational needs. The teacher made the point that children, in his experience, are well behaved and do not cause problems in other narrow stairwells. However, he was not allowed to put in the chair lift thanks to health and safety regulations.

We need more common sense, fewer counter- productive regulations and more communication. We need to ensure that the best interests of the child are paramount. We need to ensure that special schools are not closed down, thus reducing choice, and that there is proper funding. These are the points that I have tried to make in my brief contribution and I hope that the Government will listen to them.

Dr. Harris: We will be opposing new clause 2 for the reasons that we gave in Committee when discussing similar issues. I shall not rehearse them at length.

We heard an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), as always. However, his undoubted passion and sincerity led him astray in certain areas. To argue that schools should not somehow be able to garner to them pupils with particular needs or aptitudes--irrespective of whether that is a good or a bad thing for SEN children--is strange coming from a party that recommends selection by the schools themselves. By definition, that means that some schools do not have the opportunity to get the children that they want because they have been cherry-picked by other schools.

The hon. Gentleman could have made the same analogy with regard to secondary moderns. In areas where there are grammar schools, they have a higher proportion of pupils from poorer backgrounds and poorer educational backgrounds who never get the life chances that are available in excellent comprehensive schools. By analogy, the hon. Gentleman is on dodgy ground, regardless of the merits of the point that he was making. On that, I share the views of those right hon. and hon. Members who intervened on him.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I really cannot allow that attack on secondary modern schools to go unchallenged. Many secondary modern schools where grammar schools exist provide a first-class education. An example is the Gleed girls school in my constituency, which achieves better results than many comprehensive schools. I am sure that, when the hon. Gentleman has had time to reflect on his ill judged remark, he will want to withdraw it.

Dr. Harris: I am conscious that I am about to speak to amendment No. 1, but the evidence is clear that comprehensive education has delivered better standards than was delivered by the system of grammar schools and secondary moderns.

Before I turn to amendment No. 1, I should say that Liberal Democrat Members oppose new clause 2, for reasons that we gave in Committee. I was somewhat shocked--although not surprised--to be accused by the hon. Member for Gainsborough of making a debating

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point when I asked him to ensure that the terminology he used was appropriate. After all, this is a debating Chamber. I know that the hon. Gentleman was not a member of the Standing Committee, but we made it clear there that it is important not to conflate expressions such as the "rights", "wishes", "needs" and "best interests" of children. Those expressions can refer to different things.

I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough that there are similarities between action taken to deliver the educational needs of children and action taken in their best interests, but the notion of "best interest" is always subjective. For example, if there is a conflict between doctors and parents over medical matters, it is often left to the courts to decide whether doctors pursued a child's best interests. In connection with education, the views of parents, local authorities and schools may well differ about what is in a child's best interests.

My second point is that two separate criteria cannot be paramount. Both can be important and worthy of consideration, but my dictionary shows that the word "paramount" implies that one consideration must be placed above another.

We accept assurances given in this House, in another place and in the letter sent to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) that the Bill is designed to ensure that the educational needs of any child are met, particularly when those needs are special. However, within that general approach, the Bill stipulates that the wishes of parents should be paramount.

In Committee, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said that the wishes of parents--invariably and by definition--were in the best interest of the child. I consider that that may not always be the case, but if one accepts that it is generally right to trust parents, the new clause introduces a conflict in that regard.

Conservative Members say that they want there to be more respect for parental choice. Their belief--which I consider flawed--is that that can be delivered by allowing schools, rather than parents, to select. The language of the new clause is not consistent with that belief.

Many members of the Standing Committee made two points, at length. The first was that a provision similar to the one contained in the new clause has been used to deny children places in mainstream schools when that would have been in their best interests. That is a historical fact and must be taken into account. The second is that most of the organisations that support the rights of children with special educational needs oppose the new clause and support the undertakings given by the Government.

As I have said before, that in itself is not a sufficient argument for the rejection of the new clause, as it is the job of the House to question the Government regardless of what outside bodies say. However, a powerful impression is made when such bodies form a coalition to oppose a new clause such as this. I accept that the proposal is well intentioned, but it is critically flawed.

Amendment No. 1 would substitute the word "effective" for "efficient" in the caveat contained in proposed new section 316(3)(b). As drafted, that new section states:

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I raised this matter in Committee, and we have tabled the amendment today because I did not get a satisfactory answer. Those seeking to make decisions on this matter will look at what the Minister said. There is a difference between "effective" and "efficient". To many people, the word "efficient" implies financial considerations that are not implied by the word "effective".

Clearly, there is a duty to consider the delivery of effective education. For example--and the circumstances that I shall describe are much rarer than is often claimed--it may be impossible to deliver effective education to a child with special educational needs arising from challenging behaviour in class. By effective education, I mean the delivery of the curriculum in a safe way. However, it might be possible to deliver that education safely, but at an increased cost. By definition, the extra steps that would have to be taken in my example would render the delivery of education less efficient than it would otherwise have been. There is therefore some peril in the use of the word "efficient" which would be avoided by the use of the word "effective".

Do the Government accept that there are significant funding restrictions on schools and local authorities? The Government always quote figures to show how much money is going into education, but those figures are pretty meaningless. As was discussed in Committee, who would not say that another £20 million would always make things better? The Minister must accept that an insistence on the word "efficient" will mean that some schools and local authorities may well say that they are suffering from the financial restrictions arising out of the unfair and undemocratic capping regime that the Government have retained.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), for example, waxed lyrical in Committee--and eloquent today--about the Gloucestershire local education authority. Authorities like that could well argue that lack of funding forces them to reject a mainstream place for a child with special educational needs, even though effective and safe education can still be delivered for other children.

In Committee, I had to drag a response to that point out of the Minister. She said:

That is a circular argument, or even a Conservative one: how could the law ever be changed, given that a changed law would not be consistent with what went before? Amendment No. 2 was not selected for debate today, but it shows where the consequential amendments would have to be made to achieve a new consistency if the right thing were done and amendment No. 1 were accepted.

The Minister's response in Standing Committee went on:

To me, that suggests that the Minister was being honest and accepting that it may not be possible for the Government to afford to make provision in a mainstream

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school to provide effective and safe education for other children because of the cost of doing so. However, I draw to her attention the fact that, if cost is the issue, the cost of providing that education separately may be much higher than the cost of providing it in a mainstream school.

Conservative Members ought to bear that in mind as well. I do not want to go into the merits of individual cases or of Conservative policy in general, but the Conservative proposal to ensure that there are more exclusions would have cost implications for any special units that are set up. Accountants would regard the proposal as a less efficient way to ensure delivery of education for children with special educational needs, even though it may be appropriate for the effective and safe education of other children.

The point at issue is a serious one. If cases are to be challenged at tribunal or later in the appeals process, it is important to know what is the Government's thinking on the question of cost as a factor. Unless she is going to accept the amendment, I hope that the Minister will explain why she is not happy with the proposal to substitute the word "effective" for "efficient".

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