Previous SectionIndexHome Page

4.15 pm

That is the approach that we look forward to in the new clause. Money would go directly from the Secretary of State to schools, so the Secretary of State must give direction to those schools and ensure that they fulfil the requirements of such an approach. In due course, I believe that we will move to such a system because--goodness

26 Apr 2001 : Column 503

knows--the present system is excessively bureaucratic. Ofsted says that only one in five schools fulfils its statutory requirements to provide for special educational needs, and that more than a third misuse some of the money that they receive, or fail to implement a proper strategy for meeting the special educational needs of their children. Clearly, the current approach is not working. To change the definitions, as the Bill proposes, will do nothing to help. In looking forward to that time, I support the provision because it envisages a direct relationship between the Secretary of State and the mainstream schools which provide for special educational needs.

Finally, I remind the Government of the Secretary of State's comments on the code of practice during an earlier debate on the Bill. Having got his fingers burnt at an earlier stage of the Bill's proceedings, when the whole world of special educational needs cried foul at the suggestion that the specifying provisions, which are in the present code, might be removed, the Secretary of State withdrew and said:

All we are saying in the new clause is that that principle is so important that it should be enshrined in the Bill and not merely left to a code of practice that might be amended by a future Secretary of State.

Jacqui Smith: I shall begin my response by dealing with the proposed new clause. As the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) rightly says, it returns us to the important issue of the needs of the child, which we debated at some length both on Second Reading and, constructively, in Committee. Indeed, the new clause has many similarities to amendment No. 5 and new clause 5 tabled in Committee.

The debate in Committee was constructive and I thought that it had helped to allay some concerns. To that extent, I am marginally disappointed that we are going over the arguments again. Some of the issues raised were considered previously and some are new; I hope to respond to all of them.

The key point is that I am sure that everyone in the Chamber believes that the interests of individual children with special educational needs, and their peers, must be safeguarded. I hope that no one doubts the Government's commitment to that. However, it is worth remembering the context within which the argument began. It related to the Government's decision, following consultation, to remove what was, in effect, a caveat on the placement of children with special educational needs, which argued that the needs of the children should be paramount. A point rehearsed today--one which was certainly made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on Second Reading--is that such a caveat in the Bill would have acted in a way that many of us would consider unsatisfactory. It is important not to forget that we are operating in that context.

We also decided to drop that caveat because we firmly believe that safeguards exist elsewhere which adequately protect pupils with special educational needs, so I shall argue, first, that there are some technical difficulties with new clause 2; secondly, that to include provisions about

26 Apr 2001 : Column 504

the needs of the children as new clause 2 proposes would, in effect, act against what we are trying to achieve; and, thirdly, that we ensure that the interests of the child are covered elsewhere through a whole range of legislation and in the processes that are undertaken in relation to children with special educational needs.

I shall take the third argument first. In Committee I outlined those safeguards in detail and, as the hon. Member for Maidenhead mentioned, I wrote to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) to set them out, copying that letter to other members of the Committee. In particular, in addition to the legislative bases that the hon. Member for Maidenhead referred to, I drew attention to the fact that the SEN code of practice and the statementing process ensure that children's educational needs are identified and that appropriate action is taken to help them to achieve their potential.

In many ways, the final point made by the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) reinforces our arguments that new clause 2 is unnecessary. Statements will specify the provision to be made, so local education authorities are under a duty to arrange for it to be made. Therefore the important issue of children's needs and the provision that should be made for them is enshrined at the heart of the statementing process.

Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools will monitor the new inclusion framework. That monitoring will include looking at whether the needs of pupils with special educational needs are being appropriately provided for under the new framework. We believe that that will help to prevent abuses, if they were to occur, and to ensure that the needs of the child are safeguarded.

As I also highlighted in Committee, sections 496, 497 and 497A of the Education Act 1996 allow the Secretary of State to intervene where local education authorities or maintained schools are acting unreasonably or failing to fulfil a statutory duty. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has used those powers to protect the interests of pupils with special educational needs. I outlined in Committee some of the occasions on which that has happened.

Mr. Boswell: Given the context and the reference to the reasonability provisions, which the hon. Lady rightly mentioned, while we cannot necessarily treat a hypothetical case here, would it not seem extraordinary if Her Majesty's chief inspector of schools were to draw attention to a dereliction of duty on the part of the local education authority in implementing the inclusion framework, if the Secretary of State were not then, as an Executive act, to call in and question the reasonability of that action by that authority?

Jacqui Smith: I am not completely clear what the hon. Gentleman is referring to.

Mr. Boswell: I was trying to do it in my cod lawyer language, but let us do it in English. If the inspector says that there is something wrong with the way in which the LEA is operating inclusion, would it not be sensible as a matter of course--although I am not asking for a formal commitment--for the Secretary of State to call in the local authority and ask what it proposes to do about it?

Jacqui Smith: As I believe we made clear in Committee and as I have made clear today, the opportunity does exist,

26 Apr 2001 : Column 505

through those provisions, for the Secretary of State to use powers where maintained schools or LEAs are acting unreasonably or failing to fulfil a statutory duty.

In Committee, when we discussed amendment No. 1, which covered similar ground to the new clause before us, I asked Opposition Members what practical and workable arrangements could be put in place in addition to the Secretary of State's existing powers. No examples have been provided in Committee or since. That suggests that what already exists is adequate.

During today's debate, some Members have expressed concern about the suggestion that, as a result of the Bill, children could be forced into mainstream schools. Our legislation is drafted in such a way that, when parents do not want a mainstream place for the child, the duty to provide mainstream education is lifted. That does not mean that LEAs cannot name a mainstream place in a child's statement, but where LEAs do so and parents disagree they of course have a right of appeal at a SEN tribunal.

We also had some discussion--some of it measured, some less so--about which children it may or may not be appropriate to include in a mainstream school. Of course I accept that there are questions about which children are appropriately included in mainstream schools and those for whom it would be less appropriate. Obviously, the learning and safety of other children must not be jeopardised, and where the efficient education of other children cannot be safeguarded, a mainstream place should be refused. Where that is the case, there needs to be a range of alternative, high-quality provision, but it does not necessarily follow that it is impossible successfully to include in a mainstream school a child who has, for example, emotional and behavioural difficulties. There are plenty of examples of where that does happen, and we want to empower more schools to emulate their example.

There has already been comment on some of the remarks by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who did, I fear, in a slightly less measured way than we have experienced until now in debate on the Bill, suggest, whether or not he meant to, that including children with special educational needs in a mainstream school is necessarily disruptive, and that those children will be difficult and pose a problem.

The vast majority of children with special educational needs are not disruptive. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) admirably described, children with special educational needs cover the whole range of the ability spectrum and can be a positive benefit to mainstream schools. One of our arguments for developing, where possible, and in the pragmatic way that we are, inclusion in mainstream schools is that we consider that that is of benefit not only to the children who are included in those schools but to all children in those schools.

The hon. Member for Guildford, in a slightly more measured way--it may be the good influence of the day, and I am sure that everyone in the Chamber would want to extend their congratulations to him on his anniversary--argued that where schools are well resourced and teachers are well trained, which is of course important, inclusion in mainstream schools can be of benefit both to the children who are included and to the other children in those schools.

26 Apr 2001 : Column 506

There were some concerns that if we did not accept new clause 2, we would put special schools at risk or make it harder to obtain a special school place. I reiterate that our proposals in the Bill do not make it harder for parents whose children have statements to gain a special school place. We have always argued that one size does not fit all. That is why we have signalled a continuing role for special schools, and a very important one.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead rightly said that there is significant expertise in special schools, which should be increasingly shared with mainstream schools. That is one of the major objectives of the increased investment that we are making--through the standards fund, for example. It was the intention of the CD-ROM that I launched last year to bring together good practice that showed special schools and mainstream schools working together constructively.

Other hon. Members have suggested that our proposals risk bringing about the closure of some special schools. I can only reiterate that special schools have nothing to fear from the Bill, and repeat that although the size of the special school sector dropped from serving 1.3 per cent. of children in 1991 to 1.2 per cent. in 1995, it has remained constant in each of the last six years, catering for 1.2 per cent. of all children or roughly 97,000 pupils. We do not envisage that that will change dramatically.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South made a very important point about the dangers of looking at raw closure data, because in doing so one ignores the many excellent resource bases that have been set up to provide high-quality specialist provision in mainstream schools. We know that, as my hon. Friend suggested, parents and children like that sort of provision, and that teachers like it especially as it often ensures that the children can be educated in the community with their friends.

I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that what we believe exists, and what we believe will continue under our legislation, is a buoyant and vibrant specialist sector, which has an important contribution to make in educating individual children and in developing the whole education system.

Next Section

IndexHome Page