Standing Committee B
Tuesday 27 March 2001
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
Education in mainstream schools of children with special educational needs
Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 1, in page 1, line 9, at end insert
`(1A)For each such child the Secretary of State has a duty to make arrangements to secure that the educational needs of that child are paramount.'.
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 2, in page 1, line 14, leave out from `parent' to end of line 15.
New clause 1Duty of education providers
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): After a good lunch and half a bottle of Chateau Musar, I feel invigorated and somewhat better equipped to deal with this testing subject. I did not welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien, but I should like to do so now and apologise for not doing so earlier.
To refresh the memories of Committee members, I was about to make three points on the amendment that we tabled relating to the special educational needs of the child. I think that I dealt adequately with my concern about social, cultural and moral issuesI at least paraphrased Baroness Blackstone, if I did not quote her directlyand the possible conflicts that might arise with educational interests. I said that there would not necessarily, but might possibly, be a conflict.
I then moved on to talk about those whom I described as inclusion zealots. I hope that I presented my argument in a balanced way by saying that I was well aware of the fact that there are zealots on both sides of the argument, but fortunately none of them resides in Committee.
My third point is about the pragmatists who favour inclusion. There are those who favour integrating children into the mainstream at all costs, and those peoplethis was raised earlier both by Opposition Members and, by implication at least, by Labour Members in relation to the response to the Green Paperwho regard the Bill as an opportunity to amend provision in a way that goes against choice and diversity. Those people might be motivated by causes less noble than the interests of children with special needs.
Let me put that more candidly, because I have been speaking broadly to avoid offence. Some local authorities will view the measure as a cost-cutting exercise. The Committee knows that that is not the case, and that integration is not a cheap option. In fact, one might argue that it is a more expensive option, if the necessary resources are put in place in mainstream schools to make inclusion a success. However, all too often that is not the case and the necessary resources are not put in place. We all know of schools that are absorbing children with special educational needs without the means to do so properly. I am referring to physical issues, such as access. We have had some good news about that from Government, and reference was made earlier to the use of information technology in that regard, a subject in which I am extremely interested.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I do not defend cost cutting generally, although cuts are not usually the fault of the local education authority and often result from Government under-funding, but how would the hon. Gentleman distinguish a cost-cutting exercise from the efficient provision of services?
Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that is one of the reasons why we tabled the amendment. There is a real danger that the efficient education of other children might be used by those who view the matter more cynically as an excuse
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): A bean-counter's charter.
Mr. Hayes: I would not want to condemn accountants because, although I am not one, I have one, without whom my financial affairs would be in more difficulty than they are at the moment. However, it is true to say that an accountant mentality, if applied to education, would carefully study the costswhat the hon. Gentleman described as efficienciesof integration, and might conclude that the expense could not be borne satisfactorily by local council taxpayers. That charge could equally be made against the provision of special education. For example, there is a special school in my constituency with about 80 pupils, and if those less sympathetic than us to the needs of special education provision were to consider it ruthlessly and ask whether those pupils were costing more than they ought, they might want to make economies.
We know from responses to the Green Paperwe heard this from the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson)that local authorities have already seized the initiative, to put it kindly, and even without the Bill have conducted exercises that can only be described as driven by a cost-cutting accountancy mentality, rather than by a robust desire to defend the interests of special needs children.
Dr. Harris: I am sorry to press the hon. Gentleman, but will he explain how he differentiates such behaviour from the continuing efficiency savings in the public sector that his party advocated in higher education, and on which the Government have continued to insist? I do not want to make a judgment, but that mantra is often chanted by Conservative councillors in local education authorities.
The Chairman: Order. Will the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) turn round and address the Chair?
Mr. Hayes: I apologise, Mr. O'Brien. I was seduced by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) into addressing neither the Chair nor, frankly, the subject. We certainly do not want to enter a philosophical debate about the efficiencies of Conservative Administrations compared with those run by Liberal Democrats. However I am reminded of a former Liberal leader, Lloyd George, who said that one cannot succeed in politics if one relies too much on one's conscience. That policy has permeated Liberal party thinking throughout history, but it certainly does not permeate Conservative party thinking.
There is a balance to be struck between the proper use of council taxpayers' and general taxpayers' resources and the best possible provision for special needs children. My point is that unless we are careful and stipulate clearly that the educational needs of the child must come first, there are those on the zealous wing of integrationinclusionistsand on the rather less noble and less well-meaning wing of cost-cutters who may look for the cheapest rather than the best route to provide special needs education.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Can the hon. Gentleman tell us when the Opposition changed their mind on that matter and decided to table amendment No. 2? On Second Reading, the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said:
``It is therefore right that the Bill includes consideration of the provision of efficient education for other children as well as parents' wishes.''[Official Report, 20 March 2001; Vol. 365, c. 224.]
Therefore, the provision that the amendment would remove was supported by the Opposition on Second Reading. What was the Opposition's reasoning then, and why has it changed?
Mr. Hayes: I had not even got on to amendment No. 2; the hon. Gentleman anticipates my remarks. I was merely sailing through amendment No. 1. I am coming to amendment No. 2I alluded to it, but I have further points to make about it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) pointed out, amendment No. 2 is a probing amendment to enable us to debate the matter more fully. However, I was speaking about amendment No. 1 and the need to write into the Bill that the educational needs of the child are paramount.
Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman did not answer my previous question. Without making a judgment about efficiency savingsalthough I generally dois the hon. Gentleman in favour of enforcing efficiency savings in higher education and other public sectors, while disapproving of them, for better or worse, in special educational provision?
Mr. Hayes: With your characteristic generosity, Mr. O'Brien, I know that you are indulging the hon. Gentleman, but I do not share your indulgence, so I do not intend to get into a debate on higher education.
We believe that it is vital that children's educational needs, and therefore their interests, are enshrined in the legislation. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that educational needs and interests are different, but they overlap.
Without desiring to repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) said, and certainly with fewer classical allusions and metaphors, as I do not share his degree of wisdom, wit or reading
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Hayes: No. I must make a little progress.
As my hon. Friend explained with his classical metaphors, some have argued that amendment No. 1 would have a perverse effect. Those people include responsible spokesmen of the lobby groups, pressure groups and charitable organisations that do such a fine job in defending and promoting the interests of disabled people, especially special needs children. They argue that the amendment could be used to prevent inclusion into mainstream schools. I understand the argument, and know that the problems will be difficult to resolve. As I said, they are likely to be resolved by tribunals, and may go to court. If it takes such measures to ensure that children receive the best education possible to allow them to achieve their potentialif that is the length to which we must go to protect arguably the most vulnerable childrenso be it. In our balance of judgment, it is important that such a provision is a key part of the legislation.
Amendment No. 2 is about the efficient education of our children, to which the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire referred. Our amendment might seem to fly in the face of our proper concern that other children in schools are well educated. I have no great difficulty with the notion that children with, for example, emotional behavioural difficulties pose a problem for classroom teachers, who already do a difficult job. There is a strong argument for such children to be educated separately, not only in their interests, but in those of other children, who will be affected by their inclusion in mainstream.
We tabled the probing amendment because the relevant part of the Bill will undoubtedly be used as an excuse not to integrate, and therefore not to commit sufficient resources to children brought into the mainstream. The amendment is designed to ensure that the Government, through the Minister, clearly assure us that they are aware that the provision could be misused to block the integration of children into the mainstream. The ``efficient education'' of other children is a broad term. I do not want to be too cynical, as I am not a cynicI am a romantic, as you know, Mr. O'Brienbut the term could be used cynically to frustrate the thrust of the legislation and the intentions of the Committee to do the best for children brought into mainstream schools.
I can tell the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire that the amendment does not indicate a change of mind. It is simply an attempt to probe how the Government intend to overcome the possible misuse of the provision to frustrate their, his and our intentions.