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Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I worked in special needs for 10 years, and I was always impressed by the infinite patience of the parents of children with learning disabilities. The Green Paper in 1997 raised expectations and it was disappointing that it was ultimately resource-driven rather than needs-driven. Many parents feel bitterly let down because their expectations were raised only to be dampened because the resources were not forthcoming.

Mr. Timms: I shall comment on resources shortly, but the code took effect in January, and I expect parents to experience the benefits of the changes as they are implemented from now on.

Our approach has been consolidated and extended through the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001. It strengthened, with effect from January this year, the right to a mainstream place for children with special needs when the child and the parents want one.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest wrongly described our approach to inclusion. It is pragmatic; the social and educational benefits of learning in a mainstream environment are undoubtedly significant both for the children and those around them. However, it will not be right for all children and families. In some cases, a mainstream place will not be appropriate and parents will request a specialist placement. We believe that pupils should be included in mainstream provision when their parents want that, subject to protecting the learning and safety of other children.

Schools and local education authorities need support to implement a policy of inclusion, and the statutory guidance that was published last November establishes the new statutory framework for inclusion. It includes practical advice on some steps that schools can take to include special educational needs children successfully. We published support materials and a training package, which have been well received. They set out the way in which inclusion and school improvement can go hand in hand.

The 2001 Act represents a big step forward in strengthening arrangements for collaborative working with parents. That is the key theme of the code. Hon. Members recognised that it was an important subject on which we needed to make progress. We have therefore introduced a new legal duty on local education authorities to provide parent partnership services and provision for resolving disputes when they arise. Of course, parents have a unique understanding of their children's needs and circumstances and we must give them the ability to play a key role in securing effective provision for their children and dealing with some of the frustrations that have arisen in the past.

We have worked closely with others in implementing the SEN action programme. Ofsted produced guidance and training materials on inclusion for inspectors. Schools will be required to show the effective provision that they make for all their pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. The revised national

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curriculum was effected from September 2000. It provides for a statutory inclusion statement, which is supported by the curriculum guidelines of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority for pupils with learning difficulties. The revised P scales are the performance criteria for children who work below level 1 of the national curriculum. Again, they implement another proposal in the 1997 Green Paper. Both were issued in March last year.

Guidance on supporting children with special educational needs has also been issued for the literacy and numeracy strategies.

Mr. Redwood: Is the Minister worried that the policy of inclusion and co-education for these different types of pupil is made more difficult by the regularity and persistence of academic and quasi-academic testing under this Government? Perhaps the Government have overdone the number and regularity of tests, which we now discover from some of the research are not very effective. They end up teaching the better pupils how to pass them, but we then discover that those pupils do not know very much about English or mathematics after all, while some of the other children about whom we are concerned tonight feel even more excluded because of this persistent testing.

Mr. Timms: I do not agree with that. I advise the right hon. Gentleman to visit some of the schools that have made a huge success of implementing a policy of inclusion, while also making a great success of raising their standards as measured by the assessment process that we have in place. There are some superb examples where both are being achieved simultaneously, and I do not agree that there need be a conflict between them.

We have established the 11 SEN regional co-ordination projects to bring together LEAs, health and social services, voluntary agencies and others to share good practice, and to develop their working together as they undoubtedly need to, in this area above all. Effective joint working is of key importance to young people with special educational needs.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 is also making a big contribution to securing fair treatment for disabled young people. It extended the coverage of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to education, outlawed discrimination by disability in education for both teachers and students, and placed a duty on schools and LEAs to plan ahead for disabled pupils and to increase accessibility to schools' premises and to the curriculum. Those changes take effect from September. That is another major step forward, a further realisation of the Government's commitment to make a reality of better provision.

Mr. Willis: Before the Minister finishes this section of his speech, will he tell the House what the involvement of the Learning and Skills Council is? Whether or not we think that the Government are delivering on SEN provision for children up to the age of 16, many of us fear that when children move into further education, they do not get the same support as before, and parents do not

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feel that they have the same rights as before. I would be interested to know what the Minister feels about that function of the Learning and Skills Council.

Mr. Timms: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that progress has been made in schools. There is still a good deal further to go, but good progress has been made. We want comparable progress in further education. The duty arising from the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 also applies to the activities of the Learning and Skills Council. We have supported that by funding and by capital, and I think that we can be optimistic that we shall see comparable progress in that sector; it may be following a little distance behind, but not very far.

Mr. Willis: I raise this issue because I understand that the Government are now considering removing sixth forms from schools, creating sixth-form college provision throughout the country, and removing 14-to-19 provision from further education colleges. If that is the case, it is a significant change of policy, which will affect special educational needs. I would be grateful if the Minister could either scotch that rumour, confirm it, or at least tell us what the relationship between these new organisations and special needs provision is to be, when he has got his Minister's briefing.

Mr. Timms: I am very happy to scotch that rumour. I am not sure quite what its source was, but it is certainly not in any of the proposals that we have put forward, as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had read carefully—as I would expect him to—the documents that we have provided. There will, of course, be a role for the LSC in planning, but the suggestion that we are going to take the sixth forms out of schools is entirely erroneous. Indeed, the Green Paper refers to ways in which we can simplify the expansion of sixth forms, where that is appropriate.

We have ensured that better resources are available to support the active policy of inclusion that we have introduced. This is a key part of this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) has referred to it already. Education spending as a share of gross domestic product fell from 6.5 per cent. in the mid-1970s to not much more than 4.5 per cent. in the mid-1990s. Last year, it was back up to 5 per cent., it will rise to 5.3 per cent. by next year, and the Chancellor has foreseen further rises beyond that in his Budget statement. The resources that we need to make a success of the policy are becoming available.

That is certainly the case with recurrent funding, and the average recurrent funding per pupil will have risen in real terms by more than £760 a year by 2003–04, compared with 1997–98. The support that we provide for SEN under the standards fund has risen year on year, and it is running at record levels, supporting expenditure of £91 million in 2002–03, which is more than five times the amount available in 1997–98.

Mr. Hancock: While I accept that many parents welcome the opportunity provided by inclusion and have seen its benefits, an increasing number do not regard it as the ideal solution to the educational needs of their children. There is a great worry that the choice of those parents will be ignored, and that they will be forced into

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a corner and have to accept what they consider to be the second-best method of achieving their child's full potential. Where does the Minister rank parental choice in the pecking order of priorities when placing someone in education?

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