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Mr. Timms: I assign to it absolutely pivotal importance in these decisions, and that is the basis for the framework that we have put in place. There is undoubtedly an enormous amount to be gained from mainstream provision for disabled children and children with special educational needs, where they can benefit from it. It is also undoubtedly the case that many young people who have not been in mainstream provision would have benefited greatly from it. We want to ensure that it will be possible for those benefits to be available in the future. But that does not apply to all children and young people by any means. There will, therefore, continue to be provision in special schools and elsewhere for those who will benefit from that. The role of the parents in contributing to those decisions is central.

Mr. Hancock: What would the Minister say to an LEA that believes that inclusion is the only solution for the long-term educational needs of such young people, closes special schools and denies a choice to those parents who would have liked their children to stay in special schools, the ethos of which has existed for decades and which have provided great educational benefits for children? What will happen to LEAs that deny their responsibility to provide parents with that choice?

Mr. Timms: That option is not available to LEAs. Parents who are unhappy with a decision made by an LEA can go to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal, and the tribunal's decision will be binding. I have already referred to the parent partnership requirements that we have imposed on LEAs, and all this will ensure that parents play a key central role in contributing to these decisions.

In resourcing all this, we have also made a lot of progress on capital spending. Capital spending on schools has more than trebled since 1997–98, and it will go up again this year and next year. Within that, the schools access initiative is providing £220 million over the current three-year period. In the current financial year, £70 million is being provided to improve access to mainstream schools for pupils with disabilities. That includes lifts, ramps and disabled toilets, of course, but also carpeting and the acoustic tiling of classrooms to benefit hearing-impaired children, and the provision of blinds and paint schemes to benefit visually impaired children. These are real practical benefits that will widen opportunities for pupils, and that level of capital investment is about 10 times that of 1997.

Mr. Willis: On capital investment, I have Henshaw's school for the blind in my constituency. It deals with young adults, from 16 upwards. Most are deaf-blind and come to the college from all over the country. The school is an independent charity that desperately needs to provide new facilities to meet the new Care Standards Act 2000. What access does that school, and others that offer what

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the Government require as alternative provision, have to capital funding to meet the requirements of another piece of legislation?

Mr. Timms: I should be happy to look at the position of the hon. Gentleman's local school. About 10 times more capital is being invested in making the changes that we need than was the case a few years ago.

Mr. Gale: The Hampton hearing-impaired unit in my constituency was a state-of-the-art, purpose-built unit with specialist teachers, concentrated on one site but within a mainstream junior school. The effort has been dissipated, and no amount of capital will replicate all those resources in every school and the teachers to go with them. It simply does not make sense.

Mr. Timms: Clearly, a decision has been made that the best way of providing support for the children in the hon. Gentleman's area is through the new configuration that has been introduced. I am not familiar with the circumstances there, but I emphasise the enormous benefits for children of being in mainstream education, where that is possible, and of being given the support to make a success of that. Opposition Members are losing sight of that in some of their interventions.

We are committed to ensuring that staff have the skills to recognise and address the special educational needs of their pupils. To obtain qualified teacher status, all trainee teachers must demonstrate that they can identify pupils with special educational needs, know their responsibilities as teachers under the SEN code of practice and how to seek advice from specialists. From September, all those who are awarded QTS must be able to demonstrate that they can differentiate their teaching to meet the differing needs of pupils, including those with SEN.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Timms: I need to make some more progress, if my hon. Friend will allow me.

For teachers already in post and other staff, we are promoting the creation of new or enhanced training opportunities through two £1 million funding streams in the current financial year supporting training activity by special voluntary organisations and higher education training providers. We are intending to commission new training resources directly in a number of areas, for example, ensuring greater access for pupils with disabilities to PE and sport, and providing a training video for school governors linked to the SEN code of practice.

We have also recognised the importance of investing in the early years to make sure that children get the right help early on and have the best possible start to their education. This is a fundamental change. As the hon. Member for Epping Forest said, significant numbers of children are entering secondary education without their needs being met, and we do not want that to continue.

In March last year, we announced a £25 million package in support of SEN in the early years, including support for establishing SEN co-ordinators—SENCOs—in early years education settings and area SENCOs, with a target of one area SENCO for every 20 non-maintained settings by 2004.

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We announced last year that we were drawing together a range of agencies to develop guidance for professionals working with children with disabilities in the birth to two age range and their families. That guidance is ready and will be issued shortly for consultation. There will be a separate but linked document on early intervention and support services for children whose hearing impairments have been identified early, and that will be produced in conjunction with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. Those two sets of guidance will make a big contribution to addressing the needs of very young children and will reinforce the importance of effective partnerships with parents.

In everything that they do, schools rightly want to ensure that the work that they put in to helping all their pupils to learn is properly recognised. We are committed to supplementing the information that is already in performance tables with information about how far schools, including special schools, help their pupils to progress between the various stages of their education. The performance tables, following piloting work, will include value-added measures from 2002 for secondary schools and from 2003 for primary schools. We want to do still more in that area.

There is a great deal more to do if we are to realise our aims. Much of our work since 1997 has focused on widening access and opportunity for children with SEN through improvements to the statutory framework. We are going forward in partnership with schools, local education authorities, health and social services departments and the voluntary sector to bring about real improvements.

John Mann: Statementing in my local education authority is a third of the national average. What advice, guidance or training are LEAs given in determining how to statement children?

Mr. Timms: A good deal of guidance has been given, and I have referred to a number of elements. With the regional SEN consortiums, we are making sure that good practice is spread throughout the regions and that successful LEAs can impart the benefit of their experience to those that have not been as successful. I hope that we will increasingly see good practice being uniformly operated across the country.

We have not reached our destination yet, but we are well on the way.

Mr. Hancock rose

Mrs. Laing rose

Mr. Timms: I will not give way again.

I welcome the opportunity of this debate to re-emphasise our commitment to make further progress, which, I know, reflects a high priority that is shared across the House.

8.16 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): Let us start with the good news. The good news is that society's growing awareness of special educational needs has, over the past few years, made this a much more civilised country in which to live.

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One of the commonest mistakes made by people in the second half of their lives—the over-50s, to which group, sadly, I belong—is to believe that since their childhood, everything has been getting gradually worse. I do not believe that, and if there is one thing about our society that has undoubtedly improved during my lifetime, it is the way in which people who have some form of special need—whether that be intellectual, emotional, or physical—are treated.

Let me be fair and say that the Government have cause to be congratulated for contributing to this change in society's attitudes. First, they introduced their 1997 Green Paper "Excellence for All Children: Meeting Special Educational Needs" and then in 2001 came their amendments to the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Both measures were very welcome. However, before the Government get too complacent, l wish to press them on one point. Given that the target date for implementation of the measures set out in the Green Paper was 2002, I hope that the Minister winding up for the Government will take the opportunity to provide the House with an update on where they are with their objectives.

To return to my point, in our parents' days it was common practice, sadly, to shut away people with physical or mental disabilities in an institution, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Gradually, during our lifetimes, that has changed. Now, quite rightly, we accept that everyone has the right to opportunities to make the best of their talents and abilities, however great or small those may be.

The waste of talent—the waste of human lives—that used to occur is greatly reduced. Let me give an example from my constituency. Only a few years ago, a young lad with very severe congenital physical problems wanted to go to a local mainstream comprehensive school in west Berkshire. The school simply was not adapted to meet his needs, but the head teacher had the courage to fight for the funds to make the necessary structural changes and, to its credit, the local authority paid up.

The boy went to that mainstream school and was very successful. He obtained good exam results, joined in school expeditions and was popular with his schoolmates. He ended up as head boy and is now a successful university student. He, the local authority, and the head teacher who fought to enable him to be educated alongside others without his level of physical disability deserve great credit.

However, the real success of that story is what happened not to that young man, but to all the other young men and women in that school. They learned far more lessons than he did. They learned what it was like to have a disability, what help he needed, and how much they could gain from him and his companionship. They also learned that, to do that, it was sometimes necessary to give a bit in return. They had to take turns helping to push his wheelchair; they had to help him upstairs; they had to carry things that were too bulky or heavy for him to carry.

That example serves to illustrate some wider themes. First, society benefits from an inclusive education system that is right in principle. Wherever possible, the individual requirements of children with special educational needs should be met within the mainstream educational system. We all benefit from the talents unlocked as a result. Secondly, schools and teachers across the country—the front line—deserve to be congratulated on their hard work

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and dedication in meeting the diverse needs of the children in their care. Thirdly, they undertake that work in the context of a frequent shortage of money, and the constant development and expansion of our understanding of special educational needs.

That is not the only problem; there is also a lack of joined-up thinking across the education system as a whole. For example, what happens when SEN pupils move through the education system? Sometimes, we discover that facilities are in place to meet their requirements at primary level, but not at secondary level. The standard of provision varies widely across the country, and sometimes such pupils move across the country. As a recent Audit Commission consultative paper pointed out:

None the less, mainstream schools are not right for everyone. Sadly, however much LEAs try to include young people with special educational needs in such schools, for the foreseeable future at least, there will always be some for whom mainstream schools simply cannot provide properly. Special schools also face major problems.

According to provisional departmental figures for 2002, there are 14,900 teachers in maintained special schools, compared with 15,100 in 2000, and 15,500 in 1997. The teacher vacancy rate for maintained special schools is 2.4 per cent, which is double the rate—1.2 per cent.—for maintained secondary, primary and nursery schools. Unlike elsewhere in the maintained sector, the trend in vacancy rates in maintained special schools is upwards, not downwards.

Underlying all those difficulties is the question of funding. The medical advances of the previous century were such that many people with natural disadvantages can live happy and successful lives as never before—a development that must be welcome. Moreover, such lives often last much longer than in past centuries. It is therefore hugely important that schoolchildren in mainstream schools study alongside others with different natural disadvantages, so that they can learn how to help them and how to get the most out of such schoolmates. However, that costs money. Schools must be given the necessary resources to cope with special educational needs, especially where the pupils' needs are so great that they cannot reasonably be met in a mainstream school.

I shall illustrate these points by considering some examples. We have—sadly, I should say we did have—several excellent special schools in my constituency, but I want to contrast just three, the first of which is the well-known Mary Hare grammar school for the deaf. Anyone who visits it is struck by the outstanding results that are achieved there by some of Britain's most profoundly deaf youngsters. I have never forgotten my first visit. As I was wandering down a corridor, I suddenly heard, as if from some distant place, the beautiful sound of a solo clarinet. Ignorant as I then was of the fantastic musical abilities of many deaf children, I was amazed to discover that a school for deaf children could not only contain many talented individual musicians, but put together an entire orchestra of musicians, just like any mainstream school.

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Of course, the teachers need special training and the pupils need special help, and the cost of running the school is such that the local authorities sometimes baulk at the expense. Luckily, its reputation is so high that it can still flourish, but who could blame the local authorities—constantly strapped for cash as they are, thanks to real-terms cutbacks by central Government—for hesitating to spend much more on one Mary Hare pupil than they must spend on a mainstream, comprehensive- educated pupil? That is a real dilemma for the local authorities, and it is up to the Government to help them redress it.

The second example is Priors Court school, in Chieveley, to which it is even more difficult to persuade local authorities to send autistic children, despite the good work done by the National Autistic Society. Its facilities are outstanding. For example, it has an amazing swimming pool, with lights and sounds that provide a wonderfully stimulating environment. A very high teacher-pupil ratio gives each child the individual attention that they need to enable them to play a real part in society as adults. Thanks to some generous private individuals—one in particular—some children, at least, are getting the real start in life that they probably could not get anywhere else.

Sadly, that school can be contrasted with what was Enborne Lodge school. Although situated in Newbury, it was originally an old Greater London council school. When Mrs. Thatcher—as she then was—closed down the GLC in a fit of pique, the school was transferred to Lambeth borough. It would be difficult to think of a less suitable London borough. Of course, within a few years, Lambeth's own financial problems led to the closure of the school. What a waste.

While in existence, Enborne Lodge took under its wing some of London's most difficult pupils. Some had committed terrible crimes, such as burning down schools and committing violent acts against family members and others. Such children often came from violent backgrounds. Their parents beat each other up, and sadly they often beat and abused their children as well. None the less, at Enborne Lodge those children were given a completely new start in life. The children had emotional and behavioural difficulties, and for the first time in their lives, they were valued for what they could do instead of being despised for what they could not do.

Enborne Lodge often discovered hidden talents. Some of the pupils became first-class sportsmen and sportswomen. Some took their exams and went on to university and to important jobs in the community. The head teacher believed that all of them would probably have spent most of their lives in jail if they had not been to Enborne Lodge. The cost of the school, which in the end became too much for Lambeth to bear, was far less than the cost to society had those pupils not been given a second opportunity in life and, instead, been left to rot in prison.

The costs of providing properly for those with special educational needs have to be weighed carefully against the often even greater costs of not providing for them properly. At a recent hearing of the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, which was called to discuss the closure of the dome, David James, the former executive chairman of the New Millennium Experience Company, made an interesting comment. He said that all too often the Government have such an obsession with getting the

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cheapest possible service available at any one time that we often end up by spending a great deal more in the long run. The Liberal Democrats have frequently said that, and I was delighted to have it confirmed by such an authoritative source. Moreover, nowhere is it truer than in special educational needs. Short-term thinking, driven by the need to reduce costs, simply results in other costs. There are costs to society, because of the talents and abilities that are wasted as a result, and there are financial costs, because other budgets are often left to pick up the pieces.

Education must be about unlocking the talents and abilities of individuals. That is what SEN provision is about, too. In contrast, league tables and testing assume that all children start their school life equal. The danger is that those with special educational needs are left by the wayside. We cannot afford to let that happen, and we must not let that happen. We must not fail those who need us most.

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