Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gale: I shall try to raise something on which we probably agree. Much has been said tonight about schools. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that when parents get their children into a special needs school or a mainstream school, it is tremendously sad that provision is for term time only? During the holidays, provision is cut; the children go back about four paces and have to start at that point the next term.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman is right; he and I agree on that important aspect of provision. However, we must acknowledge that extending provision would add to costs. I am also championing the case of a child who does not have an autistic spectrum disorder but needs special school provision; the provision identified as meeting his needs covers 52 weeks a year and will cost £170,000 a year. The local education authority told me that that would pay for four special teachers, so a significant judgment and a difficult decision have to be made. I therefore award the Government three out of 10 for the provision of intensive therapy.

Finally, the Minister for School Standards did not mention the national service framework for children, which is being championed largely by the Department of Health, but has close ties with the Department for Education and Skills. If it provides a one-stop shop from the point where a child is identified as having special needs to the fulfilment of those needs in education and health, and given that the Government have talked about using autism as an exemplar, we can give them nine out of 10 because the initiative will bring about the most dramatic improvement to the lives of autistic children in a generation. We will give them 10 out of 10 when the final framework is in place and we can make sure it is as good as promised.

That is a total score of 55 out of 80, or 68 per cent. We can give the Government a B and the comment "Room for improvement", as my school reports always used to say. I was always quite pleased to take a mark of 68 per cent. home to my dad. At least I knew that I was not in trouble at home. In the spirit of an Opposition day debate, I can say that that is certainly better than the C-minus of the Conservatives prior to 1997. The Government get a B, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning will acknowledge that although progress has been made, a heck of a lot of progress remains to be made.

9.15 pm

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): I shall focus on a particular aspect of the autism spectrum—the problems and education of children who are hyperactive. I raise the matter because of a number of distressing constituency cases which have come to my attention over the past year involving children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and its awful consequences for their families and schools.

21 May 2002 : Column 247

In two cases that come to mind, the children are young boys approaching their early teens. It is no surprise that they are young boys, as four out of five children who suffer from hyperactivity are male. The children in those two cases are violent and aggressive towards their parents and teachers, they threaten their siblings in the most frightening ways, they damage their own homes, and their schools cannot handle them. That has been a matter of awful concern to me. Hyperactive children fall between the stools within the local authority. Neither the education department nor the social services department is fully equipped to deal with such cases.

I have looked around to try and find the most appropriate help. It was a joy to find a small organisation based near Chichester called the Hyperactive Children's Support Group, a small charity run by a remarkable lady named Sally Bunday, who set it up because of her own problems more than 30 years ago with her own son, who suffered in the same way. The group's main conclusion is that a link can be drawn between hyperactivity and diet—deficiencies of certain products or excesses of other products.

That probably comes as no surprise to parents. We all know from our own experience or from that of other families about cases of a child being given a red or a blue Smartie or some other food containing colouring, and then exploding moments later. We can see a direct link in our families or our friends' families between those substances and the activities of such children. We need to focus on the awful knock-on effects when that happens while the child is at school.

There are even children's vitamins which are sold to help the child to be active during the day, but which themselves contain colouring. Parents may think that they are sending their child off to school boosted with the energy that he or she requires for the day, but in fact they are sending into the classroom a little time bomb that can go off at any time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) spoke about the lack of statistics. Just last week I asked the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), how many children were diagnosed with ADHD. I was told that the information requested is not collected centrally, but the reply went on:

That means that there are, on average, 500 hyperactive children in each of our constituencies—a frighteningly high level. The problem must be addressed urgently.

There are different approaches, of course. Some suggest prescribing Ritalin, but there is an increasing tendency to look at more natural approaches, such as cutting out colourings and artificial additives. The UK still allows more colourings and additives than any other country in Europe. Perhaps the time has come for labelling to show clearly that the product contains elements which could adversely affect some children and make them subject to hyperactivity. Further work is needed in that direction. We must look at combating mineral deficiency and using products such as evening primrose oil.

21 May 2002 : Column 248

It has become clear from the debate that every case is different, so the solution to every case will be different. We must be creative in our approach. We need to work with schools to identify the problem and deal with it. There was a fascinating experiment at a small school in Cornwall, the Tywardeath primary school, where the headmaster, Gordon Walker, asked parents to stop their children eating 21 particular additives. All the parents were happy to take part. As a result, more than half of the 140 students behaved better and were able to concentrate more on their school work. The experiment produced nothing definitive, but evidence of how the problem can be addressed.

The Hyperactive Children's Support Group has also carried out its own survey in which people have followed the Feingold diet, which is based on work pioneered by Dr. Feingold in the United States. The survey found that three quarters of children showed a good response to the diet and that about three quarters of the boys surveyed and more than half the girls had zinc levels that were below normal—a direct contributory factor to hyperactivity.

Only last week, The Independent reported on a study carried out by Dr. Madelaine Portwood, a senior educational psychologist at Durham county council, who asked schools in her area to give supplements of fish and plant extracts so that the effect could be monitored. The report states:

The report goes on to quote Andrew Westerman, one school's headmaster, as saying:

That is the sort of evidence that we must take into account. Dr. Portwood said:

Those are a number of ways in which schools can help in investigating special educational needs. I hope that we can find a number of schools around the country that are prepared to consider conducting pilot projects that will allow us further to explore these issues, and that the Government will make funding available. They have a healthy eating programme for which they give additional funds to county councils. Perhaps they could use that programme to fund some pilot projects to enable us to find out where the science is correct. There is a strong divergence of views among scientists and we must make an assessment. Even if we asked for children to undergo a nutritional assessment so we could decide and identify deficiencies and find out whether there was a correlation in relation to children with behavioural problems, we would make a significant advance. Every parent knows that a link exists and we must address it more seriously as part of the work of the House.

I should like briefly to mention one other matter that relates directly to autism. Last week, I visited a group in my constituency called Step-by-Step. The group has been set up by parents and grandparents of children who have autism. They want to establish a specialist school in Crowborough. The model on which they have chosen to

21 May 2002 : Column 249

base the school is the Treehouse school, to which the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) referred—one of three schools that are currently adopting an approach called applied behaviour analysis. When Nick Hornby, himself the father of an autistic son, addressed that issue in a recent article in The Observer, he asked:

Of course, wonderful work is done in mainstream education. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said, we must all pay tribute to the patience and perseverance of people who work in these very difficult cases, but different cases need different solutions. She was also correct to say that inclusion is not right in all cases. I also agreed with the Minister, who said that parents have a unique understanding of their children's circumstances. He told us that two thirds of cases were working satisfactorily, which means that one third are not. We were told by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) that 75 per cent. of families with autistic children are happy with the education that they are getting, but that means that 25 per cent. are not happy. In other words, between 20,000 and 25,000 families are not getting the support that they believe they need.

I hope that the Government will find a way of assisting schools such as the Step-by-Step school that is planned for my constituency. The project is imaginative and creative, and tries to use a system that the families believe will work best for their children. I hope that the Minister will give us some encouraging words.

Next Section

IndexHome Page