Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.39 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): This has been an interesting debate, well conducted on both sides. As always, it has been enriched by the personal knowledge of colleagues who take a particular interest in this matter in their constituencies. It is appropriate to pay tribute to the parents of the children we have been speaking about, to the many organisations and charities that work with them, and to those who work very hard in local education authorities, including my own in Bedfordshire, through their own schools and through Shaftesbury schools in my constituency such as Hinwick Hall. I also pay tribute to the children themselves, who achieve so much. It was right to pay tribute to some of the achievements of those children in the debate. I shall come back to that in a moment.

The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) reminded us, quite properly, of where we had come from over the years. The issue of special needs is seen quite differently from how it was seen a generation ago. From my experience as Minister for Disabled People, I have a sense of a continually improving ratchet in relation to disability. Things steadily improve—we are not always where we want to be, but it is always better than how it was. Long may that continue.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke movingly about one of the schools in his constituency—now closed, sadly—which treated the most difficult of pupils. One can well understand the difficulties in that sort of school and how much good it did the pupils whom it was trying to support.

We had a rare sighting of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward). He spent the first few minutes of his speech talking about Conservatives—something is repressed there, I suspect. He spoke knowledgeably about them, and then spoke properly about autism and his constituency. He spoke well, and his remaining remarks were in tune with the rest of the debate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), in a commanding, authoritative and brief speech, reminded us why she was such an exceptionally good Secretary of State for Education. She discussed the importance of flexibility in relation to

21 May 2002 : Column 254

special needs and how the system had to accommodate individuals, despite a general sense of inclusion that we all share. She made the point about entry into the system in a variety of different ways and at different times and the need to be properly flexible in providing that system. She also mentioned further education, which I will come to in a moment.

The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), as chairman of the all-party group on autism, referred to autism week. He gave the Government a score of 68 per cent. and said how pleased his dad would have been if he had gone home with that mark. I do not necessarily concur with the mark of 68 per cent., but I agree that taking home 68 per cent. to one's dad was pretty good. I say that tonight because it is my dad's birthday, and I hope that he gives me 68 per cent. for this speech. [Interruption.] We do not often get this sort of chance, so I am not going to miss it. It is a special birthday for my dad.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Mr. Hendry) made a significant speech about the impact of additives and diet on the diagnosis of those with behavioural problems. He produced a number of interesting points of evidence. There is much further work to be done in relation to that. Our diagnosis of special needs is improving, and the relationship between diet and special needs is of interest to a number of Members, as my hon. Friend reminded the House.

The hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) spoke about the portage service. I pay tribute to that; I had one in my previous constituency, and know how important it was for early diagnosis and early support. He also spoke movingly about children signing. As a Minister who signed at the special Christmas service for the Royal School for the Deaf in St. Margarets, I understand how overwhelmingly significant that is and the way it makes one feel in relation to those who have hearing disabilities. When children sign while they are singing, it is really very special. The hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) paid tribute to local schools in his constituency, and mentioned conductive education at the Rainbow Centre. In doing so, he made a proper and valid contribution to the debate.

I want to pick up on what my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk said about further education. We have spent most of our time today talking about special needs in schools, but for two reasons it is terribly important to discuss how they are dealt with in further and higher education. First, we should not forget that knowing that they can leave school and enter further and higher education provides an extraordinary role model for those with disabilities. Secondly, we must pay genuine tribute to those who have worked so hard in further and higher education to enable special needs provision to come on in leaps and bounds in the past decade or so.

Further education colleges are proud of their provision. They already cope with a wide variety of students, as the Minister knows full well. The Association of Colleges for Further and Higher Education has produced a toolkit that includes a range of measures to help colleges with the practicalities of providing beneficial places for those with special learning needs. This afternoon, I spoke to Sue Spencer and others at Walsall college, which does particularly well with the deaf and the deaf-blind. I mention this example to give hon. Members a sense of

21 May 2002 : Column 255

the extent of further education provision for those with disabilities. Walsall college has some 80 students. Four are deaf-blind, and their ages range from 16 to 87. The 87-year-old man, who is deaf-blind, is on a computer course and has already finished courses in mathematics and English. A full range of courses are studied by those with special learning needs. Some go on to university, some to work, and others to different courses.

The keys to success include highly qualified teachers who continually top up their skills, good support systems—including educational interpreters who can offer assistance—along with other elements that the Minister might consider at some stage. As she knows, there is an acute national shortage of signers. The implication of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is that the need for signers, particularly in education, has increased markedly. There is a chronic need to examine that issue, and to consider the way in which British sign language is handled for examination purposes.

What is happening in higher education is remarkable, and universities are doing ever more. About 7 per cent. of students at Leeds university, which I contacted this afternoon, have some form of special need or disability—a figure that is rather higher than the national average. In 1991, about 1 per cent. of all students had some form of disability, but the national average is now some 5 per cent., a figure which reflects society at large. That shows how far we have come in a decade. Leeds university has many students with dyslexia; indeed, the numbers have increased by 25 per cent. in a year. It also has students with cerebral palsy, and with speech and movement difficulties, who are following full higher education courses. It also has quadriplegics, tetraplegics, and sufferers of muscular dystrophy and trauma injuries.

The greatest difficulties relate to mental health. Given the nature of the illness, it is rather harder for those with mental health problems to participate in higher education, given the concentration required. Moreover, when one examines the destinations of such students, it is noticeable that they are also the most difficult to place. In considering what measures might be adopted, the Minister should note that insufficient research has been undertaken into the destinations of students with learning difficulties. It is difficult to place them with smaller employers, who often imagine that the reality is rather harder to deal with than it actually is. That leads to some frustration, but all in all good things are being done.

Although there is considerable agreement among hon. Members on this issue, several of the points raised by my hon. Friends and in our motion illustrate that certain difficulties exist. The differences between us, and between the motions before us, are sufficient to warrant our dividing the House this evening.

We want greater joined-up support for the various services that look after people with autism. Many hon. Members spoke about those problems. Whereas there is general support for the principle of inclusion, there is also great support for special schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) mentioned the special schools in his area that are being closed. Parents there are not being provided with a choice. The Government cannot truly be content to sit on the sidelines

21 May 2002 : Column 256

and not comment on that. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) also spoke about the problems of ending special provision in Margate.

We need greater research. There is concern about the overlap of support between social services and education. Social services have immense funding problems. The vast majority of directors of social services plead that they are in difficulties because they have to provide more and more for the elderly. As a result, money has been removed from those who need it in other services, which has affected those with special needs in particular. Despite the score card mentioned by the hon. Member for South Thanet, our score card would reveal rather more for the Government to do. Although the Minister may address our concerns, I suspect that we may still want to divide the House.

Next Section

IndexHome Page