|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Secondly, we need to review the statementing process. A friend of mine, Sir Robert Balchin, has suggested that we replace the statementing process with a special needs profile. Rightly or wrongly, many parents feel that statements are issued on the basis of how much cash is available. Clearly, if the body issuing the statement is the organisation that manages the budget for SEN provision, the way it does one of those things might affect its regard for the other. However, although I welcome Sir Roberts proposed
change, I do not think it goes far enough. Money concerns alone do not explain the reluctance of some local education authorities to issue statements; dogma is at work, too.
Finally, I wonder whether the lack of responsiveness that accounts for much of the problem that the report tries to address could be solved by giving the parents of children with special educational needs a new legal right. Could we enshrine in law a right that would allow them to request and receive control over their childs share of local authority fundinghowever the size of the pot was determined? If the child could not be provided with a speech and language therapist by the local authority, a better way of ensuring that it has what it needs would be to give its parents control over the money that is spent and that, miraculously, does not provide the outcome that they want. Parents of children with special needs have had a raw deal from public policy makers over many years. In part, that is explained by the fact that they have not had the articulate advocate that they now find in my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. However, it is also because they are a relatively small group who are spread across the country and, in some cases, marginalised. They cannot attract the attention of policy makers, although the issue might be higher up the political agenda if they were more concentrated in some of the marginal parliamentary constituencies.
However, the upside is that the internet is having a profound impact on changing not only politics in general, but also the politics of special educational needs provision; it is raising the profile. The internet aggregatesit brings together people who have a specific interest in special educational needsand it empowers people. The complex information and legal knowledge needed to make the system work is no longer the preserve of a few elite people. The internet breaks down barriers to entry. Through the internet, parents have a voice and do not have to rely on remote producers or politicians to speak up for them; they can speak for themselves. The internet gives the marginal a voice. In a post-bureaucratic age, that is how parents of children with special educational needs will be empowered. We need a public policy that reflects those trends, rather than one that attempts to frustrate them.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am pleased that we have had the opportunity to debate the Bercow report. I congratulate the Government on commissioning it and all those involved in the extensive research that has gone into it. Some doughty campaigners for special educational needs and powerful advocates for those with speech and language difficulties have been involved in todays debate. Many of them brought their personal experiences to it, which has enriched it. I am slightly puzzled about why we are dealing with the subject in a topical debate on the penultimate day before the summer recess, given that the review was published on 8 July, and given that the Government gave a statement accepting the reports key recommendations, which we welcome, and promised a full implementation plan in the autumn.
This is the 18th topical debate this Session, and the first one answered by Ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. By far the most
topical problem afflicting the DCSF is the turmoil surrounding the markinginaccurate, delayed or otherwiseof this years standard assessment tests, which were taken by 1.2 million 11 and 14-year-olds. As hon. Members have said, topically, in the past few days, the newspapers have been full of stories of administrative problems, computer blunders and appalling marking. Topically, thousands of children are about to go on their summer holidays not knowing how they fared; their reports will not contain the details of their marks. Most topically of all, in the past few days, the Secretary of State has suggested that the ETS contract could be terminated, but the Minister for Schools and Learners said the opposite just yesterday.
I urge the Government to adopt the proposals in the review as comprehensively and as speedily as possible. The subject of speech, language and communication problems, and, more generally, special educational needs among children, has over the years been raised extensively by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, not least by members of my party, and not least by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Indeed, he set up the commission on special needs in education in December 2005, under the excellent chairmanship of Sir Robert Balchin, who published his report in the autumn of 2007. Clearly, the view is, If you want an important job done, ask a Conservative Member of this House.
The statistics on speech, language and communication needs among children are stark. In 2007, about 7 per cent. of five-year-olds entering primary school across Englandthat represents nearly 40,000 childrenhad significant difficulties with speech and/or language, but in more disadvantaged areas, about 50 per cent. of children and young people had speech and language skills of a significantly lower level than those of other children of the same age. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) has mentioned the alarming figures for those in the youth justice system who have had difficulties with speech, language and communication. Clearly, we are missing a trick by not investing in prevention in that regard.
We all welcome the acknowledgement in the review that early intervention is key; many Members have mentioned that, including the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong). Too many children suffer from a postcode lottery in the provision of services, and there is still a shortage of specialist
providers. As I pointed out in the Westminster Hall debate held just after the review was launched, we need
greater joined-up working between education and health, and on the joint working and ownership of the work force, because speech and language therapists might be employed by health services, local authorities, schools, charities or social enterprises, or might be working privately.[ Official Report, Westminster Hall, 9 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 17WH.]
There is a vicious triangle at work. Often, people who come to my surgery with cases in which speech therapy support is required have already gone to their education authority, which has said, Oh, that is not for us. It is for health. They then go to their primary care trust or hospital and are told again, Oh no, that is not for us, but for childrens or social services. I am sure that other hon. Members have experienced that, too. That is what I call a vicious triangle. The problem does not go away if we pass the buck. The longer we pass the buck, the bigger the problem with that child might become. We need much better joined-up working.
The DCSF and the Department of Healths joint response to the review is encouraging, and it was good to see the Secretaries of State for both Departments here earlier in this debate. It is essential that schools, health services, health visitors, childrens centres, Sure Start and others do more to identify children with speech, language and communication difficulties as early as possible. As we identified in our submission to the review, when it comes to speech, language and communication needs, as with most areas of special education, early intervention is essential. Estimates suggest that some 15 per cent. of children at pre-school level need the early intervention of a speech and language therapist. The work done with those very young children is vital, and can in many cases be relatively short-lived and totally successful.
In most cases, there seems to be good co-operation between the agencies involved pre-school, and we support the proposal that more work be done through childrens centresan approach being pioneered by the charity I CAN. However, too many parents have reported encountering substantial difficulties with school-related assessment and provision. In particular, they mention two important problems. First, when children at pre-school level are identified as needing help, adequate speech and language therapy assistance is often not available. Secondly, when no identification has been possible pre-school, assessment and help is often difficult to obtain and slow in coming. There is also a problem with the transition between primary and secondary schools.
Research by Scope revealed that only 22 per cent. of respondents to its survey had been assessed by the age of three, and that local authorities had markedly different policies for the provision of communication aids. About a quarter of respondents did not receive an assessment until they were 16 or older. As a Scope report went on to show, if disabled children and young people are unable to develop their communication skills during childhood, it puts them at a significant disadvantage in adult life. It makes it even more likely that disabled people with communication impairments will be excluded from work, education and social opportunities, and will be unnecessarily dependent on others. Action must be meaningful and sustainable, and there must be follow-up assessments and ongoing monitoring. Not providing
that, and not intervening early, is clearly a false economy, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have agreed.
I should like to mention a point to which the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) referred. She has done much on the issue, and I congratulate her on her Bill receiving Royal Assent today. The excellent autism charity, TreeHouse, has called for a proper cost-benefit analysis of effective interventions, and we support that call. It believes that there is a need for an evidence base that details the impact of speech and language therapy on the development of childrens communication and language skills, and that helps families to ascertain which interventions work best. TreeHouse makes the important point that parents and carers are the experts on their children, and need to be listened to and supported more. That suggestion was supported by I CAN, which played an important part in the review. Its excellent Make Chatter Matter campaign helped to put the issue on the political map in the first place. I am pleased that many of its suggestions have been taken up.
On speech and language therapy training, there is some evidence that although an adequate number of speech and language therapists are being trained, there are not enough posts available for them. They therefore seek other employment and can often be lost to the profession, which is an obvious waste of resources. That disjunction is likely to be remedied if recommendations on assessment and funding are accepted.
We believe that the Government need to go further on some aspects of the report, particularly on statementing and special schools. Where there are serious language disorders, or where language problems are part of a childs wider spectrum of special needs, parents too often find that the statementing process is too adversarial and drawn out. In too many cases, after considerable expenditure of time and money, it results in little or no help for their children. We believe that the system needs to be streamlined and made easier for parents to navigate and less adversarial.
The whole special needs profile system needs to be changed. We recommend that assessment for all special educational needs be undertaken by independent professionals in contracted consortiums, working to objective criteria. The process would be triggered by a professional from education, health or social services, or by a parent assisted by one of the above, and would result in a special needs profile replacing a statement. The profile would be based on clearly defined support categories, and speech, language and communication needs are likely to encompass one or more of those categories.
We believe that the ideology of inclusion has caused the most serious problems for special needs children and their parents. The loss in the past few years of no fewer than 9,000 special schools places is a disaster that must be remedied. Many children with complex speech, language and communication needs cannot be educated adequately in mainstream schools, but it is clear that those with less complicated needs can thrive in mainstream schools if there is a dedicated unit, staffed by an adequate number of professionals. It is also useful if all staff receive some training on SLCN problems. Will the Minister commit to a moratorium on the closure of
special schools, at least until we can get a closer idea about current SEN provision, particularly as it relates to SLCN?
Most of all, I agree with the point made by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). We welcome the proposals for giving greater support to parents. Evidence suggests that many parents of children with SLCN feel too often that they have been left without much understanding of their childs needs and how they can assist.
Kevin Brennan: In the brief time left, I shall attempt to respond to some of the points raised by hon. Members. I welcome the speech made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and once again congratulate him on the report. He made a number of points. I understand perfectly the one that he made about help with communicative devices; we will consider that issue as part of the child health strategy in the autumn. He pointed out the much wider relevance of the issue to antisocial behaviour, public health and the economy.
At the end, the hon. Gentleman said that he would die happy if his report were implemented, although he does not want to die just yet. I hope that he does not, because in 18 months we would like him to have a look at how we have done and whether we have implemented his reviews recommendations. We are happy to invite him to do that if he is willing.
English is an additional language for 75 per cent. of children at Churchill Gardens community primary school, and 55 per cent. of the children there are on free school meals. Is it not a terrific tribute to the school that, through great leadership, a language-rich environment and a powerful focus on communication, it is getting terrific results? That just shows what can be done in a mainstream school with good leadership.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong) has a long-standing commitment on this issue, and she spoke with passion. She was one of the early adopters of early intervention as a means of trying to bring about social justice and change society. She gave us examples of good practice and the consequences of not identifying problems and intervening early.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) told us about the importance of specialist services and the problem of buck passing between health and education. I hope that she welcomed the commitment from the Secretaries of State for Health and for Children, Schools and Families, who were here today; the report was commissioned jointly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), as her Bill has received Royal Assent. She is common sense on legs and her speeches in the House often bring
us down to earth with practical and real-world examples of the consequences of our debates. She pointed out the importance of knowing the costs and benefits of early intervention and showed us how thoroughly she digested the content of the report; she will hold us to account in making sure that we implement it. She referred to her personal experience and her son Joseph and said that we needed more consistency across the country in the provision of these services. She asked specifically whether the report covered deaf and hard-of-hearing children. The answer is yes.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) pointed out the increased investment that there has been into the education of young offenders. He went on to make a serious point about the importance of making sure that young offenders in custody get the appropriate support. However, it is also important that we meet their needs holistically, and the hon. Gentleman was churlish and unfair to suggest that there was apathy about that in the Government; after all, we are here debating this issue because we commissioned the report. We will address those issues through the youth crime action plan. It is better to address all, not just some, of young offenders needs. In its forthcoming offender health strategy, the Department of Health will also consider the speech and language needs of young offenders.
In a disappointingly partisan contribution, the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) gave us a glimpse of what is behind the veil of Cameronism when it is pulled aside; no doubt we shall see more of that in time. The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) made a rather partisan opening to impress his Whips, but he quickly moved on. However, I do not know how he can believe that not allowing children with speech and language difficulties an appeal against exclusion from school will help them; perhaps he will advise the House. However, he went on to discuss more substantial issues and I welcome his welcome of the commitment of the Secretaries of State, who were both here today.
That the following provisions shall apply to the Housing and Regeneration Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 27th November 2007 (Housing and Regeneration Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption at this days sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement. [Alison Seabeck.]
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|