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7.49 p.m.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, it is well known that in the field of special education, we have come a long way in a generation. Until the passage of the Education (Handicapped Children) Act 1970, the conventional wisdom was that some children were ineducable. It took many years of dedicated work to challenge and overturn that negative approach. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. While I acknowledge his concerns, I must make it clear that I do not support them entirely.

I speak as the chief executive of the Carers National Association which has frequent contact with parents of children with special needs and, more significantly, with the information and opinion received from respected voluntary organisations like Contact a Family and the Council for Disabled Children. They believe that parents of children with special educational needs should be able to choose a mainstream school for these children,

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no matter what their disability, and that a compulsory direction to a special school is unfair, discriminating and against the best interests of the child. Most parents make it clear that they, too, want their children educated in the mainstream. I therefore welcome the speed with which the Government and the Department for Education and Employment produced a Green Paper on special educational needs for consultation last year and the statement of intent included in that Green Paper,

    "to increase the level and quality of inclusion with mainstream schools".

I am sure your Lordships will agree that an inclusive education within a mainstream school has much to recommend it in terms of reducing the social isolation of children with special educational needs, enhancing the range of curriculum subjects available to them and, not least, informing the whole of society about special educational needs and disability issues. The Government's decision to increase the monies available to the School Access Fund, which is directed to improving facilities in mainstream schools and to allow better access for children with special needs, is also to be welcomed.

Parents, then, want inclusion on the whole, but they do want the guarantees which should go with it. They will not be confident about letting children leave special school environments unless they can be confident that the mainstream school will not tolerate bullying; be reasonably resourced in terms of staff, including trained classroom assistants and equipment; have ready access to qualified medical help if a child needs it; and provide a good quality education for each child.

I willingly concede that in some cases this may be a big "if" within the mainstream and therefore welcome the fact that the Government's statement of intent in the Green Paper, while increasing the level and quality of inclusion within the mainstream, goes on to say:

    "while protecting and enhancing specialist provision for those who need it"
--the point emphasised by the noble Lord.

Some parents will continue to choose a special school place for part, at least, of their children's school career and I share the noble Lord's concern and agree with him that, where special schools exist and have a valued continuing role, they should be properly resourced and indeed connected with mainstream schools and other educational bodies. The report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools, The SEN Code of Practice 2 Years On, published last year, gives examples of good practice. They include the provision of full information to parents and the involvement of parents at all stages; strong commitment by staff and by governors to special educational needs; and the involvement of pupils in planning their individual education plans.

The report also makes clear that not all special schools are centres of excellence. I am afraid that there is scope for improvement in practice in many of the schools, particularly about parental involvement. It is clear that too many schools do not have adequate information about funding arrangements and that there are too many examples of planning for a child being impossible because of lack of information about available funding.

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We have heard about the need for special schools for children with special needs such as dyslexia. I must also point out the widespread shortage of support services for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and I welcome the fact that the Social Exclusion Unit at the Cabinet Office has given priority to school exclusion and truancy.

Finally, I pay tribute to all voluntary organisations and Members of this House who work so hard on this issue and endeavour to ensure that government, local education authorities and school governors take the view of parents either with regard to mainstream or special education seriously when planning the education of these important future citizens--children with special needs.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, we are in a period of great opportunity. The Government's Green Paper, Excellence for all Children, has been widely welcomed for its clear determination to improve the educational opportunities of that wide-ranging group of children with special needs. I declare an interest as the father of a daughter with autism.

There are children whose needs are so complex or severe that from the outset of their education they should be identified as such and given specialist support, perhaps through a special school. It may be that the economics and organisation of mainstream education will, for a long time, make it difficult to address needs such as those of a child with classic autism or challenging behaviour. Does the Minister therefore agree that there is a continuing and important role for specialist schools, underpinned by clear educational principles and by properly trained staff and professionals? In such cases, the vital need is for accurate early identification of the nature of the child's learning and communication difficulties, followed by the right kind of teaching and educational environment. Early intervention is crucial.

So it is disappointing that the Green Paper is so vague about how children with special needs are to be identified on arrival in primary school. We now have baseline assessment, but this, apparently, is not intended to pick up such children. How then will they be identified? What universal mechanism is to be put in place to ensure that children, with less obvious and visible difficulties, are identified at this crucial stage? Without early intervention there can be no assurance that the main aims of the Green Paper can be met. I hope that the Minister will look at this concern, which is widely shared by organisations working in the special needs field.

Early intervention can work only if professional skills are in place. This applies both at the stages of assessment and practical support in the class. A recently published survey showed that in a large sample of families with an autistic child as many as one in three were mistakenly turned away by the health professionals concerned, resulting in years of delay and waste. Will the Minister make a commitment to address this crucial

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area of supporting teachers in special needs knowledge, without which it will be impossible to achieve effective early intervention?

Finally, I should like to emphasise the role of parents. Speaking as one, I know of the anguish which parents of children with special educational needs feel and I therefore lay great emphasis on the need to involve them and recognise their entitlement. The Green Paper work should recognise the principle of involving parents and ascertaining the wishes of their children. It is premature to set targets for the reduction in statements or special school placements. The more important goal should be to focus on achieving higher levels of confidence in the process from parents. Will the Minister therefore make a commitment to look at ways of measuring relative parental confidence in the system? I say "relative" because, of course, parents of children with special educational needs are hardly overjoyed by their situation. It must, however, be possible to find ways of measuring the progress which the Government hope they will make in helping parents and their children to feel that they are reasonably treated, respected for their views and receive the right level of specialist support where it is needed.

When parents say that they and their children are getting a good deal we will have made some progress.

7.59 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, it seems appropriate that I am making my maiden speech on education since for any newcomer to this place the experience is just like coming to a new school. However, a key difference from any other school that I have experienced is the unqualified welcome and helpfulness towards my own integration that I have had from your Lordships and all associated with this House, for which I am truly grateful.

I realised the parallel when, having kindly been offered the loan of some robes by a noble friend, he said that he would leave them for me on my peg--the very symbol of a school cloakroom. I then had the pleasure of finding that it is next to that of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, of whom I am a lifelong fan and whose peg is laden with books and carrier bags under which I respectfully squeeze my own.

I should declare a special interest in this subject because I founded a small, specialist secondary school about five years ago which caters for educationally fragile children. I founded it having watched our youngest daughter, who had been born minimally brain damaged but who is nonetheless intelligent, go through mainstream schooling never being truly integrated and, as a result, having a miserable time. My school is now full of boys and girls from all over Scotland, none of whom had been integrated in any way in their previous schools.

I have reservations about the assumed desirability of integration into mainstream of many more children with special educational needs, which is the key thrust in the Government's Green Paper. We have heard also how those reservations are shared strongly by many of those with first-hand experience in the field.

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We are talking about 1.5 million or so children, so the issue is of major importance. Superficially the notion of integration seems to be self-evidently right. What could be more just and equitable? Who could possibly be in favour of the opposite--segregation? However, I believe that it is a notion belonging to a social model, and what we should be seeking instead is an education model based on educational need. We should aim at policies which encourage us to value differences and celebrate diversity rather than subsuming as many children as possible into some integrated whole.

Today, we talk about inclusion rather than integration. But as Professor Tomlinson states so clearly in his important report Inclusive Learning, it is not synonymous with integration. It requires new thinking and the development of a variety of environments for learning, acknowledging that all students have different learning styles and needs. Of course, the integrated setting has its place but it is not the be-all and end-all.

Policies must take account of how children behave towards the less able--very cruelly sometimes--and the practical implications of learning needs. In that regard, class size is crucial and must be addressed. The reality is that for a significant number of children, current education methods do not work. They also put an extra burden on already overstretched mainstream teachers, and it is no wonder that we have so many excluded and under-achieving children in our system.

Support strategies of attaching a teacher to a child in the classroom or withdrawing children for special help often highlights their difficulties, and those strategies are very expensive in cash and human terms. Simply to put a child into an integrated school setting, even with support, does not make him or her integrated. The experience can be frightening and excluding, with disastrous results, to confidence and self-esteem. That was the experience of all the children in my school; and they are the tip of the iceberg.

If our goals in education include helping our children to realise their potential and have a real place in society, we need more rather than fewer specialist schools and a system which reflects the complexity and diversity of our society. I hope that the Government will look again at their assumptions in the interests of properly meeting the needs of that significant and vulnerable group of children.

8.3 p.m.

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