Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for initiating the debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, for an impressive maiden speech which indicated a vast expertise in this field. I feel very humble because much personal experience and experience as parents have been reflected in the speeches, as well as knowledge of the organisations concerned in this field. It is important that those concerns are reflected back to the department in conjunction with the consultation process on the Green Paper that has already begun. Noble Lords will know that the consultation period on the Green Paper, which was produced with the assistance of a high level national advisory group, ended on 9th January. We have yet to assess the full burden of the comments which came from a wide range of sources. But it is clear that the great majority of those who expressed a view welcomed the Green Paper. It was the first opportunity for many years to consider all the issues regarding special educational needs.

It is equally clear that there are many detailed and important suggestions for ways of improving provision; and some concerns about the safeguards that need to be retained. They have been reflected here today. I welcome the general tenor of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Addington. I may disagree with some of his technology. But he recognises that the Green Paper is not dogmatic; it seeks to generalise existing good practice and to stimulate new good practice. I hope that noble Lords will not be worried when I say that I agree with most of what the noble Lord said about special schools as centres of excellence, and his emphasis on the need to consider the different situations faced by children with different types of special educational needs.

I can assure the noble Lord that the Government have no intention to promote inclusion where that might damage an individual child's interest. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, we are not concerned about dogmatism but the appropriate mix of education for each child.

However, it is the Government's aim, subject to the outcome of the consultation, to increase the level and quality of inclusion within mainstream schools. That does not mean the end of special schools in any sense. Nor does it mean taking away the choice from parents that was incorporated in the 1993 Act, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred. The Education Act enables parents to express a preference for special

3 Feb 1998 : Column 595

schools where they consider that appropriate to their child's needs. The Green Paper and the Government make it clear that that right will remain. We want parents to choose a mainstream education in those areas where they feel that it is right for their children. As my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley emphasised, the majority of parents want inclusion within mainstream schools. It is already the fact that the vast majority of children with special educational needs are within mainstream schools already; and therefore the concentration to some extent must be on improving the quality of that inclusion.

The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and others, perhaps slightly underestimate the success which some mainstream schools have demonstrated in including a wide range of children with special education needs. To say that is not to disparage the achievement of specialist schools but to recognise also that mainstream schools have often been very successful. We want therefore to develop the quality of education in mainstream schools and the necessary support services to keep children in mainstream schools. The Green Paper sets out proposals to cut through the bureaucracy which parents often face. We recognise that there are a variety of views on the sensitive issue of where an individual child or form of disability will best prosper. We believe that some children currently educated solely in special schools would benefit educationally and socially from being in the mainstream school. But all schools are included as equal partners in the school community. The benefits are felt by all.

Traditionally the role of special schools has been to provide specialist teaching, support and facilities to meet the needs of the pupils. In excellent specialist schools, this has often meant a concentration of experience and expertise in a small number of establishments. We want to see a new role for special schools. The context in which they operate has already changed. The categorisation of special schools is no longer as clear as it once might have been, and many now cater for a wide range of increasingly complex needs. We are looking for better, more flexible schools, in some cases more specialised, with boarding facilities, and so on, rather than abolishing or reducing the special schools sector.

I entirely agree with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, about early identification of problems. In many cases that identification should happen pre-school, before even the baseline assessment comes into play. But we know that there are problems for those not identified as having SEN before they start in reception classes in mainstream schools. We need to consider that baseline assessment so that it is more targeted in regard to SEN assessment procedures. We want to make sure that no child drops through the cracks. We shall work with parents throughout, recognising that parents have a unique perspective on this.

We are quite clear that there will be a continuing and increasingly demanding role for special schools. We want to build on the expertise they have developed. We want them to become centres of excellence, working directly with children with complex special educational needs but also providing support to their mainstream colleagues. As with so much in the Green Paper, we

3 Feb 1998 : Column 596

know that that transformation will not happen overnight. Staff in special schools will need training to work alongside their mainstream colleagues; and they will need the time to do so. Nor should we forget that mainstream schools may have much from which special schools can learn.

In all of this we want to see a serious and continuing role for special schools. But over time we wish to see special schools providing a more flexible pattern of support. Some children will be in full time placements; others part-time or short-term. Staff will be supporting some children in mainstream schools. They will be helping mainstream schools to implement inclusion policies; and they will be a source of training and advice for mainstream colleagues. This is a challenging medium-term agenda, but it means that the term "special school" will no longer be a totally adequate reflection of what it does.

We also recognise that many different patterns of support beyond the school, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rix, referred, will be necessary to cater for the range of individual needs. At present there is a wide variation in the percentage of children in local authority areas who are educated in special schools. There is no reason why children with similar needs in different parts of the country should not have similar opportunities to attend mainstream schools; but in many cases they will need specialist support in the education and other services to take advantage of those opportunities.

When the Green Paper was launched, some people said that the Government were hostile to the process of statutory assessment and statementing. That is not the case. What we are concerned about is that, in some cases, the process is over-bureaucratic and not driven by children's needs. We pay tribute to the work that was done in this field some 20 years ago by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. She expresses some regret at the over-rigidity of the statement process, and we wish to break that down. Every statutory assessment carried out for a child whose needs could, with the right approach to funding and support, have been met without a statement means that resources that could have been used to provide support are instead diverted to bureaucratic procedures.

The question of resources, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is central to people's approach to the Green Paper. In regard to access to mainstream schools for children with special educational needs, we have already provided a substantial increase under the schools access initiative. In 1998-99, £11 million will be available in that area, compared with the £4 million allocated in 1997-98. The Secretary of State has also made clear his commitment to providing resources for this area in general.

A number of other points were raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, requested that we should hold discussions on these issues. I note the points that she made and the difficulties experienced by some children with special educational needs in mainstream schools. The noble Baroness may wish to speak to me, but my friend, Estelle Morris, who has special

3 Feb 1998 : Column 597

responsibility for that area, would also be willing to have a discussion with her, as she has already with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.

I assure the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is already working on the issues to which she refers. The outcome will be seen shortly. I recognise the important point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about post-16 provision. I shall refer his comments back to the department.

The Government are quite clear about the direction in which they want to move in relation to provision in mainstream schools. But they are also quite clear about the vital importance of developing and changing specialist schools. As the noble Lord, Lord Rix, said, a society that fails to educate all its citizens is failing all its citizens. We understand that point. We look forward to further consultation on the Green Paper and further discussion in this House. Certainly, the points made by your Lordships, including some to which I have not had time to reply, will be reflected back to the department during consideration of the Green Paper.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page