Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 84:

(1) No special school in England shall be closed without the prior authorisation of the Secretary of State.
(2) The Secretary of State shall by regulations prescribe a suitable mechanism to allow him to comply with his powers under this section.
(3) No special school in Wales shall be closed without the prior authorisation of the Assembly.
(4) The Assembly shall by regulations prescribe a suitable mechanism to allow it to comply with its powers under this section."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the closure of special schools is an emotive and sensitive area. Nevertheless, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the issue, following the conversation last week between the Prime Minister and Mrs Maria Hutchings. Wearing my other hat as leader of Essex County Council, as I often have to do, I am happy to give Mrs Hutchings and the Prime Minister a firm assurance that there are no plans at all to close the school that she was frightened might be closed—Cedar Hall in Thundersley. That incident perfectly sums up the strength of feeling around the issue. In moving the amendment, I am attempting to safeguard the future of special schools throughout England and Wales by securing an inbuilt safeguard against the closure of some schools.

Since 1997, more than 70 special schools have closed, yet the numbers of children with the most severe needs who are in mainstream schools have gone up by 49 per cent. It is rather doubtful that the policy of including more and more children with special educational needs in mainstream schools is always extremely successful. We are also aware that around a quarter of all pupils will suffer from some form of special needs, whether a passing behavioural problem or a more severe and permanent disability, during their schooling.

Teachers in mainstream schools find that they have to cope with an increasing number of pupils with special needs. Many head teachers recently surveyed said that the number of children with special educational needs had risen over the past year, and included an increase in pupils with behavioural problems. That goes back to several debates that we have had on the Bill. If you are to include those children in mainstream schools, there have to be sufficient resources and support to do that.
24 Feb 2005 : Column 1370

The Government support a policy of inclusion—we all support it where that is the right thing to do—under which people with physical disabilities or behavioural problems can be taught in mainstream schools. I repeat that inclusion can be achieved only with the right resources and for the right young people. A number of head teachers have said that parents of children without special needs have voiced concerns about the levels of time that teachers have to devote to children with special needs. I go back to my county of Essex. I recently received a deputation from parents on both sides—those wanting to keep their children in a special school, and those of children at another school who were concerned about its performance because they felt that there were too many children with problems and not enough support in it.

There is a danger that the policy of inclusion has gone too far too fast. We on these Benches want to ensure that disabled children are not suffering educationally from the policy. Far from believing in diversity of provision, the Government have constantly pursued a "one size fits all" ideological obsession with inclusion. I repeat that we should assess every young person on what they require.

We are under no illusion about the sensitivity of the question; I live with it a lot of the time. We have a moral obligation to do everything that we can to ensure that children with special needs receive the best care and education that they can. However, there must be a realisation that some of those young people, given the severity of their condition, will never be able to be incorporated into the mainstream, and nor should they be. That is why it is so important to do all that we can to protect the continuing provision of special schools in this country. That is why we tabled the amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Warnock: My Lords, I would like very strongly to support this amendment. There is often a difficulty where children with special needs are lumped together as if their needs were all the same. That is far from true. It has also become very much the habit of the Government to talk of special schools with a kind of qualified respect as suitable for children with very severe and complex needs.

There is a large number of children for whom inclusion in mainstream schools is totally unsuitable. Those are children who really can flourish only in small schools, in an intelligible and stable environment. The danger is that if a local authority finds, as it will, that a small school is an expensive school, there is a temptation to close that school and go along with the current thinking of inclusion. That may be severely damaging to some children—not those with the most obvious educational difficulties, but those who are, for example, somewhere along the autistic continuum and who cannot survive, except just physically, in a mainstream school.

I feel very strongly that the policy of any government ought to be to look seriously at the different needs of children with special educational needs and to retain schools that are suitable for those children. This amendment is therefore essential.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, I wish to support the remarks that have just been made. I have
24 Feb 2005 : Column 1371
had experience of the very high quality work that can be found in special schools. I stress the point made about the variety of needs. The implication is that provision will be in small pockets, whether in individual schools or across the country. Therefore, the logistics of a very sensible policy of inclusion where appropriate—and I do not detract in any way from that policy—will carry the risk of local closures that are not in the national interest , where there has to be nationwide provision for the particular needs for which these schools cater.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, from these Benches we support the Government's inclusion agenda where it is suitable for the child. We also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, that inclusion is not suitable for every child. The needs of the individual child must be catered for properly, but that creates problems.

Special schools do a wonderful job with so many children, and I hope that the Minister will tell us how their great expertise can be used, not just for the children who attend those schools but for the wider community of schools that also have children with some of the same problems for whom mainstream schooling is suitable. However, although we are usually in favour of letting local authorities make these decisions, in this special situation there is a need for somebody to take a strategic review of provision.

Special schools often serve children in adjacent local authorities. Therefore a decision to close one school by one local authority may have a profound effect on children from another LEA. That is why a strategic view must be taken, and the Secretary of State is probably the right person to do that.

The break-up of the county of Berkshire by the Conservative government into a number of unitary authorities meant that Addington School, which deals with children with profound disabilities, ended up in the Wokingham LEA area. However, it also takes children from another authority—Reading. If Wokingham decided to close the school, that would affect Reading. What recourse would Reading have in that situation? There has to be some recourse and some strategic planning for such specialist provision, which is of such a high quality in most cases and is so important to particularly needy children.

We support the general thrust of this amendment, although we feel that the wording might need working on to some extent. Local government has been changed enormously over the past 10 years and that has produced anomalies. It is because of these anomalies that a strategic view must be taken.

Lord Dearing: My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, urges government intervention then I am very impressed and persuaded. From my own experience, while inclusion is right in principle for some children, children with severe learning disabilities need special provision. I know, for example, a school where the learning difficulties are multiple, severe and complex. The principle of inclusion can be pushed too far. While I
24 Feb 2005 : Column 1372
am not saying that this amendment is right, what it seeks to achieve is right and I hope the Government can accommodate the intention behind the amendment.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I would genuinely welcome a proper and full debate on special education needs at some stage in the Chamber, mainly because it is one of my day job responsibilities, which I am pleased to have, but also because that would be more appropriate than having it on a passing Education Bill which is essentially about the inspection system. I shall have difficulty in being brief, given the importance and complexity of these issues, but I shall do my best.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. She is absolutely right when she says that the diversity of children's special needs means that it is not easy to have a simple set of solutions or procedures. It requires much more individuation than that. There are also a lot of myths about the Government's stance on special schools and what inclusion means.

The numbers of places in special schools have not changed much over recent years. The Government are clear that special schools play a key and important part of the overall provision available for children with special educational needs. As the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, said, many of them have done an outstanding job in nurturing the talent of the most disadvantaged children in our society.

We firmly believe that special schools have an important, ongoing role within the overarching frame of provision for children with special educational needs, both in terms of educating pupils with severe and complex learning needs in their own school and also providing outreach support to mainstream schools. That is exactly the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, was interested in. In other words, where a special school is a centre of expertise but is also a support in terms of specialist teaching to other schools and is also a place where, for part of the week or a day, a child might come from a mainstream school into the special school and vice versa. In this way there is much more sophisticated movement as well as the teaching support of the special school for the mainstream school.

That pattern happens in many authorities, but we are keen to promote it further. That is why we announced in December that we would be using the specialist school status and the funding that goes with it to validate very good special schools and support them in their outreach work and their relationship with mainstream schools. I hope that we will be able to take this forward in coming years so that we will have many more specialist schools working in partnership with mainstream schools.

Clearly, the needs of many children with SEN can be met in mainstream schools, but they will often need support from specialist schools. That is why it is necessary to see the relevance of special schools as part of the provision. We want to promote this by encouraging special schools to participate in federations, cluster and twinning arrangements. Capital grants can help in this process.
24 Feb 2005 : Column 1373

I do not pretend for a second that these issues are easy, or that all local authorities have got it right. Some local authorities have reorganised special schools in their area. It is an incredibly delicate issue. Parents feel passionately about their child, and for good reason. They are passionate because they fear that the system will not deliver for them and therefore they have to battle the system, because the system does not always deliver. Any move by a local authority to change the pattern of provision of special schools in an area is therefore fraught with intense difficulty.

That does not mean to say that the local authority should not do it and it certainly does not mean that it always gets it right. There are examples of local authorities around the country which have carried out complicated restructuring of their special school provision. They believe that they can give better learning to the children within and a better pattern of support between special and mainstream schools. They have done that with little parental objection. Other local authorities have done it and produced what looks like a small civil war in their area.

We in government are acutely interested in how we provide an appropriate policy framework and appropriate support and guidance to local authorities in grappling with those issues. We are also addressing the need for local authorities to look wider than their usually narrow area and to look at the pattern of provision in a sub-region. That issue was touched on by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland. I give the House my undertaking that I shall explore that specifically in discussions with officials. It seems to me a right and proper issue. However, it seems to me foolish to believe that the right answer is to say that all these decisions should be taken by the Secretary of State.

Without going into our discussion on localism and centralism, which we have had throughout the morning—we seem to change ends of the tennis court on this—there is a local process. The system provides an objective balance between proposals put forward by the local authority and the needs of the local community. There must be consultation. Parents must have a full opportunity to give their views and, ultimately, the school organisations committee, not the local authority, makes the decision on whether the closure of a special school should take place.

The local authority can propose, but it cannot determine on this: the school organisations committee does so. If the committee is not agreed on the matter, it goes to the local adjudicator. Again, there is the possibility of a body, which is not the local authority, hearing the views of parents and others as to whether these decisions are right and to make a final decision.

It would be nice if one could think that the Secretary of State, remote from local reality, was best placed to make those decisions. However, we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that that was the right answer. Therefore, we are interested in how we encourage thoughtfulness by local authorities on good provision; better processes for involving parents and others in the
24 Feb 2005 : Column 1374
discussions about why change is necessary rather than it being felt that it is forced; ensuring that there are systems for looking wider than the local authority's narrow patch; and that there is proper strategic planning with the involvement of parents in the locality.

I am not being flippant. This is a crucially important agenda and we are putting a lot of time into it. We hope to be making further announcements on it before the Summer Recess. If it were as simple as saying, "Let the Secretary of State make all these decisions", it would be wonderful, but it is not and it would not add much value. I am not being dismissive because I understand the motivation behind the amendment, but that is not the answer. Unfortunately, the answers are more complex. We are working on them and I look forward to discussing them with the House at a better opportunity than now.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page