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Mr. Win Griffiths: I thank my hon. Friend for her response to the new clause, which, as I said earlier, is a probing motion. I did not intend all responsibility to fall on the local education authority, but I wanted the special provision that we are considering to be equal to other special education provision. The disability provisions, the aim of equal treatment and the research project, to which my hon. Friend referred, will help. I am therefore happy that the Department, in conjunction with the many agencies and voluntary bodies, is dealing with the matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
'The Secretary of State shall, in exercising his powers under the 1996 Act with respect to the education of children with special educational needs, take such steps as may be necessary to ensure that provision by bodies in receipt of public funds for meeting those needs should treat the needs of the individual child as paramount so far as that is compatible with the provision of efficient education for other children.'.--[Mrs. May.]
Mrs. May: I am conscious that the principle that underpins new clause 2 is not unfamiliar to those who have followed the Bill through its various stages in another place and in the House. It deals with the emphasis that the Bill should place on the needs of the individual child in the context of special educational needs provision.
The matter was raised in another place, on Second Reading and in Committee, where the details of the measure were thoughtfully and thoroughly debated. I pay tribute to the members of the Committee, especially my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who have worked hard to try to ensure that the measure works in the interests of children with special educational needs and disabled children.
New clause 2 would put the needs of individual children with special educational needs and those of individual disabled children at the heart of the measure. We have discussed the principle previously, but I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), will respond positively today. If members of the public were asked what should be paramount in determining provision for special needs children, their reply would undoubtedly be the needs of the child. That is common sense. They might also mention other aspects, which the Bill covers, such as parental choice about the provision for their children or ensuring that the child's
Although I believe that most people would say that it was common sense for the child's needs to be the first consideration, the Government have thus far been unwilling to include that principle in the Bill.
New clause 2 proposes that a duty be given to the Secretary of State to ensure that, when consideration is given to the provision of education to a child with special educational needs, the needs of the child should be paramount in that consideration. Two arguments have been raised by the Government about why the needs of the child should not be incorporated in the Bill, and should not be the prime consideration. The first is that it is unnecessary because the needs of the child are already provided for in legislation in a variety of ways; the second is that it would be a mistake because experience has shown that if the needs of the child are put first, that can be used by the various bodies involved to argue, in a counter-productive way, that the child should not, for example, be in a mainstream school. That second argument is the one raised most often.
The Under-Secretary wrote a helpful letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry on 24 April, setting out various aspects of existing legislation that the Government say safeguard and protect children with special educational needs. The Minister wrote that under section 7 of the Education Act 1996 parents have a duty to ensure that their children receive full-time education that is suitable to their age and any special educational needs.
The hon. Lady also pointed out that section 9 of the Act sets out the need to ensure that parents have a choice, and that schedule 27 of the Act ensures that the individual needs of the child are taken into account in deciding whether to name a parent's choice of maintained school in a statement. Those provisions refer to the needs of the child, but they do not put the needs of the child at the heart of the decision as to the sort of education with which the child should be provided, be it in a maintained school or a special school. That is my concern.
The Government's reliance on those existing provisions is a very convoluted way of approaching a simple, common-sense issue that could easily be incorporated in the Bill so that everyone making decisions about where a child with special educational needs should be educated would know that the paramount consideration should be for the needs of the child. That is important because, sadly, today the needs of the child are being put to one side in relation not only to the ability of children to enter mainstream education, but, in a reverse sense, sometimes through attempts to ensure that children are not provided for in special schools. The legislation on which the Minister is relying represents a convoluted way of dealing with this issue. We have an opportunity to take a simple approach, and to state in the Bill that the needs of the child are what matter. Let us put that up front, accept it and say that that is where the focus should be in any decisions that are taken.
I mentioned earlier that the second argument against making the needs of the child paramount, and including that in the Bill, was that experience showed that if the child's needs were put first, various bodies involved could use that requirement counter-productively. Indeed, on Second Reading, the hon. Member for Kingswood
It is a bad principle to use examples of where putting the child's needs first has acted against the child's needs as a reason for not incorporating such a provision in the Bill. That is an argument for examining how local authorities are interpreting the needs of the child, and putting those principles into practice, rather than for leaving the needs of the child off the Bill. My fear is that the kind of situation to which the hon. Member for Kingswood referred could be exacerbated if there were no provision in the Bill to ensure that, when considering such decisions, the needs of the child must be centrally placed and paramount.
I am worried not only about circumstances in which, without this provision, a child could be prevented by a local authority from going into mainstream education. Given that the Bill emphasises two considerations--parental wishes and the provision of efficient education within the recipient school--a situation could arise in which parents were worried about the prospect of their child going into mainstream education and were naturally fearful of the child not being in a special school. The mainstream school in question may argue that there might be some difficulties involved in teaching the child, despite the fact that the needs of the child would clearly be best met by being in that school. If that third consideration of the individual needs of the child, that balancing item, were not in the Bill, it would be all too easy in those circumstances for that child to be prevented from having a place in the mainstream school simply because we had not accepted the importance of those needs.
These arguments can act in another way, too. I am conscious of the problems faced by a number of special schools. They have considerable expertise in providing for the needs of individual children in a way that mainstream schools are often unable to meet. So far in this debate, considerable emphasis has understandably been placed on the needs of children with disabilities. That is a central and very welcome part of the Bill that we support. However, special educational needs do not simply relate to children with disabilities.
Many schools commenting on the issue of including children in mainstream education state that they have no difficulty with the principle, although there might be resource implications, for example, in accommodating a child who was a wheelchair user. However, those schools are concerned about children with emotional and behavioural difficulties who can cause real disruption and damage to the education of other children.
That is why it is so sad to see what is happening to schools such as Oldfield House school in Twickenham, which I visited yesterday. It is a special school for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties which is under threat of closure by the local authority. The school has had very few children referred to it, and the local authority has been running down the number of statements and referrals that it has been making to it.
In considering where a child with special educational needs, of whatever sort, can best be educated, it is important that the wishes of parents and the efficient provision of education should be considered, and the Bill rightly makes provision for those considerations. However, it is also simple common sense and in the best interests of children to ensure that their needs should be placed at the heart of the Bill. Their needs drive the Bill, and their needs drive our intention to provide the best possible education for them. We should recognise that in the Bill, and new clause 2 aims to provide that recognition.