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Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): The hon. Gentleman says that in the real world SEN children are dumped into mainstream schools. Will he advise the House which local education authorities behave in that way?
Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman has deliberately misrepresented what I said. I said that if the Bill is enacted, and if the interests of children are not paramount, that is what may happen. I am delighted that what I have said appears to have stirred up a hornets' nest on the Labour Benches. I have obviously touched a raw nerve. Many children receive first-rate education in special schools but there is a danger that if this process continues, they may not receive sufficiently good education.
Mr. Berry: The only reason that I intervened is because the hon. Gentleman referred to "the real world". His description is inconsistent with anything that any local education authority I have ever encountered would do. He talks about dumping children with special educational needs in mainstream schools as if that were the practice of local education authorities. If that is the case, he should either name the local education authorities concerned or apologise for what I regard as a deep slur on what the professionals are trying to do.
I have already mentioned Paul Strong, the head teacher of William Farr. Another head teacher, Barry Tointon of Caistor Yarborough school, said that it was essential for adequate money to be provided. They both said that there was nothing that they could do to incorporate more SEN children into their schools without more money and more resources. They do not have any more money lying around to spend on more assistance. They both appreciate the benefits that can be gained but say that it is not possible to do it without the relevant support, funding and training for them and their teachers.
Cherie Taylor, a new SEN co-ordinator in my constituency, said that training was very hard to come by but that she had been fortunate to get a course for a master's degree in the subject. She is in favour of inclusion but emphasises the need for funding.
If the legislation is to be a success, the Government must ensure that sufficient resources are made available to prevent the law from becoming ineffective and damaging to children. The £70 million promised for 25,000 schools per year amounts to an extra £280 per school--hardly a lot of money. It is not enough for the inclusion of more SEN children.
There is no point in the Government producing worthy legislation and putting more burdens on teachers and local authorities without providing the means to make the Bill work. The constant refrain of the teachers I have talked to is to give them the money and they will do their best to carry out these requirements in a difficult situation.
Other fears voiced by SEN teachers include the widespread belief that the Bill does not allow or sufficiently encourage the communication and co-ordination that we have become accustomed to hearing about, but not seeing, in what is supposed to be joined-up government. They believe that there is a need for more communication between the many different agencies that may be involved in a single child's case. That would encourage them to share their information and expertise and to work for the holistic and rounded treatment of a child with SEN. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members agree with that point of view. Such co-ordination is also needed between the NHS and the Department for Education and Employment to ensure that there are enough staff to meet all the child's needs. For example, there may not be nearly enough occupational therapists or speech and language therapists to meet the demands of schools for their children with SEN.
Let me make a point about regulation which also concerns the interests of the child. A teacher told me that he had been raising money for a stair lift over the past few years and had finally got the necessary funds through
We need more common sense, fewer counter- productive regulations and more communication. We need to ensure that the best interests of the child are paramount. We need to ensure that special schools are not closed down, thus reducing choice, and that there is proper funding. These are the points that I have tried to make in my brief contribution and I hope that the Government will listen to them.
We heard an interesting contribution from the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), as always. However, his undoubted passion and sincerity led him astray in certain areas. To argue that schools should not somehow be able to garner to them pupils with particular needs or aptitudes--irrespective of whether that is a good or a bad thing for SEN children--is strange coming from a party that recommends selection by the schools themselves. By definition, that means that some schools do not have the opportunity to get the children that they want because they have been cherry-picked by other schools.
The hon. Gentleman could have made the same analogy with regard to secondary moderns. In areas where there are grammar schools, they have a higher proportion of pupils from poorer backgrounds and poorer educational backgrounds who never get the life chances that are available in excellent comprehensive schools. By analogy, the hon. Gentleman is on dodgy ground, regardless of the merits of the point that he was making. On that, I share the views of those right hon. and hon. Members who intervened on him.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I really cannot allow that attack on secondary modern schools to go unchallenged. Many secondary modern schools where grammar schools exist provide a first-class education. An example is the Gleed girls school in my constituency, which achieves better results than many comprehensive schools. I am sure that, when the hon. Gentleman has had time to reflect on his ill judged remark, he will want to withdraw it.
Dr. Harris: I am conscious that I am about to speak to amendment No. 1, but the evidence is clear that comprehensive education has delivered better standards than was delivered by the system of grammar schools and secondary moderns.
Before I turn to amendment No. 1, I should say that Liberal Democrat Members oppose new clause 2, for reasons that we gave in Committee. I was somewhat shocked--although not surprised--to be accused by the hon. Member for Gainsborough of making a debating
I agree with the hon. Member for Gainsborough that there are similarities between action taken to deliver the educational needs of children and action taken in their best interests, but the notion of "best interest" is always subjective. For example, if there is a conflict between doctors and parents over medical matters, it is often left to the courts to decide whether doctors pursued a child's best interests. In connection with education, the views of parents, local authorities and schools may well differ about what is in a child's best interests.
My second point is that two separate criteria cannot be paramount. Both can be important and worthy of consideration, but my dictionary shows that the word "paramount" implies that one consideration must be placed above another.
We accept assurances given in this House, in another place and in the letter sent to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) that the Bill is designed to ensure that the educational needs of any child are met, particularly when those needs are special. However, within that general approach, the Bill stipulates that the wishes of parents should be paramount.
In Committee, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) said that the wishes of parents--invariably and by definition--were in the best interest of the child. I consider that that may not always be the case, but if one accepts that it is generally right to trust parents, the new clause introduces a conflict in that regard.
Conservative Members say that they want there to be more respect for parental choice. Their belief--which I consider flawed--is that that can be delivered by allowing schools, rather than parents, to select. The language of the new clause is not consistent with that belief.
Many members of the Standing Committee made two points, at length. The first was that a provision similar to the one contained in the new clause has been used to deny children places in mainstream schools when that would have been in their best interests. That is a historical fact and must be taken into account. The second is that most of the organisations that support the rights of children with special educational needs oppose the new clause and support the undertakings given by the Government.
As I have said before, that in itself is not a sufficient argument for the rejection of the new clause, as it is the job of the House to question the Government regardless of what outside bodies say. However, a powerful impression is made when such bodies form a coalition to oppose a new clause such as this. I accept that the proposal is well intentioned, but it is critically flawed.
Clearly, there is a duty to consider the delivery of effective education. For example--and the circumstances that I shall describe are much rarer than is often claimed--it may be impossible to deliver effective education to a child with special educational needs arising from challenging behaviour in class. By effective education, I mean the delivery of the curriculum in a safe way. However, it might be possible to deliver that education safely, but at an increased cost. By definition, the extra steps that would have to be taken in my example would render the delivery of education less efficient than it would otherwise have been. There is therefore some peril in the use of the word "efficient" which would be avoided by the use of the word "effective".
Do the Government accept that there are significant funding restrictions on schools and local authorities? The Government always quote figures to show how much money is going into education, but those figures are pretty meaningless. As was discussed in Committee, who would not say that another £20 million would always make things better? The Minister must accept that an insistence on the word "efficient" will mean that some schools and local authorities may well say that they are suffering from the financial restrictions arising out of the unfair and undemocratic capping regime that the Government have retained.
The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), for example, waxed lyrical in Committee--and eloquent today--about the Gloucestershire local education authority. Authorities like that could well argue that lack of funding forces them to reject a mainstream place for a child with special educational needs, even though effective and safe education can still be delivered for other children.
Conservative Members ought to bear that in mind as well. I do not want to go into the merits of individual cases or of Conservative policy in general, but the Conservative proposal to ensure that there are more exclusions would have cost implications for any special units that are set up. Accountants would regard the proposal as a less efficient way to ensure delivery of education for children with special educational needs, even though it may be appropriate for the effective and safe education of other children.
The point at issue is a serious one. If cases are to be challenged at tribunal or later in the appeals process, it is important to know what is the Government's thinking on the question of cost as a factor. Unless she is going to accept the amendment, I hope that the Minister will explain why she is not happy with the proposal to substitute the word "effective" for "efficient".