Special Educational Needs

31st January 2007

During a debate on 'Special Educational Needs' in the House of Commons, Brooks Newmark raises concerns at a lack of consistency and calls for a fundamental review of special educational needs that puts the child's needs first and foremost.


6.24 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Like many colleagues in this House, I have a child with significant special educational needs. I have also been a school governor at two schools where I was responsible for special needs education, and for the past 20 months many people have come to talk to me about the issue.

Given that communication is one of the crucial tools for children with special educational needs, we all know that speech and language therapy must be at the core of what they require. As the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has said,

"without shared communication, there is automatic exclusion and isolation".

The Government's aspiration for inclusion for all children is admirable, but, unfortunately, their policy of removing barriers to achievement is not working.

I wish to talk briefly about my son, Max, because his experiences and what I, as his parent, have gone through are instructive. He is 14 years old. For the first nine years we tried very hard to keep him at the same school as his three other siblings. Unfortunately, year after year his confidence went down. We struggled; we fought with the school to keep him, and it played ball with us by keeping him there. Unfortunately, in the end neither Max nor the school could cope, so we moved him. We were lucky; we were able to move him to a specialist school. Over the next four years, he improved dramatically-his self-confidence in particular improved-and last year, when he was 13, we were able to bring him back into the mainstream. The problem with the current system is that there is no flexibility for children who do not have parents who have the ability-perhaps such as me-to fight hard for their children and who have the financial wherewithal to move their children to specialist schools. Many of my constituents cannot even articulate the problems that their children have.

However, for children without severe needs, the Government's strategy has been working. Many schools in my constituency do a great job for children who do not have significant educational needs, such as those with dyslexia. Mainstream schools now have the ability to help to support children with such special needs. However, Baroness Warnock has said-and I must agree with her-that special educational needs

"has come to be the name of a single category, and the government uses it as if it is the same problem to include a child in a wheelchair and a child with Asperger's, and that is conspicuously untrue."

Unfortunately, for children with severe needs, the system seems-for whatever reason-to be failing. Schools are shutting down, and there is a lack of qualified teachers to help children; there are even staff cuts. Last weekend, I met one of my constituents, Pauline Hicks, whose 9-year-old daughter, Darcey, is severely deaf. She showed me a letter that she had received from the speech and language therapy manager of Mid Essex primary care trust to the head teacher of her daughter's school that said:

"I am writing to let you know that our service is currently undergoing a review following changes in the NHS and as a result of staff shortages. This means we will be offering a restricted service."

Because of a lack of resources there is now nowhere for her to take her daughter to receive the support that she needs. The problem is that, with the best will in the world, if the Government want to deliver on their objectives, they must put in the necessary resources.

Chapel Hill school in Braintree was in a very poor area. It went into special measures, and when it did so, I decided to become a school governor. Of the children attending Chapel Hill, 42 per cent. had some form of special educational needs, yet when I arrived there was not a single special educational needs teacher. We eventually found one who had had six weeks' training, but it was too late. The school had to close and the children and the community were ultimately broken up-in some families three children ended up going to three different schools.

Southview school, another excellent school in my constituency, has just built a beautiful new building, yet the Government have made its task of kitting it out more difficult by ending the excellent communication aids project. The problem is the lack of consistency in Government funding. There is no point in funding for one or two years; there must be consistency.

However, the biggest challenge, as we heard from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), is statementing. Although most of our children learn their ABC, children who need statementing-and their families-are learning a less benign version of the ABC. It begins with "Assessment", goes on to "Bureaucracy" and ends with "Complexity". This is a big issue.

As the report of the "Parliamentary hearings on services for disabled children" said of those with special needs,

"Access to statements should not be used as a means of rationing resources nor should a statement be used as a reason to deny services".

The Education and Skills Select Committee's report on special needs identified

"an inbuilt conflict of interest in the system"

and recommended that

"The link must be broken between assessment and funding".

The problem is that the system involves reverse engineering. The approach taken is, "Let's figure out what pocket of money we have today-what pool of money-and let's see how we can allocate it", instead of putting children's needs at the front and centre. I therefore ask the Government to conduct a fundamental review of special educational needs that puts the child's needs first and foremost.

6.31 pm


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