Special Educational Needs

26th October 2006

Brooks Newmark calls on the Government to undertake a long-overdue "root-and-branch review" of Special Educational Needs provision to ensure all children have access to the support that they need.

 

4.26 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I, too, am delighted to speak in this debate and to pay tribute to the Committee's work. Although I welcome the report, it should not have been necessary to reiterate calls for a review of the statementing process four years after the Audit Commission's report. Nor should it have been necessary for the Committee to request a specific response from the Government on alternatives to statementing which addresses the issues of

"early identification and assessment of needs, efficient and equitable allocation of resources, and the appropriate placement of pupils based on their needs and taking account of parental preference."

Those simple processes should already be at the heart of both policy and practice.

The subject is close to my heart for, like my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), I have a child with special needs. It is also a subject that, like other hon. Members, I come across almost weekly in my constituency surgeries. The provision of special needs education appears to me to be the last bastion of education ideology. Since 1981 at least, the theory has been stretched to fit the observable facts. The recognition that experience no longer matches a preconceived model is, within certain fields, called a paradigm shift, presumably because it sounds learned. I prefer to call such a realisation common sense.

I am delighted that the Committee has recommended that the Government should clarify their guidance on inclusion. I also welcome what has been somewhat uncharitably dubbed Baroness Warnock's U-turn on the subject, because it offers some hope that given time even Government policy will be able to adapt in the face of experience. The doctrine of inclusion was intended to recognise that SEN is a broad church, but it has instead sustained a blinkered orthodoxy in which children with a variety of needs are increasingly perceived as a homogenous group.

When I visited Southview school in my constituency recently to open a fantastic new building, one of the messages that both staff and parents wanted me to understand about the challenges the school faced was that their pupils had different skills and complex needs. Just like everyone else, they needed support that was tailored to meet those needs.

It is a damning indictment of the system that even Baroness Warnock believes that

"SEN 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."

Indeed, the only neat category of children with special educational needs seems to be the shameful number of them who are not in education, employment or training-NEET.

The spectrum of needs is most apparent when we consider the autistic spectrum disorder. Indeed, the name gives the uninitiated a pretty good clue about what to expect. Despite that, most people's preconceptions about Asperger's syndrome are based on little more than Mark Haddon's prize-winning novel, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time". One of my constituents, Mrs. Jayne Metcalf, is one of many mothers fighting for a better outcome for her child. She wrote to me recently about her son Josh, who is nearly eight and has been diagnosed with Asperger's. The Committee has already invited the Minister to read the 230 written submissions received in the course of this inquiry, but I would like to share Mrs. Metcalf's observations on the current system.

Despite being diagnosed by a paediatrician in April, only now is Josh beginning the statementing process. In the meantime, Mrs. Metcalf is having to keep him at home. That is not the mainstream school's fault, she says; it simply does not have the staff or the budget to cope with him. Why, she asks, does he need a statement when he already has a medical diagnosis? Perhaps the Minister can answer that question for her. Better still, perhaps he can abide by the Committee's recommendation that early diagnosis of children with autism or Asperger's is preferential to statementing. Mrs. Metcalf also asks why the system is geared towards the easy recognition of physical disabilities and not behavioural issues. Happily the Committee also recommended:

"Schools need better guidance and staff training in dealing with disruptive behaviour by children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, particularly Asperger's Syndrome, and social, emotional and behavioural difficulties."

Perhaps the Minister will take that on board as well.

The irony implicit in the discussion of inclusion is that SEN provision is always perceived as being separate from mainstream education, even when its aims seem to be collaborative. The language of collaboration has itself become pejorative, and it now seems to be a precursor to the pitched battle that so often occurs between councils, teachers and parents.

The Committee heard that statementing is a

"costly, bureaucratic and unresponsive process"

that is conducted in an "environment of conflict", with parents forced into an "adversarial stance" by the current system. SEN provision in mainstream education seems often to be tacked on as an inconvenient afterthought. As a final straw, in the one area in which separation is desperately needed-between the assessment and delivery of SEN provision, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham alluded-it is absent. Breaking the link between the two is the first of the interim recommendations from the Conservative party's commission on special needs; and the Committee, too, was unequivocal on that point.

The Government need to bring special needs education into the mainstream education policy agenda instead of simply trying to integrate children with special needs into mainstream schools. I am not coming down on either side of the fence on the issue of inclusion or special schools. Indeed, one of the benefits of the Government's advocacy of a "continuum of provision" is that there is no need to choose a side, but a true continuum of provision implies a choice of delivery-not a choice to seek the best solution for a child, but the right to see it happen.

My researcher Christian has a mild form of cerebral palsy, but he attended an independent mainstream school because he was not offered the choice of attending a mainstream school within the state sector. I want to see a system in which there is some recognition that parents who have children with special needs are often in the best position to know what those needs are-the very point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell).

The responses received during the BBC Radio 4 programme prove beyond doubt that inclusion suits some children but not others. We need to view special and mainstream schools as being complementary, not competitive. We should not be afraid of returning to a system in which the supply of special schools reflects parental demand rather than provoking a hollow laugh from parents who cannot get their children into one.

On the question of supply, my constituents are fortunate to be well served by two special schools, the Edith Borthwick school in Braintree and Southview school in Witham. A third school, Kingswode Hoe, is outside my patch, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) would not mind my drawing attention to the good that it does for many of my constituents.

The Committee visited several special schools in Essex, but unfortunately none of those in my constituency. I invite the Minister to visit Southview school and to see the new building there. Southview has now reached the halfway point in a campaign to raise £44,000 for new equipment to fit out the building-a task not made easier since Government support for the communication aids project ended. Far from being an inaccessible resource for the few able to attend the school, the deputy head teacher, Paul Ellis, is optimistic, saying:

"With funding, our new building can become a centre for excellence, not just for our students but for the wider community."

In other words, he is optimistic that Southview can take its place in the "continuum of provision". I also welcome the Committee's recommendation that we need to develop a national strategy for minimum standards of access to therapy.

The last letter that I received from Mrs. Elizabeth Drake, the head teacher of Kingswode Hoe school, expressed her despair at the difficulty of continuing to provide sufficient speech and language therapy for the school. That should be one of the foundations ofSEN provision, not an optional extra. I urge the Government to undertake the root-and-branch review of SEN provision that they avoided for far too long. We should ensure that children like Josh Metcalf have access to the support that they need so that, to paraphrase Christopher Boon, they can enjoy more good days than black.

4.36 pm

 

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