The Alderman Knight Action Group organised a visit to the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday 20th March with the help of Tewkesbury MP, Lawrence Robertson. A coach full of parents and some children from Alderman Knight School together with local councillors and represenatives from other Gloucestershire Special Schools took the opportunity to express there views to MPs.
We had useful discussions with the Conservative Education Spokesperson Theresa May and several other members of the opposition education team. Stroud MP David Drew also turned up, but no government education representative. We gave each of the MPs we talked with an information leaflet produced jointly by the AKS Action Group and the GSSPL.
Our visit coincided with the second reading of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill and we got several mentions in the debate. We were delighted to hear that large sections of our leaflet were directly quoted in the debate.
Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] because it does not explicitly give priority to the special educational needs of the child and contains no mechanism for safeguarding a viable choice for parents between types of school.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I thank my hon. Friend for coming to the Jubilee Room just before the debate started, to listen to the concerns of pupils, teachers and parents from Alderman Knight school in Gloucestershire, who feel that their school is under threat because of the Government's actions. Does she regret, as I do, that not a single Labour Front Bencher was able to call in, even for five minutes?
Mrs. May: Indeed. Those parents, teachers and children were speaking from their hearts and expressing their feelings about the proposed closure of the Alderman Knight school and other special schools in Gloucestershire. Later in my remarks, I shall deal with the threat that hangs over so many special schools.
There are also parents such as those whom I met at Thurlow Park school in Lambeth and the Lydgate special school in Colne Valley, and those whom I heard this afternoon from Alderman Knight school in Gloucestershire, whose children have tried mainstream schools and have found that while they might be physically included in the mainstream school, they have often been excluded from full participation in the school and from realising their full potential. The same children have blossomed in the special school environment.
It is only common sense, and fair and just, to include the best interests of the child, alongside those of other children in the school and of parents. The latter two groups are already identified in the Bill.
Dr. Ladyman: Surely, without the caveat, the Bill ensures the primacy of the parents' wishes in respect not only of mainstream places but of special school places.
Mrs. May: As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), I intend to speak in more detail about special schools. Sadly, the primacy of the interests of special schools is not being maintained. The Bill does not allow it to continue or to be enhanced. We must ensure that children's best interests can be taken into consideration and that their needs are balanced. I accept that that balance can often be difficult to achieve, but if it is not clearly stated that the best interests of the child lie at the heart of the Bill, many children will be unable to develop their full potential. Children will be placed in mainstream education against their interests and their parents' wishes.
As more children are integrated into mainstream education where that is right for them, the number requiring special schools is falling. However, a more worrying process is at work. Local education authorities simply stop statementing children or so drag their feet over statementing that children do not enter special schools. Those schools then close, not because parents have chosen another school but through a process of stealth. That point was specifically made to me by the parents and governors I saw from Alderman Knight special school in Gloucestershire, who said that that was happening in the county.
Parents of children at Kingswode Hoe school in Colchester, whom I met recently with my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), are also concerned about that. In a letter to the Secretary of State, a member of the Kingswode Hoe action group said:
"To apply the limited success stories and suggest Inclusion works for all children with special needs is a gross misinterpretation of the truth. One cannot apply a blanket rule for all children.
Parents of children who attend special needs schools recognise the difference in education that they have to offer. Many parents may have experienced a failed Mainstream education for their special needs children who then subsequently flourish in a Special needs school setting. There is no need for radical change. Surely the task in hand would be to improve even more on what we already have rather than set a policy in motion which may adversely affect these young more vulnerable members of our society."
The same concern has also been raised by parents from Alderman Knight and other special schools--those who are members of the Gloucestershire special schools protection league--who clearly make their point:
"Inclusion has never been the issue!
Our dispute with the LEA concerns:
The right of parents to choose the most appropriate type of provision for their child.
The right of each child to be educated in an environment in which they feel secure and can realise their potential.
We also do not expect miracles. We do, however, expect that after several years of little progress and often misery for the child, it should be recognised that this provision"--
that is, mainstream provision--
"is not appropriate and that transfer to a special school should be routine. We do not expect to encounter obstruction and even downright lies in support of a dubious political objective.
Surely it can be of little surprise to anyone that parents are united in support of these excellent schools in which we have seen our children flourish, when so many of us have direct experience of the failure of the alternative on offer."
That is where the balanced approach is important.
Mr. Laurence Robertson: I think that the hon. Gentleman has the issue upside down. People who have children with special educational needs are concerned that their children will not receive an appropriate education. Can he also tell us why the Liberal Democrats in Gloucestershire have driven through a closure programme since publication of the Government's Green Paper?
Mr. Willis: I cannot speak for my colleagues in Gloucestershire or elsewhere; they must speak for themselves. Clearly, they are elected locally to act in the best interests of youngsters in Gloucestershire, and I have no doubt that they have done so to the very best of their abilities.
Mr. Robertson: They have done their best to close schools.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): Today has been quite an experience, because I welcomed 50 people to the Jubilee Room from the Alderman Knight school in my constituency. The school feels very much under threat because of the policies pursued by Gloucestershire county council and an unholy alliance of Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors.
The county council has already proposed the closure of Bownham Park school in Stroud and I have written to the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to ask him what judgment he will make on that proposal. People in Gloucestershire are certainly not persuaded that the school should close, and his decision will give us an indication as to his views on special schools.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith): I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a close interest in the future of the special schools in his constituency, but does he accept the point, which I have made to him previously, that the final decision is not for the Secretary of State, but for the local school organisation committee? If it is not unanimous, it will then be a matter for an independent adjudicator.
Mr. Robertson: Yes, I accept that, but the school organisation committee has failed to be unanimous, so it will be left to an adjudicator to make the decision. Therefore I do not accept that the decision is entirely out of the Secretary of State's hands. [Interruption.] Well, we shall see what happens. Certainly, Gloucestershire county council was sparked into action by the Government's Green Paper and is proposing to close the special schools.
If the Bill is accepted in its present form, it will be a triumph of theory over practice. When the people from the school visited the House of Commons, almost the entire Conservative Front-Bench team came to listen to their views. Although Ministers were asked many weeks ago to attend and were reminded this week, not one member of the Government team could find even a couple of minutes to call in. Perhaps that reflects their views on special schools. Ministers are shaking their heads, but I do not know why. The invitations were sent out many weeks ago and they were reminded again this week.
A young boy called Brian Beard has not been educated in any school since September, because the local education authority will not recognise his parents' wish for him to be educated in a special school. He was present today, as was another girl. She was in tears as she described how she simply could not cope in a mainstream school. Eventually, she was placed in a special school and she has developed considerably since she has been there.
For many children for whom inclusion has taken place, it is the correct policy. However, it is important to recognise the needs of individual children and they and their parents must decide the best place for their education. The Bill will not give parents that ability. It states that if there is no statement, the child will have to be educated in a mainstream school. The problem, however, is that local authorities are not efficient in their statementing.
Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend the Minister may correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that local education authorities have to take account of parents' wishes for their child to be educated in a special school. Nothing in the Bill will change that. If that does not happen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, it is up to him to make sure that it does.
Mr. Robertson: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me how to do that without bringing it to the attention of the Secretary of State and Ministers. It is my job as a Member of Parliament to raise issues with them. That is what I am doing and what I have done many times before. Only a few hours ago, I got the permission of the young boy's parents to give Ministers his name and address if they want it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has good intentions, but the boy has not been educated since September.
Miss Begg: I am slightly puzzled by the hon. Gentleman's statement. He describes the situation as it pertains today. Nothing in the Bill will make that the norm. If anything, the Bill will help to ensure that children are appropriately educated, according to the wishes of their parents. He should welcome it.
Mr. Robertson: My reading of the Bill is different. I can only base my comments on the experience in Gloucestershire since the Green Paper was published. The other parties in the council have got together to drive through a programme of closure of special schools. That is the reality. We can talk in this place all we want, but that is what is happening on the ground. I am paid as a Gloucestershire Member of Parliament to bring that to the attention of Ministers and I hope that they will respond.
Many hon. Members--in particular Labour Members--have claimed that children are being denied access to mainstream schools because of their special educational needs. I fully recognise that that might happen. However, no parent has written to me about that problem. Instead, many parents, including those who were here today, have complained that they cannot get places in the special schools that they believe their children deserve.
Heads, teachers, governors and pupils at mainstream schools are concerned about the inclusion policy. They know that if children struggle in mainstream schools, other pupils will suffer as a result. They are not being selfish, and neither are the parents. They merely recognise the reality that children need to go to an appropriate school. As one or two Labour Members stated, that has to happen by considering the needs of individual pupils.
Let me tell the House--not for the first time--where I was educated. I was excluded, in the sense that I did not successfully negotiate the 11-plus examination all those years ago. I am neither proud nor ashamed of that and, if I could have my time over again, I would not change the secondary school that I attended. It was a good Church of England school, with a good ethos, and it was right for me. Whether it was the best school in the area is irrelevant.
The girl who spoke at the meeting earlier today was brought to tears when she said, "Nobody is listening to us." We are sat in this place and councillors are sat in Shire hall in Gloucestershire. We come out with fine theories, but no one listens to the parents and pupils who know that they are better off in special schools. The closure of those schools in Gloucestershire makes them wonder why they have elected representatives. The parents, teachers, governors and children in many schools throughout Gloucestershire are expressing a clear wish that is being ignored by hon. Members and members of Gloucestershire county council. No wonder those people are dubious about the role of politicians and have no faith in the democratic process
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): Leaving aside the judgment that was made at that time, we can say that for a variety of reasons, such as good leadership in the Disability Rights Commission, which we also support, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has bedded down and shown that it can work without unduly disturbing consequences, so this is an appropriate time to extend it to education. However, enough has been said tonight to make it clear that even if the Bill is not party politically controversial, there is a good deal to discuss and argue about.
I, too, met the Gloucestershire parents and children from Alderman Knight school in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson), and I realise that they feel very strongly. I understand that 32,000 people have signed a petition to the LEA in protest at what is being proposed for that
I shall not let this occasion pass without referring to the comments in the brief provided by the National Union of Teachers, which states:
"The positive measures in the Bill will only be successful if they are backed by adequate funding. The SEN provisions in the Bill are not without significant resource implications. The Union believes that the Government should audit all the costs involved in implementing"
those provisions. The NUT has also expressed concern about the need to obtain an assurance in the House of Commons
"that special schools have a continuing role and future."
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith):The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) spoke about the special school in his constituency. I am sorry that he chose to attack Ministers personally for not turning up at his meeting. I must tell him that I received his invitation only this morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), who has lobbied hard, will confirm my willingness to meet those concerned. The delegation that she brought to me represented a special school in her constituency, and I was happy to meet its members and discuss their concerns. I told them that we are committed to a buoyant and vibrant specialist sector, which explains why funding per pupil for maintained special schools has increased by 20 per cent. in real terms under the current Government. It is also why we have made available to non-maintained special schools direct grants, the standards fund, information and communications technology training, devolved formula funding, funding for teachers to pass thresholds and laptops. All that provision was not available under the previous Government.