Special Educational Needs (Information) Bill (Second Reading) debate

John Bercow supports a Private Members' Bill about the provision and publication of information about children who have special educational needs and highlights the value of early intervention.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a great pleasure and privilege to follow the hon. Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove), with whom I have jousted constructively in several such debates over a significant period. I am well aware of her background and great interest in the matters that we are considering.

It is also a pleasure for me to be one of the first to congratulate warmly and sincerely the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) not only on her admirable and heartfelt speech this morning, but on all the work, planning and forethought that led up to this important occasion. I was pleased yesterday evening to join her and several colleagues, as well as representatives of interest groups, to mark the Bill, the occasion of today’s debate and the great sense of optimism that her work has produced.

I declare an interest again as the parent of a child with significant special educational needs. My elder son Oliver, who is four, has notable speech and language difficulties and was diagnosed last summer on the autistic spectrum. He is a pupil in central London, where he receives fantastic help in a language unit in what I would describe as a language-rich mainstream school, which is driven by the tremendous commitment, vision and inspiration of the head teacher and his senior staff.

No parent would ever say, “I’m not worried about my child.” We are all concerned about our children. However, I confess that my wife and I feel that we are very fortunate that we managed to identify the existence of difficulties at an early stage, to access help, to secure a placement and to start the process whereby our child is assisted and becomes—this is important—a much happier little boy than he was for a while, or otherwise would be.

My concern is therefore not specifically for my child but for the vast number of children, some of whom I have, of course, like other hon. Members, encountered in my constituency, who simply do not receive the help that they palpably need. With the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho), I work in the all-party group on speech and language difficulties, which I have the privilege of chairing. Some hon. Members will know that the Government asked me to lead a review of services for children with speech, language and communication difficulties, aged from 0 to 19, with a view to publishing an interim report in March and a final report in July, suggesting how best we can take forward provision. I was happy to agree to undertake that task, because we are considering a set of issues that need not be a matter of great party political combat, and about which there is considerable potential for common ground between public-spirited people of all political persuasions and none.

I welcome the Bill because there is a knowledge gap—an information deficit. Too little is known by too many, and that has been the case for too long. That is unacceptable. If the position were to continue, it would represent an abdication of our public responsibility. That is why the fact that the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West has identified the problem and proposed a way forward is so welcome.

What do we know? We know quite a lot, and I should like to highlight at this stage that we all know, talk about and celebrate the priority that should be attached to early intervention.

Let us take the field in which I have a particular interest: speech, language and communication needs. A considerable body of evidence shows that early intervention can be hugely effective. Something like 10 per cent. of school-age children suffer from speech, language and communication difficulties. The evidence is clear that, if we identify and help a child with a speech delay or speech impairment before he or she reaches the age of five or five and a half, the problem will be overcome or very substantially reduce and the child will be able to access the national curriculum, opportunities and courses, and fulfil his or her potential.

The corollary is that the absence of early intervention is massively damaging. What are the consequences of the failure to identify, and prescribe and provide for, children with speech, language and communication needs? The answer is fairly harrowing: emotional and psychological difficulties; behavioural problems; lower educational attainment; poorer qualifications; weaker employment prospects; persistent communication handicaps; challenges to mental health; and, in the worst-case scenarios—the evidence is on the record to demonstrate this—a descent into criminality. People who do not get help and suffer from untreated communication disorders are more likely to commit crime, commit it again and end up incarcerated. [Interruption.] I am sure that the point is of great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who is sitting on the Front Bench and is, I think, motivated to intervene.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con) indicated dissent.

John Bercow: He was not; he was simply chuntering from a sedentary position. However, I am sure that he takes a close interest in these matters, which are of enormous importance to this country. I would like to think that every Member in the Chamber now is here because he or she is interested in listening to and perhaps making a contribution to the debate, rather than engaging in some other activity.

Let me say what I think is incredibly important. When we talk about information, we do not mean information in a vacuum and for its own sake, but information as the route to knowledge and the mechanism and catalyst for change. Let us take parents; there is a great deal to be said for providing information to them. I am thinking of information given through suitably trained health visitors, general practitioners and teachers, or through children’s centres, local education authorities and individual schools.

I have heard a particular gripe many a time and oft: that parents in my constituency have not been able to request a particular service or a place at a given facility for the simple reason that they cannot ask for something of whose existence they are unaware. I know of an outstanding pre-school specialist facility in my constituency—the Puzzle pre-school, which caters for children on the autistic spectrum. It is run by Alex Stanyer, a woman of almost unbounded talent and commitment. She has told me, so many times that I cannot count them, that even though the local education authority is aware of the existence and record of her provision—it is a voluntary sector provider—it does not tell parents that it exists. That is one example of how we can apply existing duties better. Perhaps the Government need to consider a change in the regulatory environment or the means or frequency of information publication to make parents aware of what can be made available to them as they try to negotiate the Kafkaesque process of securing access to equitable provision.

There is also the question of training, to which I animadverted a moment ago and to which several Members have already referred. I am thinking of the training of the whole children’s work force—not only of speech and language therapists, who work in the field that preoccupies me, or of teachers or head teachers. I also mean the training of learning support assistants and all who are in contact with children. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned different elements of training. It seems to me that there are two elements to the training offer: first, the question of its availability, and then the question of the release of professionals to access it. We all agree that far more needs to be done on special educational needs training—most certainly in respect of initial training, but also in respect of continuing professional development, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) observed earlier. We have to understand that special educational needs training is not an isolated fact, but a continuous process. It has to go on throughout the career of the professional if it is to be of appropriate benefit.

I am horrified that in the modules for initial teacher training the time devoted to special educational needs is lamentably inadequate. Trainees get something like half a day’s induction, which is intended broadly to cover all elements of special educational needs. The hon. Member for South Swindon was right to say that we must not be unrealistic. We cannot expect training modules to inform potential teachers in detail, with great opportunity for practical examples, about every single condition. That is not realistic. I know that there is always great pressure on the teacher training timetable, but far more needs to be done if trainees going into the profession are to be broadly well informed about the range of problems, strategies, devices and sources of support that they can access in the interests of children.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Continuing professional development is key, because of the range of different needs. If a teacher or professional working with children comes across a special educational need with which they are not familiar, they need to be able to access training on that specific need to look after and support the child.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I would like to emphasise this point about the courses. The Government are very conscious of the need to build on their existing work and provide such funding as they can afford to increase training opportunities for people in particular disciplines. That is right, but there are always two sides to the equation. It is one thing for the Government to say, “Here are the resources; more needs to be done in this field, as there is not sufficient training,” but it is another to deal with the situation locally. Potentially, a wide range of courses is available, but we have to think about other things, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole did in her contribution. Is the local authority aware of the importance and potential value of the training? Is there a strategic lead in the local authority? Has the issue’s importance been adequately impressed on the local authority?

We then go down to the school level; the school might not know about the training or recognise its value. Alternatively, the school might say, “It would be good for us to be able to access that training for that member of staff, but we are very hard-pressed and cannot release them as there will be a shortage.” So then there has to be back-up cover, which does, to some extent, cost.

I say to the Minister in the most positive and constructive spirit that, in my view—I do not know whether my colleagues agree with me—this is an area of public policy in which a purely permissive regime is not adequate. It is not good enough simply to say, “This is what is available and we’ll leave it to the individual area to decide whether to pick up on it,” because that means that the child—it is with the child that we have to be concerned—is dependent on whether there is a far-sighted local bureaucrat, head teacher or class teacher. What I am concerned to establish is that there must be, to some degree, an element of prescription. We sometimes need to say, “This is sound public policy; this is what is required, and this is what must be delivered.”

Kelvin Hopkins: The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech with which I strongly agree. He talked about far-sighted local officers. Some officers, indeed probably many, are prejudiced in these matters and refuse to take special educational needs seriously because they do not believe that there is really a problem. Frequently they blame poor teaching or poor parenting, when in fact there is something specific to the child, for which proper support is needed.

John Bercow: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That rather underlines the point that there have to be certain safeguards, guarantees and minimum standards.

If I may, I will move on from the subject of training to focus briefly on services. This is not the occasion for a detailed debate about the precise composition of services, but I simply make the point that it is well recognised in the field of special needs that in broad terms there can be said to be categories of provision to reflect categories of need. Some services are, and should be, universally available; others are of targeted application; and others still are specialist in character. Some people with modest difficulties or delays in particular respects can benefit, adequately and more so, from what we call low-dosage, high-volume intervention within the mainstream school and the undifferentiated mainstream class within the mainstream school. Some of those services can even be delivered—if not initially, certainly after a while, and with the benefit of the training that I described—on what we call the consultative model; that is to say that one does not necessarily have to have a specialist present delivering the service, which would be highly expensive use of resources. Some children require something rather more than low-dosage, high-volume assistance—they need targeted help, possibly on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, possibly less, possibly more, and they may be in groups or seen individually. Then there are categories of children and young people who require a specialist service.

I say to the Government that there is a real challenge that, in the review of speech, language and communication needs, my colleagues and I are trying to address, to ensure that we can develop conceptually and then roll out practically a commissioning framework that will allow for joint commissioning between education and health services, and sometimes between education, health and social services, of the provision that is required to cater specifically and adequately to the needs of children and young people who have what we call low-incidence and high-need conditions, and quite severe needs.

We spoke earlier about categories of need. The hon. Member for South Swindon, together with other colleagues, was quick to emphasise that we are not talking about a homogenous category in relation to special educational needs, and she was right to make and underline that very valid point. Let me add to it by saying that there is not only a variation between people with mild delay or moderate difficulty and people with severe difficulty, but a distinction between people who have one problem and people who have several. Some special educational needs children have an identifiable condition that might even be severe but which is easily comprehensible and susceptible to help of a simple and identifiable character. Other children do not have one-dimensional difficulties—they have what we call severe and complex needs that are not one-dimensional but multi-faceted in nature, and they will probably be enduring needs which will require assistance over a very long period.

Over the past few months, I have come across the significance of this issue when visiting institutions around the country. I have visited schools, pre-schools, primary schools, secondary schools and post-16 provision in London, Sussex, Kent, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Manchester, Salford, Plymouth—I am going to Essex next Monday and Norwich on Wednesday—and a host of other places. I have found that there are some admirable services—this relates to the point so powerfully made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins)—that cater for only a relatively small number of children or young people and which are hugely stretched financially, but the disappearance of which would be a catastrophe for the individuals concerned and for the country as a whole.

Let me give a couple of examples. The Nuffield speech and language unit in Ealing faces a threat to its survival, as does the Michael Palin centre for stammering children, which is the most outstanding centre that one could have the privilege of visiting. There are the ACE—aids to communication in education—centres, which cater to the needs of children and young people with cerebral palsy who require communication aids in order to express their concerns and offer their opinions so as to ensure that their interests are reflected. We can be sure of two things that will happen if those facilities disappear: first, once they have gone they will not come back; and secondly, if they go, we dissipate the expertise and lose the experience, and we no longer have available the teams that can provide training, offer outreach, upskill the work force and provide the specialist assessment and diagnosis that are so often required.

In that sense—this is a completely non-partisan point—I feel that we should not overdo the rhetoric about localism. Localism has its place: in the form of local differentiation because of the characteristics of the area, local discretion, or encouraging local service entrepreneurs to do more, to do it slightly differently or to innovate, it is a healthy phenomenon. However, localism must not become a religion that poisons the well of public provision or causes policy makers nationally deliberately or inadvertently to abdicate responsibility and simply say, “Oh, these are not matters with which it is proper for us to interfere—we are mere Ministers, humble specimens who do not claim expert knowledge. It is a matter purely for the local authority or the primary care trust to determine the configuration of services.” That would be a great mistake. [ Interruption. ] I am not accusing the Under-Secretary. One sometimes has to say, “This is an outstanding service. It is not a business. It would not survive if it were a matter of commerce, it will probably only ever be required by a minority of children, but it is hugely valuable, it must be maintained, and it needs, if anything, to have its facilities extended—and if that means that it has to be funded centrally by Government, be it a Labour Government or a Conservative Government, so be it.”

Kelvin Hopkins: Again, I agree most strongly with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There is perhaps a compromise between localism and national provision, with consortiums of local authorities within a region ensuring that these specialist facilities can be provided on a larger scale but will not be too far distant from the children’s families. If local authorities could be instructed by central Government to provide these facilities between them, we could have regional provision rather than national provision.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. What is needed is the opportunity for group purchasing. It may well be that it can be done on a regional or national basis, but it is probably not going to be done in the sort of cases to which I referred purely on an individual authority—still less an individual school or parent—basis. Something much more robust needs to be in place.

I emphasise that the process of helping children and young people in this field is ongoing. Most of the focus has rightly been on children and in particular, to some extent, on young children—perhaps very young children. The Government are right to make a priority of helping a great deal at the early stages, because the evidence supports that. My impression so far is that although there are still significant gaps in provision, and plenty of weaknesses to which we will, I think, be able to point to in our forthcoming reports progress is being made at the pre-school and early primary level.

By contrast, I think it is true to say—we need more information on this as a lever for parents and campaigners to get better services—that precious little is going on in the field of speech, language and communication at secondary level. Far more needs to be done on that. It is not a failure of one Government.

It is not a party political matter. It is, frankly, an historic under-recognition, under-investment and under-provision, which has taken place over decades. A great deal will have to be done if those children who have not had the early intervention are not to be isolated, failing, unhappy, stranded children in the secondary sector or beyond.

I referred in passing to the situation post-16. In the worst instances, people can end up committing offences. Somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent. of the 12,000 young people in our young offenders institutions have speech, language and communication difficulties on a scale and of an intensity that prevents them from accessing education or training courses. Yes, we should do more to help those people and not abandon them—I have thoughts on that subject—but even if the Government do not feel that they can put more money into that sector, although I hope that they will, one thing that they could say is, “Wait a minute. Some of the money we are spending on these education and training courses is probably not best spent in that way,” because some of the young offenders attending those courses are attending on what I call a purely tick-box basis, as they are either obliged or encouraged to do so. I have seen them. They are sitting in on the courses, but they do not understand what is taking place. They are not benefiting from the courses, which are not causing them to realise their potential. At least some of that resource could perhaps be devoted to speech and language therapy from which they would derive a recognisable benefit.

Mrs. Hodgson: Does the hon. Gentleman also acknowledge that as well as speech and language difficulties, some young offenders and, indeed, prisoners also have severe and sometimes complex literacy needs? They are often dyslexic but have not been diagnosed.

John Bercow: Indeed. In fact, the statistics on that front are seriously alarming. It is not just expressive speech and receptive language that are the problem; those people can also suffer a much wider set of difficulties.

Hon. Members have referred to the phenomenon of children suffering from autism. We know that children on the autistic spectrum vary greatly, but they all tend to suffer from what is commonly known in the trade as the triad of impairments—lack of social imagination, social interaction and social communication. It is important that we train staff so that we do not continue to experience the problem whereby innocently enough, but very damagingly, professionals in the education sector mistake a disabled child for a disobedient child. When we talk about people on the autistic spectrum being more likely to be excluded from school, let us be clear: that is what is taking place in so many cases. The professionals do not understand that the child is not in any sense a conventionally badly behaved child.

The understanding even of autism, which is a relatively high-profile condition, is too limited. We have to try to stimulate awareness. I was with my young son in a park in central London only a week or two ago. My son has phobias about a number of things, as children often do, and perhaps autistic children do in particular. He is anxious about hand dryers. I have always explained that they cannot do him any harm and are not dangerous, but he hates the sound that they make. When we went to take him to the loo, I said to the park-keeper, who quite properly, has to turn the key and open the loo, “Would it be okay if my son went into the disabled loo?” because I happened to know that it had no hand dryer whereas in the ordinary loo there was one. She looked completely uncomprehendingly at me and at him—I make no personal gibe at her; I am simply making a wider point—and I repeated the question. She said, “But he’s not disabled.” Again, I put it to colleagues that there is an issue of understanding. People often think that to be disabled, someone has to sit in a wheelchair, lack a limb or have a demonstrable and immediately apparent impairment, such as blindness, but children with problems on the autistic spectrum or with speech, language and communication impairments—there is often a close link between the two—can, in some cases, be disabled.

We need a great public debate on special educational needs as a whole. Jim Callaghan initiated such a debate on educational standards in the late 1970s, and it was of enormous benefit to the country in kick-starting issues on the consideration of provision, the adequacy of standards and the need to develop provision further. I would like to have a great public debate on special educational needs in this country, to increase awareness of the issues and to make them very much more important in decision makers’ minds. The challenge is to bring the issues from the back of the minds of Ministers, commentators, policy makers and decision makers to the front of their minds.

I conclude simply by saying that over a period, special needs parents have become more demanding, more insistent and more determined to secure better provision. There will be cost implications, but it is right that we seize the challenge to improve provision in this field and ensure that the issues are regarded as part of front-line services and core provision. Special educational needs must not be relegated to a back room or a subordinate filing tray as though they were of secondary importance. I think it was Winston Churchill who said that one can often judge the quality of a civilisation by the way in which the Government of a country treat their prisoners. That view was right and far-sighted, as so often with that great man, for its time. If that is true in relation to the treatment of prisoners— and it is—it is true also of the way in which we treat, cater to and care for children with special educational needs.

Whatever else the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West achieves in the course of her parliamentary career, which may include ministerial office of high distinction—I do not know—I wish her well on her journey. However, I do not think that she will do anything more just, more noble or potentially more appreciated than what she is doing now.

11.38 am

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