Opposition Day Debate: Schools Reform

21st November 2007

Brooks Newmark calls for reform to Special Educational Needs education to be founded on parent choice.

 

2.58 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The Opposition motion expresses the clear commitment in my party to continuing reform of our schools system, to the encouragement of devolved responsibility in schools and to the provision of greater support to the disadvantaged through greater choice and openness. It is, moreover, a clear commitment that we have in the past honoured in the Lobby by supporting the Government when we believed that they were introducing necessary reforms. Our crucial support for the Education and Inspections Act 2006 proves that we, at least, have the courage of our convictions when it comes to schools reform. But while we were busy reaching for consensus in the Lobby, many in the Labour party were reaching for consensus on paper, and were still not finding it.

It is perhaps unfortunate that next to the Government amendment, some rather more ominous names appear alongside the name of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. First, there is the Prime Minister, who does not seem to know whether he is coming or going on reform. Secondly, we have the Chancellor, who in all probability, will soon be going. Thirdly, there is the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who, before his second coming, was busy with an alternative, but sadly not very innovative education White Paper, while on the Back Benches. Last but not least, we have the Secretary of State for Health, who is presumably listed for showing his dedication through taking a hospital pass from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families when he got himself into a spot of bother in last Tuesday's debate. When we analyse the Government's policy on schools reform, it appears that only one principle is at work-random movement, otherwise dubbed as Brownian motion.

I want to focus on one narrow aspect of our motion: the necessity of helping the most disadvantaged with all the resources available to us. It can sometimes be too easy to view disadvantage in a narrow, socio-economic sense. That is the root of a great deal of, but by no means all, disadvantage. Pupils with special educational needs are still some of the most disadvantaged in our schools, as hon. Members from different parties have pointed out.

The Secretary of State was rightly lauded by hon. Members of all parties for his commitment while on the Back Benches to greater support for special needs education and disabled young people. He managed to maintain that commitment when he was Economic Secretary to the Treasury, although he sometimes had to give his support at arm's length. However, something about the new regime appears to spoil those good intentions.

I was disappointed that the Secretary of State could not use his customary leverage with the Prime Minister to get a commitment on SEN into the Queen's Speech. It was also unfortunate that, during last Tuesday's debate, he preferred the attractions of baiting on Surrey Heath to setting out the Government's agenda on education. I have a strong and personal interest in children with SEN getting a better start in life and I do my best to keep abreast of the Government's stance on those issues. However, that stance is beginning to look shaky. The comprehensive spending review in October announced the availability of an extra £340 million over the CSR period to support disabled children and young people, but the way in which the additional funding will interact with existing provision for SEN remains unclear.

I am sceptical of the utility of additional funding without a root-and-branch review that places children's needs first and foremost. Such a review is now getting started under my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow). Once again, the Conservative party is setting the reform agenda. However, if reform is to be effective, an SEN system must be founded on genuine parental choice. Just as choice should be the decisive factor in driving up standards in the wider school system, so it should be decisive in approving the outcomes for children with special needs.

Meanwhile, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families was forced to publish yet another report on SEN last month. The reason for the repetition is simply the Government's intransigence. I am not a member of the Committee, but I hope that I shall never miss an opportunity to pay tribute to its work. Sir Robert Balchin, the chair of the Conservative party's commission on special needs education, has also produced a fine report, which I recommend to the Secretary of State. Those are only two in a growing chorus of voices that call for a fundamental reform of SEN provision.

Last year's Select Committee report recommended-to my mind, unequivocally-breaking the link between assessment and funding of SEN provision. The Government have misinterpreted that, though I do not claim that they did so wilfully. However, the response to the report was generally viewed as leaving a lot to be desired. I hope that, when the Minister for Schools and Learners responds, he will commit to giving the Committee's latest report on the matter the attention that it deserves. I hope that he will also commit to providing a national strategy for SEN, which allows schools the freedom to tailor their provision to the needs of the communities that they serve.

Although our motion calls for greater freedom for schools and an innovative approach to helping the most disadvantaged young people, the Government continue to equate choice with elitism. The Secretary of State parroted that equation last Tuesday, and he did so again today, when he wrongly stated that we support the few and not the many. Nevertheless, SEN provision remains, all too often, both stretched and inflexible for parents and children.

The Government's amendment ends by reiterating the planned extension of education and training to 18. I foresee a problem in that the Government propose to compel a new cohort of 16 to 18-year-olds to remain in a system that already struggles to cope. The Government should act now to prepare the system of SEN provision to handle a great deal more strain if their proposals to raise the school leaving age are to go ahead.

In a parliamentary answer, the Government estimated additional costs of £90 million to support those with SEN through extending compulsory schooling to 18. How was that figure calculated? How robust does the Secretary of State believe it to be? Not only extra money but extra staff and resources are needed. Better still, fundamental reform of provision is needed. A significant gap remains between the perception of SEN provision in Whitehall and the experience of parents on the ground. I do not want that gap to widen further because the Government have announced a policy on compulsory education to grab the headlines without doing their homework on special needs.

We need to raise the bar and close the gap. The days of one-size-fits-all education should have ended long ago. Unfortunately, they have not. In so many other aspects of education policy, we are setting the pace of change. It must begin with legitimate choice for parents.

Angela Watkinson: Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the ROSE-realistic opportunities for supported employment-project at Havering college of further and higher education? It is specifically designed to ease students with special needs into employment. They have a job tutor who sees them through the first few weeks-sometimes months, depending on the student's ability-until they are able to attend a workplace independently. That example of good practice could be followed throughout the country.

Mr. Newmark: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that project. Other colleges, such as Edith Borthwick in my constituency, do exactly the same, and I congratulate them on their hard work in supporting their students to move on and get ready to play a productive role in society and the workplace.

Just as SEN provision must be at the heart of our schools and academies, choice must be at the heart of SEN provision, not an inconvenient accessory to it.

3.8 pm

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