Clive calls for radical overhaul of special education needs provision

Clive Efford: I know that several hon. Members have said that they will be brief, and I will try to do the same. I have three quick points to make.

I commend the Committee on an excellent report. I also commend to the House the work of the Back Benchers who, in the past 20 minutes, have published a report on services for disabled children which supports many of the recommendations and conclusions of the Committee. There are three things that I would implore the Government to take on board from both reports. First and foremost, the experience of families with children with special educational needs in what has commonly become known as the system must be changed. Too often, those families experience bureaucracy and coping at home with a disabled child or a child with special educational needs, and then a whole load of other difficulties come up. Many such families are not equipped with the skills to take on officials in education or health authorities or the other agencies that provide services for young people. We must change that experience for the parents of children with special educational needs.

My second point is about statements. I have read the Government’s response to the references to that subject in the Select Committee’s report. I sympathise with the Government’s position that they do not want to diminish the role of local authorities as the advocates of people with special educational needs, and their view that parents should have some comeback on the system and get redress when they do not agree with a decision. I accept that, but there are far too many parents with children who do not reach the statement stage or who wait far too long to reach it. We must bring about a change so that children get the support that they need at a much earlier stage.

Mr. Marsden: We talked about that precise point a great deal in the Select Committee report. The Government have said—the Minister will no doubt say so too—that they have significantly increased spending on special educational needs, but does my hon. Friend agree that if there were greater support and assistance and earlier intervention for parents, some of the money that is spent on trench warfare in tribunals could be redirected into the system at an earlier stage?

Clive Efford: My hon. Friend makes the point well. In an attempt to be brief, I shall not comment on it any further than to say that I support that view.

In recommendation 34, the Select Committee has suggested a way forward. There is an opportunity for us to prevent statements from becoming a barrier to children getting the support that they need.

My third point is that we need to empower parents. They need to have recourse to an independent body that can advocate on their behalf. Too often, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, summing up the problem for many parents, local authorities assess, decide, finance and provide. That places parents in a difficult position as they try to challenge a local authority that, for reasons of expediency, as all of us who have been involved in local government will understand, is trying to spread a thin budget widely.

We can understand the pressures that those authorities are under and the decisions that they are trying to make, but we have to recognise that parents and children have rights. To secure those rights, they need some form of independent advocate away from the local authority to ensure that they get them. In short, future funding for special educational needs—I hope that this will be taken on board in the next comprehensive spending review and in subsequent ones—should deal with the hidden problem of children with special educational needs in classrooms and of children who are not given the proper statements that they need, or else we will continue to fail many children. If we are to deliver on our policy that “Every Child Matters”, we must start to make a difference in this area.

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