Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West

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Debate on Special Educational Needs 30.03.11

Sharon responded as Shadow Minister to a Westminster Hall debate on SENs called by Conservative MP Alun Cairns.

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Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this important and timely debate. He is a passionate and assiduous advocate for his constituents, and especially for children and young people with special educational needs, and his contribution this morning further underlined that. He showed his expertise and wide knowledge, and I am confident that he will go on to make a name for himself on this issue; indeed, he probably already has this morning. I also pay tribute to other hon. Members for their excellent contributions and interventions. I welcome the fact that we have had some new faces and some new voices on this issue.

As hon. Members will know, I have responsibility for this issue as shadow Children's Minister, but I also have a personal interest in improving provision for children and young people with special educational needs, because my son is one of those people. He displayed delayed speech development and did not utter his first word until he was three. Then, learning to read just did not happen. Despite the fact that he was obviously very bright and able, and despite my constant appeals to his teachers to help him, he was 10 years old before one amazing teacher, who understood SEN because she happened to have a son with SEN herself, eventually helped. My son was diagnosed as severely dyslexic, although highly intelligent, and he was eventually statemented.

My son missed out on six years of learning because none of his teachers spotted that he was dyslexic until he was nine, when the statementing process began. I did not spot that he was dyslexic, because I had never had a dyslexic child or come across anybody with dyslexia. Even though I was constantly asking what was wrong with my son, it was not until I met the teacher I mentioned and explored the problem with her that he was diagnosed by an educational psychologist.

My son is now thriving, having done well in his GCSEs. He got more than five grade Cs and above, but he would not have got the English baccalaureate, because dyslexics do not do foreign languages, as Members may know. At the moment, he is at college, studying a course he loves, with aspirations of going to university and taking up a career in digital games design. That shows the difference that good provision can make, but I cannot say that we got there without a fight, and hon. Members have already discussed the battles parents face. For too many children and their parents, fighting the system becomes a daily struggle.

Having had those experiences-good and bad-of the current system, I was as pleased as anyone when Ministers announced that they would review it with the intention of removing at least some of that struggle. Having finally seen the Green Paper earlier this month, I am pleased to say that I can, in principle, agree with a lot of the proposals it contains. Many of them have already been discussed, and the expansion of Achievement for All, improved teacher training and a simplified and more holistic assessment process will be positive steps, as long as the new education, health and care plans have the same legal rights as statements with regard to health and social care and not just education. I also broadly support the introduction of personal budgets, provided that there is adequate local commissioning to ensure that there is a choice of services for parents and children and specialised support to help them make their choices. In addition, those who do not want to make a choice, but want it made for them, should not be forced to make one.

Unfortunately, while the Green Paper was being consulted on and drafted, the Government's policies across the board started to alter the landscape for SEN provision. There are now real concerns right across the sector-I have had been told about them in the numerous briefings I have received, as I am sure other Members have-that the positive proposals to come out of the Green Paper may not work in practice. For example, the Government want schools and the NHS to work more closely together at a local level, yet Ministers are forcing through legislation that will make that much more difficult.

The Government also want children's centres to be hubs where parents can access specialist help and support for their toddlers, yet they have cut and destabilised the fund that pays for those centres. As we have heard, research by the Daycare Trust estimates that up to 250 centres will close in the coming year, with a far greater number looking to reduce opening hours or services.

In addition, the Government highlight the importance of skilled specialists such as educational psychologists and speech and language therapists, yet councils up and down the country are being forced to lose those professionals right now because of the large, top-heavy funding cuts forced on them by the Minister's colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Unfortunately, the Green Paper does not address those realities, which will make it much harder to implement any of the positive proposals in it.

Last week, the Minister told me across the Dispatch Box that she acknowledges that councils have tough decisions to make, and we all know why that is. She said, however, that she hopes the Green Paper will improve provision across the board. I always thought that the point of being a Minister and making policy was to take decisions and make things happen, not just to hope that they do. In this case, unfortunately, I fear that the Government are intent on leaving things to chance and that a system already criticised for being a postcode lottery could become even more of one.

There are real concerns that the Government are ending the assumption of inclusion in favour of an assumption of segregation. Parents should have a choice of school based on which will be best for their child, but what choice will there be if mainstream schools are stripped of the resources to provide for varying levels of need to fund the establishment of academies and free schools?

Given that secondary schools are to be ranked according to the narrow and prescriptive requirements of the English baccalaureate-as I said, no dyslexic child will be able to achieve it, because of the foreign language element-and that the contextual value added measure will be dropped, there is a perverse incentive for head teachers to turn away or put off pupils they know will be more difficult to teach. The admissions and exclusions reforms in the Education Bill, which is currently in Committee, will make it much easier for head teachers to do that. Cuts to legal aid will leave parents struggling even to appeal such decisions.

We know that children on school action and school action plus are already 20 times more likely to be excluded than those with a statement. We know that because having that status means that the needs and progress of such children are recorded. If the support they currently receive is reduced, they will be even more vulnerable to exclusion. I therefore share many parents' fears that the abolition of that system of recognition could mean many children with real barriers to learning finding that they are no longer able to access specialist support, with the result that they fall further behind in school or are excluded. Effectively, they will be swept under the carpet in terms of the monitoring provided for in the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008. As Members may be aware, I introduced that legislation as a private Member's Bill so that we could better monitor the progress of all children with SEN. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan tried to introduce a similar measure in the Welsh Assembly, and I was disappointed to learn that he was not successful in that endeavour.

There may well be over-identification in some instances, but it is clear that there is a lot of under-identification in others, as we have heard. We have only to consider the fact that at least 60%, and sometimes up to 80%, of young offenders are identified as having undiagnosed speech, language and communication difficulties to realise that lots of kids going through the system need help but are not being identified at all. More worryingly, they are more likely to have self-fulfilling labels slapped on them and to be told that they are naughty or lazy.

A greater focus on early identification is bound to throw up a much bigger case load, so how can the Government talk about making arbitrary cuts to the numbers of pupils receiving help? As for those pupils who would benefit from better-trained teachers and programmes such as Achievement for All, how would the Minister ensure that sufficient training and programmes are in place in every school, before sweeping away school action status?

From the feedback I have had from the sector, I could go into minute detail on many points, but I will save that for another day, because I am sure that hon. Members want to hear from the Minister. We actually have more time than usual and I want to ensure she has her full allocation.

I think we can all agree that every child deserves all the support they need to access the curriculum and develop into a capable and well-rounded adult, whether that means complex care packages, adapted teaching or an hour a week with a specialist dyslexia tutor. Whatever comes out of the consultation on the Green Paper, a promise that every child gets the support they need must be central to it.

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