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The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Charles Clarke):
The strategy that we published early this year will significantly help to improve the quality of education of children with special needs. The strategy contains a programme of practical measures to promote early identification of children's special educational needs, boost early intervention on the basis of that identification, improve co-ordination of services to children and their families, improve staff training and
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build strong collaboration between mainstream and special schools to share knowledge and expertise. They will help to provide the opportunities and support for children with special educational needs to realise their full potential.
Tony Cunningham: Last Friday, as part of autism awareness week, I met parents in west Cumbria whose children suffer from autism. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what the Government are doing to deal with those children's special needs?
Mr. Clarke: Yes, I certainly can. One of the strengths of our strategy is that we focus on each special educational need's characteristics and then build a partnership between the voluntary organisations concerned, the education service and the health service to address that special need. I appreciate the work done in national autism week to highlight these issues, and as part of early support pilot programme, we will shortly provide guidance for the parents of nought to three-year-olds who are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder. I hope that that will help to build the early identification and intervention that is so necessary and such a central part of our programme.
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): A year ago, Ofsted delivered the most damning indictment of special educational needs provision in mainstream schools. A year later, we have had a strategy document, but absolutely nothing else. Statistics released today show that, last year, 6,000 students with SEN were permanently excluded from their schools. Students are nine times more likely to be excluded if they have a special educational need than if they have not. Over the past year, how many additional teachers have been trained and recruited to meet Ofsted's requirement? How many schools have had whole-staff training to meet the needs of the inclusion programme? What is the Secretary of State doing specifically to deal with the abhorrent permanent exclusion of children with SEN conditions from our schools?
Mr. Clarke: I simply do not accept the catalogue that the hon. Gentleman describes, but he is right to suggest that the situation is serious in many parts of the country, as Ofsted identified. I agree that major issues need to be addressed, but we are implementing our strategy and the resources involved are substantial. For example, in 200304, funding for special educational needs was almost £3.5 billion13 per cent. of the overall schools budgetof which about £1.5 billion was spent on SEN in special schools and £1.7 billion on special provision in mainstream education and so on. There is a major commitment. We are working with the associations and local government to deliver in this respect. He is right to raise his concerns and to press them, as all hon. Members would wish to work with him, but he is wrong to say that we are not taking action. In fact, we are taking very strong action indeed.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
(Con): Did the Secretary of State see the moving article written by our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), in last Saturday's Telegraph, in which he underlined how crucial it is that certain
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children should never be put into mainstream schools? If he did not read that article, will he please do so? When he has done so, will he write to me?
Mr. Clarke: As it happens, I did read that article and I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, but the problem with the debate about inclusion is that there are dogmatists on all sides. Some people say that there must never be inclusion, others that there must always be inclusion. What is necessary is to create a system with the capacity that we have built up to enable the right choices to be made for each child's individual circumstances. It is difficult to get to that point because there are significant resource implications in the education of children with special educational needs. I certainly do not hide, as I did not from the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) a few moments ago, the fact that we still have a great deal of work to do in some areas, but the core principle must be that we have a system to do what is right for individual children. I will write to the hon. Gentleman on the particular point.
Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): Has the Secretary of State read the report produced yesterday by the Down's Syndrome Association, in which parents express the concerns that many involved in special educational needs have expressed? One parent said:
"Our local authority is bent on achieving inclusion and the reduction of special schools."
"The important factor is choice . . . a mainstream only route is a dangerous one size fits all approach."
Mr. Clarke: Unfortunately, I have not read that article. About the same number of children are being educated in special schools now as they were 10 years ago. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, however. I have met groups of parents who feared the closure of a school in their local authority and I know that they felt unengaged and thought the decision was wrong for their children. That is why I gave the answer that I did to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). This must not be a dogmatic process. There has to be proper consultation with the community, in particular with the parents and carers of those children. The needs of the individual child have to come first.
I maintain the general view that it is best to find a system for the education of children with special educational needs that bears some relationship to the general system, rather than putting them in ghettos of any particular form. It is a difficult management question and, in some cases, a difficult political question. It is difficult to get it right, but I believe that that is the correct direction to take.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Stephen Twigg):
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education authorities have a duty to provide school meals that meet statutory nutritional standards. Where a school has a delegated budget for meals, this duty becomes the responsibility of the governing body.
The Department for Education and Skills and the Food Standards Agency are jointly funding an evaluation of nutritional standards in 80 secondary schools. That will be published later this year and we will consider the findings carefully, together with the Select Committee report on obesity published today.
Mr. Kidney : Is my hon. Friend aware of my ten-minute Bill next month on food in schools? Does he agree that today's report by the Health Committee gives much added significance to the subject? Does he accept, on behalf of his Department, the central theme of that Billthat every school should have a food policy, dealing with school meals and the contents of the children's lunch boxes and the vending machinesand that Ofsted should enforce those policies by inspecting and disseminating good practice, so that we embed good attitudes towards food throughout society?
Mr. Twigg: I welcome my hon. Friend's ten-minute Bill, which I was aware of. We are in discussions with Ofsted on the role that it can play, both with regard to the nutritional value of food in schools and, more generally, in addressing the need for healthy schools. I accept that today's report makes an important contribution to cross-Government work in tackling that significant problem.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Prohibiting chips in schools will encourage youngsters to go out and get them from other sources. Today's newspapers say that some schools are being forced to provide meals for 35p a head. That encourages the chip culture rather than moving us away from it. Should we not ensure that the resources are right for the provision of school meals so that youngsters have a choice? We also need to educate youngsters so that they value what they eat. Clearly, the implication is not simply that we are becoming a nation of Mr. Blobbies, but that later in life those children could get diseases, such as diabetes, which is on the increase, unless they eat properly.
We must provide a balance and choice in what is available in schools. There are good examples of schools that provide a good, healthy range, even with limited resources. We are working with the Food Standards Agency to evaluate those 80 schools. The report will be published within the next two months, when we will consider how to take it forward. I especially agree with the hon. Gentleman that the school curriculum is just as important as the meals that the school provides. We want to take that forward as well.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
(Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend remember that, three years ago, the Education Committee published a reportthe first
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under my chairmanshipon school meals? Ministers, like my hon. Friend, made nice-sounding statements in the Question Time that followed the report's publication, but very little was done. Is the excellent report by the Health Committee a wake-up call? The relationship between education and health is vital. It is not just about what kids eat at lunchtime but about where education sits in terms of teaching kids about the relationship between what they eat, how they exercisehopefully, by walking to schooland their future prosperity.
Mr. Twigg: Absolutely. I assure my hon. Friend that I never forget any of his Committee's reports, and I am sure that none of my colleagues in the ministerial team would do so, even those that were published before we joined the Department.
My hon. Friend is right. The report is a wake-up call across Government. An important part of it deals with physical education and sport. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we are investing significant amounts to achieve the target of a minimum of two hours physical education and sport in our schools.
We also need to ensure that the message about healthy food and healthy living spreads throughout the school ethos and the curriculum. That is why, as the Secretary of State said late last year, we will be publishing a healthy eating blueprint later this year.
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (Con): Does the Minister agree that providing healthy, nutritional food options is only part of the pattern, and that schoolchildren at the moment are receiving many mixed signals? Will he review the extent to which some of the companies responsible for the least healthy food options are able to sponsor school activities and put in place vending machines that encourage children to go for the worst food options, not the best?
Mr. Twigg: That is one issue that we are considering as part of the "food in schools" work with the Department of Health. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we do not want sponsorship that encourages unhealthy activity, but we want to take a sensible approach to sponsorship; for example, we want to encourage the provision of drinking water in schools, and the water companies are among the sponsors of many of those initiatives. We seek to get the balance right.
Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is critical that nutritious meals reach the poorest children, and that it continues to be a terrible pity that about 200,000 children entitled to free school meals do not claim them? According to research by the Child Poverty Action Group that is, as ever, due to the fear of stigma. Does he have any new plans to deal with that old and seemingly intractable problem?
I am aware of that problem and I have been in discussion with CPAG about the work needed to ensure that free schools meals are taken up. I cannot set out a specific plan of action today, but I assure my hon.
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and learned Friend that, in considering her point, I will look at whether further work can be done on this specific issue as part of the broader work on healthy eating that I mentioned before.
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