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The Government's approach to these issues is simply inadequate and the audit of special schools that is under way is typical of that approach. The Labour election manifesto "Britain forward, not back"as always, no verbs, but catchy titlesaid:
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend will know that I entirely endorse the case that he is presenting. Will he give a categorical assurance that no further special schools will close as far as the Conservative and Unionist party is concerned, and that there will be a proper audit of the resources given to them? The Park Lane special school in my constituency, which is 100 per cent. supported by local people and by parents, is being deprived of the resources that it needs to provide the level of education that these very vulnerable young people require.
Mr. Cameron: As I will explain, our policy is for a moratorium on the closure of special schools because we believe that the policy is biased, as is the guidance, and that is why so many schools are threatened with closure.
Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): Manor Park special school in my constituency is about to be closed and the pupils dispersed to Rose Hill and Thornton House special schools. Would the hon. Gentleman describe that as the closure of a special school or as a reconfiguration of the system? In trying to be helpful to himI know that he wants to win friends and influence people over the next few monthsI should point out that Worcestershire local education authority is Conservative-controlled.
Mr. Cameron: If one has a moratorium, so that one can stop and think and get the Government policy right, then one can stop the closures. The reason why so many authorities are considering closing schools is because of the guidance that goes out from the Government, which I have here. It is called "Inclusive Schooling"the title is a bit of a giveawayand says on the front page that it "must not be ignored". On page 9, it says:
"John, aged 6, has moderate learning difficulties. He spends most of the school day sat at a desk outside the classroom so he doesn't upset or distract the other children. Mum is now pushing for John to attend a special school for moderate learning difficulty children."
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this important issue, but can he quote the educational research that proves his argument that moderate learning difficulty children do better if they are segregated in special schools?
Mr. Cameron: There is plenty of evidence that special schools lead to very good outcomes. The hon. Gentleman should do what I did in his county of Gloucestershireget himself to the Alderman Knight school in Tewkesbury. That is a moderate learning disability school that does a fantastic job for the parents and children, with real intimacy and small classrooms, and it is much valued. A Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled council was going to close it but, because the Conservatives won in May, it will be saved.
Andrew Miller: I want to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). Will the hon. Gentleman explain why there is a massive underspend in the education budget in Cheshire, with some £3.8 million unspent by his party, which is in control?
Mr. Cameron: We are discussing special schools. If there is an underspend, clearly the council will have more money available to spend on special needs. I hope that it will spend it carefully[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked the question, so he might as well wait for the answer. It would probably spend it better if the Government had a less biased law and did not put out biased guidance.
Maria Eagle: The hon. Gentleman refers to less biased law. Is he saying that the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, which applies the civil rights in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to education, is biased law that he does not approve of?
That is exactly what I am about to explain. In my view, the 2001 Act does not recognise balance. True balance is about giving parents a choice,
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with full information, between special schools and mainstream schools. If the hon. Lady is patient, she will find out about it shortly, when I set it out in great detail.
Why did not they say that in their manifesto? They gave a completely false impression. The audit covers only those schools that deal with the most severe needs, yet it is schools for those with moderate learning difficulties that are closing. The Government's approach is in danger of being both flawed and complacent. It is the anniversary of Nelson's death, and my worry is that the Government are putting the telescope up to their blind eye and saying, "We see no problems; we see no closures." They have to focus on this issue.
I want to do three things: set out the evidence that inclusion has gone too far, explain why that has happenedI shall come on to the bias in the lawand suggest what the Government should do about it.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to point out to the House that, since Labour came into power, around 13 special schools a year have indeed been closed. Would he also like to put on the record that, during the last 10 years of the Conservative Government, some 27 special schools a year were closed? He wants local people to make local decisions on special education, but is not a moratorium on closure the antithesis of that?
Mr. Cameron: This is rather sad. I am making a speech about the futureabout getting it right for the most needy children in our country. The hon. Gentleman is right. Ninety schools have closed since this Government came to power. That is wrong and regrettable, and the fact that we have lost 6,000 places is a problem. I am going to make some suggestions about what should be done about it and if he is patient he will hear them.
There is an overt closure programme, with schools threatened explicitly by the authorities. The Government cannot deny that because the Minister for Children and Families said last week that, if the closures were stopped, as we suggest, there would be "chaos" and "gridlock". We maintain that the closure of these centres of excellence is causing the chaos and that is what the Government need to learn.
There is also closure by slow strangulation, whereby parents are not told about the special schools, fewer children are sent to them, and head teachers are told, "Your rolls are falling and your future's uncertain." Many Members, from Gloucestershire and elsewhere, will be able to tell us about such cases.
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