Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Education Bill

4th December 2001

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): I wish to declare an interest as vice president of NIACE--the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education--which is the adult learners body for England and Wales. I warmly welcome the Second Reading of the Bill and wish to focus on two aspects that relate specifically to Wales and another, more general, aspect.

The Bill has many origins, principally, but not exclusively, the White Papers for England, "Schools--achieving success", and for Wales, "The Learning Country". The significance of the Bill, and the significance of "The Learning Country" in the context of devolution, was summed up on 27 November by Jane Davidson, the Education and Lifelong Learning Minister in the National Assembly for Wales. She said:

"The Learning Country is both the first comprehensive strategic statement on education and lifelong learning in Wales and the first policy document for the primary and secondary legislation in that field from the Assembly".

She concluded:

"The National Assembly can take great satisfaction with what appears on the face of the Bill. This clearly shows how devolution is working to ensure that our distinctive systems of education and training can be delivered with robust confidence and pre-eminently for the benefit of learners in every part of our Learning Country, now and for the future."

The Bill is significant because it is based on the vision of devolution. Indeed, it is thoroughly appropriate, with its echoes of Raymond Williams' "Border Country", that the title "The Learning Country" comes from the adult learners body in Wales, NIACE Cymru--now NIACE Dysgu Cymru--whose 1997 general election manifesto was entitled "Wales, the Learning Country". Its principles of equity, social justice, active citizenship and lifelong learning underpin the spirit of the Bill, particularly its Welsh clauses.

I now come specifically to clauses 185 to 189, which relate to special educational needs in Wales. They will ensure regional provision for children with more complex needs and difficulties and will establish a special educational needs tribunal for Wales. It is thoroughly appropriate and heartwarming that we should discuss those clauses the day after the first ever educational conference organised by the Disability Rights Commission, which was addressed by the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, was held on the European Day for Disabled People.

The Bill requires greater regional collaboration across Wales. It is with some pride that I draw the House's attention to the achievements in Wales in this field. As a carer of a child with special needs for 16 years, I know of the great efforts made by local educational authorities, often in times of adversity such as the 1980s and early l990s, when there were public expenditure cuts. The spirit of regional and local collaboration has manifested itself in many parts of Wales and the proposals build on the best practice of several LEAs.

In my own authority of Neath Port Talbot, we have the excellent Ysgol Hendre residential special school, which includes a deaf-blind centre serving children with multi-sensory impairment. Thecentre has an international reputation, and specialists from India and the Philippines trained there last year. It serves the needs of children from most of the education authorities in south Wales, from Pembrokeshire in the west to Rhondda Cynon Taff in the east.

This week, in the European week of awareness raising for disability rights, the Secretary of State for Wales will open the Shaw Trust disability action centre at Llandarcy in my constituency. It is the first of its kind in Wales and, we believe, is unique in bringing together independent living services and employment services. Again, the centre serves a number of neighbouring authorities.

Much still needs to be done, but the Bill, underpinned by the spirit of partnership and social inclusion, builds on the best practice that already exists across Wales. We now have a national framework to progress equitably.

I end with a more general point. Today, the TUC organised a lobby of Parliament to celebrate the hard work and commitment of public servants and to support the public service ethos. The Bill, particularly in the clauses relating to the special educational needs of children in

Wales, recognises and strengthens that public ethos--a public ethos that is best represented by teachers, ancillary staff, governors and parents, for the benefit of all learners, whatever their needs and their aspirations.

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