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Volume 455: debated on Thursday 11 January 2007

The framework for teacher training ensures that all qualifying and newly qualified teachers, including those supporting children with autism, can plan effectively to meet special educational needs. Decisions about further training for individual teachers are for schools to take. However, to help to reinforce skills, we have announced that we will be developing, with advice from our autism working group, a teachers’ pack on effective provision for children with autistic spectrum disorders. That will complement and build on our good practice guidance that was issued in 2002, which included a checklist for an autism-friendly school.

I welcome that answer. I have been working with a group of about 50 parents of autistic children in my constituency. Although those children have varying needs and this is coming from a very low base, Suffolk local education authority has made good progress this year on developing specialist services. Parents tell me that there is a need for more training so that more expertise can be developed among classroom teachers in mainstream schools. I hope that the new initiative will bring results, but will the Minister carry out a national audit of provision for autistic children because I think that he would find that the picture is very patchy?

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has been doing in Waveney, where he regularly meets about 50 parents of children with autism. As part of the initial teacher training process, teachers are equipped to address special educational needs and receive training on that, but he is right that we need to go further. We will be working with the Teacher Training Agency on a £1.1 million programme that will, among other things, help to ensure that more teachers spend more concentrated time in placements in special schools during the training process and that online facilities are used to spread best practice.

My hon. Friend says that work needs to be done with local authorities. I assure him that we are working closely with groups, including the National Autistic Society and local authorities, in our autism working group—there is a meeting with officials this morning—to find ways of providing better resourcing packages to improve the situation and to assist teachers and pupils.

Will the Minister recognise the superb work undertaken by specialist teachers at the Royal School for the Deaf and Communication Disorders in Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire, which takes children from throughout the United Kingdom—some for 365 days a year—and teaches and looks after children with the most severe autism and other disabilities? Do the Government recognise that such centres of excellence must continue? Does the Minister realise that when more able children reach the age of 18, they have extreme difficulties bridging the gap between being in education, with all the support that they get, and beginning to live a semi-independent life in the community?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the role of staff in centres such as the one that she mentions. We intend to continue to work with local authorities and to provide further funding for special educational needs in the coming years. She will be aware that in the past five years the amount of money that we have given has increased from some £2.8 billion five years ago to £4.5 billion this year. That is roughly a 60 per cent. increase in funding for that area.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although there are many wonderful teachers working in special educational needs across the country, there are not enough of them? Will the whole Front Bench team take another look at the Select Committee on Education and Skills report on special educational needs, and its report on teaching children to read, and will it then track back to the fact that there is something deeply wrong with the training of our teachers, as so many of them have no experience of teaching children with special educational needs or of teaching children to read? I would like to hear a much greater note of urgency in his tone when he responds.

My hon. Friend and I have had in-depth discussions on the issue, and we had a three-hour discussion with the Select Committee just before Christmas. I take on board what he says about the need for greater training and support for the teaching profession, but I reiterate that such issues are a compulsory part of initial teacher training. We need to go further, and we are working with the TTA on that. The appropriate way forward is to work with groups such as the autism working group; that is what we are doing, and I promise him that we will continue to do that.

Given that children with autistic spectrum disorders often have complex needs that go well beyond those that can reasonably be met in the classroom, and given that those needs tend to persist throughout their lives, may I ask the Minister, pursuant to the pertinent inquiry of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), what particular steps his Department is taking to improve services to support the emotional and social needs of such children, particularly post-16, so that they have the equipment the better to lead independent lives?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my noble Friend Lord Adonis has been working on that matter very closely. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman more information in writing, as I know from his contribution to the Select Committee discussion that we had just before Christmas that he is very concerned about the issue. He is right that the issue is not just about what happens within the school environment, and that those needs do not end at the age of 16. We have to work carefully and closely with local authorities to make sure that there are pathways to support such people for the rest of their lives, whatever they end up doing. We should support them both inside and outside of education, and provide them with the right level of support.

Ensuring an overall framework for special educational needs support is obviously important if we are to tackle the specific area of special needs under discussion. Is my hon. Friend aware that, in Birmingham, a review of SEN provision has caused a great deal of concern among teachers and parents? In fairness to the Tory and Lib Dem-controlled council, it says that it has been misunderstood, that the issue is not about what it is said to be about, and that it will consult properly, but there is still a great deal of concern. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has commented on the matter, but will he and his colleagues on the Front Bench make sure that Birmingham lives up to what it says, and consults and involves the people in that key area who have the most at stake?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about what is happening in Birmingham. I am pleased to note that our debate is not overly cooked or overheated, as in the past there was talk of moratoriums, but that would not assist local authorities. It is worth putting on the record the fact that from 1986 to 1997, 234 special schools closed. The rate decreased in 1997 to 2005, when there were 138 closures, but a great deal of restructuring by local government resulted in smaller facilities closing or merging, often with mainstream facilities.

My hon. Friend made his point about Birmingham very clearly, and concerns have been raised about Wandsworth, too. His contribution echoes those concerns, enabling them to be heard loud and clear in Birmingham.

But does the Minister recognise that many parents with a child at the severe end of the autism spectrum genuinely believe that they would be better off in a special school? Why are the Government still instructing local authorities that

“the proportion of children educated in special schools should fall over time”?

Has not the time come to withdraw that guidance, putting the views of parents, not politicians, first and, indeed, to introduce a moratorium on the closure of special schools?

I do not think that that is the case. We have made it clear that parents should be able to say what they want as part of the statementing process. If they want their child to go to a special school, they have the right to say so and send them to such a school. Only 0.25 per cent. of families with children with special educational needs make an appeal to the independent SENDIST—special educational needs and disabilities tribunal—because they are unhappy with the choice of school or have not been given what they want. Our position is clear—we support the parents’ choice, whether it is a mainstream or special school or, as is increasingly the case, a special school allied to a mainstream school. With the support of the building schools for the future programme and the £6.5 billion a year building programme, we have been able to improve some of those facilities and achieve greater co-location.

Parents in my constituency have drawn attention to the problem of persuading primary schools to recognise that their children have autism so that help can be provided before those children start to experience feelings of exclusion and behavioural problems. Can the Minister assure me that the matter will receive a high priority, perhaps in the Ofsted inspection, so that primary schools can make sure that all teachers understand and detect the early stages of autism, as that is as important as the provision of specialist autism teachers?

My hon. Friend is right, and that is one reason that we support the National Autistic Society’s make schools make sense campaign—I believe that she attended the launch. We are working with the society to design a pack that will enable teachers to recognise autism and to deal with it, specifically by supporting the teachers that she mentioned in primary schools.