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Children with Special Educational Needs

Volume 526: debated on Wednesday 30 March 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Goodwill.)

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I am delighted to have secured this debate on provision for children with special educational needs. The Table Office has advised me that at the outset I should declare an interest: my wife is a lawyer who specialises in educational matters, particularly in representing children with special educational needs. It was her frustration and my outrage, on hearing reports from parents, that sparked my personal interest in this subject, many years ago. The Government’s Green Paper on special educational needs prompted my request to the Speaker for this debate. I hope that it will be the first of many held in the House before the publication of the White Paper.

I welcome the approach taken by the Minister, and was fortunate to receive a briefing on her intentions a couple of weeks ago. She and her colleagues have a genuine passion to make a difference on this issue, and acknowledge the waste, delay, frustration and anger that is often felt about the current system. The Green Paper underlines the Government’s wish to develop a less adversarial approach, offer a greater choice to parents, and encourage and facilitate better working and co-operation between schools, local education authorities, health bodies, the independent sector and parents. A multi-agency approach up to the age of 25, with more support from the independent sector and increased opportunities for free schools, will offer choice and continuity. The Green Paper outlines how early identification can make a significant difference to outcomes for individuals, and says that teachers need to be better qualified in identifying special educational needs.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He alluded to the importance of teacher training; does he agree that one of the great strengths of the Green Paper is not just the emphasis it puts on initial teacher training, but the opportunity for teachers to develop their professionalism throughout their careers? He talks about frustration more generally, but there must be frustration in the teaching profession with the fact that they have not been given the tools to deliver the kind of education that he and I want to see right across the board.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining an important point that is acknowledged in the Green Paper and, I think, far and wide. Teacher training is extremely important in the initial stages, but so is continued professional development. That is particularly important in relation to school exclusions. Evidence from Mencap suggests that 72% of pupils who have been excluded have special educational needs. I believe strongly that lack of support for a special need is often the cause of disruptive behaviour, and in view of the Government’s plan to change the school exclusion legislation, I hope that changes to SEN policy and teacher training will help reduce that percentage. The exclusion of those pupils is our fault, not theirs, if their needs have not been addressed. The Green Paper also considers how the statementing process should be changed so that resources are used in a more efficient way. That is the area on which I wish to focus today.

I was delighted to see that the Green Paper proposes maintaining the principle of a statement of SEN. It aims to reform the process, so that there is a single education, health and care plan, but still recognises the need for statutory protection for parents and pupils with regard to the provision of SEN support. That is great comfort and reassurance to all parents. The current system is cumbersome, costly and inconsistent, and is seen as being used by some authorities as a delaying tactic to frustrate the wishes of many parents.

In spite of that flawed process, the system is seen by parents as the back-stop that can guarantee a level of provision. If a parent can find their way through the maze, a statement can deliver what they want and what their child needs. Clearly, all sides are spending significant sums of money considering and discussing the matters. The money spent on advocacy and the challenges involved would be better spent on delivering provision. The new approach aims to make the process swifter, simpler and more efficient, but I have some questions and concerns about how and whether all aspects will work, so I want to talk the Chamber through the current process and compare that with my understanding of the proposals in the Green Paper.

The starting point is typically a parent or teacher identifying, or raising a question about, a child’s special educational need. Once the request for assessment has been made, the authority has six weeks to decide whether to assess the child. That will lead to a 10-week period in which the assessment is conducted. If a local authority questions or objects to the need for a statutory assessment, a parent will have to follow a cumbersome process to appeal via a tribunal; that comes with a significant delay. I am aware, for example, of an appeal just to obtain a statutory assessment that was registered on 10 August 2010 and not heard until mid-January 2011.

After the assessment, a decision will be made on whether a statement of SEN is needed; if it is, a proposed statement must be issued within two weeks. The parents are given the proposed statement and an opportunity to make representations within two weeks. After a further six weeks, the local authority will present its final statement.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. In my constituency, there are a number of schools with children who have special needs. According to the Library research paper, on 9 March 2011, The Daily Telegraph stated:

“Thousands of children will be removed from school ‘special needs’ registers under Government plans to stop teachers over-diagnosing behaviour and learning problems.”

The parents whom I speak to have a real difficulty with that; does the hon. Gentleman agree with them?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. That is certainly an issue that causes worry among many parents. However, we need to recognise that the school funding formula almost leads to a perverse incentive for schools to classify children as having SEN. Very often, what is needed is additional support in the classroom, rather than a classification of SEN. It is the perverse incentive that is the root of that problem, but I accept absolutely that the issue needs to be teased out and clarified while the White Paper is being drafted.

The whole statementing process is meant to take 26 weeks, but we need to add in the delays due to the tribunal, which I have mentioned. If a parent is dissatisfied with a statement, they can appeal to the tribunal again. Delays such as the August-to-January delay that I mentioned earlier in relation to the assessment appeal will also be incurred in the case of a statement appeal. Parents who have to go through two appeals and the 26-week statementing process can therefore be left waiting for a total of 16 months to get a statement confirmed. That delay in securing the right SEN support can be damaging, particularly to a young child of four, five or six, as 16 months is a significant percentage of a child’s life.

The Green Paper highlights the Government’s will to speed up the process, and proposes cutting the 26-week period to 20 weeks. That is welcome, but the wait for the tribunal hearing also needs to be addressed if we are genuinely to speed up the process from start to finish. The Green Paper, however, talks about a mediation requirement. In principle, I can see the attraction of that, but I question its merit in practice because of the new delay that that could introduce. An insistence that mediation should take place before the right to appeal would be detrimental due to that delay, and I ask the Minister to allow mediation to take place in parallel with the wait for the tribunal hearing. In reality, discussions already take place right up to the day of the tribunal. It is most frustrating for an authority to agree to something on the morning of a hearing when the parents have been asking for it for the previous six to eight months.

Furthermore, I am not wholly convinced that mediation will work in practice. Parent partnerships already exist to allow for mediation, but few people take up the option because the relationship has usually broken down. We need to consider the pressure on the parent of an autistic child who has to battle month after month with a school and a local education authority, and then face a tribunal.

The Green Paper highlights extended choice for parents, but we need to recognise that legislation already offers parents significant choice. It is often the disagreement caused by the difference between the wishes of parents and the offer from the local education authority that leads to tribunal proceedings.

Might not the term “mediation” often be used to talk the parent out of getting their child statemented, and to let the school authorities off their responsibility to ensure appropriate education for the child?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. It underlines a point that I plan to make later about the support that parents need. Mediation could possibly work, but we need to understand the breakdown in relationships and the support that parents therefore need.

I turn to the statement itself and the issues that can lead to disagreements and appeals. More often than not, draft statements are vague and imprecise. Parents will seek to make changes in order to gain an appropriately detailed statement that guarantees the provision that they need. Let me offer an example relating to the provision of speech and language therapy. A poor statement would read, “The child will have access to a communication programme,” whereas a well-prepared statement would record, “The child will have direct speech and language therapy with a therapist once a week for a period of 30 minutes.” That detail is important because if the speech and language therapist is sick for a period or goes on maternity leave, a local authority will rarely move to reappoint a suitably qualified individual, even if they can, given the shortage of therapists. If the provision is specified in a statement, parents can demand it, even from the private or third sector, if necessary. Clearly, it is in the interest of the local education authority to draft a vague statement to prevent such demands reaching the High Court.

That leads me to the backdrop of the tension that develops between parents and local authorities. Parents want a detailed, appropriate statement. They sometimes request that support be given more frequently than is offered, or seek a placement in a specific school, possibly out of county, and that has financial consequences. In a small number of cases, an independent special school is requested. Parents may even press for one-to-one support in a mainstream school. Those demands, which stem from the choice already afforded to parents in current legislation, will always have cost implications. That is usually at the core of the differences between the two parties.

Section 86 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1988 states:

“The duty imposed”—

that is, the duty on the authority to comply with parents’ preferences—

“does not apply…if compliance with the preference would prejudice the provision of efficient education or the efficient use of resources”.

A similar term is used in the Green Paper, which states on page 17:

“unless it would not meet the needs of the child”

or

“would be incompatible with the efficient education of other children”.

It is obvious why such clauses and statements need to be included in legislation and Green Papers, but as long as they are, we will always end up with parents rightly demanding more for their children and local authorities seeking to reduce provision on the basis of cost. I do not see how legislation could be drafted without such a clause to protect the public purse, but it will always be the point on which disagreements will arise.

One option could be a better definition of what a parent can expect, but that focuses on inputs rather than outputs and runs against the principle of facilitating the best outcomes possible, which is at the core of the Green Paper. I have no doubt that many measures in the Green Paper will make a significant difference in supporting children with special educational needs. Early identification, a multi-agency approach, and assessment by health visitors in particular—the number of health visitors is to increase—are extremely welcome. The simplification of school action and school action plus is welcomed by parents, because they are often seen as a delay to the statutory assessment that I referred to earlier.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the shortage of speech and language therapists. Would he agree that that is a key component of all this? There is a major shortage of therapists across the whole of the United Kingdom, and the Government need to do something to encourage young people into that profession.

I am grateful for that intervention. Without a doubt, the shortage of speech and language therapy is a significant difficulty, but as I highlighted earlier, if need for it is recorded in the statement of special educational needs, parents can rightly demand it, and can even go to the High Court to secure it. I am familiar with some cases where that has been done. However, I worry about those pupils who need speech and language therapy support but who do not have a statement. The shortage of such support does not make things easy for local authorities, assuming that they have the resources to provide it, and it naturally drives up costs. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point.

Improved training of teachers will make a positive difference in reducing special educational needs later on. The point about speech and language therapy is particularly relevant, because if support is provided early on, soon after screening at the age of two and a half, which is mentioned in the Green Paper, that can save significant sums later. I would like to believe that the Minister recognises the importance of that issue.

Budgets for parents to buy services directly will also help significantly. That is the principle of choice. One example that I can offer relates to sensory integration therapy, which local education authorities fail to recognise but the parents of autistic children value hugely. That service is provided by specially trained occupational therapists.

More explanation is needed of how budgets will be allocated, so that parents can exercise the choice and freedom that we want to give them. Will it be on a banding basis? If so, it will lead to further challenges and appeals aimed at moving the child to a higher band that would give greater access to resources and better provision. The new assessment regime and joint working with various agencies will simplify the process, but there needs to be clarification on whether there will be a single assessment regime as well.

Finally, I want to underline my concern for parents who do not have the capacity to challenge the system. This point was made earlier in an intervention. To get the best chance of securing provision, a parent may employ an advocate, independent speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and educational psychologists to give evidence to challenge the local authority’s case. After all, the local authority has ready access to such services. Clearly, that would be a significant expense for any individual or family, but if their call is that an independent special school costing, say, up to £100,000 a year is the only way to secure provision for their child, paying such experts at the appeal stage could be seen by them as an investment.

My worry is that the parents of some children with special educational needs will not have the necessary capacity; many may have special educational needs themselves. It angers me that those with the resources and the capacity who can work their way through the system will get what they need, but the children of parents who cannot afford it or cannot work their way through the system will be left without appropriate provision. I am sure that the Minister will agree that stopping those who can is not an option, and that the challenge is to deliver a system that provides the right support at the outset to those who cannot.

I am grateful for the support that I have received for this debate, and for the interventions that have been made. I hope the Minister will accept my comments as a positive welcome for the Green Paper.

I am pleased to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). He is a compassionate Conservative, and he has demonstrated that today. I was astonished at the level of expertise he displayed, and I learned a lot from his speech.

As a candidate and now as a Member of Parliament, I have been very pleased to speak to Harlow parents whose children have special needs. I am a supporter of the Harlow Parents of Autistic Children Together, or PACT, and I have often met its chair, Sam Fancett, and vice-chair, Wendy Merry, and others. They are very IT friendly, and we usually speak via Blackberry messenger. I want to raise on their behalf some problems that are sometimes thought to be little things, but actually make a big difference.

First, parents believe that it would be helpful if more special schools could specialise—for example, in autism therapy—instead of being just an alternative to mainstream schools when children can no longer cope. If that is impossible, more mainstream schools could develop a specialised autism unit on site, or a unit could be shared between several schools. At present, I understand that, if a parent chooses a school that is more suited to their child’s needs, but is outside their catchment area, they must provide their own transport, and sign a disclaimer saying that they will never request transport in future. We all know that funds are limited, but there should not be a postcode lottery in such cases. As the free school reforms come through, I urge the Government to look at home-to-school transport and access to expert special education.

Secondly, why are parents of children on the autistic spectrum, especially those with severe difficulties, unable to get a blue badge to park their car? Parents of those children struggle daily, sometimes in extremely difficult situations. They have told me that parking a car when a child is having a meltdown can be highly dangerous. The Government are cracking down on people who abuse blue badges, but will the Minister do what she can to nudge local authorities to make blue badges more available to those with autistic children or children with significant special needs? It is worth taking much stronger action against those who wrongly park in bays for disabled drivers, because that causes incredible difficulties for those with severe disabilities.

Thirdly, on special educational needs, there is a question about arbitrary limits. A constituent of mine, Jackie Stedman, has suffered a constant battle to get a good education for her two children. Again and again, she has run up against problems due to random limits on financial support, which are tied to age rather than to need, or to children’s potential to learn. I accept, of course, the overall need to cut the deficit, and to be careful with our finances, but the sums involved are not significant in the context of the overall budget—in this case, that of Essex county council.

The context is that the council pays for home-to-school transport for Jackie’s two children, who both travel in the same car to the same school, but the council is now saying that, according to the rules, it can pay for one child, and not the other, even though the car will have to make the journey anyway. The absurdity is extraordinary. That is unaffordable for the family, and it feels like a “Little Britain” sketch, when “the computer says no”, just because one of her children is now 16.

I understand the need for local government to set criteria, but the rules sometimes seem arbitrary, and hurt decent families who simply want a good education for their children. A similar problem is seen with therapies offered by local primary care trusts. Sam Fancett gives the example that not all children are offered sensory integration therapy or auditory integration therapy. It depends on their PCT, but those therapies can transform children’s lives, and drastically improve behaviour at an early age. She also queries why speech therapy seems to finish at the end of year 7. Again, that seems to be an arbitrary limit, which does not relate to children’s needs or potential.

A potential casualty of the difficult economy was going to be a Thursday evening session of respite care in a Harlow community centre called Sam’s Place. Thankfully, the council worked hard to rescue it, and I congratulate the leader of Harlow council, Andrew Johnson, Councillor Joel Charles and council officers on their hard work in achieving a solution. One of the lessons that came out of that was that most parents are happy to take on the responsibility of running services for their children, but we cannot ask them to take on legal liabilities, compliance duties and other red tape. Parents with children with special needs have enough to worry about without having to do all that. I know that the Government are looking at such matters in the context of the big society reviews, and I would be grateful if the issue could be specifically considered.

As I have suggested, the solution must involve the big society. At the moment, if someone with an autistic child wants to talk to the local education authority or PCT, it is like trying to get through to a mobile phone company with instructions to press 1, press 2 and so on. Parents need a much more personal service. That may cost a lot of money, but a reduction in the number of appeals and complaints might save money in the long run. Essex county council has been moving towards that, but the results are patchy, and I urge it to use its back-office savings to hire more, dedicated, proper relationship managers—human beings—who would understand the issues and liaise directly with families such as those in the Harlow PACT.

Another problem is that the computer always seems to say no. Why should it say no to parents who are struggling against the odds? Decisions are arbitrary or tied to arbitrary age limits and catchment areas, which are largely random or created for bureaucratic convenience.

My hon. Friend is making some extremely important points about the arbitrary limits. My understanding is that the legislation does not provide for such arbitrary limits. We need to provide for the child, but local authorities use the system to prevent a child from gaining access. If a parent battles through the maze of the statementing process, they may win, but bearing in mind the delays to which I referred, very few, sadly, have the resources or the capacity to do that.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. My point is that given what parents must face, and their difficulties with special needs children, why should they have to battle? Mrs Jackie Stedman has spent years battling with the courts and relevant authorities to try to obtain proper treatment for her children. She has often been successful, but why should she have to go through that in the first place? To borrow a phrase, our public services need to speak “human”, and that means looking at each individual case on its merits, and talking to the parents and children involved.

Perhaps I should have declared an interest earlier, Mr Brady, as a former teacher and still a member of the NASUWT. Does my hon. Friend agree that schools find themselves in the middle of a conundrum? Teachers may see the problem of children on the autistic spectrum or with dyslexia and make a diagnosis, but they are frustrated because the resources and support that parents rightly demand are also lacking for teachers. They want to get on with the job. They may have identified the problem and know the direction of travel, but LEAs are often lacking resources.

My hon. Friend is right. If the teacher is well placed to understand and diagnose the problem, the matter should be sorted out from there. However, they often have to wade through relentless bureaucracy. It does not matter which local authority is involved, it is always “rule this, regulation that.” That is what makes lives difficult.

Parents are used to fighting to get a fair deal for their children, but we must not burden them with tons of forms, legal liabilities and compliance. We have to make it easier. I know that the Minister is looking into the matter, and I would be grateful if she reassured my constituents about the direction of Government policy.

I did not plan to speak in the debate. Many hon. Members take a strong interest in this subject, but there are undoubtedly other meetings and Committees sitting this morning that have prevented them from attending the debate. I anticipated contributions from some of those hon. Members to whom I have often listened when they spoke about this subject. Since I have the opportunity to speak, however, I would like to raise one or two issues.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing the debate. It is an interesting time for such a debate due to the publication of the Green Paper and the consultation. If we return to the subject in a few months, I suspect that we will have heard more from our constituents who are beginning to engage with the process and to look at the issues set out by my hon. Friend the Minister in the Green Paper.

If we look back at educational experiences over the generations, it is clear that there is now—thankfully—more recognition of the needs of pupils. Rather than seeking to exclude or blame pupils for the challenges they face, usually with huge courage and fortitude, there is now more recognition of those problems. Strategies have been developed to support pupils who face those various challenges and experiences.

Of course there is an issue of resources, and the challenge set out in the Green Paper to bring different agencies together and to come forward collectively with solutions is crucial for a number of reasons. As hon. Members have pointed out, families going through such problems often have to pursue multiple challenges with different agencies working alongside each other. Given how the system is currently configured, they have not only to fight with the local authority or even the school, if things have reached that stage, but to take on the local health trust to receive the provision that they need.

During my time representing the larger constituency of North Cornwall, as it was then constituted, I was involved in a fantastic campaign run by a wonderful woman called Sandy Lawrence. Sadly, the boundary has changed so I no longer have the benefit of her experience as a constituent, but she continues to work across Cornwall for children with Down’s syndrome. She brought to my attention the ludicrous provision in place for providing mobility aids for children who are perhaps slow to develop with walking, and pointed out the rather strange rules put in place by the primary care trusts that are split up across Cornwall.

A contract was provided by a neighbouring health trust to supply those pieces of equipment, but the commissioning was simply not up to the job or robust enough. When I, together with Sandy whose campaign it is, began to probe that situation, no one was able to say how much of a service and how many pieces of equipment had been provided for the money handed over by the local PCT, and over what period that had happened and for what purpose. The management information was dreadful. Sandy was going through that experience on behalf of a child who was approaching school age, and that equipment was crucial for engagement and moving into school. That fight was completely separate from anything to do with education, but it is crucial to bring those things together so that collaborative approaches can be drawn up.

Such an approach would also make it harder for different agencies to hide from each other. As we know, when resources are at stake, there is a tendency to say that it is someone else’s problem. If there is any opportunity to pass things on to someone else’s budget, people will grasp that opportunity. That is done not out of a sense of malice, but because people are under pressure. If we could develop a more collaborative approach, we will come up with solutions that will work better for families and children. That would be the case in the sort of situation I have outlined, which has improved drastically.

We know that child and adolescent mental health services are patchy across the country, and in a rural area such as my constituency it is challenging to provide support. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) described the support network of parents in a more urban setting. Such things exist in rural areas, but for all the reasons outlined, there are challenges in getting together because of difficulties with transport that can be acute. The determination to bring health providers to the table for debates and discussions is crucial, and I pay tribute to the Minister for the work that she has done in securing that initial collaboration with the Department of Health. I look forward to working with other hon. Members to ensure that that collaboration is delivered and becomes the reality.

I want to pick up on the point about providers of education that offer an inclusive model. That has been a subject of much debate, and it is right to ensure that special schools exist for those families for whom that is the right solution. At times, however, we do not give enough recognition to those schools that have determined to offer an inclusive programme of education. I recently met with Mr Ewan Murray, the head teacher of Robartes junior school in Bodmin. He spoke about some of the pupils in the school who were let down by other educational environments but who are now thriving. They travel past several other schools in order to get to his school because it specialises in ensuring that everybody works together and provides support.

I sit on the Committee that is considering the Education Bill currently going through the House. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan mentioned the approach taken to exclusion, but the other side of the coin is to ensure that we have confidence in early intervention so that exclusion is a last resort. Head teachers get frustrated if the situation reaches a point at which they need a permanent exclusion but know that an appeal could overturn that and put the child back in the school. There may have been earlier failures, and the Green Paper needs to look at that to identify those problems and to ensure that the situation is dealt with at an early stage.

Under the current system, which is due to change if the Bill is enacted in its current form, if the current appeals panel puts someone back in a school, the relationship with that school has often broken down and can be difficult to rebuild. The measures in the Bill concerning schools retaining an involvement and a responsibility for that pupil, and the provision they receive elsewhere, is a useful model. I welcome the work that will be done on that through pilot schemes and so on. Crucially, we must deal with problems early on so that the situation never gets near exclusion.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan on securing this debate and raising this issue at the time of the consultation. I suspect that we will return to the debate as other hon. Members get more involved and wish to contribute to the process. The determination set out by the Minister in the Green Paper to bring agencies together, particularly those in the health sector, is crucial, and I hope that it comes to fruition. It can make a huge difference for families and children who have been let down in the past.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. I thank the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) for bringing this very important subject to the Chamber. I was a little hesitant—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) felt the same—about taking part in the debate, even though I have a passion for the subject, because there is a difference between the arrangements in our part of the United Kingdom under the devolved Administration and those on the mainland. However, we can learn from each other’s experiences, and it is vital that we do. The devolved Administration should examine the current proposals and see what can be taken from them and what can be learned from them.

Some of the statements made by Ministers on this subject are certainly helpful. According to the pack prepared by the Library for the debate, the Government say that they will tackle the problem, which has never been addressed before. It then mentions a number of things that the Government propose. This Minister—the Children’s Minister—says:

“We have heard time and time again that parents are frustrated with endless delays to getting the help their child needs and by being caught in the middle when local services don’t work together.”

The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is responsible for public health, says:

“It is vital that children, whatever their needs, get the best possible start in life.”

The Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning says:

“This Government wants to do more to help people overcome barriers that hold them back.”

All those statements are grand, but quite often we have had fancy statements from Ministers in the past. We will judge them by what they do, because statements of special educational needs will, without adequate finances, just be statements.

The hon. Gentleman is talking about statements by Ministers and politicians. Many parents are concerned not only about the statement of special educational needs that their child receives, but about the quality of the education that their child receives. That is about the way in which their child is able to learn and whether their school, whether it be a private school—an independent school—a school in the voluntary aided sector or whatever, is able to assist them. The issue is more the help that is provided, rather than the statement for the child.

Yes. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The statements by Ministers that I read out contain fundamental principles that the Government are setting down. There is a review of this area, and the Government intend to make progress. All those fundamental statements by Ministers are important. All I am saying is that we will judge them by the actions thereafter, because the statements by Ministers will amount to nothing but air if they are not followed through and action is not taken to give the best possible educational opportunity to children with special needs.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann, I have special needs schools in my constituency and I know that many parents are battling for their children. When it comes to the statementing of children, my experience as a Member of Parliament is that my constituents have great difficulty in getting help when they really need it. Let us be honest: there are parents who do not have a great interest in the educational attainment of their children. Every parent should have a great interest in that, but not every parent does. Not every parent has the capacity to understand the great need for education for their children and how to get the best possible education for their children with special needs.

There are other parents, who have a real concern, yet they come up against walls, barriers and obstacles, which in the past they were not able to get over. We must ensure that we give the best possible advice and help to parents at what is a critical time, because many of the children whom we are talking about are losing years of their lives educationally that they will never be able to get back. It is vital that parents get the best advice at the right time and that therefore the child gets the best possible education, because that sets the stage not only for their educational attainment, but for their job prospects and everything else. It is vital that parents get help at the appropriate time. If that is what the Minister is setting her mind to, that will be of great help.

The Government also propose to ensure that assessment and plans run from birth to the age of 25. If I may, I will relate some of the experiences that I have had. In Northern Ireland, when children in special schools turn 18, they go outside the education system. They may have a mental capacity of seven, but they have a birth certificate that says that they are 18, and they leave their special school and go outside the education system. I am passionately angry about that, because what other child stops their educational attainment and advancement at seven years of age? No other child is allowed to stop at seven. Because the person has a birth certificate and a body that say that they are 18, they are moved aside. They have very special educational needs, but those needs are not being met after a particular age. That is a disgrace and an indictment of any society that allows it. I have in the past begged Ministers to intervene in this matter; I believe that they must tackle the issue. I trust that we will get answers on that.

Many parents are frustrated when it comes to getting statements for their children. Many do not have a sufficient understanding of what they need to do to get their child statemented and they come up against an education system that fights against that. There is a constant battle and, to be honest, many parents give up. The only person who loses is the child. We are talking about children and young people who need our help. That is where we as politicians come in. We set the guidelines.

Coming from one of the devolved nations as well, I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. There are lessons to learn from those of us in Wales. I am glad that the Minister is to have a meeting with my colleagues in Autism Cymru to talk about some of the issues; we have managed to fix up a meeting. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the corrosive effect on young people. There has been a lot of talk in this debate about the rights of parents, and I absolutely concur with that, but we are also talking about the rights of children. That is why early diagnosis and follow-through are so important. We are stacking up huge problems for children from key stage 1 right the way through the education system and into young adulthood, as the hon. Gentleman said, if we do not address these issues at the earliest opportunity.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I wholeheartedly agree with what he said. May I draw attention to this issue? We have talked about parents battling, but why should parents alone have to battle on this issue? Many do not even know how to battle, and parents should not have to know how to battle. We are putting the responsibility on the parent, and if the parent does not battle, the child loses out.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent contribution. I was one of those parents who battled through the system, as I will say in my contribution. Does he agree that more should be done to help to support parents? Often, parents feel that they are the only ones who have ever been through this experience. There is no signposting; it is almost as though the provision that is available is a big secret. Should local authorities provide more information to parents on what is available and how to find their way through the system?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I wholeheartedly agree. Many parents are in a panic because they do not know at all how to surmount the barriers that are put in their way. They want to do the best for their children—I am speaking about those who want to do the best for their children—and want to battle for their children. Parents have come to me in tears. They say, “I’m fighting for my child, because I will not always be here. Therefore, I want to give my child the best opportunity.” Parents have come to me who are broken mentally because they have tried their best, but it seems that obstacles and barriers are always placed in their way. That is not what our society should be doing. We should be signposting the way. When we come to a barrier, there must be a way over it, if we are to have the best education for our children, and especially those with special needs.

In conclusion, I once again thank the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan for bringing this important issue before us. I am delighted that the Government have identified some of the issues and have proposed measures, but the proof of the pie will be in the eating.

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.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady; I think it is the first time I have been able to do so. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing the debate. I am grateful to have this opportunity so soon after we published the Green Paper. It is useful to learn what hon. Members think and hear the feedback from their constituencies. The hon. Gentleman said he hoped there would be other opportunities; I do, too. As hon. Members are able to go into their constituencies and use the consultation to talk to their local groups, they will have the opportunity to bring that feedback to the House, so that we can discuss it.

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest in the subject. He also mentioned his wife; that is a real power partnership. We are grateful for the expertise he and other hon. Members brought to a good-quality debate—Members including the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), who spoke of her experience of battling to get support for her child.

As hon. Members will be aware, the core of the reform that we are trying to bring to the system is quite radical, and it will take time to bed down and to get it right. Unfortunately, I am not able to promise that overnight we will be able to transform the experience radically for every family who has a disabled child or one with special educational needs. In some of the things that we are doing, it will take time to change attitudes and mindsets. That is why we are taking the approach of using pilots—so that we can begin to roll them out and learn from the experience.

Core to the reform is the change to a nought-to-25 system that is more continuous. I want the system to be more focused on outcomes, rather than focusing just on inputs. A lot of the tension arises partly because people get hung up on the question, “How many hours?”, rather than thinking about where we want the child and family to be in 12 months’ time. We should have that type of conversation from the outset. We should look at the child and family and ask: what are the realistic goals? Where do we want to be next year? What are the realistic goals, long term? We should then put in place the right kind of support to get children and families into that position for the long term.

I recognise the focus on outcomes, but does the Minister also recognise that parents can only guarantee the inputs to deliver the outcomes through a statement of special educational needs? Of course, it will be called something different and will have a slightly different form if the Green Paper becomes a White Paper. As I tried to highlight, if a therapist is sick or on maternity leave, provision is rarely replaced during that period. We will not achieve the outcomes unless there is a guarantee of the inputs.

I will come to the specifics of the statementing process. The hon. Gentleman’s contribution on that was helpful. It is about getting the detail right and ensuring that the system works.

I have mentioned that I want a nought-to-25 process, and that it should be more outcomes-focused. It also needs to be a joint assessment process. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) said that the current system was too costly, often because people go through it several times—something that the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan also mentioned. It is very frustrating for families if they have to go through multiple assessments, telling the same story over and over again to professionals. That wastes their time and the professionals’ time. When I have listened to families speaking about their experience, I have been struck by how traumatic it is; they relive the grief they experienced when they first had the diagnosis of the disability or special educational need. Every time they tell the story, they are effectively reliving that initial trauma. When that is combined with the frustration of feeling that nobody is listening to them, it is incredibly stressful for families.

We have to streamline the assessment process, so that families go through fewer hoops, we come up with one plan into which everybody is tied, and people know who is responsible for paying for what, rather than there being an endless fight over where that responsibility sits in different sections of the statement. That picks up the point on which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan ended his contribution. At the moment, unfortunately, one needs to be highly articulate and, too often, financially able, in order to get the best out of the system. That is simply not good enough. We have to make the system simpler and more straightforward, so that every family can get what their child deserves: the best possible support and care.

As a number of hon. Members have said, the current system is cumbersome, costly and inconsistent. The first thing we have tried to do is take some of the adversarial nature out of the process. Again, I cannot promise that we will never have tension between families and services providing for their child; that is not realistic. However, there is a lot we can do to reduce that, so that it does not come immediately, and so that we change the nature of the conversation from the outset.

We want to begin with the idea of a local offer, so that when someone first encounters the local authority or health service, they are not told: “Prove that you need help.” Local services should be coming to parents and saying, “This is what we normally provide; now let’s have the discussion about how we tailor that, and what we need to do for you in your situation.” That should change the relationship from the beginning. That again was a point made by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan. The attempt to get people to talk at the end of the process can be unsuccessful if trust broke down right at the beginning. That was highlighted for us by the Council for Disabled Children, which spoke passionately about the need for a local offer. In areas where that has been developed, it has changed the relationship from the beginning. That has been much more fruitful; even if parents decide to go all the way through the special educational needs and disability tribunal, the nature of the conversation can be much better from the beginning.

Mainstream schools need to be clearer with families about what they would normally provide for children with a range of learning difficulties, disabilities or additional needs. At the moment, there is great inconsistency. It can be difficult for parents to work out whether their child’s needs are greater than those normally provided for in a school—the legal definition of special educational needs. As a consequence, local authorities complain that the tribunal will often make inconsistent decisions about whether a statement is required. It is not in anyone’s interest for all that to be so cloak-and-dagger. Much more can be clearer from the beginning.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan said that a lot of the detail did not work. He mentioned the tension between outcomes and incomes-focused criteria. I recognise his point, but if we begin with outcomes, it changes the nature of the discussion. We sometimes hear that families will cling to a statement that may not be suitable for their child’s needs, as those needs have changed. That is not in the interests of the family. If we can focus more on the outcomes and the support that we need to provide for a family as we move to an agreed set of goals, families are less likely to cling to unsuitable provision, and more likely to be willing to accept changes that might be right for their child. Focusing on outcomes rather than inputs requires a huge change of mindset. As I said earlier, of all the things that we are trying to do, that will probably take the longest to bed down.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall said that going around the loop repeatedly is often expensive. If we do not get children the support that they need early enough, that is also expensive; a greater, more serious intervention might be needed later. Many of the families that we spoke to, and the voluntary organisations that we worked with when drawing up the Green Paper, told us that parents use the expensive independent school not always for the education that it provides, but often because it has therapists on tap, particularly speech and language therapists. As a result of the frustration of not being able to get speech and language therapy through other means, some parents will push all the way through the tribunal for the expensive independent provision—but that, of course, comes out of the local authority’s budget, and not the health service budget. In the end, there is no incentive for local services to work together, or to provide a plan that should be paid for jointly. There would be significantly less cost to the public purse in the long term if we could get it right from the beginning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan spoke about delays in the system. It is clearly ridiculous for small children to have to wait six months for the necessary support, because they are at a critical period in their development. Anything that we can do to speed up that process is important. I hope that the joint process, the single assessment process, will remove some of the delays. Many delays are the result of local authorities having to co-ordinate the expertise of various professionals; that is particularly so with professional input on health.

One of our first priorities, even before we get to the joint process, is the statementing process; we want people to contribute sooner, more quickly, more rapidly and more efficiently. It is not good for families to have to wait. The nub of what we are doing is reducing delay in the short term. As for the longer term, I hope that the pilots will show that having one process speeds things up. That is a key objective in getting people to work together.

The Minister rightly focuses on the cut proposed in the Green Paper from 26 weeks to 20 weeks. I referred in my speech to a delay in a tribunal taking place; it took from 10 August last year until mid-January for the case to come to the tribunal. That was far longer than it took to get the published statement. We should not forget that a case could be taken to tribunal twice—once regarding the statutory assessment, and once regarding the statement. What consideration has the Minister given to that? It would be a significant step forward if that wait was curtailed to a reasonable length.

The hon. Gentleman need not panic; I wrote everything down. I may not be able to cover every point that he raised as I cannot scribble that quickly, but he raises the very point that I wanted to deal with next.

I turn first, however, to what the hon. Gentleman said about mediation; he asked whether it would introduce extra delay. That is absolutely not the intention. When we roll it out, we want to make it clear to local authorities that the addition of mediation should not delay the process of going to the tribunal. The quality of conversation ought to be better from the outset, so I hope that the process will be more successful.

The other key point to make about mediation is that it needs to be high-quality. If people are simply going through the motions, it will add extra frustration for everyone concerned. In the Green Paper, we point to some examples of good practice, particularly in the west midlands. Independent mediation there has made a real difference to the solutions that parents are being given, and people have not had to go through the tribunal process. Parents were happier because they had much better conversations with local providers.

I turn to tribunal delays. I was concerned to hear of the example given by the hon. Gentleman. The tribunal in England aims to hear cases within 22 weeks of the appeal being registered. We regularly meet the tribunal at an official level and raise the matter with it, but we will raise the specific point that the hon. Gentleman makes. It would help to know whether the case was in England or Wales.

That is helpful. We will raise that case with the tribunal. Personal budgets were alluded to by a number of Members, particularly the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). I hope that they will cut some of the frustration for families. They are a choice, not an obligation; families will not be obliged to take up personal budgets. We realise that not every family will want to do so, but some will believe that they would be better able to make choices about how family life was run if they had the freedom to decide how to care for their child. That needs to be trialled. Some small-scale pilots have been run for disabled children in recent years with some elements of the health budget, and we will build on that.

In the Green Paper, we are consulting on what should be included in the scheme. One suggestion is that we include school transport, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Harlow. I hope that will give families more freedom to decide which school their children could attend. The obvious thing to include in personal budgets is key equipment such as speech and language aids, which were mentioned earlier, and wheelchairs. I have experience of this as a constituency MP, and I know from being involved with the Green Paper that delays in the provision of wheelchairs are unfortunately extremely common. Indeed, the wait can sometimes be so long that children have grown out of the wheelchair by the time it arrives. That is utterly ridiculous. It is a waste of public money, and the impact on the child can be considerable. Indeed, one child in my constituency was not able to attend school while waiting for a new wheelchair because the old one was the wrong size and was giving him sores. That is not good enough.

Another obvious candidate for a personal budget is therapy, particularly speech and language therapy. That raises the subject of adequate provision, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Harlow. I have no doubt that the joint strategic needs assessment process needs to be better at picking up needs, from the ground upwards. The Green Paper commits the Department of Health to ensuring that the needs assessment is done in a way that responds to the needs of families with disabled children in the area. I hope that that deals with the point raised by the hon. Gentleman.

That point is crucial, and it could represent a huge step forward. We are obviously focusing on younger people, and my experience as a constituency MP is that direct payment with personal budgeting has worked for social care; there is often an element of health care as well, but at the moment that cannot be provided through primary care trusts with a direct payment model. That is incredibly frustrating, and it is a barrier to getting a package that works for families. I have had that experience with families who are caring for older people, and I believe that lessons can be learned right the way across.

Absolutely. We intend rolling that out as a legal entitlement, and that will bite on local services. Local authorities are going to have to budget, rather than agreeing to put something in a plan and then dodging the responsibility for paying for it. If parents are legally entitled to request provision—local services will not know which parents will request it—local services will have to budget for that. We expect that services will be provided on the ground, but we need to test the system with pilots to ensure that there is a bite on all services. We want to ensure that all families get the services that they have been promised, and do not find themselves in the same position as before, where something would be written in section 3 or 5 of a statement but not be provided by local health services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) has spoken on a number of occasions about the frustration of teachers. He said that it is not only parents who are frustrated; teachers often feel inadequately prepared to work with children with a range of additional specialist needs. However, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West told us that one inspirational teacher made the difference for her child. That is the point. We hear many fantastic examples of professionals who lead practice, but even one professional who believes in a child and who takes responsibility can make such a difference. They can be teachers or other professionals with whom the family come into contact. That kind of practice needs to be much more common, which is why we propose improving initial teacher training. We will use both special and mainstream schools for teaching purposes to ensure that professionals learn from the good practice of others. We will also focus on continuing professional development, using both online specialist material, some of which was launched last week, and scholarship funds to ensure that teachers and teaching assistants have access to funds to gain a greater specialism.

The point about teaching assistants is new; we have a new way of thinking about their role. As many families know, teaching assistants often have more experience than the classroom teacher of working with children with additional needs. By giving them an opportunity to develop their career, we may well bring to the teaching profession many more individuals who have a real background, interest and focus on this subject.

Let me touch on the issue of choice, to which the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall referred. The point about trying to reverse the bias is exactly about choice. If there is currently a bias in one direction or another, that is not about choice. The focus of our Green Paper is on improving choice for families, so that they can make decisions about what is best for their child. Too often, however, it ends up being Hobson’s choice, because they feel that the mainstream school does not have the capability to support their child. That is why we want a focus on teacher training and the Achievement for All pilot.

I want to focus on Achievement for All and to pick up the point about over-diagnosis raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea). Achievement for All is a pilot programme that ran in 10 local authorities and 450 schools. Schools and parents found that it substantially increased the attainment of children in schools. That was true in special schools, in which children might have highly complex needs and a statement, and in mainstream schools, in which children might be on school action or school action plus. The improvement in attainment stemmed from the quality of the interaction between the school and parents, and between teachers and the child.

Under the pilot, there is a greater focus on setting goals, on monitoring the attainment of those goals and on sharing information with families and making sure that they are involved in their child’s attainment. Head teachers said that when they used the programme it changed their mindset; it was about not money, but attitude. That attitude affected not just the children with whom teachers were working on the SEN register, but all the children in the school who had additional needs.

Some Members implied that we were arbitrarily taking children off the SEN register. Though the powers of Government are great, they are not great enough to mandate the press to report what we say accurately. Unfortunately, the press like to write about numbers. They multiplied our figures and came up with a large number that may or may not be our target. I was very clear with them at the press briefing, as I have been clear with them since, that the Government do not have a target for the number of children they want off the SEN register. What we want is schools to work with children to ensure they fulfil their potential.

When Achievement for All was rolled out in some schools, it was found that the increase in attainment was so great that children no longer needed to be on the SEN register. Surely that should be welcomed by everybody. This is not about arbitrarily reducing numbers.

I am listening with great interest to the Minister. She has clarified many of the points that have been raised. The media may have come to their conclusions because they felt that the figure of 21% of children being diagnosed with SEN was too high. I definitely read that in the media.

Unfortunately, I am not in control of what the media write. Ofsted said that too many children are diagnosed with special educational needs; it said the number could be as high as one in four. Let me repeat that we are not setting a target for the number of children we want off the SEN register.

We have changed the school action and school action plus criteria because schools said that they were bureaucratic and not very helpful. At the start of this debate, there was an exchange about whether there is a financial incentive for schools to use school action and school action plus. There is no financial incentive, because in most cases the funds are already delegated to schools. We have got rid of contextual value added, which Ofsted said was an incentive, in terms of league tables. The issue is much more complex. Teachers will sometimes label children as having SEN because they think that that is the right thing to do; we should not always assume malicious motives. Teachers believe that the right thing to do is to label a child as having SEN, whereas what they probably need to do is work closely with that child, raise their attainment, and work out what the barriers are that are preventing them from moving forward.

It is important to identify need at an early stage. This morning, Dame Clare Tickell launched her report on the review of the early years foundation stage. It will take us some time to go through the detail of her recommendations, but one of the things that she has picked up—this was also picked up in our Green Paper and by the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) in his review a few months ago—was whether we could make better use of the two-and-a-half-year-old check and link it with the early years foundation stage, so that we pick up need at an early age. That is particularly important for speech and language issues. Dame Clare has recommended that the new foundation building blocks of the EYFS be focused particularly on communication needs, personal, emotional and social development, and physical development. I hope that the suggestion will help improve the system for professionals working in early years.

I realise that there is very little time left. Will the Minister comment on my remarks about the blue badge issue?

I was concerned to hear the hon. Gentleman’s point about the particular difficulties that families with autism face. Families with a disabled child face complicated and diverse barriers to living a normal life, and that is an issue that should not be addressed by the Department for Education alone. I will take up his point with the Department for Communities and Local Government.

In the last couple of minutes that I have left, let me pick up on as many points as I can. The Department of Health is considering the future training and development of speech and language therapists as part of its wider consultation on the work force.

Exclusions were referred to by a number of hon. Members. The proposals laid out in the Education Bill and in the schools White Paper will substantially improve the situation for vulnerable young people because it will make schools responsible for what happens to them after they leave that school. The other proposal that we have put in our Green Paper is that if a child’s behaviour is not responding to normal behavioural management techniques, or if they are being repeatedly excluded on a short-term basis, schools should, as a matter of course, do some kind of multi-agency assessment, which could be done through the common assessment framework. They should use their local multi-agency assessment process as a system for questioning why a child’s behaviour is out of control. I hope that will reduce the number of children who end up being excluded. More importantly, we need to ensure that we put in place the right kind of support for a child, whether it is helping with a situation in their family, or with a mental health problem.

I thought that I would have loads of time to cover all the points, but that is clearly not the case. There is a long consultation period now of four months, and a long period of implementation. I am grateful to hon. Members for their points and I will ensure that they are fed into our formal consultation process. I encourage hon. Members to engage with their local parents’ forums and groups to ensure that, when we respond to the consultation, we really take into account what families and children want. It is important that we get this right because the care of those children really matters.