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Children with Autism (Education)

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 17 July 2014

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of education for children with autism.

It is a privilege to introduce this debate on the provision of proper schooling for children with autism. I first considered securing such a debate when I was approached by a number of families in my constituency. I asked a question of the then Secretary of State for Education, who agreed that I could meet the Minister, which I did. Following that, I was approached by a number of my constituents who asked me to secure today’s debate. I am delighted to have achieved that and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it. I am pleased that there are a number of Members in the Chamber today who wish to debate this important subject.

This debate is important in identifying for the Minister the horrifying ongoing struggles, about which my constituents have certainly told me, that children with autism face in getting appropriate education. As a result of poor local provision and unofficial exclusions, thousands of children with autism do not access full-time education. If a young person’s needs are not understood or met, that has both short and long-term implications, which, as my constituents’ experience highlights, can be severe.

We are all aware that autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how a person communicates and makes sense of the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, meaning that it affects people in different ways, making awareness and diagnosis even more important. Some children have mild autism and some have severe autism and the idea that one education system fits all does not work. That is one of the major issues that I hope to put forward today for consideration, and I hope that the Minister will look into it in the future.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Will he join me in congratulating the many important local community groups that support children with autism, such as Autism Support Crawley and Autism Sussex, on the help that they give to parents in dealing with the education system, which, as he rightly points out, differs from local authority to local authority?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point. In my constituency, there are many people, such as church groups and voluntary groups, who do just that. However, we need the local education authorities to recognise the problems. Children with autism, like children without autism, should have an equal right to access good-quality full-time education.

Let me look directly at my own constituency, which is in Lancashire. Lancashire county council, in my view and in that of my constituents, has failed to ensure that appropriate education and support are provided for numerous autistic children. I will give three examples later in my speech. To put it simply, its oversight is causing too many children with autism to miss out on much of their valuable education. Despite local authorities holding the legal responsibility to ensure that all children with special educational needs in their area are identified and supported, it is evident that that is not being fulfilled. In Lancashire no one is accepting responsibility or taking the time to understand the needs of these children. That is happening across the country, so many of the 70,000 school-age children in England are not accessing the education they need to learn, achieve and, more importantly, thrive.

I draw the attention of the House to three of my constituents. One of the cases is especially moving. When I first heard about it, I was distressed, to say the least. It concerns a young lady named Chloe, who is 17 years old. She is now on suicide watch as a result of repeatedly being failed by Lancashire county council since the age of 11. The detrimental impact of Chloe’s lack of education and development as an individual is clear. She was threatened with exclusion from her mainstream school placements up to the age of 13, when she was finally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.

Children with statements of special educational needs are eight times more likely to be excluded than their peers, and children with no statement are 11 times more likely to be excluded. When Chloe was 14 her family was advised that she would receive a statutory assessment of her educational needs. Lancashire county council failed to undertake this, despite it being recommended by professionals and her parents’ insistence. It took years—not weeks or months, but years—for Lancashire county council educational psychologist Yakub Padia to assess Chloe. After a 20-minute consultation he disagreed with the findings of experienced psychologists who had spent prolonged periods with her, and it was recommended that she be placed in a pupil referral unit, rather than the specialist school recommended by the professionals. Lancashire county council disregarded this and even the advice of the head of the pupil referral unit, who thought it was not suitable for Chloe.

As a teenager Chloe was passed from pillar to post, with a total lack of accurate assessment. Lancashire county council let her down. Chloe felt worthless and rejected. That led her to self-harm and to suffer from depression. She has ended up in a specialist psychiatric unit on suicide watch. Her brothers have had to watch her attempt to hang herself in the family home. Chloe is now emotionally and mentally damaged. Without question, missing out on education leads to poor life outcomes for the child involved and for their families. Chloe’s mum is one of the 50% of parents of disabled children who say they have had to take up part-time work as a result of their child’s exclusion. Chloe is a very sad case.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) on bringing this important issue to the attention of the House. I was hoping he would go on to paint a picture of how we as parliamentarians can help to destigmatise the condition and break down some of the barriers that people face in their everyday lives in respect of employment and perhaps even diagnosis of their condition. All we have heard up till now is an attack on Lancashire county council. I hope the hon. Gentleman will focus on what we as parliamentarians can do to assist people who have the condition.

I am grateful for the intervention. I am trying to explain that people with autism are born with autism. I am trying to find a reason why, in education, we cannot accept this—as a disease or an illness—and work with the families and the children who suffer from this appalling disease. I have met the head of a school not in my constituency, but close by, called Rossendale school. The head said that he could resolve the problem and he has proved that. He has a way of doing that. Unfortunately, Lancashire county council—the hon. Gentleman says that I should not be having a go at it—does not accept that and will not work with the school, which I find pretty hideous, because it needs to do things like that.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Lancashire county council has 1,435 children and young people suffering from autism spectrum disorder and, as he will hear in my speech, does an excellent job. He omitted from his remarks the fact that Rossendale is a private school and that the council provides excellent state facilities, with specialist experts, and can make that provision available, but he—I am sure that he will expand on this later—is insisting on private education when public education is adequate.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, but the families of the children I am talking about would totally disagree—they will no doubt be happy to meet him later to explain the serious problems they are having. I am not pushing for private education. Rossendale might well be a private school, and so too might one or two others. All I am saying is that if Rossendale can provide it, why can Lancashire county council not do the same through the state system? Why can the council not be just as good as Rossendale? I do not want to promote a private school; I want to promote extremely good education for my constituents.

The hon. Gentleman—it is difficult not to call him my hon. Friend—will know of my interest in this subject. I am sorry that I arrived a little late to this debate; I was chairing a committee at the other end of the building. I am delighted that he is making this speech. I want to make the point, having chaired the Education Committee when it conducted a major inquiry into special educational needs, that the lack of early diagnosis and early access to psychological and mental health therapy is a problem up and down the country, not just in Lancashire. The length of time it can take for a child suspected of having such a condition to be evaluated and then given the support they need is a national disgrace.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I could not have put it better myself. That is the argument I am making. We are having this debate because I was approached by three families in my constituency. I had thought that this was a small issue. I did not anticipate the flood of e-mails and correspondence I received, and not only from Lancashire, but from all over the country. I agree with it 100%.

We can sit here all day long saying that this is happening all over the country, but what are we doing about it? We need to do something. Why are children with autism and ADHD being tret in that way? As the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) has said, Lancashire county council provides education to more than 1,400 young people with autism spectrum disorder, but why are my constituents, who are up in the Gallery, being tret differently from anybody else? Why does the council not treat them in the same way? Why are their children totally different from somebody else’s? Why do they have to suffer? Why does Chloe’s mother have to suffer in that way while other parents do not?

If Lancashire county council delivers such a great service, as the hon. Gentleman says, why is it letting Chloe and her mother down? That is my issue today. I am happy for Lancashire county council to deliver the best service available in the country, but it has to be for everybody, not just the few. My purpose today is to raise the issue with the Minister and ask him to look into it and take it forward.

My hon. Friend is doing a great service to this cause just by raising it, so he should be proud of himself. Surely the answer to Labour Members’ interventions is that it is a question not of state or private but of looking at each case individually. If a private school happens to be more appropriate, there should not be bias against the fact that it is a private school. We should look at what is best for the child, should we not?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I will shortly come to a case where I got involved in talking about private or public provision and heard stories from the staff at the county council.

The next case is that of a young man called Jack Entwistle, a nine-year-old autistic boy who should currently be enjoying his school holidays but, unfortunately, has already been out of education for three months. He is at a critical age educationally and developmentally, but so far he has been failed by the county council. This is not just about Lancashire county council—it will be happening all over, but I have not met anybody from any other county council area with similar experiences.

It might be happening in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency; in fact, I am sure it is. I have been to Huddersfield, and it is a beautiful place that I would always be happy to visit, but I can talk only about the people I know.

May I tempt the hon. Gentleman, who is an old friend of mine, to be more forensic? We need to do better—all of us here in the Chamber today who care about this. He is right: we all see similar cases in our constituency advice services. The real problem, right across the country, is proper early diagnosis, whether in the private or the state sector—it does not matter. What the parents want is early diagnosis so that support and intervention can then take place and the child has a chance to develop their spark of potential in the very best way. We are talking about some very, very clever kids who need support really early on in their careers. If we can share, forensically, information about where the barriers are and why early diagnosis is not taking place, we can be much more effective. We have here a very good Minister who partly trained on my Select Committee at one stage. I know that he is good on this and cares about it, and we can make a compelling case to him.

I agree with everything that has been said. Why cannot these diagnoses be done quickly? Why cannot we solve these problems?

Jack received a statement of educational needs at the age of three due to his prematurity and his visual impairment, so his parents should have received adequate support and his needs should have been met as he wanted. Conversely, he has been subjected to humiliation in the school environment, with unfair treatment by a teaching assistant and his recent forced removal from the mainstream school that he had attended for four years. Jack was officially diagnosed with autism in 2012 when he was seven, but he had a problem when he was three. The school declared that it could no longer cope with Jack, who struggled with the transition from infants to juniors.

After several meetings with the county council education authority, Jack’s parents worked well with the school—a state school—to create a suitable environment with the input of a teaching assistant providing additional facilities. Jack thrived and his marks improved. However, the county council has taken away the special needs teacher and now he cannot manage at school. His parents have no trust in placing him in this environment and are currently appealing against his placement. It is wrong that the county council, instead of encouraging Jack’s development, has not considered all his needs. That is what it is all about—considering the child’s needs.

It is more than alarming that the parents had to face more battles to get the county council to amend Jack’s statement to include autism as part of its diagnosis. Why should the parents have to argue with the experts to get a proper diagnosis of the child’s illness? Why on earth do they have to do this? Is it not delivered automatically? Are we not paying the experts within the education authority to deliver this service to my constituents—the parents and the child? That is the big problem.

I want to go back a step or two and express my gratitude to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue, but not necessarily for the manner in which he is doing so. He is, of course, absolutely right to illustrate the cases of his individual constituents, but an immediate member of my family who has autism went through a similar experience to the one he is describing when Liverpool had a Liberal Democrat council. I say that not because I want to make a party political point, but because this is widespread and happens all the time. We have to understand that this is a condition—it is not a disease—with a spectrum of different conditions within it. It is very complex. That is why early diagnosis and assessment followed by a support package based on the individual needs of the child is the most important thing we can do. I hope we will get to the point where we can work with the Government to see what we need to do better to enable people to get the best start possible in life.

I am grateful for that intervention. My only aim is that we all work with the Government and education authorities to come to a conclusion on how to address early diagnosis and to deliver for these young people—who in the main have amazing talents—educational facilities that will take them on, help them succeed and be superb members of the community, and enable them to live normal lives. My argument is that we are not doing that, and the hon. Gentleman obviously agrees with me.

The education system in Scotland is devolved, but, as has been said, this is a problem across the country, because the condition is prevalent across the country. Does he agree that this is not just about local authorities and that there should be proper training for the teaching profession? There is also a body of work to be done on teaching schoolchildren to treat those in their classes who have autism slightly differently and to be a more aware of their condition so that they can thrive in a mainstream environment.

Absolutely. I pretty much agree with everything that has been said and most people seem to agree with what I am saying. My argument is that, although the hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) have all made amazing suggestions, we do not act on them. While we sit here and talk, why are thousands of young people and families across the country suffering? I have met some of those families and they are at the edge of life. It should not have to be like that. Proper facilities should be provided.

This is the first time I have risen to make an intervention in this House to say something positively nice about the Government: the Children and Families Act 2014, which was passed recently, met an aspiration that I had had for many years, namely that someone diagnosed with special educational needs will have a special relationship with evaluation until they are 25. That is wonderful and we should pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson) and the Government for it. The sensitive issue, however, is what has happened to services such as child and adolescent mental health services, which seem to be falling apart up and down the country, but the Government are not reacting to that.

I am grateful for that intervention and I will address the hon. Gentleman’s comments when I come to the end of my contribution.

Thirdly, I want to talk about a little girl called Honey, who is the daughter of a constituent of mine with a hairdressing salon near my office in Burnley. She is a lovely, lively little girl—she spends time in my office on occasion—who has very mild autism. She had to be moved six months into her final year in primary school due to trauma and threat of exclusion. Basically, she was classed as a naughty girl.

Honey’s new primary school quickly established the need for a statement of educational needs—why had it not been picked up earlier?—and had evidence from an independent educational psychologist to present to the panel. Once again, however, the Lancashire county council educational psychologist reassessed Honey and challenged the independent assessment.

No secondary school place has been arranged for Honey, despite her parents choosing Rossendale school. There may be other schools that are as good as that independent school, but Rossendale is one of the few providers catering for high-functioning ASD children in Lancashire. Honey’s parents’ preference for Rossendale was put to a panel, which rejected it. The panel suggested a special school for severely disabled children, which was named without the parents’ agreement.

Lancashire county council advised the family to look at other options, but every time the family went back to the panel, their wishes were rejected. Naturally, that has had an effect on Honey’s self-esteem, and her anxieties have increased by the rejection of her choice of school. The family therefore appealed to SENDIST––the special educational needs and disability tribunal—against the named school, and asked for Rossendale school to be named. Honey has been in front of a judge, to whom she outlined her future aspirations, of which she has many. However, the family has had no success in integrating her into the school she suggested.

Honey has anxieties and fears connected with the named school. She has now been out of school for more than 12 months, which is detrimental to her health and education. Despite her parents’ request for an annual review, that has been overlooked. Such requests should be considered natural: if somebody asks for a review, it should be accepted.

When I have attempted to speak to the county council about this matter, I have been told many stories. The lady in charge, Charlotte Finch, the SEND integrated assessment team manager, has given me confusing statements about whether Honey or any child for that matter can attend Rossendale independent school or another school of the same quality. She said that no child from Lancashire is to attend the school, but the head of the school has since told me that that is not true. Lancashire county council does send children to Rossendale school, but when I spoke to the council I was told that it did not. Such treatment has created hostility between the child’s family and the council.

Most education authorities, including Lancashire, fail to appreciate and understand the needs of autistic children that I, like countless others, have described. I must stress that those are the first three cases I was approached to help with that I have time to deal with in this debate, but they are by no means my only cases. I have been inundated—and, indeed, saddened—by cases of the many families across Lancashire and the whole country who are suffering the same plight.

Autism must be understood, as must the child in question. Information provided by Lancashire county council and other authorities suggests that they do not have data about the number of children with autism who are out of school. The way in which they store the data means that they cannot be broken down by disability, which is clearly a problem in itself.

Furthermore, there is evidently a problem with Lancashire county council’s approach to autism. According to information that I obtained from an individual involved in a professional capacity with the council, in March the head of inclusion and disability, Sally Riley, held an information and training morning for all school staff about the new SEN code, which has been mentioned today. During it, the number of tribunals was discussed, as was the council’s success in winning them. For me, that is the wrong way round: it is not for the council to win a tribunal against a child; the child should win the tribunal because otherwise they are put out of school. Why do tribunals not understand that children need help? I would be delighted if such a department head at the county council stood up and said, “I’m sorry. We’ve failed every tribunal, and every child has got the school they need.” Unfortunately, however, what is happening is the other way around. The figures highlighted that the council had won more than they had lost, which is disgraceful.

We are running short of time and many other Members wish to speak in this debate, so I will conclude. One big problem is that the family members of children in Burnley have rapidly lost confidence in the education department of Lancashire county council, just as, I am sure, families across the country lose confidence in their education authorities. We need to do something to resolve that situation. I hope that after this debate the Minister will take up the cudgel for children with autism, particularly those in my constituency. As the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, we need to find out what the problems are earlier and deliver the services sooner. I hope that the Minister will take that up.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) on securing this important debate on an issue that is close to the hearts of many Members who are in the Chamber.

Although the hon. Gentleman might not have intended for his speech to be seen as an attack on Lancashire county council, he made many serious accusations against it. As the council is not here in any capacity to defend itself, I think it is important that I respond, as somebody who has spoken to people from the area and county councillors about some of the matters that he has raised.

In Lancashire, 1,435 children and young people have autism spectrum disorder, which is commonly referred to as ASD. Of those children, 1,129 have a statement and 306 are on School Action Plus. Some 698 of those children are placed in mainstream primary and secondary schools, 596 are placed in maintained special schools and 141 are placed in independent, non-maintained special schools. As one can tell from those figures, the three cases that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are very much in a minority and could not, through any statistical analysis, be considered to be indicative of the type of treatment that is going on across Lancashire county council.

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the minority should just be left? Surely all children should receive the same. Is he saying that Lancashire county council has delivered for a lot of people, but not for a minority of people? Should that minority just be left on the scrap heap? Surely he is not suggesting that.

Of course I am not suggesting that. I am suggesting that everybody should have the best possible treatment. I want the three cases that the hon. Gentleman presented to be seen not as the norm, but as the exception. All children deserve the best that Lancashire county council can possibly give them. However, given that Lancashire county council has 1,435 children and young people with autism, I would not want three to be considered to be the norm.

We must all agree, as parliamentarians, that the distressing picture that was painted of the cases of Chloe, Jack and Honey is worrying. We could all bring similar cases to the House. I hope that what we will achieve is to help the family members and carers of people on the autistic spectrum by highlighting programmes such as Autism Initiatives in Liverpool, which provides a signposting service so that family members can get support and access early intervention, assessment and diagnosis. That is essential because autism stays with people for their whole lives, not just when they are at school.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I will go on to speak about the work that Lancashire county council is doing in that area. I would be grateful to hear about his experiences in Liverpool if he makes a contribution later.

Lancashire county council also makes provision for short breaks for children with ASD. It has commissioned more than £182,000 of short breaks provision from local specialist autism services, to provide activities for children during evenings, weekends and school holidays, while also providing their parents and carers with breaks from caring. The most recent attainment data at the end of key stage 2 show that 73% of children with ASD made two levels of progress in English, compared with 94% of all pupils, and that 69% of children with ASD made two levels of progress in mathematics, compared with 93% of all pupils. Given those pupils’ conditions, that is a tremendous achievement. Of children who are statemented with ASD and took GCSEs in mainstream schools between 2011 and 2013, 75% gained five A to C grades, including English and maths, which is well above the national average of 60.8% for all children during the same period.

Lancashire schools have access to considerable expertise on autism provided by specialist advisory teachers and educational psychologists. That is supplemented by rapidly developing school-to-school support, where centres of expertise based at special schools provide an increasing range of guidance and support to their colleagues in primary and secondary schools.

For children and young people with more complex autism, Lancashire’s special schools have developed much greater expertise. All special schools for generic learning difficulties are funded to meet as wide a range of special educational needs as possible. They are all able to provide for pupils with autism, and several have chosen to specialise in autism by developing staff training programmes and allocating substantially increased resources to that specialism. In several cases that has been recognised by Ofsted inspectors.

The hon. Member for Burnley raised issues on behalf of three of his constituents where parents are seeking what is effectively private school education for their children who have autism. The council has identified provision in at least two of our maintained special schools, which are judged by Ofsted to be good and outstanding. In those cases, parents have appealed to the first and upper tier tribunals, which have found in favour of the council—he made that point—and directed that the children go to the maintained special schools. The outcome of a further appeal to the upper tribunal by one of the families is awaited.

All Lancashire’s special schools for learning difficulties —23 in total—are rated as good or better by Ofsted. I fully appreciate that parents, particularly of the three children involved, want to fight for what they see as the best opportunities and outcomes for their children—the hon. Gentleman would want that, as would I. However, the recent behaviour, language and actions of those involved—by that I am referring to the hon. Gentleman—has caused considerable anxiety for many families, while also conveying a partial view of the provision made by the council. For schools that are doing a great deal of good work in this area, the constant bombardment by him in the Lancashire press about those schools and the county council is causing considerable anxiety, not only among staff at those special schools, but among many of the parents of children who go to them. It is one thing to represent parents who are concerned about their children—he is entitled to do that—but that also has an effect, rightly or wrongly, on children and parents in other schools where the council is providing good teaching and provision.

On a number of occasions the hon. Gentleman also suggested that Lancashire county council officers have not been completely truthful about their approach to considering parents’ expressions of preference for special educational placements in independent non-maintained special schools, but the council refutes those allegations.

On the specific examples outlined by the hon. Gentleman, the case of Chloe Wold is a tragedy. Nobody looking at the record could say anything other than that. I concur completely with him about her situation. She has been in this condition for some time and is on suicide watch, and I sympathise totally with the parents in this case.

I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. He has obviously been well briefed by the county council and is answering the debate on its behalf. However, this debate is on autism in schools. I do not understand where he is coming from. I do not really want him to answer on behalf of the county council. I want to listen to his solutions to the problems that my constituents are suffering.

The hon. Gentleman made some fairly serious allegations against the county council and I have received information from the county council that refutes those allegations. If he does not want to listen to that, that is a matter for him. If he wishes to leave the Chamber that is up to him, but I have every right to make these points.

Order. This debate is not about a county council; neither is it about party politics or opinions about party politics in a particular part of the country. It is a very serious debate on a serious issue that affects the whole country. So far, everyone who has spoken has been perfectly in order. If the hon. Gentleman who now holds the floor wishes to continue his speech, the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), who has already held the floor for a considerable time, really ought to allow him to do so. He is in order.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will concur that I was totally in agreement with and sympathetic to the points he made with regard to Chloe Wold. If he is willing to listen to me when he agrees with me but not when he disagrees with me, that is a matter for him.

On the second of the three cases raised by the hon. Gentleman, the school that Jack Entwistle was offered is Pendle View primary school. I will not go into great detail about the expertise and everything else the school offers, but I will quote Ofsted:

“Those pupils who have additional sensory support also make excellent progress, often in short periods of time, because of the high quality and intense support they get.”

The local MP, the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson), visited the school on Friday 15 November 2013. He toured the school and discussed the provision for pupils with special educational needs. He was very supportive and impressed with the work of the school and the specialisms that Lancashire county council provides for children with special educational needs at that school in particular. That gives the other side of the story about the school that Jack Entwistle was offered.

On the final case, Honey Crossley was offered a place at Broadfield specialist school, a Lancashire county council-maintained secondary school. Ofsted said:

“The school’s expertise in promoting learning for students with autism is extensively recognised and respected by many local schools.”

Although the hon. Member for Burnley did not mention this, I understand that he met the Minister—

Order. I am listening very carefully and there is a dialogue going on between two Members of the House. This is a very serious and open debate about a general issue that affects hundreds of thousands of children throughout the whole country. The hon. Gentleman ought to be careful before he quotes another Member who has not said in the House today what he is about to quote him as saying. I warn the hon. Gentleman to be careful and to remain in order. If he wishes to take up a point that the hon. Member for Burnley has made, that is a different matter.

I would make no attempt to address the hon. Member for Burnley other than through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, so it is not a dialogue in the way you indicated.

I will not quote from the Minister concerned. What I will say is that Lancashire county council has received correspondence from that Minister, who confirmed that Lancashire county council’s advice was that the appropriate way forward for parents was through SENDIST, the special educational needs and disability tribunal system, which is on offer to the constituents of the hon. Member for Burnley.

I think I have made the points that would have been made had other people been here for the debate.

I think this is my third meeting with the Minister today. I did not appreciate when we first met at a certain by-election some years ago that our paths were destined to cross quite so often, but it is always a pleasure to see him.

Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) on securing this debate, which is timely on a day when we have just agreed a new draft special educational needs and disability code of practice. He is right to be concerned about the schooling provision for children with autism. I am advised that there are at least 70,000 children with autism living in England, and they deserve access to high quality, full-time education. The hon. Gentleman’s description of the problems his constituents face, particularly Chloe, in obtaining proper assessments and appropriate schooling are sadly all too familiar—a point reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who obviously has a great deal of experience in this area. Early diagnosis is crucial and will become one of the first tests of the Children and Families Act 2014. Will it improve early identification and diagnosis of a child’s difficulties and will the child’s needs be properly considered? As I understand it, it is not for a local authority to select the school; rather, it is the job of the local authority to offer and engage with a range of provision, so that a child can attend the school best suited to their needs.

As I said in my speech, Lancashire county council has 23 such schools. It was in no way indicating any individual school, but did offer a number of schools in several cases.

I note that my hon. Friend has made that point.

Research by Ambitious about Autism has found that about 40% of children with autism have been excluded from school on at least one occasion without any valid reason being offered. Many are excluded much more often, of course, and some schools appear to operate a policy of informal exclusion, which makes it difficult for any of us to form an accurate picture of what exactly is happening. We do know that the practice is illegal. I acknowledge the Government’s work in funding exclusion advisers, with their grant to the National Autistic Society. I hope that will help us address the problem of those exclusions.

As the Minister will know, Ambitious about Autism is currently campaigning for every school to have access to an autism specialist teacher. We should try to meet that objective because I am certain that exclusions often result from staff who genuinely do not know what is required of them and feel that they are ill equipped to cope with an autistic child’s particular needs. Obviously, the special educational needs co-ordinator is the key figure in the school, charged with ensuring that appropriate support and assistance is made available to every child with a special need, whether or not they are subject to a statement or an education health and care plan.

I would be surprised if any child with special needs was excluded from school without someone with specialist knowledge having had a look at them. I am assuming that that is what happened. Perhaps the Minister will have an answer.

The point is that informal exclusions are not notified or recorded, so the issue is virtually impenetrable. That should be addressed. As I said, to be fair to the Government, they have funded a grant for exclusion advisers who we all hope will help to make progress.

I was talking about SENCOs. At present, the Department for Education does not know how many SENCOs there are across the country, or how many teachers have particular additional skills designed to support autistic children. It might be helpful if we carried out some kind of audit so that we could at least begin to estimate the level of need and the gaps in existing provision.

In theory, a SENCO is involved in the school’s use of the pupil premium for SEN children, although there appear to be no clear guidelines on the extent of that involvement or on how a school secures additional funding from a local authority on the basis of a child’s extensive needs or of having a particularly large number of children with special needs. In fact, it is often suggested that some mainstream schools seek to deter the parents of special needs children, and autistic children in particular, because they struggle to secure additional funding and are likely to be penalised by Ofsted for a decline in results as a consequence of their special needs children, rather than acknowledged for their efforts in supporting them. I am not defending any school’s attempt to exclude or reject children, but we have to acknowledge that how the system is currently loaded does not make things easy for a great number of schools.

When we were dealing with the code of practice, the Minister spoke about how he saw the local offer as a powerful means of highlighting how well a local authority was doing in catering for children with special needs. I do not want to talk about what Lancashire or any other local authority has or has not done, as, frankly, I do not have the detail to hand. However, I acknowledge that the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) has provided us with a broader picture of the situation in Lancashire.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one difficulty we face is the shortage of educational psychologists, making it hard to get timely appointments to diagnose young people and that, sadly, the cuts have made the situation even more difficult?

The real issue is equity of access. People seem to have access to educational psychologists in some parts of the country, whereas there are phenomenal waiting periods in others. Some services claim that they are so overstretched as to be at breaking-point. That is my analysis of what is happening.

To return to the local offer, my view is that it could provide one opportunity for local authorities and specialist providers to co-operate so that every staff member in every mainstream school has access to the support, information, guidance and counselling they might require to help them maintain an autistic child at school. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Treehouse school at the Pears National Centre for Autism Education in London. That provides an example of what can be done to help educate people with autism and to support other schools in the immediate vicinity. It is, of course, a labour-intensive effort, but surely the very term “special needs” implies something more than just the average in mainstream. We have to accept that this will always be a resource issue. Irrespective of the amount of money available, there will always be competition for such resources.

I want to acknowledge that it is not just school-age provision with which we need to concern ourselves, especially when the new Act places obligations to assist people from the age of nought to 25. There is a dearth of decent facilities for children after the age of 16. Let me mention one new college I visited: the Lindridge Trinity specialist college in Sutton Coldfield, which was set up by parents who recognised that there was no provision in their area for their autistic children beyond the age of 16. Even if parents succeed in finding the school that best suits their child’s needs, getting them the education that best addresses the problem and puts them on the best path for the future, they run the risk that once their children reach 16, they simply fall off the cliff, with nothing available for them. As well as trying to address the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Burnley, we need to think further ahead in terms of what the Act requires, particularly in respect of the provision to carry people through to the age of 25.

I congratulate once again the hon. Member for Burnley and other Members who have contributed to the debate. It seems to me that autistic children deserve a full educational opportunity. With the right structure, care and support, they are capable of so much more; it is up to us in this place to make sure that they do not miss out.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for tabling the debate in order to champion the needs of autistic children. I think we would all agree that this is an extremely important issue that affects parents not just in Lancashire, but in Cheshire, which is my area, and right across the country.

I was reminded by the new Solicitor-General, who was present at the beginning of the debate and who has probably done more than any other Member to support the cause of autism on the basis of both his personal experience and the work that he is doing in South Swindon, that this is our third debate on the subject in the last 18 months or so, which is a rather better return than we had over the previous 10 years. I think that that emphasises how important it is for Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley, when local cases are brought to them, to take the opportunity to raise them on the platform here in Parliament, so that we can debate the issues more widely.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of cases, including those of Jack, Honey and Chloe. I have read about their experiences, and was able to discuss them with my hon. Friend last week. He also spoke about the consequences for children of missing out on education, whatever the reason may be. There is no doubt that the parents in such cases feel very badly let down. It is not for me to answer for Lancashire county council, however; the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) has given it an opportunity to answer for itself.

Parents have said that they have shared their stories so that other families can find an easier pathway towards better support in the future. We too should learn from their experiences. There are numerous examples which show why it is so necessary for us to change the current special educational needs system. Too many parents find themselves, as one mother has put it, in “an unending battle” with a system that is supposed to help them. Too many find that their children's special educational needs are picked up late, too many have to fight to get different services to work together—services that focus too much on the SEN label rather than on meeting children’s needs and supporting their life outcomes—and too many find that young people lose the protections and rights that they have had at school when they move on to further education.

Although it is right to acknowledge that there is excellent practice and provision out there, it is little wonder that young people with SEN often have such poor prospects, lagging behind their peers at school and college, and being more likely to be out of education, training and employment at the age of 18. I am sure we all agree that that is not acceptable. It is a terrible waste of untapped potential, and of lives that are peppered with missed opportunities. The challenge, issued again today by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley, is for us—the Government and local authorities, as well as other agencies that are involved with families—to do much better by these children and young people. The Government have recognised that need, and we have been prepared to take on the challenge of truly reforming the SEN system to give all children and young people who are touched by it the best possible chance to lead successful, happy and fulfilled lives.

As the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) reminded us earlier, the Children and Families Act 2014 is the most important legislation on special educational needs in 30 years. The reforms that it makes will begin to be introduced in September this year. It will create a clearer, more joined-up approach that will focus unashamedly on outcomes, and will improve the support that is provided during the transition to adulthood. Crucially, it will do much more to involve children, young people and their families through a more integrated, streamlined assessment process, and through a new “birth to 25” education, health and care plan that sets out, in one place, all the support that children will receive across the various services.

I presume that the Minister also wants early diagnosis to be part of that plan. The earlier we can make an assessment of young people with autism, the more they will be able to enjoy their lives subsequently.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. The code of practice, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) noted we debated in Committee this morning, has running through it that very premise: in order to ensure we get the support in place at the right time, early identification is key. Bringing health, social care and education services much more closely together will mean better sharing of information about the challenges that children present and understanding what underlying causes prevent them from being able to access education and to learn.

The 2014 Act does not kick in until later this year. Given that this debate has been widely welcomed outside this place, will the Minister commit to a future debate, so that we not only keep this in the public consciousness, but see the effects of the legislation once it starts to have an impact?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for remaining stoic in his efforts to bring this issue to the fore, both in Parliament and in his constituency. It is important that we do not decide that the job has been done, and show no more interest in the consequences, just because an Act of Parliament has been passed. Things work the other way round: in some ways the easy bit has been achieved and the hardest bit is the implementation. That is why we are ensuring, in the run-up to September and beyond, that we have a clear understanding of how it feels for parents and families as the changes start to kick in. I would welcome any opportunity, be it Adjournment debates or other means by which hon. Members can bring these issues to the House, to continue taking a constructive approach to the legislation and the subsequent attempts to put it into place on the ground. We must be mindful that we are asking for a culture change to happen and take hold in many parts of our communities and our countries. The more Members of Parliament and other leaders in our communities show a direct, vocal and public interest in the life chances of children and young people with SEN, the greater prospect we have of getting the culture change we all want to see.

May I, too, support exactly what Walton’s voice in Westminster, the honourable scouser, has said: we ought to have more debates on this subject and watch the legislation going through?

As I said a few moments ago, this is the third or fourth debate we have had on autism, and we have had many more debates on SEN over the past two years. That can only be a good thing, and it has ratcheted up the interest and understanding of not only hon. Members, but many outside this place, who are now more aware of the importance of bringing forward these changes. They include: a new “birth to age 25” education, health and care plan; the local offer, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned, outlining what support is available to children with SEN and their families in their area; and the joint commissioning of services by councils and local health bodies.

It is also important to say that the Act protects and extends rights that exist in the current legislation and maintains duties. Schools will continue to have a duty to do their best to make provision to meet children’s SEN, and the Act extends that duty to colleges, too. Councils will, where necessary, continue to have a duty to assess children’s SEN and arrange suitable provision. Again, that duty is being extended to young people up to the age of 25, which is a significant step forward.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak asked about the number and role of SENCOs in schools. Every maintained nursery, primary and secondary school is required to have at least one SENCO, who has received the necessary training, including on the main types of need, of which autism is one. The hon. Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) asked about educational psychologists, and I hope she was trying to elicit an answer that gives us a full picture of the current position. What I can tell her is that there has been significant investment in the training of educational psychologists. On average, more than £5 million a year has been invested since 2010. This is the first central support to supplement local authority voluntary subscription schemes, and this year we are increasing supported places from 120 a year to 132. I met the union that represents educational psychologists just this week to talk about how we can move forward in years to come.

The 2014 Act will benefit all children and young people with special educational needs and their families. Importantly for this debate, that includes those with conditions such as autism, which often require specialist support across a number of agencies. I wish now to talk about some of the ways in which the new law will provide for that. Councils will have to integrate education provision with health and social care provision where that will promote the well-being of children and improve the quality of special educational provision.

Health provision, such as speech and language therapy—such therapy is often a necessary requirement for those with autism, and was needed in some of the cases in Burnley—can be extremely important in addressing the communication difficulties that are one of the core features of autism. The joint commissioning duty between councils and health bodies will help ensure that services are available to meet the needs of children and young people in the area. Too often it is reported that parents receive a diagnosis of autism for their children and then are given no information about how they can access support. The purpose of the local offer is to provide information about the support available for disabled children and those with SEN across education, health and social care.

The local offer will be not just a directory of services, but will be drawn up following consultation with children, young people and parents. If autistic children and young people and their parents feel that there is not sufficient provision for them in the area, they will be able to use the local offer to challenge the local authority to improve that provision.

We all know how important early intervention can be for children with autism. By making the new system “nought to 25”, we have strengthened the rights of parents of children aged nought to two to have provision made to meet their child’s needs. Many children with autism also stand to gain from a stronger push for early identification of SEN through initiatives such as the two to two-and-a-half-year health visitor review. We are committed to creating an integrated review from 2015, combining the health visitor review and the two-year-old early years foundation progress review.

Currently about 70% of children whose primary special educational need is autism have an SEN statement as against those who are supported by schools at School Action Plus. That is a higher percentage than most other types of SEN. We expect those children who currently have statements to be transferred on to the new education, health and care plans so they will benefit from the more co-ordinated approach that the plans bring and the new duty on health bodies to arrange the health provision set out in a plan.

With growing awareness of autism, many parents of autistic children quite rightly want specialist provision. Through the Children and Families Act 2014, we are strengthening the right of parents of children with EHC plans to have provision made at independent specialist schools. At present, where the parents of children with SEN statements request a council-maintained mainstream or special school, the local authority is under a conditional duty to name that school and, if it does, the school is under a duty to admit the child. But that does not apply when parents request other types of schools.

From this September—to emphasise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) made—when the parents of children with EHC plans request an academy, a non-maintained special school or an approved independent special school, the council will be under the same conditional duty to name that school as if the parent had asked for a local authority maintained school.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak rightly raised the issue of autistic children being informally and therefore illegally excluded from school. The Government’s view is clear: no child should be unlawfully excluded. Ofsted and the Department will take seriously evidence that a school has acted unlawfully in excluding a pupil. The new statutory guidance on exclusion, which took effect in September 2012, makes it clear that informal exclusion, such as sending children home to cool off, is unlawful. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak reminded us, we are funding the National Autistic Society to pay for exclusion advisers to provide advice to parents and professionals, but we want improvements and will continue to ensure that they happen.

Like other parents, parents of children with autism are keen to have greater control over the provision that is made for their children. Through the Children and Families Act 2014, the parents of children with EHC plans will have the opportunity to have a personal budget through which they can decide on how some of the provision set out in the plan is delivered. For example, parents could use their personal budget to decide which therapist delivers speech and language therapy to their child, rather than having to accept the therapist arranged for them. The increased roles for children, young people and parents and the 2014 Act’s promotion of greater co-operation in decision making will take much of the adversarial nature out of the current system.

However, it would be unrealistic to suggest that the new system will mean that no parents or young people will be unhappy about the provision that will be made in future. Currently, the largest number of appeals registered at the special educational needs and disability tribunal are in relation to children with autism, as compared with other types of need, which gives an indication of the difficulties that parents of children with autism have with the current system. I am sure that some parents of autistic children with EHC plans and young autistic people with plans will continue to disagree with the provision that is set out within. We have preserved the right of parents to appeal to the tribunal to have their appeals decided by an independent body, and we have extended that right to young people, too. Going to tribunal can be stressful for some parents and, if they choose to be legally represented, expensive, which is why, under the new regime, where parents and young people are thinking of appealing to the tribunal, we have given them the option of going to mediation with the council to try and get the disagreements sorted out more quickly in a non-judicial setting. If they fail to get disagreements about the special educational needs provision sorted, they can appeal to the tribunal.

Lastly, young people with autism can find change difficult, particularly the transition to adulthood. The 2014 Act brings together the legislation for school children aged nought to 19 with the legislation on young people with learning difficulties or disabilities in post-16 further education provision up to the age of 25, which means that young people with autism who need more time to complete their education and make that transition will have the opportunity to carry on in education until they are ready to leave.

One often-quoted statistic is that only 15% of adults with autism are in full-time employment, which is depressing, particularly given that, matched to the right job, many people with autism, with their eye for detail and the regularity and consistency of their work, are an absolute godsend for employers. The new SEN system will put greater emphasis on the long-term outcomes for young people, including getting a job. Much greater emphasis will be placed on preparing young people for employment and using routes such as apprenticeships, traineeships and supported internships to help them gain employment.

As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak also said, in addition to our debate here, we have also been debating the new nought to 25 SEN and disability code of practice, which will give statutory guidance on the new SEN and disability system. The draft code has been developed after extensive consultation with many people, including the voluntary sector. For example, I met representatives from the National Autistic Society and we listened to its concerns that the description of the four broad areas of SEN in the code did not fully reflect the range and complexity of the difficulties that autistic children and young people can face. The NAS was also concerned that the first consultation draft of the code did not mention duties under the Autism Act 2009 and associated statutory guidance, so we agreed wording with the NAS that makes clear that children and young people with autism can have difficulties across all four areas of special educational needs: communication, cognition, emotional and mental health, and sensory difficulties. The code now makes it clear that, under statutory guidance accompanying the autism strategy, SENCOs should inform young people of their right to a community care assessment and their parents of a right to a carer’s assessment.

As hon. Members will be aware, just passing the legislation to provide for the new system is only half the battle. Successful implementation will depend on people around the country embracing the spirit of the new system. The best areas are already working in a way that we want to spread across the country.

I have listed a number of councils and have been encouraged by the progress that is being made in the run-up to the commencement date on 1 September. The Department has been conducting readiness surveys with all local authorities and the most recent survey shows that 95% of councils have told us that they are on track for September and can manage the changes. I have made it my business to follow up on the progress of authorities that are further behind the curve personally and I hope that that is a sign of how important the Government consider these reforms to be and our determination to improve things on the ground for families.

We know that implementing the changes we want to see will come at a cost. I recently announced an extra £45.2 million of funding in 2014-15 and indicative funding of £31.7 million in 2015-16 to help councils with implementation. That is on top of the £70 million SEN reform grant that councils can use to work with health and others to deliver the changes. We are also giving £30 million of new money between April of this year and March 2016 to recruit and train independent supporters across the whole country to help families navigate the new system.

This debate has been another excellent opportunity to raise in this House not only the importance of the special educational needs reforms that the Government have introduced but how they will affect many people up and down the country who have a child or young person with autism. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. Autism is a complex condition, and it requires people to work together to ensure that the needs of individuals and autistic children and young people as a whole are met. I hope that what I have said today reassures hon. Members that the Children and Families Act and the reforms that we are introducing will make co-operative working between children and young people, parents, professionals and agencies a reality.

As ever, my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley has done the House a service by raising this important issue and I hope that it has given him some sense that work is under way to address many of the points he has raised. Of course, I would be the first to say that there is still a lot of work to do.

I thank those on the two Front Benches for their contributions to the debate. I also want to express some concern about the contribution made by the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick). In my speech, I never mentioned the surnames of any of the children and I did not name any of the schools that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. A briefing containing private family issues has been given by the county council to the hon. Gentleman, and I find that very distressing and concerning.

No, I will not give way. I believe that the parents represented in this place today will express some concern about what is going on with the staff of Lancashire county council. I certainly have a right to say that because, as I said—

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. The Minister has just mentioned the fact that this is an adversarial system. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman who has raised the debate today not to mention the fact that his daughter-in-law is the speech therapist in one of the cases that he has dealt with?

My daughter-in-law is a professional speech therapist and is doing a great job for these people. What concerns me is that the staff at the county council briefed the hon. Member for Preston before hearing anything I had to say, giving the names of the children mentioned in the debate when I did not do that for a certain reason, and giving the names of the schools involved when I did not do that. I only mentioned Rossendale school. I am very disappointed by that and I believe that the parents listening to the debate will be somewhat concerned that the county council is briefing as it is.

In conclusion, I thank the Minister for his comments. I thank the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), for his comments and I hope that what has been suggested works for the children of today and certainly for the children of tomorrow. This disease will not end; it will continue. I believe that we should support the young children who suffer from this appalling condition.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the provision of education for children with autism.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act 2014

Finance Act 2014

Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014.