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Autism Support

Volume 603: debated on Monday 30 November 2015

1. What support the Government provide to children with autism in the education system; and if she will make a statement. (902408)

On behalf of Conservative Members and, I am sure, the whole House, let me echo the sentiments that have just been expressed about the Davis cup victory of the Great British team. It was good to see the Scots leading the way in ensuring that we had our first Great British victory in about 70 years.

The Children and Families Act 2014 introduced significant reforms so that children and young people with autism could be better supported in education. The reforms have rightly focused on needs and aspirations, enabling all pupils, including those with autism, to achieve better outcomes in education and adult life. The Department is also funding the Autism Education Trust to deliver training to staff, the National Autistic Society to help to reduce exclusions, and Ambitious about Autism to support transition to college.

Netley primary school in my constituency has a fantastic resource base for 25 children with autistic spectrum disorders. Many of them are making excellent progress, but one of the concerns raised with me is that Ofsted’s published data for the school, which includes children from the resource base along with other pupils, do not adequately reflect that. Does the Minister agree that Ofsted data should clearly take into account the specific needs and challenges of children with special educational needs such as autism, and will he agree to meet me to discuss the specific case of Netley primary school?

I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss what Netley primary school is doing, and some of the challenges it faces in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. We obviously want to ensure that every child, irrespective of his or her needs, is receiving the best possible education, and we are introducing progression measures throughout the school system so that every child’s progress counts towards a school’s overall performance. We shall also be introducing the first ever special educational needs inspection framework, along with both Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. I am sure that that will help to deal with many of those issues, but I should be happy to discuss them further with the hon. Gentleman.

One of the key challenges for those with autism and Asperger’s is the transition between leaving school and attending university, which is a big step for young adults. Will the Minister join me in welcoming an initiative by Bath university, which hosts an annual autism summer school that gives young people with autism spectrum disorder a chance to experience all aspects of university and student life, and does he agree that it should be rolled out in the rest of the United Kingdom?

I am delighted to hear about the great work that is being done in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I know that Bath university has a good and proud record of supporting all vulnerable children, but it is important for those who have autism to be given the same opportunities to move on to higher education. There are independent institutions, but, through the new code of practice and our special educational needs reforms, we have tried to bring forward the time when assessments take place to ensure that all children with a special educational needs background who have the potential to go on to higher education are given support as soon as they arrive at university, so that they can thrive and move on to better things.

I recently spent some time at Durants school, a secondary school for pupils with autism in my constituency. It does a fantastic job, but one of the big problems is that so little support is available to students who could leave and go into employment or training beyond secondary school. Will the Minister undertake to meet me, and the head teacher of Durants school, to discuss the problem?

My diary is filling up, and we are only on the first question. There is more that we can do, and the whole thrust of the special educational needs reforms is to move towards an ambitious birth-to-25 system so that those who have the potential to move on from secondary school into college, apprenticeships, university and the world of work have every chance to do so. In some areas of the country, the new supported internships have seen the number of young people moving into employment rising from around 15% to 70%. We know that there is more we can do through different routes, but we need to make them available to more young people. I am happy to discuss with the right hon. Lady how we can do that.

It is good to hear about the Government’s support for children with autism. Will the Minister join me in welcoming proposals for additional resource in Rugby from MacIntyre Academies, who are setting up a new special free school specifically for children with learning difficulties?

I am very pleased to hear about the initiative in Rugby, which is one of many across the country that is using the new free schools programme to bring about a whole range of specialist schools for those with special educational needs. I think that that will include five in the next tranche of free schools that are specifically for children and young people with autism. This is a great step forward and it is good to see Rugby leading the way.

The Minister mentioned the importance of staff training in his initial answer, and I wonder whether he could comment further on the importance of building awareness and understanding among teaching staff, so that children with autism and many other children with poor mental health and other additional needs really get an opportunity to develop and thrive in mainstream schools?

I have just come from a conference organised by the Nuffield Foundation, at which we heard that a new report on the educational attainment of children in care—the vast majority of whom have some form of special educational needs—was advocating exactly that. It proposed more training for the whole care workforce and all education staff. Through funding from the Department, the Autism Education Trust has trained more than 80,000 staff in schools, but we need to do more to ensure that there is consistency right across the country, so that all those children get their chance to thrive, irrespective of background.

To improve the provision of special educational needs and disability support for young people, including those with autism, it is vital that the best quality data are collated and the results shared to establish best practice. As the Minister knows, I was successful in bringing forward a private Member’s Bill in 2008 to ensure that data on special educational needs were collated and published. However, that legislation has since been repealed by the Children and Families Act 2014, and many charities have told me that they now find it increasingly difficult to obtain that information. Will the Minister therefore give me an assurance that the data will continue to be published annually and to be made readily available to all bodies in the sector, including me, so that issues can be highlighted and improvements made?

I will look carefully at what the hon. Lady says. Another of my diary appointments is a meeting with her tomorrow to discuss this—and, I am sure, a whole range of other issues that cross my brief. I am conscious of the need to ensure, through the publication of the local offer that every local authority now has and through the increasingly rich data that are available on children with special educational needs, that we use those sources to inform our decision making on how we support children. I will use my meeting with the hon. Lady tomorrow to extrapolate the matter further and see what progress we can make.