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Special Educational Needs: Isle of Wight

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 25 February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered special educational needs on the Isle of Wight.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, for what I think is the first time, and I am most grateful to the Minister and her team for being here. As she is aware, the purpose of Westminster Hall debates is often to raise issues that are of considerable importance in Members’ constituencies or to groups of their constituents. I have secured this debate in order to discuss the Isle of Wight’s needs in two areas that are important to many parents on the Island: special educational needs and disability, and education, health and care plans, which I know the Minister is familiar with and which she will become more familiar with in her new role. EHCPs outline the special educational needs a child has and the plan that a local authority has to put in place to support that child.

I will speak for probably no more than 10 minutes, just to outline some background and ask the Minister a series of questions. I am aware that she has not received a copy of my speech, for which I apologise—I do tend to write them at the last minute. I am not expecting specific verbal answers from her today, but it would be great to get written responses to some of the questions I raise, because as I say, they are important to my constituents and the children of the Isle of Wight.

Right from the outset, I want the Minister to be aware of the higher percentage of not only SEND provision but provision of EHCPs on the Island compared with the national average. On the Island, 4.4% of kids have an EHCP, compared with a national average of 3.1%, so our level is roughly a third higher. Some 12.7% of our school population has special educational needs or disabilities; the national average is 11.9%, so our level is nearly one percentage point higher.

Over the past decade, we on the Island have undergone quite substantial educational reforms, which were the right things to do but which have put education there under pressure. In November last year, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission conducted a week-long joint inspection of the Isle of Wight to judge our effectiveness in implementing the disability and special educational needs reforms set out in the Children and Families Act 2014, with which I am sure the Minister is familiar. Overall, they were content with what they saw. In a letter to the Island’s authority, they wrote that

“Children and young people were getting an improved deal on the Isle of Wight”,

which is excellent to know. They also wrote that

“Leaders across education, health and care are committed to tackling the historically poor support that these children have received.”

It is highly regrettable that there has been historically poor support on the Island, which may be one reason for the high level of EHCPs we now have. I will come on to the potential reasons for that in a little bit. Our strengths were seen to be

“Strong early identification and support in early years…A strong early help offer…Joint working supporting early identification …Increasingly effective identifying and supporting CYP”—

that is, children and young people—

“who may have Autism Spectrum Disorder”,

and generally,

“Well informed EHC Plans”.

As I say, education on the Isle of Wight has generally undergone significant reform and improvement. To an extent, we went backwards to go forwards a few years ago, which was highly regrettable, but our Ofsted reports are steadily improving. There have been difficulties, but our partnership with Hampshire is a good one; we are now in that partnership voluntarily, working to improve standards. On that point, I thank the Island’s teachers for the excellent work they do in helping to raise standards, as well as kids and parents on the Island. I also recognise the excellent work done by our education officers Brian Pope and Steve Crocker, as well as by Councillor Paul Brading, who leads on education for the council at the political level.

The inspection found three areas that needed improvement. First, although leaders were committed to putting the needs of children at the heart of their work, that was not always effectively communicated. Secondly, children and parents were not always able to influence the support that they received. Although there are good examples of that process—which, as I am sure the Minister knows, is known as co-production—that experience has not been consistently good for all parents, which is clearly regrettable. Thirdly, although EHCPs have improved, the targets that they had were sometimes imprecise and older plans were not always kept up to date. Those issues, particularly the first and third, have meant that some parents lack confidence in the system.

One of the groups of people who come to see me at my surgeries on the Island the most consistently are parents—almost always mums—of children with special educational needs and disabilities or with an EHCP. During the last Parliament, I held a roundtable for parents of kids with either SEND or EHCPs to meet council and education officers. It was clear that one of the parents’ main issues was that the council and the authorities needed to communicate more and engage in more joint working with officers, schools and parents, so that parents could fully trust in the system. That trust was sometimes lacking, especially because we were going through so many other reforms and improvements that needed to take place at the time. In fact, the Island being in the top half of last year’s review is testament to the fact that we are improving. Despite the upheavals that have taken place in Island education, we were still able to produce significant, decent work on SEND and EHCPs under the 2014 Act. Our education authority has pledged to work harder at creating a co-producing strategy with parents, and to communicate better.

More generally, I welcome much of what this Government are doing, and congratulate the Minister on it. They are boosting higher needs funding by over £750 million, an increase of 12%, to ensure that children can reach their full potential. Over the past decade, the number of teaching assistants has increased by 50,000 to over a quarter of a million—the figure is now 264,000. The Government have pledged that from September 2020, a further £31.6 million will be allocated for additional educational psychologists, who clearly play an important role in identifying children who may have SEND issues and may need to have care plans. On the Island, there has been considerable delay in assessing children for autism spectrum disorder because of a lack of appropriate qualified people. I know that problem has now been sorted out, but at the time, it caused considerable distress.

Most importantly in the context of this debate, I understand that a review has been launched into the 2014 Act and how we support children with special educational needs. The review will consider how to boost outcomes and ensure that the right support is in place for children with those needs. I remind the Minister of my key point: we on the Island have a considerably higher proportion of children requiring EHCPs than the national average—4.4%, compared with 3.1%—and children covered by SEND make up 12.7% of our school population, or nearly 13%, as opposed to nearly 12% nationally. Because we are getting EHCPs to children quickly, the costs kick in more quickly than they would in other authorities where the plans take longer to come to fruition. In effect, our efficiency in producing plans results in additional cost.

There are some theories that potentially explain the higher level of plans on the Island. I have been talking consistently to education officers and some headteachers over the past few years, and it seems that the previous gaps in educational attainment caused by some historically lower standards may be one reason for the higher level of EHCPs now. I have questioned whether we have a more paternal attitude on the Island that means that we want to not statement, but identify kids with SEND or who may need education, health and care plans. In the last week, I have talked to headteachers, education officials and Councillor Paul Brading—in fact, we spoke last night—about whether there is a pushy parent factor, which could be an issue in some parts of the UK. They are all adamant that our standards for whether young people get EHCPs are consistent with the national average and that we on the Island are not statementing—or whatever phrase the Minister is comfortable with—children to a higher percentage because we have a lower threshold or hurdle than elsewhere. Our assessment standards are consistent and produce higher numbers of children needing an EHCP.

Either way, it is important to say that, because we have higher than average requirements for SEND and EHCPs, there is greater pressure on our school system and on our funding, both the funding we get for specialised care and general funding. As my education authority explains, if a child has an EHCP, the school funds approximately the first £6,000, then the local authority finds the money from the higher needs block. As I am sure the Minister can see, the more children and young people we have with plans, the greater the cost to overall budgets and the greater the pressure on schools that are already under pressure to produce better results because of historical failings in the past decade.

The critical point is that the more children we have with EHCPs and a SEND statement or diagnosis, the more costs our schools have to bear. That will put our budgets under severe strain, despite the increased funding that I am sure the Minister will mention and that I am delighted about. It will mean that, certainly from next year, a primary school will have £4,000 per pupil and a secondary school will have £5,000 per pupil. Almost every school on the Island will benefit from those increases, which is excellent. We want to level up everywhere, not just in the north, which means helping poorer areas and constituencies in the south-east and the south-west. Importantly, the constituency of the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), is not dissimilar when it comes to those issues.

To come to the crux of what I want to ask the Minister, I have five questions. There is a rumour that the first £10,000 for EHCPs and SEND provision will have to be found from school budgets. Can she quash the idea that the commitment for the first £6,000 to be found by schools will go up to £10,000? Is she aware of the pressure that that would put schools with a higher commitment for EHCPs and SEND under everywhere in the UK, but especially in constituencies such as mine? The higher the number of EHCPs, the higher the pressure.

Does the Minister accept that the pressure on Island education resources is nearly 50% higher than on the mainland, because of the increased number of children with a education, health and care plan? Apart from general responses, what support can she offer to Island schools to cope with a case load that is significantly higher than the national average? If she is more comfortable writing to me on that, I would be delighted to receive a letter from her.

How will the review better support Island children and families? Can the Minister reassure me that the review will consider evidence from education authorities in places such as the Island, and from Members of Parliament who represent such constituencies?

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely). He is a passionate advocate for the Island and all its people.

Supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities is one of the most important roles for the Government. It is our ambition for every child, no matter what challenges they face, to have access to the world-class education that will help to set them up for life. I welcome the opportunity to talk about our work on behalf of those children and young people.

As the new Minister for Children and Families, I will build on the work of my predecessors, who have all shown tireless commitment to the issue: my hon. Friends the Members for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), and, now, for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). I thank them all. I look forward to working in partnership with leaders from across education, health and care, and with fellow Ministers across Departments, to build on their progress.

Across England, more than 1.3 million pupils have special educational needs. On the Isle of Wight alone, more than 1,000 children and young people have education, health and care plans and a further 2,250 are in receipt of SEND support. As my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight mentioned, in 2014 we introduced major reforms to improve and streamline the support provided to children and young people with SEND, and to put their needs, and those of their families, at the heart of the SEND system. Local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, parents, teachers, and health and care workers have worked to shape and implement the reforms. I put on the record my thanks for the vital contributions they continue to make to the lives of children, young people and families.

In October 2019, a detailed report from the Education Committee said that the 2014 reforms were “the right ones”. Most parents support them and, through parent carer forums, are providing a crucial voice in local SEND decision-making. However, the implementation of the reforms has been variable.

I thank Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission for their work on the inspections of SEND services, which were introduced in May 2016. All local areas in England will be inspected by 2021. The inspections have identified a range of strengths in the way that local areas are delivering the reforms, as well as areas for improvement. The inspections and reports are a key driver for change. Concerns remain in some areas, however, particularly from parents, about the way the reforms have been delivered across the country. Some 54 of the 108 reports published so far have required the completion of a written statement of action to set out how partners will bring about the required improvement. We are working with partners, including NHS England, to support and challenge local areas to address their areas for development, as well as areas of significant weakness that require an action plan.

Ofsted and CQC revisits to local areas show that progress is being made to improve services, but there is more work to do. In six of the 17 areas revisited so far, inspectors found that sufficient progress had been made against every area of weakness previously identified. Where progress had been strongest, the role of senior local leaders in driving improvement had been pivotal: leadership matters.

The Isle of Wight SEND inspection report was published earlier this month. Inspectors report that leaders across education, health and care are working hard to tackle the “historically poor support” received by children and young people with SEND. Leaders are complimented for having a “good understanding” of what is going well for children and young people with SEND; the early identification of SEND in babies and young children is strong; and there is a well-established model of early help.

The inspectors also highlighted positive employment outcomes for young people on the Island. Almost all young people with SEND go on to education, employment or training as a result of the support provided. The Island’s local council’s supported internship programme is worthy of specific note. I want to see more young people with complex needs getting that type of opportunity and being able to move into paid work, both on the Island and across England. These are all positive results for children and young people on the Isle of Wight and I do not underestimate the work involved in getting to that point. I congratulate local leaders across education, health and care on their commitment to improving the services.

However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the inspectors identified some further areas of development, particularly around improving communications with parents and increasing opportunities for them to help shape local services in their local area—not just for their own children, but for the wider community. The Department has invested £2.3 million in the development of parent carer forums each year since the reforms were introduced. With the support of the charity Contact and the National Network of Parent Carer Forums, membership of parent carer forums has now risen to more than 90,000. We are also supporting the Council for Disabled Children and the charity KIDS to improve participation by children and young people. Every local authority has in place an information, advice and support service, which provides free impartial advice for families.

We know that demand for education, health and care plans is high on the Isle of Wight. Some 4.4% of children have a plan, which puts them in the top quintile for all EHC plans. That can cause challenges in ensuring that every child and young person has the provision to meet their needs. A high level of EHCPs does not necessarily mean that that area has higher than average underlying need, and we do not allocate high-needs funding to local authorities just on the basis of the number of EHC plans they have. That would encourage local authorities to put more children and their parents through the statutory assessment process than is necessary to meet those needs. Our funding formula includes proxies that indicate relative levels of need, such as the numbers of pupils with low attainment at key stages of the education, the number of disabled children whose parents receive disability allowance and other factors.

We are planning to start a review of the high-needs funding formula later this year, which will include the £6,000 contribution as part of the call for evidence. We will comment on that in due course and I will write to my hon. Friend about that. In the review, we want to make sure that we fund local authorities using the most appropriate measures of need going forward, and every local authority will see an increase in high-needs funding. Next year, there will be an increase of 12%—£780 million—for those with the most complex special educational needs and disabilities.

We have invested a total of £365 million—£1 million for every day of the year—through the special provision capital fund from 2018-19 to 2020-21, to create places and improve facilities for children with SEND. That is a challenging issue for most local areas, perhaps even more so in an island context. The Isle of Wight has been allocated a total of £849,000 to review its special schools capital provision, which is a key part of making sure specialist school places are available where needed for those with the most complex issues.

However, it is worth remembering that most children with SEND are educated within mainstream schools and colleges. Children, young people and parents should and do have a strong say. Mainstream schools and colleges, with the right level of support and training, should be able to meet the needs of the vast majority of children with SEND without the need for an education, health and care plan. To support them in that, my Department has awarded a two-year contract to NASEN—the National Association of Special Educational Needs—and University College London to help embed SEND into school improvement. We are also funding regional SEND leaders to bring together local networks of schools in a community of practice and help schools to improve provision for children and young people with SEND.

Our ambitious vision for education must be backed with strong investment in schools, and that is why we have announced the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade. We have delivered on the Prime Minister’s pledge to level up school funding, providing an increase for our lowest funded schools so that every child can benefit from an outstanding education. In 2021, every secondary school will be allocated at least £5,000 per pupil and every primary school will be allocated at least £3,750, setting those primary schools firmly on the path to receiving £4,000 per pupil the following year. On the Isle of Wight, that includes schools such as Cowes Primary School and Gurnard Primary School, which will see per-pupil funding level up to at least £3,750 per pupil next year. Through the national funding formula, mainstream schools on the Isle of Wight will attract 3.9% more per pupil in 2021. That is an additional £3.5 million in total cash funding.

We know that increasing the amount of funding cannot be our only response to the pressures that local authorities and schools are facing, which is why we concluded a children-in-need review last year. We are taking action to improve the outcomes of children in need of help and protection, as well as those with special educational needs and disabilities, making sure that their needs are recognised and that they are able to succeed through high aspiration and effective support in schools.

Furthermore, last year the Government launched a review of the special educational needs and disabilities system to see what further improvements are necessary to establish a sustainable and effective SEND system in the future. The review will look at how the system has evolved since the reforms were first introduced in 2014 and how it can be made to work better for all families and children. The review will ensure that quality of provision is the same across the country and is joined up across health, care and education. It will ensure that public money is spent in an effective, efficient and sustainable manner, placing a premium on securing high-quality outcomes for those children and young people who need additional support the most. The Government have invested heavily in reforms to the system of support for our most vulnerable children and young people, but we know that there is further to go and we are determined to tackle the issues that remain.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight for securing this important debate today. I know he cares passionately about all the people of the Island, and especially for those who need the most support. Improving the system is no easy task, but inspection reports such as that for the Isle of Wight show that services can work together to achieve real improvements. Working with my colleagues across Government, I am determined to ensure that they achieve that.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.