Skip to main content

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: Specialist Workforce

Volume 730: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2023

[Relevant documents: e-petition 607849, Make SEND training mandatory for all teaching staff; e-petition 591092, Require School SENCOs to be fully qualified for the role; e-petition 587365, Require all school staff receive training on SEN children.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered a specialist workforce for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

It is a great pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Sharma. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on speech and language difficulties, which is supported by the Royal College of Speech and Language. I first pay tribute to Lord Ramsbotham, who did so much for the group over so many years, after an illustrious career in the Army and then the Prison Service. He certainly added great value.

Something like 50% of poorer children arrive at school with a speech delay, and in an average-sized class, which is 30 across Britain, something like two or three children have a speech delay of two to four years. Obviously, we are here to talk about the wider totality of special educational needs, not just speech and language, but it is worth mentioning that early intervention on speech and language would massively improve school performance, and thereby increase future tax revenues and reduce social costs, prison costs, justice costs and so on, so we really should think about that. In the wider totality, early intervention is a very good idea.

This debate, which I commissioned, comes partly on the back of a letter that I wrote to the Minister on behalf of 16 all-party groups, calling for the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care to work in collaboration on special educational needs. We have now had the special educational needs review, and I was very pleased that in January the Minister agreed to speak to me. I am looking forward to confirming that date for a meeting with her and representatives from the all-party groups on autism, on cerebral palsy, on childcare and early education, on children who need palliative care, on disability, on dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties, on eye health and visual impairment, on muscular dystrophy, on oracy, on penal affairs, for the prevention of childhood trauma, on psychology, on social mobility, for special educational needs and disabilities, on speech and language difficulties, and on stroke. A very wide range of MPs is interested in this issue in one way or another.

On top of that, the SEND in The Specialists coalition, with which the Minister will be familiar, sent a letter in parallel to ours with the support of 114 organisations— I will not read them out—which has now grown to 128. The debate also comes on the back of a number of written questions I have tabled on specialist workforce, and another letter from 22 all-party groups about funding for speech and language therapy.

The Government have announced the plan for special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision for England, and I hope the Minister will set out a bit more detail on that in this debate. I know there is a steering group planned for 2023, which aims to complete by 2025. As far as parents and people engaged with this issue are concerned, the sooner, the better.

The Minister will be aware that there have also been three petitions. One is about mandatory training for all teaching staff engaged with special educational needs, again to ensure identification and early intervention.

As for parliamentary activity, I am very pleased that the Chamber Engagement Team got in touch with me about this debate and asked people to send in their experiences. I was more than pleased that 1,800 responses were received from parents, practitioners, and other adults who have engaged with the system, wherever they live, and faced similar challenges across the piece. Those challenges generally included huge waiting lists for support for their children. Obviously, the longer the delay, the more it costs to get people back on track and the greater the struggles in adulthood and the impact on life chances.

There is a second issue about the threshold for getting support: how ill is someone, or are they ill enough, as it were? “Ill” is probably the wrong word here, but is someone’s condition sufficient to satisfy the criteria for early intervention? A lot of parents feel neglected, unsupported and not understood. They probably think there is some sort of differential diagnosis; I do not know.

There is also an issue about fighting for diagnosis itself to start with, and often when there is a plan ready to go, the support is not in place to deliver it. Clearly, many people have to resort to going private, which sometimes means worse provision, but obviously at a cost, as they have to pay for it.

There is a special issue, which the Minister will be aware of, for girls and young women, who might be misdiagnosed as having mental health problems. Good plans are put in place, but are not followed through, or people are deprived of their plan owing to changes being made, perhaps to resources, so the vital education to give them the platform they need to succeed in later life is not provided.

People can also be ping-ponged between different services, which causes confusion, delay and uncertainty, and sometimes there are issues over sharing information from specialists with the school. The information has to go through the parents, rather than the school, and if a second language is involved, effective delivery can be impeded.

There is also an issue about coming up with feasible plans, which are not optimal plans owing to lack of resources, where people say, “We would like to do this, but we can’t, so we will do that. It’s not quite what is needed, but it’s all we can afford.”

Obviously, there were also a lot of positive replies, because there is a galaxy of excellent people out there doing their best to provide an excellent service to meet these needs. However, they are finding it difficult to cope. I do not want in any way to criticise the people in the special educational needs service who are doing such a fine job and need our support, but there is postcode lottery, because where someone lives determines how good a service they receive, according to resources and the availability of skilled staff. In some places, there are good networks where people have a good experience of different specialisms working together optimally to deliver excellent outputs for those in need; in other places, the experience is not so good.

I will not go through a list of specific examples, but the people who wrote to me were clearly saying, “We need funding, early intervention, a joined-up system, training for teachers and an evidence-based approach, particularly in relation to behaviours that appear in girls and young women.” Early intervention is of primary concern for the economy, but also with respect to releasing parents who often cannot work because they are looking after their children owing to the fact that the service is not there to deliver for the child. That means parents staying at home who could be at work. We are thinking about growth and how we manage the economy, so that is another consideration.

Let me turn to the reaction to the special educational needs and alternative provision plan. Various sectors have criticised the plan’s lack of urgency and ambition. Nobody is saying that what is in the plan is not commendable, but a crisis has been building for many years and we need to get on with addressing it. Therefore, this is another opportunity for the Government to listen to our concerns and to build the support to drive forward with greater speed.

Many people have commented that they have been waiting years for the Government to act to fix the broken special educational needs system. They are now saying, “Well is this all it is? We need more sooner.” That includes the SEND in The Specialists coalition of 128 organisations that I have mentioned. They are talking about the number of specialists, rising demand, and the new demands after covid. Certainly, the Royal College of Speech and Language and the surveys that we have commissioned have found that, interestingly, middle-class parents who had children with speech and language difficulties often saw an improvement in their child’s performance. That is because the parents would be at home, working from laptops, and spending quality time with the children. There is an issue there about having more flexible working more generally in the economy, as it would help productivity, and perhaps reduce costs and encourage better targeting.

In contrast, of course, the poorer children did not fare so well. Perhaps they had a single parent who was on a zero-hours contract, who did not have much time to spend with the child, and who did not have proper internet access that they could afford—there is an issue there about universal wi-fi clouds that the Government might want to think about. During covid, poorer children fared a lot worse in general; and specifically, those with speech and language difficulties deteriorated quite quickly. It is certainly worth considering that differential output. Perhaps I will send this research to the Minister.

This debate is about just one aspect of the plan, which is the specialist workforce. We welcome the Government’s commitment to work in a collegiate way alongside children, young people, families and other providers in the SEND system. The Departments for Education and of Health and Social Care set out a clear timetable for SEND workforce planning. We have a steering group that will move forward by 2023.

Wearing my speech and language hat, let me welcome the Early Language and Support for Every Child pathfinders, and the early identification and support for children with speech and language difficulties. The royal college is pleased that it was involved with the NHS and the Department for Education in that scoping, and I hope that it will continue to be involved in the Department in the future through the alternative provision specialist taskforce.

Let me lay out the main commitments that I am looking for from the Minister. First, we want a commitment to have the meeting with the signatories of the 16 all-party groups that has been promised and also a commitment by the Government to speak to the all-party group on speech and language difficulties in a separate meeting about what is happening, so that they can be quizzed by those in the industry. Secondly, we want a commitment to give the SEND in The Specialists coalition a place on the SEND workforce steering group, as it is important that the industry is engaged with the civil service and the Departments to get the best, most practicable plan possible.

Thirdly, we want the Government to commit to come up with a plan on how they will improve access to the specialist workforce for children, young people and families right now. We have talked about the 2023 and 2025 milestones, but, obviously, children grow up very quickly and they need that support now. Perhaps the Minister can elaborate on precisely what is happening in the meantime to bring forward tailored support. We want to see a broad approach—a holistic approach—to the definition of the SEND specialist workforce, because there are quite variety of people involved. Then there is the issue of recruitment and retention, on which the Minister may wish to touch. There is an issue about people leaving the service from the NHS and from the profession generally. We need not only to recruit and train enough people to build a force, but to stop people leaving by providing them with acceptable and enjoyable working conditions.

Finally, on behalf of the 1,800 people who have written in, I wish to question the Minister about funding and the Government response to our funding letter of 2021, which I mentioned earlier. The Government then said that the right funding was fundamental to accessing speech and language therapy. Will the Minister elaborate on what she thinks will be sufficient funding for a SEND workforce plan, to ensure that the speech and language therapy workforce is trained, developed, retained, supervised and supported to develop the necessary clinical specialisms and leadership roles? Will she mention something about student numbers coming into the workforce, and also address some of the reasons why people are leaving the workforce?

Perhaps the Minister could also say what her expectations are for accountability and local systems coming together on joint provision. How do we ensure accountability and make sure the resources are there to enable all children and young people with special educational needs and speech, language and communication needs and/or swallowing needs get timely access to the speech and language therapy they require? That would include provision for children and young people who need special educational needs support, as well as those with education, health and care plans.

I am glad to see a large number of Members here who want to get involved in the debate, so I will end my comments there. I look forward to a response from the Minister.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Sharma. Many young children have faced an array of social and developmental challenges as a result of covid-19, and children with special educational needs and disabilities have been deeply affected due to the lack of services accessible for their needs during this time.

Every week, I have at least one constituent come to see me, pleading for support for their child with special educational needs, which are often undiagnosed because they cannot get an education, health and care plan or an appointment with child and adolescent mental health services. The formative years of a child’s life are essential for their development, and without changes and improved support for these specialist services, children with SEND will be exposed to bullying, mental health issues, isolation and disadvantages later in life and in the workforce.

SEND in The Specialists highlighted how we need to incentivise employment into the special needs workforce, as well as retain those already in it. Improving recruitment and retention is vital to provide the specialist teachers and staff that we need for our children and young people. Many schools need more assistance for these children. For schools to remain inclusive, it is essential to have specialist and supportive frameworks in place to keep more children in mainstream education.

I enjoy visiting the primary and secondary schools across Hastings and Rye. It is the best part of this job. I speak to the pupils and staff. One young primary school teacher was telling me recently that she has four young children with challenging SEND needs in her class. Without the support of teaching assistants and named teaching assistants, it would be impossible to control the class and provide for the needs of these children, let alone the rest of the class, especially if the TAs and NTAs are off sick or leave because they, too, find it extremely challenging.

Inclusion is not always the best thing for the child with special needs, nor the rest of the children in the class. Both miss out on education. We have to face the fact that while mainstream inclusion is important, some children need a high level of specialist support, which can only be provided in special needs schools or in alternative provision.

We need more SEND and alternative provision across Hastings and Rye, especially AP for secondary-aged children. We have a significant number of primary and secondary-aged children with high-level needs. It is very difficult to access EHC plans, and the waiting list for CAMHS locally is now two years. It is just not good enough. Early intervention is vital in ensuring that the right support is given at the right time, so that each child with SEND can fulfil their potential and become full, active and productive members of our communities.

I welcome the Government SEND and alternative provision improvement plan published earlier this month, which will help to deliver new standards to improve identification of the needs and expectations of the level of support that would be available in local areas. The plan creates additional funding of more than £10 billion by 2023-24, which is an increase of more than 50%, to support and help young people with SEND. It is also encouraging that the improvement plan will create a new leadership special educational needs national professional qualification—a SENCO NPQ—which will ensure that teachers have the training that they need to provide the right support for children. That is in addition to expanded training for staff, but we need those staff.

To address the demand levels, it is necessary to deal with the backlog, which is a consequence of the pandemic. Ofsted highlights that speech and language therapy has one of the longer waiting lists and that there are reductions in the service provided. The impact of covid-19 has only exacerbated those problems: demand for speech and language therapists increased after the pandemic because of the additional 94,000 children with speech, language and communication needs in 2021-22. Young children and teens rely on that therapy as an essential way to develop social and articulative skills; if their needs are not dealt with effectively, that section of society could be isolated.

I thank the hon. Member for allowing me an intervention. I intervene purely because the issue that I hear most about from parents of SEN children is the lengthy waiting time for speech and language therapists, which is in part due to workforce shortages. The improvement plan is welcome in the sense that it talks about improving access, but does she agree that we need more therapists now, precisely because of the impact that delays have on children in the system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) pointed out?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was going to say that all primary schools that I visited in Hastings and Rye have highlighted the need for speech and language provision for younger children coming to school following covid. It is essential. They are behind with oracy and communication skills, and that impacts on their ability to access learning. Our local primary schools have provided that provision themselves, and they work to help and support our local children.

A number of charities are already working to provide help and support for certain children with special needs. For example, Auditory Verbal UK is making great progress in helping to implement specialist early interventions to support deaf babies and children in learning to talk and listen. Roughly 80% of children who attend at least two years of the charity’s pre-school programme achieve the same level of spoken language as their hearing peers. Through Government investment, the charity would be able to aid considerably more deaf children to reach the same level. It is a great charity that supports not only deaf children but the whole support system. A number of charities, third-sector groups and volunteers work with children who have important issues that need to be addressed.

Does my hon. Friend agree that investment to support organisations such as Auditory Verbal UK and the therapies that it can provide is excellent value for money? If children are reached with the right support early on, they can engage in mainstream education and benefit from it much more than if they are left with those needs on entry into primary school.

I completely agree. We could not function as a country without our voluntary sector—it is one of the wheels that keeps the country going—but we need to invest in it, so that it can save lots of money in the long term. That is absolutely right.

A specialist SEND workforce will make positive changes to our country. We must ensure that we allow a space for those children with special educational needs and disabilities to reach their full potential in society.

I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople at about 10.40 am, and we have about nine speakers. I will not set a time limit now; I leave it to hon. Members to discipline themselves.

I declare an interest, Mr Sharma—my wife is Dr Cynthia Pinto, chair of the committee on the Division of Educational and Child Psychology, and she is active in the Association of Educational Psychologists, so you can imagine what our breakfast conversations are like. I welcome the Minister, who has had responsibility for disabilities in the past, which gives her an understanding of some of the issues we face. She has also been a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Treasury, so she knows where the money is buried, which is extremely helpful. I thank Professor Vivian Hill from the Institute of Education at University College London, who has provided a number of us with briefings on educational psychology.

I want to draw attention to the issues facing educational psychologists. The chief inspector of education identified that the demand and need for educational psychology services from schools and families, to support early intervention and preventive work, has significantly increased. The inspector’s report also identified that there is a huge geographical variation—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) referred—in access to EPs, and noted that 60% of local authority EHCP assessments are not being completed within the 20-week timeframe as required.

Alternative provision has been mentioned. The Ofsted report last November identified that more children are being referred to alternative provision, but often because of the lack of access to specialist services in mainstream schools. Let us look at the stats on the increased numbers of education, health and care plans being issued. During 2021, 93,000 initial requests were made for assessment for EHCP—up from 76,000 in 2020. It is the highest number since data was first collected in 2016. His Majesty’s chief inspector of education reported that 1.5 million pupils were identified with SEND in 2022—an increase of 71% on the previous year; I found that staggering. The number of EHCPs has also grown by 51% since 2014-15. I think we are all experiencing that in our constituencies, as we receive representations from parents struggling to gain access to the planning processes.

Also interesting—I wonder whether others have experienced this—is the significant increase in the number of SEND tribunals, which becomes incredibly expensive for the local authorities. This is worrying. It is interesting that Professor Hill has identified this from the various statistics that have been brought out, and it was raised in a debate in the main Chamber a couple of months ago about the unmet mental health needs of children and young people. A record number of children and young people are being referred to NHS services for mental health difficulties. In the previous debate on this issue, MP after MP reported the issues and demand on CAMHS that are overwhelming it; that is increasingly worrying.

An increased number of children and young people are being permanently suspended or excluded from school. Some Members might have listened to the reports this morning about the number of “ghost” children, who are no longer in school. The figure of 20% was absolutely staggering. Covid has obviously had an impact, and there is a continuing impact on mental health, but local authorities struggle to maintain levels of support services for families in particular.

I also found interesting the evidence that local authorities struggle to recruit educational psychologists. The recent local government ombudsman report shows that 70% of local authorities are now struggling to recruit EPs. The Government have recognised that; it is one issue that is being addressed in the future of our workforce plan for skilled workers and the recruitment of staff. It has also been recognised that the recruitment of staff from overseas can assist us during this period while we struggle to recruit.

Many local authorities are now relying on locum cover from private providers but, as hon. Members will appreciate, that can be extremely expensive compared with direct investment. Educational psychologists have raised with the Government the issue of adequate funding of the services overall, which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West mentioned. Specifically for EPs, the Government responded in December with £21 million in additional funding, which was welcome. That will be for intakes from 2024, but the problem is that the core funding is inadequate—it has not been increased since 2020.

Let us look at the figures put out by the British Psychological Society, of which the Division of Educational and Child Psychology is a part. The announcement of £21 million for 400 additional educational psychologists is definitely a step in the right direction, but the BPS says that it really does not go far enough to close the workforce gap. The figure that I find shocking is that we are now at the stage where in 2017 there were about 3,000 educational psychologists working in England; on average, that is the equivalent of one educational psychologist for every 3,500 children and young people between the ages of five and 19. Again, there was one for every 5,000 for those between the ages of nought and 25 —the plan period. Therefore, the demand is for a greater increase of investment in educational psychologists to increase the numbers because of the increasing demands.

I will raise one issue that is specific to my own patch, but which may be reflected in other constituencies. I have 2,400 refugees—asylum seekers—in hotels in my constituency, including many children, who go into local schools. I have toured the hotels and done advice surgeries in them, and what has been reported back from the schools and from the discussions I am having with families is that a number of those children, who are largely from war zones, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That is placing an increased burden on individual schools. The teachers welcome rising to that challenge, but they need additional resources.

I would welcome a discussion with the Government—maybe all MPs have this situation in their constituencies—about what additional resources could be targeted at particular areas so that they can overcome this period, which I am sure will be temporary, but requires resources at the moment. The message is clear from the DECP and others: additional resources need to be specifically targeted at the recruitment and training of educational psychologists to meet this growing demand and, exactly as the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) said, to give children the life chances that they desperately need.

I will keep to your timeframe, Mr Sharma. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on introducing it and on his work chairing the APPG.

One of my first visits as the MP for North West Norfolk was to Greenpark Academy in King’s Lynn. The first issue that the headteacher raised with me was access to special needs provision and speech and language therapy for pupils who, at that school, often come from disadvantaged backgrounds. On a more recent visit to Whitefriars School, which has just been given a good Ofsted rating—it would have been outstanding if it had been a graded inspection—the school’s special needs unit was making a real difference in helping children to improve communication skills, often from a very low base, as a number arrived at the school non-verbal.

From visiting those and many other schools across my constituency, particularly in rural parts of North West Norfolk, the need to provide improved support is clear. The ability to communicate is fundamental for children to make friends, learn and realise their potential. The evidence is also strong that without the right support to help people with speech and language needs, children are at increased risk of poor educational attainment, mental health issues and poor employment outcomes.

Today’s debate is taking place because the current access to speech and language therapy needs to improve dramatically. Figures from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that were shared ahead of the debate show that over 67,000 children were on a waiting list for speech and language therapy, with more than a third waiting over 18 weeks. As we have heard, many more are waiting over a year or, indeed, two years. That situation is not acceptable; covid has made it worse and we need to address it. Given those real challenges, I welcome the SEND and AP improvement plan that was published earlier this month, with its focus on speech and communication issues. There is a welcome new commitment for a joint DFE and DHSC approach to SEND workforce planning, although I hope the timetable set out in that paper can be accelerated.

That join-up, which is the holy grail in Government, across health, education and social care at national level is vital. As the royal college points out, that has to be accompanied by sufficient funding to train, retain and develop the workforce. DFE—again in partnership with NHS England, which I welcome—is pioneering pathfinders for early language and support as part of the £70 million change programme. I previously raised with the Minister the potential for Norfolk and Waveney to be one of the nine pilot areas. I look forward to meeting my integrated care board shortly to discuss what we might be able to bring there. I would welcome further opportunity to discuss that with the Minister, and more information about the process for selecting those areas.

I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said, and would add Suffolk to the list of places that would like to be a pathfinder area. Does he agree that early intervention is vital, even though there are now more EHCPs than there were? The earlier that support for children starts, the more likely a positive outcome; getting that support is vital.

Indeed, I do. My right hon. Friend has done a lot of work in this area, not least with his private Member’s Bill.

The plan has a welcome focus on expanded training, including: 5,000 early years staff gaining accredited qualifications; an increase in the capacity of specialists, with two more training cohorts of educational psychologists; and the new leadership level SENDCO qualification. I am glad to see that it also commits to publishing the first of three best practice guides, including for Nuffield early language intervention, which has made a real difference in a number of my schools in Norfolk.

Finally, I welcome the new deal that provides £70 million in additional funding from the Department, in conjunction with Norfolk County Council, which will help to increase funding for special educational needs places. It will develop more specialist resource bases and AP in mainstream schools, which I hope will include schools in North West Norfolk, as well as building two more special schools.

In conclusion, getting this right is vital because children have only one opportunity when it comes to their education. We need to do all we can to help them realise their potential. The focus now must be on implementing those plans.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Sharma. SEND services in Devon have been in serious crisis for a long time, probably three or four years, with the situation deteriorating lately. Last year, Devon County Council apologised for failing to improve SEND services, and promised that things would improve and that it would redouble its efforts. We are continuing to see a problem around a lack of political leadership and of oversight at the council. My postbag is heavy with correspondence from constituents who are at their wits’ end trying to get the support and educational placements that children need.

The wait times for assessments are far beyond the statutory 20 weeks. The lack of educational psychologists is leaving families uncertain, having to juggle work commitments and looking after their child at the same time. It is definitely leading to people being outside of the workforce who would otherwise be fulfilling an important role in it. The looming threat in Devon of these services being placed in special measures, or removed from the council’s remit, shows that things must change. The promise of more money in the forthcoming council budget is welcome. The Government’s recent announcement of a new SEND school at Cranbrook is again welcome, but we need to ensure that taxpayers’ money is being spent effectively to deliver the SEND placements that our children deserve.

I have had constituents contact me to highlight situations where a child is allocated a placement that is wholly unsuitable for them, and the child cannot take it up but remains on the school roll, with the funding also remaining assigned to that school. We need to ensure that money follows the child and that appropriate frontline services are delivered regardless of where the child then moves. I have seen for myself in East Devon that SEND pupils are being taught in cupboards and storage rooms, and I know that that is not unique to my part of Devon, because I have also seen it reported on the BBC. We should not allow that to continue. I cannot help but admire the parents who are pushing Devon County Council and the Government on this. Devon SEND Parents and Carers for Change staged a protest at county hall in Exeter last month, and they are trying to shine a spotlight on some of these failings.

It is not all gloom; there are some examples of best practice. My constituent, Danielle Punter, has written books and a blog——with tips on education and support in understanding neurodivergence. Danielle pointed out last month that when partial school closures happen as a result of lockdown or strikes, it is often special needs school pupils who are most affected, because those schools need to be fully staffed in order for children with a high level of SEND requirements to get the best possible care, otherwise they need to stay at home. In short, we need to get to grips with some of these repeated failures, particularly in Devon, and that will require political leadership and political oversight.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on securing this important debate. This issue is of concern to many of my constituents in Darlington. Indeed, 77 people from my constituency signed the e-petitions relating to the debate. I welcome the announcement last week of a new school in Darlington and thank Councillors Jonathan Dulston and Jon Clarke for their work on that. This additional provision of 48 places for SEN children in Darlington is much needed.

However, Darlington faces serious problems with CAMHS. The delays in getting people assessed are significant. It impacts my case load and delays access to services for young people in my constituency. It is hugely important for Darlington parents and children that we speed up the woefully inadequate waiting times for CAMHS assessments by Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust. As Ministers are aware, we cannot overestimate the challenging circumstances that TEWV service users and their families face. More than 300 under-18s in Darlington are awaiting an autism assessment, and more than 20% of them have been waiting almost three years. That is just not good enough. In the absence of a diagnosis, these families’ lives are on hold, and these children’s lives are not progressing as they should.

I continue to engage regularly with TEWV and the families of special educational needs children in Darlington, including through my autism forum on Facebook, to ensure that their voices are heard and to push for us to take more action to reduce these backlogs, which are so damaging. I do, however, welcome the recent announcement that Darlington has secured additional funding of £6.19 million for special educational needs provision in the town, to address the growing needs in our community and tackle the high cost of out-of-town provision. I also warmly welcome the recent SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, which commits to increase spending on children and young people with such needs by more than 50% to over £10 billion by 2023-24.

I have tabled several written questions to the Department for Education in the past about its records for SEN training among teaching staff, and I was disappointed to learn that it does not keep records of the extent of such training. However, the recent news of expanded training for staff in early years provision, with special educational needs co-ordinators and educational psychologists, will, I hope, go some way to addressing that gap.

This is a personal issue for me. Like many people across the country, I have family members with special educational needs, and I have seen directly the work that parents must put in to secure the necessary support. It cannot be right that the most vocal parents or those who know the system are the ones who secure the right provision for their child. I have seen parents in my constituency surgery who have been pinging from local authority to CAMHS to schools to healthcare providers, which makes them frustrated, angry and bewildered. We really need to do so much better.

In conclusion, the SEND and additional provision improvement plans are good steps on the way, but we must ensure that the actions that are set out in them are delivered, and we must make the systems absolutely centred on the child—not just paying lip service to that idea, but really breaking down the silos in health, education and Government to truly deliver, end the excessive waits, and give the kids a chance.

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for securing this debate and leading it, and for setting the scene so well, as he often does. It is nice to see him down here with us in the Chamber, instead of up there in the Chair; that has been a pleasure today.

There have been ongoing issues relating to provision for special educational needs. Children with SEN rely heavily on routine, consistency and specialised support. Many people in my constituency contact me in relation to these issues; most notably, I am contacted about staffing issues. So I will focus on staffing issues today, including serving staff not receiving the adequate support and training to assist pupils with SEN.

I believe that we must do all we can to ensure that children are given an equal and fair start in life, so it is great to be here today to discuss that. I welcome the Minister to her place. She does not have to answer any of my questions about this issue, because we have a Minister in Northern Ireland with responsibility for this issue. However, I wanted to come here today to support the hon. Member for Swansea West and others who have spoken, because the things that have been spoken about here today are the very same for us in Northern Ireland. There is no difference; each other’s problems are replicated.

I will speak briefly on Northern Ireland, because I always like to give a taste of the situation there. In Northern Ireland, 67,000 children have some form of SEN, which is a fifth of the school population, and 19,000 children have received a statement about their need for additional support, which is a 20.3% increase on what it once was.

This issue is about the staff we have, including those who have received the basic SEN training for already qualified teachers to act in the event of sickness. Unfortunately, staffing numbers are down in Northern Ireland. I say this with all the provisos that I have as a Unionist, but we need a functioning Assembly that can take such things on. We must ensure that our Governments are allocating sufficient funding to train SEN-specialised teachers, so that the pressure is taken off teaching staff who are not specialised in SEN teaching and communication with children who have SEN.

The Education Authority in Northern Ireland also disclosed that the number of educational psychologists has decreased by 24% in less than five years—what a massive drop for us back home—from 140 to 106. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People also made 40 recommendations for improvement. The petition was signed by 29,000 people who called for SEN training to be made mandatory for all teaching staff, which is also recommended by the commissioner.

Some of the things that we are asking for are the things that others are asking for, and I know that the Minister will respond. And whatever the Minister responds to about the situation here will probably also give us an indication of where we need to be in Northern Ireland. Although the petition was centred around the English education system, it is crucial that any decision taken in relation to SEN training for teachers follows through to the devolved nations. My request to the Minister specifically is to ensure that the recommendations and answers that she gives in this debate are conveyed directly to the Education Authority and the Northern Ireland Assembly, because what we can learn from this debate can be a lesson for us all.

We are also living in a world where assessments for SEN are unfortunately taking considerable time, as we must ensure that children are assessed accurately, so that they can receive the right amount of support and specialist care. I ask for that to be done as well.

Once this debate has been completed, where do we go next? We must take the relevant steps to ensure that a sufficient workforce is there. We must encourage our young people to take degrees in this area and make such degrees accessible to them. It is about making sure that teachers are trained, in place and can do the job. This is the effort that we go to and that they go to. Such teachers deserve to be under the least amount of pressure possible. So I call upon the Minister to engage with all regional Governments within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in order to come to a joint decision on how the issue of a specialised workforce can be tackled.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. Whenever we receive petition data, I do what I am sure we all do: I look at where my constituency ranks for number of signatures. For the first time in my three years as an MP—unless I have missed one—my Wantage and Didcot constituency was No. 1 for this petition. I think that reflects the problems going on at Oxfordshire County Council at the moment, as I receive almost daily complaints from parents and schools about emails not being answered, the phone not being picked up and EHCPs returned with the wrong child described on the plan.

While the county council would suggest that that is all about funding, some of those issues are not about that. Putting the wrong child on an EHCP when it is returned to a parent is not about funding. Actually, if the amount of money that is spent on tribunals by the county council was spent on the service, we would have a better service overall. As it happens, there is more money going into the system—an extra £2.6 billion—which will mean 50% higher spending in 2023-24 than in 2019-20. However, the issues are not just about funding.

In any organisation, there is always a debate about specialist versus generalist: whether we should have one person who is responsible for everything, the advantage of which is expert knowledge, or whether everybody should be responsible, so that they do not shirk that responsibility. That is true in this area too. It is right that the Government are reviewing the mandatory requirement for the national award for SENCOs, because parents clearly do not feel it is working in quite the way it should. I also warmly welcome the forthcoming apprenticeship pathway for those with sensory impairments.

However, it is also right to look at initial teacher training. Of course, there is initial teacher training and an expectation that all teachers should have some understanding and be able to handle children with special educational needs. But, again, it is absolutely clear that many parents do not feel that that is the case. While there are children who need specialist schools and other specialist provision, we know that children staying in mainstream education leads to better outcomes: they have better social skills; they have more independence; they have fewer behavioural problems. Having children with special educational needs in the classroom also improves other children’s tolerance and understanding.

The Government are absolutely right to pursue both those tracks. We are fortunate to have in the Minister a great advocate for children with SEND and their parents. She is working with the Department of Health to try to grip these specialist workforce issues, but also to help all teachers to feel more confident about dealing with children who have special educational needs, so that the first resort is not to try to push them somewhere else. I look forward to working with the Minister to achieve the Government’s aim of getting the right support in the right place at the right time.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on leading today’s debate and concur with all comments made by colleagues across the room.

It is a fight, and it is always a fight, to get the right support in the right place at the right time—that is what parents have consistently told me. That is why we are here today. We have serious concerns about the timing of the Government’s proposals. Already, we are hearing about a specialist workforce group being set up, but it will be two years before we see that workforce plan delivered. On top of that, we have the training time to get those specialists in place to provide the support for young people, and timing is of the essence.

Time is of the essence for parents in my constituency, too. I think about the parents who came to see me because their child goes to specialist provision in the morning, but in the afternoon, is left to play with Lego; or the child who was confronted in their school environment because they did not make eye contact, and was told off and given detention for not doing so; or the parents whose child, who has autism and is non-verbal, despite meeting all the thresholds for an EHCP assessment, has been denied that assessment by their local authority. Children miss out time and again.

Let me speak about one child whose needs were not recognised in primary school. We raised our concerns frequently, but the teachers did not identify his dyslexia and memory and processing issues until the last term of year 6. He did not get the right support and fell further and further behind. His experience of school was horrendous: he had self-esteem issues by year 2 and signs of anxiety in year 3, and he told us that he would rather die than go to school in year 4. In years 5 and 6, the impact of his school experience was huge. Thankfully, he has now had the opportunity that he should have had when he started school, or even pre-school. It is always a fight for parents.

I am also here to fight for the workforce. It needs to be recognised, organised and supported. We are creating family hubs, but we had Sure Start. We brought people together across the professions to work together and wrap the services around the child. We need to reinstitute that. Labour did it, and we will do it again, because we know the importance of that inter-working.

I particularly want to speak up for teaching assistants, who are at the forefront of providing day-by-day support to young people. They know their children and are attuned to their needs. However, in a school in York, their contracts have been reduced to just term-time working, rather than full-time. They are therefore not able to afford to go to work any more. Teaching assistants should be recognised as the professionals that they are for the skills that they bring, and they should be rewarded with the pay they deserve. They work incredibly hard, giving children confidence on a day-to-day basis. Many children with special educational needs identify with their teaching assistant more than anyone else, and yet they are on minimum wage, term-time contracts. It is frankly disgraceful. When the Minister puts a workforce plan together, I ask her to put teaching assistants at the forefront and to recognise the professional skills they bring in supporting children at their time of need.

I am honoured, Mr Sharma. That is most kind and unexpected.

I thank the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) for what she just said about teaching assistants. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) declared an interest in relation to his wife’s role. My sister is a teaching assistant in a special educational needs setting, and I think the work they do is absolutely heroic. She has faced all sorts of challenges in her work, including assault by pupils. Teaching assistants turn up day in, day out to do that work, not because it is well paid—it is not—but because they are absolutely passionate about supporting the children. As we heard from so many hon. Members, this is all about children’s life chances.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). We have had many lively exchanges over many issues over the years, but on this issue we are absolutely as one. He presented his case extremely well.

I am Chairman of the Education Committee, and this issue touches on so many of our inquiries, so I am very grateful to you, Mr Sharma, for slightly relaxing the time limit so that I can speak about all of them. As my hon. Friend the Minister knows extremely well, we are in the midst of conducting an inquiry into early years and childcare. Yesterday, we heard from SEND specialists in that space of the enormous benefit of providing the right specialist workforce at the right time—that early intervention in the early years, which Members from both sides of the House have talked about.

It is important that we remember that this can start in the early years. There is huge benefit in getting speech and language therapy in front of the right children in the early years. I was grateful that the hon. Member for Swansea West started his speech by talking about the importance of that. In my constituency, when I started as an MP, there was a real problem with the availability of speech and language therapy. I am told now by the royal college and by experts that we are one of the best areas in the country for that provision, and that is extremely welcome, but there is still more need.

We heard from Speech and Language UK yesterday that, with the right support and training, teaching assistants can deliver interventions that can help to reduce the demand on specialist speech and language therapists and allow them to focus on the children with genuine complex special needs. It is really important that we get our support right in that respect.

In my constituency I have a wonderful primary special school called Fort Royal, which serves the community extremely well. Tragically, and I think wrongly, that school has lost its specialist assessment centre—its nursery. That is not for any planning reason, but simply because the primary school is so overwhelmed by demand and has a constrained site, that they have had to create space for statutory provision of primary places at the expense of early years and nursery provision. That is not a good situation. I am hearing from nurseries and early years settings across my constituency that they are facing pupils whose needs they cannot easily meet as a result of that.

I am glad that Worcestershire Children First has listened to the concerns that I and others have raised about provision, and has agreed to commission a new specialist assessment centre. In the meantime, there is real pressure in that space, and there are children who are missing out on some of the support that they should be getting. I want to make sure that the local improvement and inclusion plans, which the improvement plan rightly talks about, include the right provision for early years and nurseries.

The improvement plan, which the Minister has been instrumental in delivering, has some very welcome initiatives. Those include the local inclusion plan, national standards, new specialist places—I warmly welcome the decision to approve an all-through autism school in south Worcestershire, which will benefit my constituents—and better support in mainstream education. We have heard some interesting exchanges about the importance of mainstream versus specialist education. The reality is that we need both—and we need more of both. We need support for pupils with special educational needs throughout the mainstream system, and we need more specialist places.

I join the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington in recognising the Minister’s expertise in this space. She is the first Minister I have heard at the Dispatch Box recognising the rising tide of need that we see in the system. That recognition is important as we address the need for specialists.

The improvement plan also talks about the transition to adulthood. Another inquiry that the Education Committee is in the process of concluding is on careers education, information, advice and guidance. In the course of that inquiry we have heard that SEND pupils, and pupils in alternative provision, are not always getting the high-quality careers advice and guidance they need to improve their life chances and get good outcomes. I have seen some excellent examples of this being done well. I recently visited the special Westminster School in Rowley Regis, and saw the work that they are doing there with the Black Country careers hub to support and mentor SEND pupils into careers with employers such as DPD. There was some interesting partnership work going on.

I have a fantastic primary pupil referral unit in my constituency, Perryfields Primary PRU, which I recommend the Minister visits. It was one of the best visits I did as a Minister—it just happens to be in my constituency. The school does a fantastic job of meeting the needs of primary pupils. Regency High School, also in my constituency, does some really good work with children with complex needs, trying to prepare them and support them into work. The Government rightly want to ensure that people with disabilities have the opportunity to work. In order to do that, we need to get the right support and careers advice and guidance to people early.

As we have already heard, life chances for young people with SEND can be hugely improved with the right support. Getting speech and language therapists and teachers of the deaf in early, as well as auditory verbal therapy, is really important. Getting the right teacher training for dealing with children with autism and other conditions for teachers and teaching assistants is vital.

As the hon. Member for Swansea West and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) mentioned, there has been a huge impact from the pandemic on children with special educational needs. It is right that we invest in the sector to ensure that that is made up. When I was at the Department, we spent a lot of time, money and effort focused on catching up. If we can spend money on early intervention and supporting children earlier on, it will do more than catching up belatedly. We should continue to look at how we make the case for that.

We have heard about the delays to diagnosis; I spoke in a recent debate on that. I will meet Worcestershire Children First shortly to talk about some of our problems with the umbrella pathway in Worcester. One issue that we came across was that the health system was subjected to a cyber-attack, which has further delayed some of the desperately needed diagnoses for children. Any support that the Department can provide to protect systems’ cyber-security and ensure that those issues do not arise would be extremely welcome.

I have four quick asks of the Minister before I sit down. The first is the meeting that the SEND in The Specialists campaign requested. It sounds as though that is likely to be granted, but I would certainly welcome it. Secondly, I would like a commitment to keep on investing in continuing professional development for mainstream teachers and to see what more can be done through the initial teacher training and early career framework processes to make sure that we recognise that every teacher is a teacher of SEND children. Thirdly, I would like a commitment to working with the Department of Health and Social Care to improve access to the specialist workforce and to make sure that the NHS workforce plan takes into account the rising demand in this space, which the Minister has recognised. Finally, I would like a commitment to looking carefully at early years and ensuring that local inclusion plans include the right specialist support, which can make such a huge difference to children’s life chances.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) for securing this important debate on the specialist workforce for children with special educational needs and disabilities. I pay tribute to all the all-party parliamentary groups that work in that area for their important contribution in gathering evidence and raising concerns. I am grateful to every hon. Member who has spoken today.

We have heard a remarkable consensus this morning on the dire situation that faces many families with a child with SEND, on the rapid growth in need, and on the urgency of the need for more support. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) highlighted the link between unmet need and mental health referrals, school exclusions and school non-attendance. He rightly highlighted concerns about the significant unmet need and the trauma experienced by children and their families who live in initial accommodation for asylum seekers across the country.

The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) pointed to the impact of the pandemic in worsening speech and language delay. I recognise that issue from my constituency, but it is being raised by primary schools across the country. She also highlighted the important innovative technique of auditory verbal, which, as other hon. Members said, can be delivered at low cost and used by parents and non-specialists, as well as specialist support staff in schools.

The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), the Chair of the Education Committee, spoke about the importance of intervention in the early years. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) emphasised the significant impact of long delay on families’ ability to access support, and the vital work of teaching assistants, who often go unrecognised and under-rewarded. We also heard from many other colleagues, and there is wide consensus on the subject.

There are 1.5 million children with SEND in the UK. The number of children on an education, health and care plan is up by 50% since 2016. Those with SEND are overrepresented among pupils eligible for free school meals, black pupils and looked-after children. The support for many children with SEND is insufficient. Parents often have to battle for a diagnosis, then they battle again for support, often multiple times at each stage of their child’s education.

I pay tribute to everyone who works with children with SEND: speech and language therapists, SENDCOs, specialist teaching assistants, educational psychologists, specialist teachers of the deaf and of visually impaired people, and many others. It takes dedication and commitment to train as a specialist, who often act as the gateway to the whole of a child’s education. The work of SEND specialists is vital, but it often goes unseen and unrecognised.

Research from the Disabled Children’s Partnership is damning. In response to a recent survey, seven out of 10 parents said that their disabled child’s health had deteriorated because of lack of support. Only one in three disabled children have the correct level of support from their education setting. Only one in seven families have the correct level of support from social care, only one in five have the correct level of support from health services, and only one in five felt that they received the support needed for their child to fulfil their potential.

That overall context disguises a huge diversity of need. SEND needs include autism, ADHD, speech and language delay, vision impairment, hearing loss, foetal alcohol syndrome, cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. That means that detailed workforce planning is required. There must be staff working in mainstream education and health settings who can identify and diagnose additional needs as soon as they are evident, available support in every school for children with needs that occur commonly, and specialist support available to draw down for low-prevalence conditions when they occur.

Securing a specialist workforce matters. For mainstream settings to be truly inclusive, teachers must have knowledge of and access to a broad range of specialist skills. Recently, I visited a secondary school and met the brilliant team who support children with special educational needs. Their care and commitment to every single child was inspiring, but they spoke about how hard it is to obtain a diagnosis for children whose needs had not been fully identified earlier in their education because of a shortage of educational psychologists.

Specialist support is vital to keep children in school. Children with additional needs are over-represented in the data on school exclusions and in alternative provision. Ensuring the right support is available can help to avoid exclusions, but for 13 years the Government have failed to plan for the SEND workforce. The number of specialist teachers of the deaf has declined by 19% since 2011, and there are more than 67,000 children on the waiting list for speech and language therapy. There are simply not enough therapists to meet the need. There is a national shortage of educational psychologists, with 70% of local authorities having to rely on agency staff.

Behind those sobering figures are children—children whose needs are not being met, who are unable to access education, whose mental health is declining because they are not properly understood at school, and who are simply disengaging from education. Alongside each child are parents and families—parents who spend hours each week fighting for support, who are being called at work to pick up their child from school, who are suffering the distress of knowing their child is unhappy and not fulfilling their potential, and who, like the parents I met in my constituency recently, feel that they need to give up work so as to educate their children at home.

The shortage of professionals and the lack of support result in unacceptably poor outcomes for children with SEND. The Government recently published their response to the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper. The Opposition welcome the fact that the Minister has listened to Labour’s call for a focus on the early years. Identifying children’s needs early is vital, and the evidence is clear, but the Government have not said how they will build SEND diagnosis and support into an early-years sector that is fragmented and diverse, and within which nurseries in particular take widely varying approaches to inclusivity.

Families who have a child with SEND find it hardest of all to find suitable childcare, but allocating more money to a broken childcare system without reform, as the Government have announced this week, will not deliver a step change in the availability of SEND support, particularly as 5,000 childcare providers have closed since 2021.

The SEND and alternative provision improvement plan has the aim of reducing the number of EHCPs through improving support in mainstream schools, but the Government have not set out a clear plan to achieve it. There is no overall workforce plan. Meanwhile, the Government are expanding the number of special schools, which are needed, but there is weak data on which types of school are needed, and where, and no detailed plan to improve the inclusivity of mainstream schools.

A fundamental weakness of the Government’s approach is that it is characterised by pilots, rather than a national roll-out, and progress is set to be far too slow. Much of the plan will not come into effect until 2025 or 2026, leaving families to continue to struggle in the meantime, and more children going through the whole of their education journey without the support they need.

Children with SEND and their families need a workforce plan to deliver the support they need, wherever they live in the country. A Labour Government would work with professionals and families to deliver a SEND system that works for every child.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on securing a debate on this incredibly important subject. It is wonderful to see so many people in agreement about what is needed, and to have seen the expertise on show today. I hope people can see from our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan the seriousness of the Government in trying to respond to the needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities across the country.

The hon. Member rightly talked about the importance of early language, which we know feeds into children’s overall learning and literacy. He talked about the importance of education and health working together, and I am pleased to say that we jointly published that report, and that the Department of Health is very much working hand in glove with us on the plans. He also spoke about the importance of all-teacher training, which is crucial, early identification and getting a diagnosis, and recruitment and retention. I confirm that I would be delighted to meet with him, and we will talk about dates. I shall touch on some of those subjects in my speech.

I have had the privilege to meet some of the galaxy of professionals, as the hon. Gentleman said, who support children and young people with SEND. Whether they are in early years, schools, colleges, health and care settings, or specialist and alternative provision, those are some of the best visits that I do; it is a joy to meet a group of people who are so dedicated, skilled and passionate about meeting the needs of their children and young people. Hon. Members mentioned investment in the specialist workforce a number of times, and I am keen to engage with all the charities and organisations that have expertise in this issue as we take our plans forward to the next stage.

The SEND and alternative provision improvement plan is meant to support the entitlement set out in 2014 through a much clearer local and national focus on the strategy for how we can plan to meet those needs, whether that is through best practice guides for teachers or local inclusion plans, which mean that each area will have to assess and work out how to meet those needs. The funding has increased by more than 50% over the last few years. The idea is that all those parts of the system will be looked at and will hopefully work better together to meet rising need, improve access and build confidence in the system. A number of Members talked about the fact that there is not enough alternative provision, that there is not enough early years support or that there is something specific in their area such that needs are not being met. I hope that the whole system change that we have set out will go a long way to addressing those issues.

Through our consultation process, we heard too many stories from families who are frustrated by the system and battling to access specialist support. We also heard that reform is not possible without a strong, capable workforce with a specialist skillset. I want to assure everyone that we have taken those comments on board and are working hard to make the reforms a reality.

I want first to talk about the specialists who work so hard to provide extra support. They will be key to ensuring that we can do what we need to do for these young people. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) rightly mentioned the importance of educational psychologists and children getting through the EHCP process. He mentioned that educational psychologists can provide professional advice to children and young people and drive better life outcomes. I completely agree with his emphasis on them. He is also right that I used to be a Treasury PPS; I had fewer opportunities to agree with him then, so it is nice to be able to do so today. We have announced an additional £21 million to train more educational psychologists. We increased the number of people coming through the system in 2020 and, because of the training time, some of those people are coming through now. He is right that this issue will be crucial in ensuring that we can meet needs.

It is also important—I will touch on this later—to improve broader teacher confidence. In the case of something such as speech and language support, if we had better confidence and evidence-based interventions in mainstream settings, we would have a reduced need for educational psychologists and EHCPs.

All of us will assist the Minister through representations to the Treasury about the required early investment that eventually saves money further downstream. I am happy to engage in any lobbying of Treasury Ministers to get that message across, as some of them have not yet fully grasped it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but I would slightly disagree with him. When I was in the Treasury in 2019, I worked on the increase, which we are starting to see, in the high needs funding block, which has gone up by 50%. There is also the £2.6 billion that we are spending on specialist places and the £20 million, which I have mentioned, that we have set out for educational psychologists. We have backed a lot of reforms with funding over the past few years, but I will gladly work with him on anything in this area.

We have also committed to working with the Department of Health on a joint approach. The hon. Member for Swansea West talked about engaging with the specialist sector in health, and we are definitely planning to do that. We do not want to reinvent the wheel; we want to work with people who have expertise in this area.

Access to speech and language therapy has rightly been mentioned. I know the hon. Member for Swansea West has a deep expertise in that, and I am particularly passionate about it. In the improvement plan, we announced that we will partner with NHS England to include early language and support for every child pathfinders within our £70 million change programme. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (James Wild) mentioned meeting to discuss that, and I would be delighted to do so. The plan for those pathfinders is that they will trial new ways of working to better identify and support children with speech and language communication needs. We are also looking at family hubs. We have support for Nuffield early language intervention in primary schools, and we are putting support in place with home learning environments. In 2020, there were 620 acceptances to speech and language therapy programmes in England. That was an increase of 28% from 2019. We are working with the NHS on a long-term plan, which will look at therapists, and we are also working on the steering group that we will set up this year.

On the mainstream workforce, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), whom I am meeting later today to discuss this issue, rightly said that inclusive schools make for an inclusive society. We will be looking at the initial teacher training framework and early career framework, but, importantly, we are setting out best practice guides, starting with autism, mental health and wellbeing and early language, to ensure that the wider workforce all have that specialist ability as well. It is really important to understand different conditions and what can be done.

Members have mentioned that we are introducing the new SENDCO NPQ, which will replace the existing qualification That will be Ofsted and Education Endowment Foundation assured. Members, including the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), have mentioned teaching assistants. The Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), mentioned his sister. Teaching assistants are vital. We are starting a research project to develop our evidence base on current school approaches, demand and best practice.

Our specialist schools face a challenge because they must have very large numbers of teaching assistants to provide individual support for pupils, so when funding increases to reflect pay awards in the teaching space, it does not keep pace with the increases for teaching assistants. In her conversations with the Treasury, will the Minister ensure that it understands that specific challenge and ensure that, as we see the welcome rise in the living wage, our specialist education sector is supported with the cost of that? They are very real costs and are needed.

I will happily go away and look at that, but I would also make a point on the additional funding we have put into the mainstream sector so that it can cope with all sorts of rises in demands and costs.

As well as setting out best practice guides, we are training 5,000 early years special educational needs co-ordinators to help with early identification. One thing I have found from early-years settings is that there is a real desire to know more about this area. That is very welcome.

A couple of Members mentioned the transition stage into adulthood. I have visited some excellent places recently, including Weston College, which is a centre for excellence, and the Orpheus Centre in my own constituency, which is trying to build that sense of independence in our young people as they reach adulthood. We have also heard mention of teachers of the deaf, and I am really delighted that we have been working with the National Deaf Children’s Society to deliver that apprenticeship, which will be very helpful, particularly because it attracts levy funding.

I would like to turn briefly to mental health, which has been a real challenge. We have been working very closely with the NHS on this. It is investing a lot of money for hundreds of thousands of extra children. We know this is a difficult area, which is why one of our first best-practice guides will be on this topic. We will also roll out mental health support teams in schools.

In mental health diagnosis, it is often thought that someone has a mental health problem when, in fact, they have a speech and language problem. Will the Minister think about ensuring that, when these assessments are made, particularly when people are actually incarcerated, speech and language therapists are on hand to ensure that there is no misdiagnosis?

I will happily look at that, and raise it in my conversations with Health. That is quite right. There are lots of other issues as well, particularly autism in girls. A mental health challenge is often diagnosed when, actually, if the underlying autism were addressed, outcomes for young people would be improved.

I will close on this, so that the hon. Member for Swansea West has enough time. I am sure he will want to say quite a lot. Improving access to the right professionals, whether they are teachers, teaching assistants or the specialists we have talked a lot about today is a key part of our plans for reform. I thank everyone who has brought this matter forward for their detailed stories.

I was hoping the Minister might deal with this—I requested that she share conclusions in relation to the mainland with the relevant Department and with the Minister back home.

I would be delighted to talk to the relevant Department and the hon. Gentleman’s Minister about how we can share best practice. I know people rightly care about this area. Everyone here is grateful for the work of all the professionals across the education, health and care systems who work tirelessly to support our children and young people.

I have a surprising amount of time, but I will not take all of it. First, I would like to thank everybody who took part in the debate, with consensus about this massively important issue, which affects 1.5 million people across Britain. We welcome the Minister’s sentiments. The point has been made that we need to speed up and deliver for the people who are seeing their children’s life chances ebbing away in many cases, as we speak.

Since my hon. Friend has a couple of minutes, one issue raised by the Minister was the role of the voluntary sector. I know he was speaking on behalf of a coalition of groups, but one issue we have not examined is the funding of those individual organisations. Many of us have concerns about the drying-up of funding from local government to the voluntary sector. We might now need to put that back on the agenda in discussions with the Minister.

We all know money is tight. As has been said, core funding to local authorities has been cut. It may be that many members of that coalition could do a lot more with additional funding, so that it would go further than it would by giving to it to other organisations. Clearly, that is not a perfect situation. We also heard about the importance of teaching assistants. It is a failure of budget management to reduce the amount of support for teaching assistants, who are on the frontline.

Coming back to the point about timing, voluntary organisations, teaching assistants and existing provision need to be supported now, as we support a strategy to move forward on training a specialist workforce. We are looking at designing what we hope will be a very good system as we move forward in the next couple of years. In the meantime, we need to deliver on the ground. I pay tribute to the 1,800 people who contributed to this debate. There would have been thousands more, if they had known about it. They want to tell us about their child. Everybody looking at their child’s needs is frustrated, saying that Jane, John or whoever, has needs that are not being addressed, and the deterioration is clear.

We have heard examples of cases where the lack of early intervention meant greater intervention at higher cost later. As we have discussed, downstream we end up with lower life chances, lower tax revenues and higher social costs, a lot of which is avoidable. We need to work together to speed up the system. The people in this room and beyond would be happy to lobby Government about priorities and timing, to support the Minister to bring forward more ambitious and quicker action. That would support so many people and make such a difference to their lives. Thank you all.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered a specialist workforce for children with special educational needs and disabilities.