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Autism and Learning Disability Training

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2023

[Relevant documents: e-petition 639050, Require education staff to be trained on learning disabilities and autism; e-petition 638530, Mandatory training for teachers to understand ADHD & autism; e-petition 634354, Require Universities to Train Staff on Neurodiversity.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered autism and learning disability training for education staff.

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I am grateful to have been allocated parliamentary time to discuss the very important issue of autism and learning disability training for education staff. The debate arises in response to three e-petitions: petition 639050, which calls for education staff to be required to have trained in learning disability and autism and which has received over 69,000 signatories; petition 638530, which calls for mandatory training for teachers in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism and which has 1,500 signatories; and petition 634354, which calls for training on neurodiversity for university staff and which has over 16,000 signatories.

I thank everyone who took time to sign the petitions, which clearly relate to issues that are of huge concern to people across the country. I also thank the nearly 3,000 people who contributed to the Commons engagement team survey and gave their views on more education staff training. Some of the stories which they have shared with us have been exceptionally troubling. I am grateful for the time and effort that has gone into communicating those stories, which in some cases involved sharing very painful experiences.

There are around 200,000 autistic pupils in England and nearly 75% of them are in mainstream schools. According to research by the National Autistic Society, only a tiny proportion—just 26%—of autistic pupils feel happy at school. Three in four parents or carers—74%—said that their child’s school place did not fully meet their needs, and more than one in four parents, or 26%, waited over three years to receive support for their child.

Autistic children often speak of feeling misunderstood and of school being a place where there is bullying and loneliness. Such experiences lead to issues with mental wellbeing, sometimes to self-harm, and to a lack of self-esteem and self-confidence. The responses to the engagement survey starkly support the claim that autistic children do not always have a positive experience at school. In fact, in cases in which things go badly wrong, autistic children not only miss out on their education, but have experiences that can haunt them throughout their lives—stealing their future prospects, leaving them struggling to get into or stay in the workplace, and driving very distressing health impacts. Those detrimental effects can continue well into adulthood.

Deborah, the mother of one autistic child, said:

“After nine years of experiencing the school system…she removed her son completely and started home education so that they could mend his mental health and school-caused trauma.”

One mother told us of the

“Huge emotional impact”

that had

“led to serious mental health issues and withdrawal from education and society as a whole.”

She stated that her child’s experience had

“led to isolation, complete withdrawal from any form of education and reluctance to interact across all levels of society.”

The National Autistic Society’s education rights helpline has seen a huge spike in calls related to college and university education.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward the debate. All of us have an interest in autism, and I know that others have a personal interest in it, but we are here to support the hon. Lady. Back in 2020, the former Education Minister in Northern Ireland—now Lord Weir in the other place—published an enhanced autism training programme. The hon. Lady referred to universities, and it is important to note that it is not only children who are affected by autism. Does she agree that the same considerations from that report must apply to colleges and universities across the UK, so that older students who suffer from autism have the same support as those in schools? I think the hon. Lady’s answer will be yes, but I am curious about her response.

The hon. Gentleman anticipates correctly and, as ever, makes an important contribution to the debate. That is why we are discussing a petition, which over 16,000 people signed and which calls for university students to be included and for the education to go up as far as university lecturers and other university staff.

Before I go any further, I want to say that this is not a problem with teachers per se. This debate is not about attacking the teaching profession nor is it meant in any way to undermine or criticise teachers and other education professionals. We know that teachers up and down the country do a remarkable and very important job, in many cases in increasingly challenging circumstances. Teachers are passionate about supporting their pupils. They want to give them the very best possible educational experience and the best life chances, but they need the right support to do that. This debate is about ensuring that teachers are given the best tools and advice they need to give autistic and neurodivergent children, children with a learning disability and, in fact, all the students they care for the best possible support and the best possible chance to have a happy, healthy and safe learning environment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall and bringing together these petitions. Does she agree that we already have a precedent in the Health and Care Act 2022, which finally mandated training for health and social care professionals using the Oliver McGowan training programme? With the Autism Education Trust, we have a potential model that could be strategically rolled out to replicate the approach we are taking in health and social care in all fields of education.

It is almost as if my right hon. and learned Friend read my mind. I will come on in a bit to talk about the Oliver McGowan training, which I am glad he endorses. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, he speaks with enormous experience and passion on this subject, and I am grateful for his endorsement.

As we have heard, there is already training in this area, which I am sure the Minister will reiterate. However, a report by the National Autistic Society showed that just one in seven—14%—of schoolteachers have received any form of autism training. Rachel, a SEND learning support assistant, said, in her words, that she had

“not really received much training”,

and that when she started, she

“was thrown into the deep end.”

Everything Rachel knows is mainly based on her experience of working with SEN children, not her training, yet the survey responses show that where teaching and support are right, they can have a game-changing and enduring impact on the education and life chances of neurodivergent pupils, in some cases supporting them all the way through university and building them up for their adult lives and careers ahead.

What concerns me deeply, however, is the fact that further research from the National Autistic Society showed that while 87% of teachers surveyed said that they felt confident or very confident supporting autistic pupils in the classroom, findings from a 2021 report showed that seven in 10 autistic children and young people said that school would be better if more teachers understood autism, while 54% of autistic students said that having teachers who did not understand them was the worst thing about school. That is a problem. There is a clear and sizeable gap between how teachers think it is going and how autistic children and children with a learning disability actually feel. It is vital that we bridge that gap. It is simply not fair on either party if we do not. All children deserve to have the very best possible experience in the classroom and the best opportunities to learn and fulfil their potential.

The hon. Lady is making excellent points to which I give my very strong support. Does she recognise the experience of many of my constituents, with young people waiting perhaps two years for an education, health and care plan and a diagnosis? Something that has become obvious to me only recently is that 50% of the young people on the books of child and adolescent mental health services in my part of Cumbria have autism and ADHD. It turns out that through the NHS, via the local integrated care board, there is literally zero funding for that service to support any of those young people, which delays their getting the care and support that they need in the classroom, but also affects all young people—some with neurological issues and some without—who need support for eating disorders, anxiety and so on. Is it not time that the NHS funded CAMHS sufficiently so that young people with neurological issues can get the treatment and diagnosis that they need?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. There will not be a single Member of Parliament who has not had some issues with local CAMHS, sadly. Of course, early intervention and recognition is key to this and can stave off many problems that come further down the line. I would not be doing teachers or pupils justice if I did not refer to wider issues surrounding SEND provision and support for autistic children more broadly. We know that there are simply not enough specialist SEND school places or trained professionals to cope with the increased need.

Schools are required under the Equality Act 2010 to make adjustments, but there is only so much they can do with current provision. As we have heard, it takes an inordinate amount of time to secure an EHCP and then for the associated funding to filter through to the educational establishment concerned. Meanwhile, schools are left to pick up the tab and in many cases to pick up the pieces involved in offering incredibly intensive support to children with very complex needs.

I commend the hon. Lady on securing this debate, which is very fitting and certainly much needed in relation to our schools. Does she agree that this issue is not only important in primary and post-primary education but in nursery and playgroup settings, where it is absolutely vital, because ultimately children affected by these issues need support measures in place as soon as they reach primary school? Nursery and pre-school provision is where the core of this work needs to sit.

The hon. Lady must be Mystic Meg. I say that because that issue is exactly what I will come on to next.

Early years settings are a crucial place to start this work; the hon. Lady has hit the nail on the head. Early diagnosis and putting in place the building blocks of support from the outset can have a lifelong impact on a child’s attitude to education settings, and on their interaction and support from those settings; in fact, it can have a lifelong impact on their wellbeing.

If all education and care staff, particularly in early years settings, successfully underwent the right training, children who require extra support and assistance would be identified sooner, which would prevent some of the issues that we have heard about from developing. We heard from a teacher called Helen, who said that during her time in teacher training, which took four years, half a day was spent covering special educational needs. Such training leaves teachers ill-equipped to support a growing percentage of pupils in their classes.

I am sure that the Minister will tell me about the training that is provided. I expect that he will also tell me that the Government have published their strategy on special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision improvement—not that I am trying to interpret his speech for him—and about all the increased investment in SEND, which is over £10.5 billion by 2024-25, and the universal services programme, which will receive £12 million in funding, and that £1.4 million is available for the strategic priorities grant to support students at risk of discontinuing higher education studies. Those numbers have very little meaning to those caught in the cyclone of the system if they do not filter through to create meaningful improvements on the ground. I will therefore set out what I would like to know from the brilliant Minister.

What assessment has the Minister’s Department made of the full picture of both learning disability training and autism training for education professionals? What level of understanding does he have about training—not only the quantity of training, but the quality of training? What conversations has he had with some of the excellent charities in this space and with the teachers, parents and children who actually live these things and therefore are experts by experience? To what level can he confidently tell me that all education professionals have the confidence to teach neurodivergent children and children with learning disabilities, so that their needs are met and their potential is realised? To what extent is the experience of students and their carers taken into consideration?

Mr Vickers, you have already heard about what I am about to say next. During my time as Minister of State for care, in the Department of Health and Social Care, I started work on introducing the Oliver McGowan mandatory training for all health and social care staff. That became law in the Health and Care Act 2022, and it is now the Government’s preferred and recommended training for health and social care staff.

The training is named after Oliver McGowan. Oliver was a remarkable young man whose tragic and completely avoidable death, at the age of just 17, shone a light on the need for health and social care staff to have better skills, better knowledge and better understanding of the needs of autistic people. It came about because of a meeting I had with Paula McGowan, Oliver’s incredible mum, who courageously shared her family’s unimaginable experiences with me and who has been a relentless advocate for the change that needed to happen. It is an honour to have Paula here today after she travelled all the way from Australia just to attend this debate.

Since November 2022, when the initial roll-out of the Oliver McGowan training began, over 1 million people have completed the first part. The training has received significant international interest in Canada, Australia and the Republic of Ireland, and as a result it has been made available on an e-learning platform. The initial feedback is incredibly exciting and shows a significant increase in participants’ knowledge, confidence and skill, with 88% of participants saying that they felt confident they could communicate with people with a learning disability and with autistic people, and with 84% of participants saying they felt more confident in their work.

The most significant thing about the training is that it is co-delivered with trainers who are autistic or learning disabled, and they are paid for their time. They are experts by experience and are able to give health and care professionals first-hand insight into how to listen, how to act and how to get this right.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I thank her for highlighting the wonderful training that is being rolled out. I wanted to bring to the attention of the House, through my role as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability, some work that we were doing with Caudwell Children and its national children’s centre, and to highlight their hope that they can augment some of the work that is being undertaken in the UK to provide timely diagnosis and holistic assessment for children with autistic spectrum disorder. I put on record our thanks to Trudi Beswick for leading that wonderful centre and taking that work forward.

First of all, I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend on this side of the House. She does a brilliant job as the chair of the APPG for disability, and I am very grateful to her for taking the time to make that commendation.

I will conclude very quickly. Following the success of the Oliver McGowan mandatory training, Paula has started a petition for all staff in educational settings to have similar mandatory training on learning disabilities and autism. As I said, that training needs to start with professionals in early years settings and go all the way through to colleges and universities: teachers, lecturers and education staff must know how to adapt to their environment, how to listen to what young people are saying, how to understand, how to manage a sensory overload and crisis and how to adapt communication to meet individual needs. George, a teacher, said:

“Training is often focused on the symptoms rather than the sensory issues and the understanding behind it. Whilst dealing with symptomatic behaviour is important it can be difficult to understand some causes.”

On the point about sensory overload, demands and anxiety, does my hon. Friend agree that, with the discrepancy between what kids see and what teachers feel they are doing, part of the challenge is in fully understanding what an autistic child or adult actually sees and has to deal with? Does she agree that that is quite difficult and that it requires significant time to fully understand the major challenges that lots of these kids go through and often succeed in pushing through, despite the challenges they face?

That is an excellent point. It is worth pointing out that sometimes the behaviours that autistic children in particular can demonstrate can be very different. Autistic boys in the classroom behave very differently from autistic girls who might just sit at the back very quietly, mirroring others’ behaviour, while struggling inside and not having the support that they need. That point is really important.

Finally, has the Minister’s Department considered the brilliant Oliver McGowan model of mandatory training? What assessments has the Minister made for how that would benefit education professionals? By making the training mandatory, as it is for health and care staff, no teacher will miss out, which means that every child has an equal opportunity to gain support.

I ask the Minister to reflect on the stories that I have shared today and on those that we heard from other Members. While his Department is no doubt bolstering financial support, I ask him to consider the positive impact that mandatory training will have on the education of professionals and students. The success in health and care has been immediate and game changing, and I know that it has similar potential for children and young people’s education.

I received prior notice that two Members wanted to speak in this debate. I will call the Front Benchers from 5.7 pm, if Members would bear that in mind.

I am very pleased to speak in this important debate with you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing the debate and on the way in which she opened it.

I would like to pay tribute to Paula McGowan for her persistence in campaigning for this debate, for all her work to get the original debate that we held on this issue in 2018 and for all the campaigning work she has done since then. Paula has campaigned to secure around 70,000 signatures on the petition, so it is very good that we can discuss the Oliver McGowan mandatory training programme again. Her work has been instrumental in raising awareness of how we treat autistic people and people with learning disabilities in our health and care services. I pay tribute to her for that work.

In the debate which Paula helped to secure five years ago, I called for the Government to treat the introduction of mandatory training as an urgent priority. The Oliver McGowan mandatory training on learning disability and autism programme has now been delivered to around 750,000 healthcare staff—I think the hon. Lady said it was more than that, but that is the figure I have—and 200 people with a learning disability or autism have been trained to deliver parts of the programme. As we have heard, that is a very important part of it. Those are significant steps forward, but there is much more still to do.

Oliver’s case illustrates the degree to which people with learning disabilities or autism do not get the healthcare treatment they should expect from a civilised, compassionate society. Oliver was a young man with a full life expectancy who had overcome many challenges to excel as a footballer, as an athlete and in his exams. He was let down repeatedly because clinicians simply did not understand the nature of his autism. With better awareness and care adjustments, his death could have been avoided.

The petition on mandatory training that we are discussing recognises the role of teachers and schools in offering support to children and young people with a learning disability or autism. The rolling out of training on learning disabilities and autism is likely to significantly benefit the raising of awareness of learning disabilities and autism in the education sector.

The Government’s response to the petition states that headteachers should

“use their professional judgement to identify any further training”

for teachers. But the roll out of further training for education staff is clearly needed. Research by the National Autistic Society showed that 86% of secondary school teachers had received just half a day’s training on autism, and that three in four parents or carers of autistic children feel that their child’s school does not meet their needs.

One of my constituents—the parent of a boy aged nearly five who is showing traits of autism—told me about the struggle to get him support. She was told that he is “too naughty”, and he is limited to two hours of school a day. She said that her child

“is treated so differently, and he is more aware of it now. This makes him want to act out, as he thinks it’s what is expected of him. He cries every day when he has to leave so many hours earlier than the other children. I think this is another reason he acts out, because every day he knows he will only get a couple of hours of play with everything. He is overstimulated, and his behaviour is a lot worse during that time. If he had time to settle down, and a proper routine at school, he would be calmer and his behaviour would be a lot better, as it is at home. I worry that if he doesn’t receive the support he needs now, school may be a lot more difficult for him in the long run.”

Mandatory training on learning disabilities and autism for education staff could help to improve the situation for children and young people, as it undoubtably has been doing for health and care staff since it was rolled out.

One of the challenges for autistic kids seems to be that many people they interact with in the school system have not received the training that the hon. Lady has been talking about, and they are being treated in a behavioural context. Does she agree that we should persuade teachers, or people who interact with kids, that the reason why these children act in the way they do is nothing to do with behaviour?

It is very much like the case I have just given: the parent of that five-year-old boy is told that he is “too naughty” to have more than two hours of school a day, and that is absolutely disgraceful. It is not a behavioural problem if it is autism.

Education, health and care plans are another important source of support. As we have heard, there are 200,000 school-age autistic pupils in England, but just 55% have an education, health and care plan. The Government’s investment plan for children with special educational needs and disabilities claims that this is a priority area, but the National Autistic Society said there is “little substance” in the Government’s plan for reducing waits for a child’s education, health and care plan.

Concerningly, there have also been reports that the Government have signed a deal with a consultancy aiming to reduce targets for education, health and care plans by 20% for 55 local authorities, as part of a delivering better value in SEND programme. The consultancy firm was tasked with reducing cost pressures on local authorities by targeting a 20% reduction in the number of new education, health and care plans issued. It is painfully ironic that the design of this so-called value-for-money programme seems to have to cost the Government nearly £20 million in consultancy fees to Newton Europe. It is also painful to understand that the Government see education, health and care plans as cost pressures to be managed down, and not as vital documents that set out the education provision that children with significant needs must receive by law.

I thank the hon. Lady for making such a valid point and for being so generous in giving way. It seems to me that even if we did not put an extra penny of funding into supporting young people with autism spectrum disorders—although we should—if we spent the money more intelligently and more fairly, we would do more good. We have a situation in which schools that do the right thing and accept young people with autism, and indeed other learning difficulties, are funded only once they get past the £7,000 threshold. Schools that do the right thing are having to spend out of their own coffers to support children, whereas schools that somehow dodge the bullet, so to speak, end up being financially rewarded. Is it not wiser that we spend money to support the schools that actually support the children?

Indeed. Local authorities must be supported to fulfil their statutory duties to children and young people, just as schools and colleges, as a continuation, must access the training necessary to become genuinely inclusive. That is what we want to see.

As an MP, I raise many cases of parents and carers of children who have or are seeking a diagnosis of autism and are being failed by the schools they attend, yet it is such a fight to get an education, health and care plan for them. One of my constituents is the parent of a girl with complex special educational needs and disabilities who had to battle with the local authority to get an education, health and care plan for her daughter. My constituent told me about the battle she has had, saying that her daughter

“only has access to large mainstream secondary schools which is unacceptable for a child with such complex needs. I have provided all evidence, co-operated fully and repeated and repeated medical evidence and wrote lengthy information. They have all the information and now I am going to mediation and appeal. This process has taken over a year. I am exhausted. This is not good for anyone. I am not being heard and I am fighting to safeguard my daughter. I have a child with complex additional needs. My time, care and attention should be only focused on her but again I have to prepare now for mediation.”

I supported my constituent to get the plan for her daughter, but it took a long time and she ended up missing the first six months of secondary school.

It is crucial that we have better support for autistic pupils and pupils with learning disabilities. The Oliver McGowan mandatory training programme and education, health and care plans are both important elements in that respect. The Government must do more to ensure that autistic people and people with learning disabilities can receive the education they need, and that they are able to live long and independent lives in the community. Sadly, for far too many people that is a distant dream.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on leading this petitions debate. I put on the record my congratulations to the Minister, this being is my first opportunity to do so.

I thank the 171 members of the public from Darlington who signed the petition that led to today’s debate. Every single week in my surgery, it is almost guaranteed that at least one family will come to see me with concerns related to neurodiverse conditions. It could be that they are awaiting an assessment or there are difficulties with the relationship with the school, or it could be that there are challenges with accessing medications. Each and every one of those families is trying to do the best for their children, and seemingly having to battle for the best for their children.

The day after I was elected, I was stopped in the street by three mothers in Darlington town centre. One of them asked me what I was going to do to help their families with autistic children. I must confess to having known very little about autism at that time, so I resolved to find out more and do all I could to support them. That learning continues, and only last week I was pleased to attend the understanding autism training for parliamentarians organised by the National Autistic Society.

I established the Darlington autism forum for parents of autistic children, and have organised multiple roundtable meetings with our local mental health trust and parents. I have visited Daisy Chain, a local charity that provides help and support to families who face these challenges, as well as places such as the Mackenzie Thorpe Centre in Redcar, which is operated by the North East Autism Society, to see the amazing work that they do with children.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing with families in his constituency. Does he agree that standing up for families who have autistic or neurodiverse kids—amazing kids they are supporting—can be really challenging? The parents are often judged by others on how they are handling very difficult situations, and they themselves need significant support.

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We in this place are sent here to stand up for our constituents. In my view, there could be nobody more important than those families facing the battles of looking after an autistic child.

As a constituency MP, I have visited almost every school in Darlington; I have two left to go. My visits almost always involve a discussion about children with special educational needs and autism. It is clear that there are growing numbers in every single one of our schools, putting pressure on the staff, some of whom are not necessarily specialists in the conditions. I must single out Red Hall School in Darlington, which secured funding to expand and provide a social, emotional and mental health specialist centre called Strive. Red Hall and others are doing fantastic work in Darlington.

I was disappointed to learn through written parliamentary questions that the Department for Education holds no national records of the training that teachers undertake on the relevant conditions. I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of additional funding, particularly for the new 40-place school in Darlington, which will deliver special educational needs places. However, my primary concern is for the pupils who are already in our mainstream schools and the support that they need.

The assessment backlog is frankly a scandal, with families sometimes having to wait up to three years to be seen. I acknowledge that there is a range of help and support available while they are awaiting assessment, but getting children into the right school place, with the necessary specialists, is part of the solution. Staff need to be properly trained. The key has to be clearing the backlog of assessments. Today’s important debate provides an opportunity to put on the record my support for improved and expanded training on neurodiverse conditions for our hard-working teachers. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing this important debate.

I have a personal interest in this subject. Many years ago, as a reasonably experienced further education lecturer, I was faced with a young man who was severely autistic, and I did not know what to do. Things have changed a bit since those days. Like the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), I have undertaken autism training. It is important that we get an awareness of autism into the general public as well as schools. It was difficult to listen to some of the stories told by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), because we all know that it happens, although none of us want it to happen anywhere.

In their recent programme for government, the Scottish Government have outlined their commitment to work with teachers to provide additional professional learning opportunities while seeking to build on the additional support for learning plan. I was a member of the Education Committee when I first came here, and I often think that it is easier to make big changes in a small country such as Scotland, with one main type of school—local authority schools—than it is to make them in England, which has many varieties of schools and a number of local authorities involved.

The Scottish Government are proud—as am I—of their investment in education. It is important that every pupil gets the best education possible for them. That is why in Scotland there is a national neurodevelopment specification for children and young people. It is based on the Scottish Government’s “Getting it right for every child”—GIRFEC—approach, which I have talked about in this place before. It is important that the same kind of education is given across the piece. The neurodevelopment specification makes it clear that support should be in place to meet the child or young person’s requirements when they need it, rather than depending on a formal diagnosis. That is particularly important. Parents often know what is best for their child, no matter which part of the United Kingdom they live in.

The Scottish Government’s additional support for learning legislation clearly places education authorities under duties to identify, provide for and review the support needs of their pupils. In 2021, the Scottish Government published the Autism in Schools action plan, and the majority of its actions are complete. Several of the actions, such as the funding of professional learning resources like the autism toolbox, are intended to be ongoing, to reflect best practice and current research in the area. The Scottish Government have outlined their commitment to work with teachers to provide additional professional learning opportunities while seeking to build on the additional support plan for learning.

It is really important that autistic pupils and those with other learning difficulties are treated equitably with others in their class. It is also important that not just teachers are involved in training when it comes to autism. In Scotland, a pupil support staff working group listens to pupil support workers in schools, who are often the staff who deal the most with autistic children. It is important that they have the training as well.

Does the hon. Lady agree that it is about not just teaching support but dinner and food providers, janitors and other staff? Everybody who interacts with a child at a school should be able to deal with whatever part of the spectrum the child is on.

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Raising autism awareness is so important across the spectrum, but especially in a school, where there should be a nurturing and welcoming environment for all pupils. The teaching standards in Scotland are set by the General Teaching Council, which requires teachers to be able to identify and respond appropriately to pupils with difficulties in or barriers to learning. In 2021, professional standards included a specific recognition of additional support needs, which is really important. Teachers cannot now be registered without that.

I referred earlier to my experience, which was really difficult, because I was presented with a young autistic man who was accompanied by a care worker, and I had no idea what to do. Things have changed in the intervening years. One thing worth mentioning is that the other students in my class really benefited after a year of this young man being with them. They became much more aware and supportive of him. It is important that all autistic children are allowed in the mainstream, where appropriate. Mainstream pupils and students learn as much as the autistic person.

On the point of different children in mainstream education and how to deal with autistic children, along with the challenges that many autistic children face, they also have a huge opportunity, through the many aspects of neurodiversity that provide them with the ability to excel. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is critical to stress the positives as well as the challenges they face?

Yes. I find it strange to be so much in agreement with a Member from the Government side, but in this instance I am absolutely in agreement. I was in a school on Friday talking to fifth and sixth-year pupils. At the very end, a young lady came up and said, “I am autistic and want to know what you are going to do about this. Do you know about this particular society?” I had never heard of it, but I took that on board. I felt real pride and pleasure in the fact that she was able to use her autism as a way to approach her MP and was very proud of the fact that she was autistic. She knew more about the subject than I did—[Interruption.] Mr Vickers, I acknowledge your hand signal; I am going to wind up my speech.

It is really important that money is spent in schools to good effect, which is why I am proud that Scotland spends more per pupil than anywhere else in the UK. The Government need to look at training for teachers in England—that is what this debate is about—and support workers. Perhaps they should look at what they can learn from the Scottish example.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) on securing this important debate, and I thank everybody who has signed petitions to push this issue forward.

I welcome Paula McGowan to Parliament today, and I thank her for all the work she has done in the name of her son, Oliver, to campaign for better training for staff in the NHS and social care who work with autistic people and people with learning disabilities. Oliver’s Campaign has made so much progress, and the way Paula has turned her unimaginable pain into action on behalf of other families is inspirational.

I thank all Members who have spoken in this very consensual debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) drew on her great experience and her long commitment to improving the lives of autistic people and people with learning disabilities. She highlighted clearly some of the concerns about current Government policy, expressed in the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan—in particular, the explicit objective of reducing the number of EHCPs.

The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) spoke about the important work he is doing to support his constituents. He also spoke about the backlog of assessments, which is an issue in many parts of the country, and the lack of support for such children in mainstream schools.

The need for better training for education staff working with children and young people who are autistic or have a learning disability is clear. The presentation of children with autism doubled between 2015-16 and 2022-23, and the number of children with an education, health and care plan more than doubled for autistic children and was up by more than a third for other SEND diagnoses in the same period.

When my oldest daughter was in primary school, she had a friend I will call Paul. Paul was autistic and high functioning: he could do really well at school if his social and emotional needs were properly met. What I witnessed over the seven years of Paul’s primary school journey was the extremely high extent to which his whole experience at school was determined by his teacher’s understanding of his social and emotional needs. In a school year when the teacher understood that Paul would become extremely anxious if there was a change in routine or if things had not been properly explained to him and took steps to avoid that happening, Paul flourished at school. But in a school year when the teacher did not understand Paul’s needs as an autistic person and treated him simply as a badly behaved child, his mum could be called to the school multiple times in the same week to collect him early. He became more and more anxious about going to school, and the whole year became a disaster.

Many schools and colleges work really hard to ensure their staff are well equipped to work with children and young people who are autistic or have a learning disability, and there is a lot of really good practice. I pay tribute to the incredibly dedicated workforce that provides specialist support to children and young people with autism and learning disabilities, and helps to make school a place where they feel safe and understood. In the absence of leadership and resources from the Government, parents all too often face a postcode lottery.

Paul’s story is being repeated in education settings across the country, and that is borne out in the persistent absence figures. Persistent absence from school is shockingly high across the board at present—22.5% of children missed 10% or more days of school in 2021-22—but it is significantly higher for autistic children, at 32%, and even higher for children with a SEND statement or EHCP, at 36.9%. That is a shocking and completely unacceptable situation. Day to day, it means that thousands of pupils are not having their needs met by mainstream schools, but that is little wonder given that the teacher training and continuous professional development curriculum has not developed to keep pace with the rising presentation of autism and SEND needs. We are simply not equipping teachers to meet the needs of every child in their classrooms. Although some teacher training courses offer the opportunity for students to develop further skills for working with pupils with SEND and autism, this is not consistent, and it is entirely possible to qualify as a teacher and start work in a school with only the most cursory knowledge, which is not supplemented or reinforced by further training or CPD.

Schools across the country are struggling to recruit special educational needs co-ordinators and SEND teachers, and there is a national shortage of educational psychologists working in the state sector. We cannot debate the need for autism and learning disability training for education staff without mentioning the wider context of the system of SEND support, which is almost completely broken. Parents across the country have to battle for the support their children need, and the resourcing pressures on local authorities are causing councils to refuse to fund EHCPs and forcing parents to go to tribunal, where 96% of them win.

The neglect of the SEND system over the past 13 years has been a shocking failure of successive Conservative-led Governments. A Labour Government would act to address the problems. Equipping education staff to understand and meet the needs of autistic children and children with learning disabilities is an essential step towards building an inclusive mainstream.

I am interested in hearing what the Labour party would do were it in government. Could the hon. Lady outline what it would do differently to tackle the challenges of recruitment that the sector faces?

I am just about to move on to exactly that. We would ensure that more children can have their needs met and be part of a school community close to where they live. Labour would use the funding from ending the tax breaks currently enjoyed by private schools to recruit 6,500 new teachers, including SEND specialists, thereby alleviating the current pressures on teaching staff and ensuring that teachers have time for the pupils in their classrooms. We would introduce a teacher training entitlement—an annual entitlement to CPD that could be used to increase expertise in autism and SEND. We would ensure that there is mental health support in every school across the country, and we would change the wider context in which schools are setting their priorities by reforming the Ofsted inspection framework to make inclusion part of our vision for what it means to be a good school. Inclusion would be part of the report card for schools, which, under Labour, would replace the single-word Ofsted judgment.

I will not. I need to finish so that the Minister can come in and there is time for the hon. Member for Gosport to wind up afterwards.

We want to see an increased focus on SEND within initial teacher training and the early career framework, and we will work with leading academic institutions, Teach First and others to ensure that all trainee teachers are routinely equipped to work with children with autism and special educational needs and disabilities. Establishing an inclusive mainstream where as many children as possible can thrive is the first step in reforming the system of SEND support, which has become broken and adversarial on the Government’s watch. A Labour Government will deliver the support that is so urgently needed.

The hon. Member for Darlington mentioned the recruitment and retention crisis. We recruit and retain staff in any part of the public sector when we work from the centre of Government to make their working environment tolerable and to relieve the day-to-day pressures they are under. The measures I have outlined today—there is more to talk about—will start the work of repairing this part of our public services, which is so important and so vital for some of the most vulnerable children, but also for some of the most special and talented children across our country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) for securing a debate on such an important subject. She has played an instrumental role in mandating learning disability and autism training across the health and care sector, and in rolling out the Oliver McGowan mandatory training. I know that my colleague the Secretary of State for Education, who championed that as a Minister in the Department of Health and Social Care, is an equally strong advocate for the training.

I thank Oliver’s family for their tireless dedication to this issue. They went through what no family should have to go through, and I share their passion for ensuring that dedicated and hardworking professionals have the knowledge, skills and expertise to provide the right support and try to ensure that no family experiences the same. I hope I might get the opportunity to meet Paula in a moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport predicted some—not all—of my answers to her questions on the picture of learning disability and autism training for education professionals. Teachers in schools focus on SEND at each stage of their training. To be recommended by an accredited provider for qualified teacher status, trainees must demonstrate that they meet the teacher standards at the appropriate level. Both the initial teacher training core content framework and the early career framework outline what trainee and new teachers should learn, including content on adaptive teaching for students with special educational needs.

The universal services programme, which my hon. Friend touched on, provides SEND-specific training for the school and college workforce. So far, 6,600 school and college staff have accessed free online training modules, and 81 schools and 135 colleges have identified and led their own SEND-focused school improvement projects. Since the programme was launched in 2022, over 100,000 education professionals have undertaken autism awareness training through the Autism Education Trust’s “train the trainer” model. My hon. Friend may not know this, but the largest take-up of the programme’s range of online units has been within her own local authority of Hampshire. I assume that is in part due to her advocacy on this issue.

Our SEND and alternative provision practitioner standards, which will focus on supporting frontline practitioners in mainstream settings, will include a practitioner standard on autism. We will publish the first three practitioner standards by the end of 2025. Regarding the Department’s understanding of not only the quantity of training, but the quality, in the summer Ofsted carried out full inspections on all six lead providers of the early career framework that I referred to. All got a positive Ofsted judgment, with four of the six being awarded an “outstanding” judgment. Surveys from the universal services programme have consistently highlighted the positive impact of it, with 2,300 participants surveyed three to six months later finding that 98% had an improved confidence in identifying and meeting needs. Perhaps even more importantly, 93% had reported making changes to their practice as a result of accessing the activities.

I was asked about conversations I have personally had with teachers, parents and some of the excellent charities in this area. I have had a wide range of conversations as a constituency MP, because I visit a school in my own area pretty much every week. The issue of parents in Oxfordshire not getting the support they should for their children with special educational needs has been one of the top two issues I have been written to about in the last 18 months, so I had lots of conversations with parents, teachers and charities before I got to this role. In this role, I have made a number of visits around the country and had lots of meetings with different charities on this issue. The voice of parents has been incredibly important in elevating the status of this issue, more so even than the voice of schools or Government or local authorities. It is parents who very articulately describe what feels like a war of attrition to try to get the support they need for their children. It is a war that any parent would wage but no parent should have to.

On the confidence of professionals to teach neurodivergent children and children with learning disabilities so that their needs are met, our school and college panel survey indicated that just over half of schools agreed that they were able to effectively support pupils with special educational needs. The February 2023 parent, pupil and learner survey found that about 60% of all parents were confident in the school being able to meet their child’s needs.

My hon. Friend touched on the fact that the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism reported that 87% of teachers surveyed felt confident supporting autistic children in the classroom. That is a very high figure, but I accept that, as she said, teachers’ confidence may not always reflect the experiences of children and their families. We are exploring opportunities to build teacher expertise by reviewing the initial teacher training framework and the early career framework, which we will conclude by the end of this year. In early 2024, we intend to publish what more we will do to support trainees and early career teachers to be more confident and have the most up-to-date evidence that should inform their practice.

SENCOs play a vital role in setting the direction of their schools and co-ordinating the support required by children with special educational needs. We want to invest in their training. That is why we have developed the new national professional qualification for SENCOs, which will come into force in autumn next year. We hope that will play a key role in improving outcomes for children with special educational needs in schools. We have also committed to funding 7,000 early years staff to gain an accredited level 3 SENCO qualification because, as we all know, the earlier we can identify need the better. That programme for the early years workforce has been hugely popular with the sector.

Turning to the point made by the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), we are not targeting a 20% reduction in EHCPs or the growth of EHCPs. We have no target of that nature whatever. We want children to get the support they need at an early enough stage and without them needing an EHCP to get that support. I refer the hon. Lady to my letter to the Education Committee for further clarification.

I am not sure I have time because I need to stop at 5.28 pm, but I am happy to write to her.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) on all his work, which includes setting up a forum for the families of those with autism. That is typical of his work as a local champion. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), he brought the voice of families to this debate, which is the most important voice when we are discussing these issues.

More broadly, the Department for Education has worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a refreshed cross-Government autism strategy, which was published in 2021 and backed by more than £74 million. This year the Department of Health and Social Care has allocated £4.2 million to improve services for autistic children and young people, including assessment services through the autism in schools programme.

There is a lot happening as part of the £2.6 billion special educational needs and AP reform programme. Of course there is more to do. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport for bringing us this debate and all of those professionals and parents who are working so hard to support children with these conditions. I look forward to working with Members present on how we can ensure that these children get the support they need at an early enough stage.

It is very kind of you to call me to say a few words at the end, Mr Vickers. I am grateful to the Minister for his response. It is clear that he cares passionately about this. He set out a few details that will go some way to offering an element of reassurance.

This debate was not about knocking the Government or scoring any cheap party political points, and it certainly was not about undermining our education professionals. I know the Minister cares deeply about this and that education staff up and down the country care passionately about getting this right, but they need the right support, tools and knowledge to do that.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel to provide that. The Oliver McGowan training is already there and making a difference. It trains all health and care staff. We heard earlier of the importance of ensuring that it is not just those who are high up the academic food chain who receive the training. In health and care, it is based on how likely someone is to interact with patients, not their seniority. That is the same with children and young people. I draw the Minister’s attention to that disparity between how teachers think it is going and how children and their parents think it is going.

There is so much at stake for our young people: their education, wellbeing and futures. The Oliver McGowan training was one of the most important things I was involved in when I was a Minister. I encourage the Minister to meet Paula to talk about this further because it is an outstanding model.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered autism and learning disability training for education staff.

Sitting adjourned.