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Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

Volume 749: debated on Monday 29 April 2024

1. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (902512)

7. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (902519)

18. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (902532)

21. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (902535)

We will all know somebody with special educational needs or disabilities and understand how vital it is to get a child with special educational needs or disabilities the right support early on. In recent years, we have seen a massive increase in special educational needs in our country, which is why we have expanded funding to a record level—at £10.5 billion, up by 60% in the last five years—and why we are reforming the system to deal with the increase in demand, including the biggest investment in building special educational needs school places in our country’s history.

Children in Lewisham are waiting on average two and a half years to get an autism diagnosis. This is wrong and unacceptable. It is also a national issue, but it is made worse by a shortage of clinical staff. The Government are failing to recognise the seriousness of the shortage of educational psychologists. Can the Secretary of State tell me why they have failed and what is being done to recruit more educational psychologists as well as to tackle education, health and care plan waiting times?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Around half of new EHCPs were issued within the statutory time limit of 20 weeks, and some local authorities are delivering over 90%, but of course we recognise that the system is under pressure, post both the pandemic and the massive rise in demand for special educational needs support. That is why we have increased the budget and put an improvement plan in place. With regard to her question about educational psychologists, we are training 400 more, which is a big increase.

I have a constituent—it could be many of the constituents who come to me—who has a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and other severe learning difficulties. She had to wait an awful long time for an EHCP for her child and, in the end, the plan listed the very school that says it cannot cope with the needs of the child. This happens routinely—a school that says it cannot cope is still listed on the EHCP. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that councils and other people who do the EHCP are not just ignoring what the school says and are actually putting down the schools that can cope with the needs? My constituent’s child now has only one hour a week of education. That is surely not good enough.

We need to do all we can to support children with special educational needs; they are vulnerable and need the support as early as possible. We have programmes in place to support local authorities, but the biggest thing that we are doing is increasing the number of special educational needs school places. This will be the largest increase in a generation—60,000 more school places—and it is in stark contrast to when Labour was last in power, when the number of places reduced by 4,000. That is something we are very focused on doing. Many of those have already been delivered, some are work in progress and some will be in the hon. Member’s area.

Far too many families know what a battle it can be to secure an EHCP assessment for their child, but for forces families this battle can become a recurring nightmare, as they are forced to restart the process all over again if required to move base before it completes. It cannot be right that those who sacrifice so much for our country are so let down by the current assessment system. How can we put this right?

Of course, we are always looking to improve the system and we do have an improvement plan in place. I will take away the hon. Gentleman’s specific point about people who move around from place to place, but the most important and fundamental thing is that we have increased the budget, which has now gone up to £10.5 billion—a 60% increase in the last few years. We are also investing in building the right provision, the number of educational psychologists and the workforce. We have a thorough plan in place and we are working to deliver it.

Parents in Portsmouth are rightly concerned that fewer than half of the primary schoolchildren in the city are achieving the expected standards in reading, writing and maths, while, under the watch of the Lib Dem-run council, waiting lists for SEND support continue to rise. Does the Secretary of State agree that families in Portsmouth deserve better than a council that is failing children and failing families?

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has found that autistic children are 28 times more likely to think about or attempt suicide than other children. Not getting the support they need can affect autistic children into their adult lives. This is a matter of extreme concern, as is the fact that more than 9,500 Wirral children were persistently absent from school in 2022-23, which is double the pre-pandemic figures. I note the Minister’s earlier comments, but what assessment have the Government made of the percentage of children in Wirral and across England who are missing from school and who have special educational needs and disabilities? What specific measures will the Government take to address their needs?

The hon. Lady is right to identify the crossover between special educational needs and absence from schools. This can sometimes result in poor outcomes, which can lead to mental health issues later. That is why it is important that we get early help to children as quickly as possible. We have a special educational needs and alternative provision improvement plan, and in terms of workforce, which is the most important thing on top of the places, we are training more special educational needs co-ordinators; we have changed the training for new teachers; we are making sure that we invest in a new national professional qualification to upskill teachers; and we have more educational psychologists—400 more in training—and more speech and language therapists. There is a huge workforce element in the plan to improve our special educational needs offer.

I welcome what Secretary State has just said about the workforce, and it is vital that we get that into place, but a week on from the publication of the Buckland review and two years on from the Education Committee’s call to bolster careers support for children with SEN, can she update us on what Ministers and the Department are doing to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to provide wider opportunities for young people with autism?

We all know that most people with learning disabilities want to work, and with the right support they can work. The SEND code of practice is clear that all children and young people with special educational needs should be prepared for adulthood, including employment. We are investing £80 million in a supported internship programme, which is very successful, and we will be doubling this by March 2025. We are working with the DWP on a number of programmes and, following the Buckland review, the DWP is setting up a task group to consider all the recommendations.

With a 60% rise in complex needs funding over five years, reaching £10.5 billion in 2024-25, with £105 million of funding for special free schools in the spring Budget and with the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision plan to support everyone with needs and disabilities to age 25, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is this Conservative Government that are working hard for the life chances of every child in our country?

Absolutely right. My hon. Friend is also right to say that we should take no lessons from the Opposition on supporting children with SEND: let us not forget that the number of children benefiting from being in special schools fell, probably because there was no specific high needs funding at all for local authorities to support people with special educational needs. In contrast, we are investing record funding and we are obviously building more places than we ever have in our country’s history. Only the Conservatives have a plan to support children with SEND.

In all my years in teaching, before I came to this place, I experienced only one episode of violence at the hands of a student when they hurled a chair at me across the classroom. I was six months pregnant then. Only one episode in all those many, many years. But increasingly, teaching staff are telling me that this is becoming more and more commonplace. In fact, they expect it. My most recent conversation about this was on Saturday, when a teaching assistant said that they had finally been forced to retire because they could not cope with the stress any more. Some of this will be due to unmet or unrecognised special educational needs, and I thank the Secretary of State for outlining all the provisions that are being made—indeed, I have a new special school in my constituency—but some are not. Will she meet me to discuss some specific local concerns?

Yes; I am sorry to hear about the situation of the teacher in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Of course, good behaviour is the bedrock of schools and school standards. We are investing more in behaviour hubs, which are helping schools that need help with the behaviour of children. We are also investing more in alternative provision schools. We are building 77 new ones; 51 are already open and the rest will be opening in the coming years.

In Essex, it has been taking far too long for children to get their education health and care plans, so I was pleased to hear that the county council had just recruited 46 additional members of staff. It is also building new special schools, including two more in Chelmsford, but what can make a difference is specialist hubs within mainstream schools, helping children from that school and from neighbouring schools. Given that we have large numbers of schools being rebuilt in Essex due to reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—does the Secretary of State agree that this could provide an opportunity, and that we should look at all the schools that are due to be rebuilt and consider putting specialist hubs into those rebuilding programmes?

My right hon. Friend mentions the considerable investment that is going into special educational needs and high needs budgets. There is also provision for capital to build new free schools and school places. As we look to rebuild some of the schools affected by RAAC, which has now all been identified—every school has its budget details—we urge local authorities to consider what will best meet the needs of young people in their area. There is flexibility on free school places as well: those schools look at what to come forward with as regards provision that is needed to address local need.

Coram’s 2024 childcare survey found that just 6% of local authorities are confident that they will have enough childcare places for disabled children. High-quality early years education is essential in ensuring that children’s needs are identified at the most important time for their development. The children’s Minister, the hon. Member for Wantage (David Johnston), did not give a clear answer on this last month and his statement last week made no reference to disabled children. Is the Secretary of State really confident that every eligible family with a disabled child has been able to access a childcare place as part of the April expansion—yes or no?

I will expand on the yes or no, as the hon. Lady wants a clear answer and obviously has not heard the clear answer that she been given before. Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide places for all children, including those with special educational needs, but we are working with organisations such as Dingley’s Promise to review special educational needs inclusion, and to see what more we can do to encourage providers to further consider what they can do to provide places. However, we will work with local authorities to make sure that we improve this.