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Secondary Schools: Autistic Pupils

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 26 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what is their strategy to ensure the needs of autistic pupils are fully met in mainstream secondary schools.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society, an honour I share with my noble friend Lady Browning, who unfortunately cannot be with us today.

My Lords, we want to give all children and young people, including those with autism, the opportunity to thrive. The SEND and alternative provision Green Paper published last March set out

“proposals for an inclusive system, starting with improved mainstream provision”


“early and accurate identification of needs, high-quality teaching … and prompt access to targeted support”.

We are committed to publishing a full response to the Green Paper in our improvement plan early this year.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. Some 130,000 autistic youngsters are educated in mainstream schools. According to figures from the Minister’s department, they are twice as likely as non-special needs children to be excluded from school. What is worse, a report by Ambitious about Autism revealed that more than half the exclusions are unofficial or unlawful. The Autism Centre for Education and Research at the University of Birmingham has produced an excellent report on these matters. The authors were due to meet officials from the Minister’s department, but unfortunately the meeting has not yet taken place. Will she personally intervene to ensure that this meeting takes place? It will make a difference.

I commend the noble Lord; I know he has worked tirelessly on this extremely important and complex issue of children and adults with autism. I would of course be delighted to go back to the department and talk to my ministerial colleagues to make sure the meeting takes place. I absolutely hear his concerns in relation to exclusions. He will be aware that the department updated our behaviour guidance last summer and stressed the importance of anticipating triggers of behaviour for children with special educational needs, including autism, and making sure provision is available for them.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that a significant number of education, health and care plans for autistic children are being delayed by the failure of councils to recruit enough educational psychologists. Indeed, some EHC plans have been issued without the child in question seeing an ed psych either remotely or in person. What does the Minister plan to do about this problem?

I would be grateful if my noble friend could share details of these cases, so that we make sure we understand them properly. The House will be aware that a diagnosis of autism needs to be a medical diagnosis. We will publish our improvement plan for provision for children with special educational needs. That will clearly cover how we want EHCPs to work better in future; it will be before the House shortly.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Answer she gave earlier and remind the House of my interests in the general field of special educational needs. Does she agree that if you are determined to get a medical diagnosis, you are slowing down the process of recognition and help? If we get teachers better trained to give a suspicion—it might be just a suspicion—or some knowledge about the autistic field, we will have a chance of getting better help. If noble Lords think that does not have an effect, look at the numbers of autistic people identified in the prison system.

The noble Lord raises two connected issues. Formal diagnosis of autism in this country needs to be done by a medical professional—a doctor. The noble Lord is absolutely right; that does not need to slow down interventions to support a child where there is apparently autism, even before it is confirmed. The Government announced a contract with a number of leading charities in this area to provide universal training across the teaching workforce in both schools and FE, and 60,000 people have been trained so far since April 2022.

My Lords, on this question of diagnosis, which the Minister has referred to, I am sure she is aware that it can take quite a long time before it is even seen to be necessary to seek a diagnosis, that this is particularly true with girls—children and young people up to teenage years—and that, once the need for a diagnosis has been identified, it can take a very long time to get it. Even if you are prepared—some people are, but not everybody can—to go for a private route to secure that diagnosis, it can sometimes be a year or two, three or four years before that diagnosis can be made. Can she see any way forward to changing that situation?

The whole strategic focus of the improvement plan that we will be publishing in response to the SEND and AP Green Paper consultation is to address the problem we see today of late diagnosis, late intervention and needs escalating; that is absolutely our aspiration. On the diagnosis of girls, we are running two pilots at the moment, one testing new screening tools and the other seeing whether we can adapt existing ones, because we are all aware that four times as many boys are diagnosed as girls.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sewell of Sanderstead, on his introduction. A more diverse House is a stronger house. I also commend the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, on his long-standing work on autism. Will the Minister ensure that guidance for schools on transgender issues takes into account the Cass interim report finding that approximately one-third of children and young people referred to gender identity development services have autism or other types of neurodiversity?

I thank my noble friend for his question. The data he cites underlines the importance of having a truly skilful and expert diagnosis of the full range of issues a young person is facing before finalising any diagnosis of gender dysphoria. I cannot yet comment on how that will be addressed in the guidance because obviously, we are going to publish the draft and then consult on it.

My Lords, I think it will be widely accepted that the key to providing the appropriate level of support throughout a school career for a pupil with autism—indeed, it needs to be tailored for the individual—is early diagnosis and early educational intervention, leading to sustained support for the pupil. What specific actions will the Government be taking to improve early educational intervention and what additional resources are they prepared to commit to improve it?

I have referred to some of the interventions. I talked about the three-year universal training contract in schools and colleges, which began in April last year. We have funded work on transition—£18 million for supported internships for those with the most complex needs. In addition to that early intervention, we also want to bring clarity to parents, teachers, local authorities and commissioners about what the nationally expected standards of provision are so that it feels like a clear, transparent and fair playing field.

My Lords, while I understand and indeed respect the Minister’s previous responses on this Question, nevertheless the Government continue to delay the publication of their SEND review consultation response. Children, many of whom will be autistic, will be unable to reach their full potential and thrive in appropriate educational settings. These children are being let down. Minister, how much longer will they have to wait?

Does the Minister agree that some children diagnosed with autism are also experiencing mental health difficulties, and that that is a complex interaction? What training is being given to mental health professionals working in mental health support teams in schools to understand and support autistic children who also have mental health problems?

I may need to write to the noble Baroness on the specifics of the training, but she is correct that we are supporting those professionals to respond and help identify mental health issues early among children in schools.