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Schools: Special Educational Needs

Volume 834: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they expect every school to have the capacity to internally identify commonly occurring special educational needs.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and remind the House of my declared interests.

My Lords, we expect all schools to be able to identify commonly occurring special educational needs. In the improvement plan we included proposals to build workforce capacity and equip practitioners to identify needs and make best use of provision. Our increase in the high needs budget, worth £10.54 billion by 2024-25, will help children and young people with SEND in both special and mainstream schools to receive the right support in the right place at the right time.

I thank the Minster for that reply. How does she square that with the fact that, according to an LSE survey, in lower socioeconomic groups more people are identified as having problems, but far fewer are identified correctly with those needs than are identified in more affluent areas? If you have other conditions such as dyslexia, it is not about doing more work, but working smarter. The way your brain is organised is different; I know this only too well from personal experience. You need different learning patterns and different strategies. When are we going to get to a situation where it is not the tiger parent who gets the diagnosis, but the school?

I acknowledge the noble Lord’s point about the variability in identification of certain commonly occurring special educational needs. There is a variability as the noble Lord explained, but also regionally. That is why we are trying in our special educational needs, disabilities and AP improvement plan to make sure that at every level—from initial teacher training to the qualifications of SENCOs, to the availability of specialist support from educational psychologists—schools get the support they need and such children are identified early.

My Lords, I am really concerned that parents are being told that their children’s special educational needs cannot be taken on in schools, or to move their children in order to maintain school statistics. Does the Minister agree that this is discriminatory, and what action will the Government take to prevent this happening?

If the noble Baroness has specific cases she would like to share with me afterwards, I will be more than happy to take those up and look into them. It is extremely important that children with special educational needs are in schools where they can flourish and thrive. For the vast majority, that will be in mainstream provision, but I recognise some of the pressures the noble Baroness describes and I am very happy to take this issue away and try to address it directly.

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have a 45 year-old adult son with autism and learning disabilities, so I know many of the journeys that parents will have made in getting support for their children. What help is available in early schooling to support parents in identifying children with potential learning difficulties? Does she agree that, given the massive underfunding of schools and early years, schools are finding it difficult to cope with any of the demands, including children with learning disabilities?

I absolutely do not recognise the picture of massive underfunding of schools. As I have said repeatedly in the House, schools will have the highest budgets per pupil in real terms next year. There have been very significant increases over the last couple of years. Regarding the youngest children, we are funding up to 7,000 early years staff to do a level 3 SENCO qualification, so that we can identify those children at the earliest possible stage.

My Lords, I declare an interest as laid out in the register as chief executive of Cerebral Palsy Scotland. The Government’s SEND plan made not one mention of physical disability or cerebral palsy, despite referring to learning disability and autism. Without identification, how will the Minister make sure that schools support the needs of children with cerebral palsy, the most common cause of physical disability in children, to ensure that they achieve the best possible educational outcomes?

I recognise the point my noble friend makes, and she will be aware that we are running a number of pathfinder projects and testing some of our new approaches, including for children with physical disabilities. I hope my noble friend is pleased that in the improvement plan, we have added a fourth early standard. In additional to early language support, autism and mental health and wellbeing, we are also focusing on children with visual and hearing impairments whose performance at school currently is well below their potential.

My Lords, the Education Committee report of September 2023 recommends that the department scrutinise the use of alternative provision settings and ensure that children and young people with SEND are transferred there only after having a statutory assessment, and not use them as a behavioural management tool. What steps has the department taken towards addressing this issue?

Obviously, the ESC report to which the right reverend Prelate refers is very recent, so the department is considering very seriously the recommendations from the committee. However, I absolutely recognise that behind the right reverend Prelate’s question is a concern about the quality of alternative provision; but, used well, it can provide an opportunity for early intervention and to return children to mainstream education.

Can the Minister tell the House what subsequent measures the DfE will put in place following reports from Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission, and from Hertfordshire County Council this week, identifying widespread and systemic failings in SEN provision?

Obviously, we take those reports extremely seriously, and that is the value of having an independent inspectorate. I cannot comment on the specific Hertfordshire case, but we work with the local authority or the trust in question to ensure that those issues are addressed.

The Minister will be aware that, every year, the number of children and young people with education, health and care plans who are permanently excluded from school is increasing significantly. How do we ensure that those children get their education, health and care plans implemented?

I am not sure that there is a direct link between implementation and exclusion; there are cases where a plan has been implemented. Of course, the last thing we want for any child—particularly children with education, health and care plans—is for them to be excluded from school. To return to my earlier answer, the Government are trying to think this through from the earliest stages for early years practitioners, equipping every teacher to teach children with special educational needs well and making sure they get the specialist provision they require. That is why our investment in this sector has expanded so dramatically.

My Lords, as ever, I declare my interest as a teacher. Will the Government reconsider the priority given to parental preference in educational placements for children with EHC plans, given the opinion of many professionals that this is not in the best interests of the child or of efficient education provision, and that the popular schools are at breaking point?

As the noble Lord knows, a number of these things are under review, and we will test them as part of our pathfinders and in the improvement plan. It is very important that that balance be kept between the professional judgment of teachers, to which the noble Lord referred, and the sense of confidence that parents have in the system.