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Schools: Special Educational Needs

Volume 836: debated on Monday 12 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that all schools have the capacity to identify and implement a plan of support for the most commonly occurring special educational needs, including Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia, and Autism.

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, ensuring everyone, regardless of need, gets the best education possible is vital. Our SEND and AP improvement plan will ensure all children get the support they need. So far, we have opened 15 special free schools since September; announced the Partnerships for Inclusion of Neurodiversity in Schools programme; trained 100,000 professionals in autism awareness; confirmed funding for 400 more education psychologists; and updated the initial teacher training and early career framework, including additional content on SEND.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. I have just managed to read through the updates and changes for training teachers. If we are now going to use online testing as a major identification tool—as suggested—and use it in the classroom, how will we disseminate that knowledge without having more specialists directly available to the school, so that can have accurate diagnosis when those assistive technology methods are used?

The noble Lord will be aware that our whole approach is about meeting the needs of the child and not requiring a diagnosis to get support. That is incredibly important for our focus on intervention and support at the earliest possible stage. All that comes before the online testing, and it is critical that we get it right.

My Lords, around 6% of UK children are affected by dyscalculia: a learning disability impacting numerical processing and the ability to learn, understand and perform maths. It has a similar prevalence and impact on education and employment as dyslexia, yet there is no official government recognition of dyscalculia. Does the Minister share my concern that specialist maths teachers are under no obligation to learn about dyscalculia unless they opt for additional modules? Given that the Government intend for maths to be taught to everyone until age 18, surely learning about dyscalculia should be standard for maths teachers?

I understand well the point the noble Baroness makes, but I refer again to the very recently published changes that we are making to the initial teacher training and early career framework, which is bringing much more on identification of special educational needs and specific learning difficulties such as dyscalculia into the early career framework. We are also making sure that teachers get the support from their mentor to develop those skills throughout their career.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the Public Services Committee, which has been looking into these matters recently, and I have a great-nephew who has just had his assessment for autism. If I have understood it correctly, there is a massive recruitment issue in respect of assessment staff. What are we doing in national government and local government to improve the situation? I would be very happy for my noble friend the Minister to write to me on that.

As my noble friend knows, for some of the issues with waiting lists for assessment—which I recognise are incredibly worrying for parents and their children in particular—those reasons are complicated. As I have already said, we want to be sure that our mainstream education is inclusive and supports children before they get a formal diagnosis. That is some of the focus of our new national professional qualification for SEND leaders. We are increasing the number of educational psychologists by 400 from 2024. As I mentioned, we are developing the partnership for neurodiversity in schools between local authorities, integrated care boards and schools, supported by £13 million of funding, to make sure that schools respond to neurodiverse children as well as possible.

My Lords, notwithstanding the Minister’s Answer to the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Addington, if she had a chance to read an article in the Observer yesterday, she will know that many schools up and down the country are facing deficit budgets and are required to make redundancies of both teaching and non-teaching staff, which means that the capacity to deal with all these issues—as well as others—is significantly reduced. When might the Government consider urgently putting in additional resources?

The Government have enormously increased support for children with special educational needs. The high needs capital investment is £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025, which will create many more specialist places, which the Government absolutely acknowledge are needed. I remind the House that per-pupil funding next year will be the highest ever in real terms.

My Lords, I welcome everything that the Minister has said, but we all know that, even with the initial screening online, a full diagnosis for many children with any of these needs can take years to confirm. I am interested in what the noble Baroness has to say about how families—and the children themselves—are accompanied through several years of negotiation with the NHS and with local authorities, especially when, as has already been said, certainly in Lincolnshire, staffing costs outstrip the need that is expressed within our schools.

Again, I stress that not every special educational need requires a diagnosis. Children should get support regardless. If we look at the age at which children get an education, health and care plan as a proxy for diagnosis, we see that around a quarter receive an EHCP under the age of five, with almost half getting one between the ages of five and 10. That has been very stable over the last 10 years. The remaining quarter are above 11. I understand that these can be stressful, difficult times, but there has been relative stability over many years at the age of diagnosis, although there is greater identification of specific issues—in particular, autism.

My Lords, I note what the Minister said in reply to my noble friend about new provision being made; that is to be welcomed. Ofsted inspections have found a shortage of school places and special school provision locally—that is the key word: locally—for children and young people with complex needs. As a consequence, they are placed out of their locality, away from their families, friends and peer groups. What are the Government planning to do to ensure that there is sufficient specialist provision in local areas?

I can only refer again to what I just mentioned: the £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to deliver additional new specialist places, which will of course be closer to where children are. I absolutely share the noble Lord’s concerns about children having to travel out of area.

My Lords, school absences are one of the key issues for our school system, but absence rates are, by one measure, 10% higher for autistic children and even higher for children with a SEND statement? What assessment have the Government made of the interaction between the lack of provision for SEND support and absence rates? How do the Government plan to target the persistent absence of SEND pupils in particular?

The noble Baroness knows that absence rates for children with special educational needs have always, rightly or wrongly, been higher than those for children without special educational needs. In part, there is an assumption that such children may also experience greater incidence of ill health. The Government are focusing on a very detailed analysis, looking at patterns across different schools and identifying which practice is working to make sure that those children are back in school, and then sharing it through our attendance hubs. That is important, because we know that children with special educational needs, more than any other children, thrive when they are in school all the time.