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Schools: Special Needs Pupils

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how often they review the level of support given in schools to special needs pupils.

My Lords, provision is reviewed regularly through school and local area inspections. Schools must demonstrate that children with SEND achieve good outcomes in order to be judged good or outstanding. We also strengthened local area inspections in January 2023. Annually, we collect and review data on education, health and care plans, including timeliness and volumes. We have also started collecting data from local authorities on capacity in special schools, SEND units and resourced provision. We also plan to introduce new local inclusion dashboards to improve local accountability.

That is most helpful indeed; I am grateful. The Children and Families Act defines a child as having special educational needs if he or she has a

“learning difficulty or disability which calls for special educational provision to be made”.

Some 69% of teachers surveyed by the Pearson school report said that our education system is ineffective in supporting these special needs pupils. They said that we need more teaching assistants, better teacher training, more resources, and most importantly, easier access to diagnostic testing. Do the Government agree?

The Government are acting on a number of those issues. On diagnostic testing, as the noble Lord well knows, our approach is that the child should not need a diagnosis to be eligible for support. Early identification is incredibly important, and the Government are doing a great deal to train up the early years workforce and provide more specialist educational psychologists. More broadly, the shape of special educational needs has changed a bit over the last five years, with a much greater prevalence of social, emotional and mental health needs and of children with an autism spectrum disorder, and we are working closely to address that.

My Lords, 96% of education, health and care plan appeals are successful, but in less-affluent areas parents are less likely to appeal an EHCP decision, which must contribute to the current inequalities in provision. What are His Majesty’s Government doing to achieve greater equality in the support offered to all children with special educational needs?

The noble Baroness is right about the success of appeals, but I point out that just over 2.3% of all decisions went to appeal. Although the success rate is very high, the level of appeals is perhaps lower than the House might believe from the media. We are currently trying to test a range of measures that will mean that the quality of decisions—and, crucially, the confidence that parents can take in those decisions—is improved. That includes testing a single national education, health and care plan template and guidance, testing multiagency panels to improve the quality of and parental confidence in decision-making, and resolving disagreements quicker by strengthening mediation.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a parent who had to fight hard for an EHCP for his child. It is not only in deprived areas that it is very hard to be awarded an EHCP; it is certainly true in Worcestershire, where a large proportion of applications are turned down. As I was fighting through mediation, I was told by a health professional, “Remember, John, only pushy parents get EHCPs”, and that seemed to be the case. Does the Minister agree that this is shameful? Does she also agree with the LSE that the basic problem is that more money needs to be put into the system?

I tried to address some of the points that the right reverend Prelate raised in my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. We definitely do not want a world where only pushy parents get an EHCP; we want a world where the children who need an EHCP get one. On funding, this Government have massively increased the high-needs budget; it will be worth over £10.5 billion by 2024-25, a 60% increase on 2019-20. We are also committing significant capital to expand the number of special needs places.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chief executive of Cerebral Palsy Scotland. Does the Minister share my concern that, despite the significant increase in children with special needs, almost a third are people with an EHCP identifying autistic spectrum disorder as their primary need? A diagnosis in itself is not the be-all and end-all, particularly for umbrella terms such as autism or cerebral palsy. Can she reassure me that her department understands the importance of considering individual impairment levels to successfully sustain long-term improvements in participation?

I thank my noble friend for the work she does as chief executive of Cerebral Palsy Scotland. She raised an important point and is absolutely right. In our schools and colleges, support should be in place to address the identified need, barriers and level of impairment, as she described it, so that children and young people can not just participate but thrive in their education and preparation for adulthood. That should not be dependent on the nature of the diagnosis.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on a meeting I had earlier today, in which representatives of different ethnic groups were saying that it is much more difficult for them to get diagnosed with dyslexia? This is because the teachers do not know how to pick out dyslexia from things such as second-language problems, and the fact that those parent groups do not know that diagnosis and assessment is for them and not just for white boys.

The noble Lord raises a very relevant point—the wider issue of how parents can be aware of how our special educational needs system works, feel confident in it and understand how to have conversations with their children’s teachers about any concerns they might have. That is why we have altered the initial teacher training and early career framework for teachers, as well as introducing a new national professional qualification for special educational needs co-ordinators. This is to make sure that schools can be really proactive with parents and give them the confidence to address their children’s concerns.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has outlined a range of measures, but the truth is that there is insufficient capacity in the system. I spoke to one parent—I do not think she would mind me referring to her as a pushy parent—who has waited for 18 months and has still not had her child assessed. Given the social and the ethnic disparities mentioned by noble Lords, is the noble Baroness 100% confident that government policy and what is on track at the moment will actually meet the growing demand?

The Government have made a huge amount of progress, and a very significant financial commitment working closely with those on the ground. As I said, we have announced £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to fund new special educational needs and alternative provision places. Together with the new free schools we have already announced, it will add 60,000 new specialist places to the system. I know the noble Baroness will appreciate that this is a very significant increase.

I have a grandson with ADHD who has had little or no support from his school throughout his education. He was sitting his A-level mocks recently. He has time blindness, among many other problems, and spent the whole exam doing one question. Can the Minister take any action to make sure that children with ADHD actually receive the support they need? ADHD makes a complete havoc of a child’s education, however bright they seem to be.

I am sorry to hear about the struggles of the noble Baroness’s grandson. Of course we want our schools to be well equipped to respond to a range of special educational needs and disabilities, but we also know that often those will have knock-on effects in other aspects of a child’s life. It is not just the response within the school that is crucial, but also the partnership with local health services in particular.