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Schools and Colleges: Special Educational Needs

Volume 837: debated on Monday 15 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that, when meeting the needs of those with special educational needs in the school and college system, a legacy of training and knowledge is retained within those institutions.

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

My Lords, the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan aims to create enduring and inclusive cultures in our schools and colleges, by delivering training and knowledge to improve SEND support. We are delivering teacher training frameworks for greater SEND content, a new qualification for school SENCOs, the universal services programme, national standards, teacher training bursaries for specialist SEND teachers in further education and partnerships for inclusion of neurodiversity in schools.

I thank the Minister for that reply. However, why do we not have a strategic plan to make sure that at least the most common special educational needs—I once again remind the House of my interest in dyslexia—are embedded within schools? We do not want to go through the process of parents having to spot that their child is struggling, but for the school to come to the parents and say, “You have a special educational need”, not the other way round. It is reckoned that over half of special educational needs are not spotted at school.

I would say two things to the noble Lord. First, we do not need a diagnosis for a child to be able to offer them support; it is important that a child gets support as quickly as possible. Secondly, our improvement plan is exactly the strategic plan that the noble Lord refers to.

My Lords, is it not the case that provision for special educational needs in our country would be greatly damaged by Labour’s proposed education tax? The party says it would exempt from the VAT charge those in independent schools with education, health and care plans, but there are some 100,000 in independent schools with special educational needs who lack such plans. How on earth would the state sector cope with the large number of special needs students in independent schools who would be forced to leave them, with grave damage to their education, by Labour’s education tax? I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association.

My noble friend makes a very good point. As the House knows, the Government have invested very large amounts of money in increasing capacity for special school places, rising by over 60,000 places since 2010, but the sector is still using independent schools. It would put huge pressure particularly on those children and their parents.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, notwithstanding the list she gave in response to the first Question, the underfunding in our mainstream schools system means that there are many children in mainstream schools whose needs are not being met? Does she further accept that, occasionally, those children who get plans in primary school find it difficult to find a secondary school, because secondary schools can choose not to take children with plans, thus making them undesirable to schools because they know they cannot meet their needs?

The national funding formula is structured, as the noble Baroness is aware, to make sure that funding is targeted towards pupils who need additional support. In 2024-25, over £4.5 billion, or about 10% of the formula, is allocated according to deprivation factors, and £7.8 billion, almost 18%, will be allocated for additional needs factors. Both those elements correlate with the prevalence of SEND.

My Lords, the Minister will know that there are many thousands of individual special needs teachers who go that extra mile in meeting the very individual needs of young people with special needs. What is the department doing to ensure that, where people have come up with innovative ways to address needs, learning is both retained within the institution, as in the original Question, and shared with other schools across the sector?

That is precisely what we are aiming to do through our practitioner standards. The noble Baroness will be aware that we are starting with the biggest areas of additional needs: speech, language and communication; autism; and mental health and well-being. We have a twin approach; we partly have academic researchers looking at the evidence base, but we are also working very closely with practitioners to make sure we capture the best practice, and then publish and share it.

My Lords, at the heart of my noble friend’s Question was surely the issue of teacher retention. Workload pressure is cited as the number one reason for teachers leaving the profession. The Government currently have a Workload Reduction Taskforce, which in January published its Initial Recommendations. One of those really surprised me; it was to fully implement and strengthen the recommendations of the two previous reviews, held in 2016 and 2018. Could the Minister assure us that the DfE and Ofsted will at some point publish a joint response on their success in fulfilling these recommendations, as they agreed at the time, or what confidence can the profession have that the recommendations of this current task force will be taken on board?

I can genuinely reassure the noble Baroness that teacher workload and teacher retention are incredibly high up our list of priorities within the department. It is a central focus of the team. In addition to workload, it is critical that we equip our teachers with the skills, experience and confidence they need to deal with what they are facing in the classroom. That is why, for example, the inclusion of much more content on special educational needs and disabilities in initial training and the early careers framework is so important.

My Lords, pupils with special educational needs are more than four times more likely to develop a mental health problem than other people. This means that one in seven young people with a mental health difficulty will also have another special educational need. Given the huge and increasing backlog for mental health support in schools, will the Minister tell us whether the Government will support Labour’s plan to place a mental health professional in every school?

As the noble Baroness knows, the Government have an ambitious plan in terms of the creation and development of mental health support teams in schools. We estimate that, from April 2024, those support teams will cover 4.2 million children and young people, and we think that will rise to about half of all children and young people by spring next year. The challenge, which the noble Baroness will recognise, is to make sure that the demand for mental health practitioners is balanced between the health service, schools and other parts of the economy.

My Lords, children with special needs are expelled from popular schools and transferred to less performing schools. What will the Minister do to make sure that that situation is addressed so that schools are not allowed to dump their children on another school?

We have to be very careful about talking about dumping children. I have not met a school yet that behaves like that. I want to pick up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. Some of the best practice I have seen is where schools are establishing small units within the school campus for children with the most disruptive behaviour and only the best teachers in the school are allowed to teach in that unit, thereby sending a strong message about how they value those children.

My Lords, according to the Government’s recent statistics, in only 49% of cases of children who have been assessed as needing an education, health and care plan are those plans produced within the 20-week statutory limit, leaving children, families and schools in limbo because they cannot access the funding required for the support the child needs. Can the Minister say what she is doing about this?

I thank the noble Baroness for her important question, which is at the centre of parents’ concerns as they worry about getting the right support for their children. We are testing a number of measures through the change programme to try to improve the quality, consistency and timeliness of the education, health and care plan process. I asked colleagues the question that the noble Baroness is asking me, and it is too early to share the learnings, but as soon as we can, I will be delighted to do so.