[Sir Gary Streeter in the Chair]
[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 23 October 2018 on Special educational needs and disabilities, HC 968.]
Before I call Sir Vince Cable to move the motion for this important debate on special educational needs and disabilities funding, I can report that 12 colleagues have put in to speak from the Back Benches. Therefore, after Sir Vince’s speech, there will be a voluntary time limit of three and a half minutes. Please try to contain yourselves a little in interventions; otherwise, we will go well over time.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered special educational needs and disabilities funding.
It is a privilege to speak on this subject, which is of immense concern to a large number of us and to our constituents, and that is reflected in the demand to speak. It is rare that we get a Brexit-free zone in Parliament at the moment, but this is one, and it is right that we pay attention to it. Far too many Government problems have been squeezed out by the attention given to a single issue, but how we treat children with special educational needs will have enormous implications for decades to come.
Essentially, I will speak about the conflict between two sets of pressures: an irresistible force and an immovable object. The irresistible force is, of course, the demand of parents of children with special needs, who have been led to believe, by the very progressive Children and Families Act 2014, that their children’s needs will be met and their full potential realised through education, health and care plans. The immovable object is money, manifesting itself now in a serious financial crisis for local authorities, which are expected to meet statutory obligations, but find that demand is rising and becoming much larger than the funding available through the special needs block. In some cases, those local authorities are in extreme difficulty.
I will introduce the debate by quoting a parents’ group called Richmond SEND Crisis, which wrote to me yesterday, describing the problem from the parents’ point of view. The group said:
“The crisis in funding has consequences. It means more stress and mental health issues for both parents and children, parents being forced to give up work, increased levels of family break up, increased levels of children being disruptive in school, failing in school or not being in school at all. It means that schools and the wider school community suffer, as children without proper support tend to absorb a disproportionate amount of time from school staff and may be disruptive in class.
All of these consequences inevitably hit the most vulnerable… families the hardest.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one significant change is the growth in home-school education? Given the amount of time it takes to get an assessment, parents are now just taking their children out of school. That cannot be a good thing.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the crisis in funding is about not only the overall sum of money but the distribution? Government policy means that schools have to absorb up to £11,000 of the cost of meeting an EHCP. Schools that do the right thing and accept children with special educational needs are therefore punished, and those that do not are rewarded. Does he agree that that is an unfair and wrong distribution?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I fully agree with him about funding for special needs schools. Hereward College in Coventry has struggled with funding for a number of years, and does an excellent job. Another dimension is that children who have mental health problems often go home to a disruptive family life. That is not conducive to their education or mental health. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that something should be done about that?
Yes, I do. By mentioning mental health, the hon. Gentleman reinforces the point that I will go on to make. When we talk about special needs pupils, we are talking about significantly different classes of people with fundamentally different problems. Of course, they are all individuals, but we are talking about 1.2 million people altogether in the SEN system—up by about 0.5 million since 2014. About a quarter of them, according to Mencap, have learning difficulties. That actually understates the problem, because Mencap estimates that about 40% of children with learning difficulties are never identified at school.
About 120,000 children are on the autistic spectrum, which is the most rapidly growing and difficult group to accommodate. About 300,000 have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Others have a physical disability. I have had correspondence with those with visual impairment problems, who lack equipment, and other groups such as deaf children, who are not included in the SEN categories at all.
We are dealing with large numbers of very different categories of people, but what they have in common is that demand for EHCPs is growing rapidly: it has grown by about 35% over the four years since the legislation was enacted, which is about three times the growth of the school population. It is also three times the amount of funding available through the Government grant allocation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He will be aware that one of the successes during the coalition was our insistence that disabled children need to be educated up to the age of 18. That has been a real game-changer; however, the Government did not make it clear that transport for those children should be paid for; they left it discretionary—some county councils pay for the transport, and others do not, which essentially means that those children have to stay at home. Does he agree that that is an anomaly that the Government need to rectify? Otherwise, thousands of disabled people aged 16 to 18, who should be going to school or in training, because that is what we want them to do, will not have that chance.
My hon. Friend is right; that is one of many anomalies. Many such issues were not properly accounted for and are not being fully funded. I will come to others in a moment.
The consequence of the growing demand is that many local authorities, which are genuinely trying to do their best in most cases, are accumulating large financial deficits. The Local Government Association, which has done lots of research on it, believes that there will be a gap of about £1.6 billion at the end of the next financial year. That is unaccounted for at present.
Some London authorities—I speak as a London MP, but I know that other parts of the country have similar problems—have a shortfall from the high needs block of about 7%. For about six boroughs in London, it is more than 10%. For my borough, Richmond, it is 20%, and I think three others are in an even worse position, including the borough of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). For his borough, I think it is 40%.
My right hon. Friend is right that the situation for Kingston is the worst of any London borough. We are spending more than 40% above our allocation, with a potential knock-on to the budgets of schools across the board, and potentially even the solvency of the local authority. Given how serious that is, does he agree that Ministers need to take action now and that we need to talk to the Department of Health and Social Care? The health service is often not paying for the health part of EHCPs.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: those are both key parts of the solution. For example, I have discovered that there are children whose need for wheelchairs—clearly a health requirement—is treated as an educational need. There are many such cases in which the finance sits in silos and is not sensibly dealt with.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous with his time, and I congratulate him on securing this debate. My constituent Sally Foulsham, who runs a parent group called SHIFT, is in contact with more than 100 parents. She reports that what most frustrates them is the lack of funding for child and adolescent mental health services, which is a major block to unlocking the funding that should be available for EHCPs in the first place. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
Yes. The decline in CAMHS has led to a lot of children not being properly helped at an early stage and requiring greater special needs provision as a result.
To conclude my point about finance, a large number of local authorities are in serious financial trouble, and not just in London—even those that are doing their best and are perfectly competent. Consequently, they have a large financial deficit sitting on their balance sheet. One of their main sources of anxiety is what will happen with respect to Government legislation that treats them as requiring special measures if they do not sort out the problem. At the moment, they are not sure whether to deal with the problem immediately. Perhaps the Minister could advise us what conversations her colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government have had about how to deal with the problem.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. My council, Hartlepool Borough Council, will have a shortfall of £621,000 in its high needs block funding for 2019-2020. Does he agree that our children and schools need a dedicated schools grant that is sustained and reflects local need?
I am sure that that would be sensible. The hon. Gentleman represents Hartlepool—a very different kind of community from mine in Twickenham—but his helpful intervention illustrates that the problem is felt across the board.
Why has the problem arisen? Why is there such rapid growth in demand, and why is it not being met? There are good reasons and bad reasons. One of the good reasons is that the 2014 Act extended entitlement to special educational needs provision from 18 up to 25. That was a progressive step, but nobody thought about how it would be paid for. Another big biological change is that perinatal and natal mortality has been reduced; that has been a great step in medicine, but it means that there are now many more children who are much loved by their parents but who do need extra help. We are also getting more successful early intervention and diagnosis, meaning that children with special needs are being identified but then have to be helped.
Those are the good reasons. One of the bad reasons is the decline in CAMHS that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) referred to. Another is the pressure on schools, partly as a result of the minimum £6,000 requirement, and partly because they are having to dispense with teaching assistants—in my area, certainly, cuts are reducing schools’ capacity to handle children with behavioural problems. There is also a rapid rise in exclusions. All those things are bringing pressure to bear on the system.
I have just received figures from my local authority, Derbyshire County Council, that show that children who have special needs but no statement or EHCP are five times as likely to be excluded as children without special needs, whereas those who have a statement or plan are more than 12 times as likely to be excluded. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is a shocking indictment of what we are delivering for children with special needs?
It is a shocking indictment, but it brings to the surface the dilemmas that many local authorities face when they are forced into a position of rationing. They are not allowed to describe it as rationing, because they would be admitting to a legal offence that could be held against them in a tribunal, but we all know that rationing takes place.
Rationing happens in several forms. One, which relates to the hon. Lady’s intervention, is that local authorities drag their feet with what were once called statements but are now called healthcare plans. I believe that the National Autistic Society says that 50% of parents with autistic children wait more than a year for those plans to appear. In other cases, provision is cut to well below the necessary standard: the Young Vision Alliance draws attention to the fact that one of the casualties of the recent rationing has been the issuing of aids to children with visual impairments, which is becoming a serious problem.
Another device that authorities resort to, although of course they do not present it as such, is refusing residential places. In most cases, inclusion in mainstream schools is much the best course of action, but in other cases residential schools are more appropriate. Yet, authorities refuse to agree to them, so the parents have to become carers while the children sit at home, become socially isolated and are never able to develop properly into adulthood.
The main consequence of the conflict between supply and demand is that more and more parents are having to go to tribunal. There has been a 20% growth in tribunals in each of the past few years, and 86% of parents win them, although perhaps “win” is not the right word—in some ways it is a lose-lose situation. Nevertheless, that is an extraordinary figure. It indicates that many local authorities are pushing parents to tribunal, knowing that they themselves will lose, incurring significant costs—about £34 million a year, I believe—simply as a way of holding off demand that they are legally required to meet.
My concluding section is about solutions. How do we deal with this? First, there is a broad acceptance that children should be kept, as far as possible, in mainstream and maintained schools rather than in more demanding provision elsewhere. That is true for educational reasons—inclusion is a good philosophy and has good results—but it is also more economical. The figures are striking: in mainstream and maintained schools, the cost is about £6,000 more for SEND pupils than for non-SEND pupils, while for maintained special schools the cost is about £23,000 more, and for private special schools it is about £40,000 more. In many cases, the private special schools perform a very important function and are of very high quality, which is clearly why people seek them out, but there is certainly some evidence that those schools are exploiting monopoly provision and taking advantage of local authorities. In some cases, they should be referred to the Competition and Markets Authority.
Notwithstanding that issue, the differential suggests an enormous demand for specialist provision that the maintained sector should cater for, but the trend is in the opposite direction. Last year, for the first time, the majority of special needs pupils were not catered for in mainstream maintained schools—a big backward step that reflects the pressures that I have described.
The second clearly undesirable mechanism being used is shifting the burden to other schools, which unfortunately is happening in my own borough. The council is deeply regretful, but it has had to ask the Department for permission to raid the schools budget because the special needs block is grossly insufficient. That is bad not just in itself, because schools are under financial pressure, but because it sets mainstream pupils against special needs pupils. It is quite wicked, actually—it creates resentment in an area in which we should be united in compassion.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the practice is now ubiquitous throughout the country? In Oxfordshire, we have a bizarre situation in which the heads board has refused the extra transfer of money, yet the council is now going to the Secretary of State to override what the heads of local schools believe is the right thing for everyone else. There is an inherent tension around where the money will come from. In the end, it should just be more money.
Indeed. My hon. Friend graphically highlights the dilemma that I am describing: people acting with very good intentions are now being forced into conflict, in a very damaging way.
That point brings me to the crux of the problem: the Government’s role via the high needs budget. I acknowledge that the Government have taken some action—I do not want to be completely grudging. There was an increase of £250 million in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 budgets, part of the special provision announced last year, and that is welcome. However, the LGA has run its ruler over that and has computed that it accounts for about a quarter of the deficit. It is a small step forward. A much bigger step is required.
The second thing the Government can do within existing budget constraints was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. Some money should be diverted to special needs school provision from within the large increase in cash that is being made available to the health service.
We cannot avoid the conclusion that, in the spending review ahead, the Government are simply going to have to review the weight they give to special needs provision as opposed to the normal school funding block, and to be substantially more generous in respect of special needs provision. They have announced that we have come to the end of austerity. Some of us are a bit sceptical, but this is one area where they can prove it.
Thank you, Sir Gary. I commend the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing what is a really important debate. It is a real privilege to be here today among colleagues to cover the issues of funding. Local authorities, including Essex County Council, are facing real pressures in meeting the needs of pupils, especially those with special educational needs and disabilities. There is no doubt that all of us who visit our local schools and engage with parents and pupils understand where the real pressures lie.
It is important to recognise that the Government have announced additional funding for high needs of £125 million, which is welcome. For Essex, that means another £3.3 million for this and next financial year. The reality is, however, that that is not enough, because of the new pressures caused by the increase in pupils who have additional needs, adding greater burdens and pressure to a local authority that is in a budget-setting cycle at this very time, as all local authorities are. With that comes the challenge of the overspend in special needs funding that Essex County Council is experiencing. A new banding matrix for funding pupils with SEND in special schools is causing a £2.3 million overspend. Increased growth in education, health and care plans is driving an overspend of more than £700,000. In addition, the number of young people in the EHCP category has gone up by 22%.
Local authorities are of course desperately trying to meet their statutory obligations and to find innovative ways of doing so. That obviously includes working across health budgets, which is the right thing to do, and looking at ways in which they can integrate support for care and educational provision.
In total, Essex County Council anticipates a £15 million overspend on the high needs block by the end of 2019-20. The council is investing through its capital programme in new schools, including planning a new autism special school in Witham, which we all welcome and support. In addition to plugging some of the funding gaps, the council has recently asked the schools forum if it would agree to transfer 0.5% of the schools block allocation—approximately £4.3 million—to SEND. Quite understandably, that is going to cause tensions and is causing concern among local schools, and the council has asked the Secretary of State to approve the transfer. Rather than encouraging tensions and anger within our local schools, and leaving the schools and council at loggerheads, I encourage the Minister to take the opportunity to intervene and review the situation, not just by encouraging more financial support, but by encouraging a better way of working so that we can address some of the long-standing issues.
I hope that the forthcoming comprehensive spending review can support local authorities to come together and look at how we can invest in new provision, join up networks and increase integrated provision, so that we can bring education and health more closely together, wrapped around the needs of each pupil. While more funding is needed and is absolutely welcome, we want to maximise the benefits through greater integration of working across local authorities and Government Departments, so that we can give young people the best start in life and so that they can fulfil their potential.
When I was elected to Parliament in June 2017, the problems of children with special needs and the struggles that their parents face became one of the major issues in my casework almost immediately. The problems are with the system, which has been framed around funding that does not meet its needs.
In High Peak in Derbyshire, the county council will not look at applications either for graduated response for individual pupil, or GRIP, lower-level funding or for EHCPs until children are at least two years behind academically. Parents and schools who struggle as best they can to support children are punished for doing so if those children achieve and make progress. By the time they get two years behind, they are usually in year 4 or year 5, and then the process of trying to get additional funding from the county council starts. In Derbyshire, that process is taking up to two years, largely because of a lack of educational psychiatrists, who have been cut and cut again.
Schools have to put an enormous amount of time into preparing applications, often for very small amounts of funding. They have to put in £6,000-worth of funding themselves before they even start. One secondary school in my constituency says it has 125 children with special needs who should qualify. They would have to find three quarters of a million pounds from their budget to apply for additional funding for all those children. The school cannot find £7,000, let alone £750,000, after four years of school funding freezes and increases in its costs. Parents are becoming increasingly distraught, seemingly caught in a fight against schools, which are reluctant to put in applications for funding because they know that the majority are refused even after days of a school trying to put a case together as best it can.
In Derbyshire, there is a £727,000 shortfall in our high needs block funding. Our Conservative county council suggested that the funding it got for road mending, at the end of the winter, when it could least be used, would have been more helpful for the children’s services budget and education. That might be a case that the Minister could make. Ultimately, we need more funding. I pointed out earlier the number of exclusions that children with special needs are facing. This is a system that is failing them, as well as schools, teachers, and parents.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this important debate. In my three minutes, I will touch on school funding, school choices and another area that I passionately support.
On school funding, I ask the Minister to focus particularly on recent changes to the allocations between school block, early years block and high needs block. Previously, it was a notional figure that could be switched across blocks, and now the limit is just 0.5%. I am concerned about the knock-on effect, as it creates a perverse incentive for mainstream schools to see children moved out of mainstream into specialist schools. Previously, they would have complained that they would be salami-sliced and would have to pay for that—now, they would not have to. I ask the Minister if it would be possible to see data on whether that is actually forcing more young people out of mainstream into specialist schools. Mainstream should be where we start. It is where these young people will return to after they have finished school, in their communities and workplace. Anything that creates an incentive away from that is a concern to me.
Balcarras School in my constituency takes a number of SEND children—more than 20—yet because of a quirk of the system that means it has to pay the first £6,000, it is disincentivised from doing the right thing. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if the Government looked constructively at changing that funding arrangement?
I do indeed. My constituents living in east Sussex are less likely to be in a maintained mainstream school than children living in any other county around us, so I absolutely agree. The difficulty is that we have received a 3% real-terms cut to school funding in my constituency of Bexhill and Battle. We are at 4,334, whereas the figure is 5,157 in Birmingham, Edgbaston, and 5,123 in Nottingham North. I am afraid that my constituents are worse off living in my constituency. I have some fantastic primary schools that do an amazing job with young pupils with EHCPs, but in reality they are now reaching into a deficit. If it costs an extra £8,000 to £10,000 for those schools to educate those pupils, the incentive is moving away from their doing so.
On school choice, I absolutely support the belief that mainstream is best, but I am very concerned that my constituents are reporting that they almost have to fail in a mainstream in order to get to the school of their choice. As I think has been touched on, there is real difficulty in having a system in which the local authority is incentivised financially to put the child in a mainstream school, the mainstream school is incentivised financially to put them in a specialist school, and independent schools are incentivised to have the pupil in that particular setting. It is no wonder that we end up in a tribunal system as a result. Surely through reform we could have more independent assessment at the very outset, perhaps more informally, rather than waiting for a tribunal.
Finally, I am grateful to the Department for Education for accepting the recommendations of “Autism and education in England 2017”, the report of an inquiry that I co-chaired last year. We made some recommendations, and the Government have listened and announced that they will extend the autism strategy to young pupils in education. That is a great step forward—it is all about the training of staff. My last ask is whether it is possible for every new specialist school to be built within a mainstream perimeter, rather than having the apartheid system that we have at the moment.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. This debate could not be more important, because—like all hon. Members—in every surgery I have held since being elected, I have met the parents of children with SEN. Without exception, they are dedicated to their children’s future, and many have sacrificed their jobs and careers in order to navigate the labyrinthine systems, which they often feel have been deliberately designed to prevent them from accessing the support that their child is due. They include the parents I saw last week, whose eight-year-old son has a variety of complex needs but has not been to school for three years, the 12-year-old with autism spectrum disorder, processing disorder and anxiety, who has been out of school for 16 months, and the child who has selective mutism as part of his ASD, whose school is, in his mother’s words, “supportive”, but frequently uses informal exclusions when short-staffed, as it cannot provide one-to-one support.
None of these types of cases will be unfamiliar to us, and they are all the more heart-breaking in their familiarity. We are normalising the mistreatment of children with special educational needs and, without a shadow of doubt, funding is the primary issue. Sheffield City Council has a deficit of £6 million for the high needs block, out of a total deficit of £8 million for school funding this year. That underfunding manifests itself in a number of ways. First, mainstream schools have less additional and specialist support in place and so are unable to cater for children with SEN. I have had reports of parents going to schools in my constituency and being told explicitly, “This is not the school for your child if he has autism.” As there are not enough spaces, more and more parents are choosing to educate their children at home, not truly out of choice, but out of desperation. The cuts to the local authorities have left teams so short-staffed that the availability, quality and consistency of EHCPs is really poor.
There are other issues beyond funding. A recent Ofsted inspection of Sheffield found that
“High levels of fixed-term and permanent exclusions result in children and young people with SEND not achieving as well as they should…Good outcomes for children and young people with SEND are compromised by the widespread use of partial timetables for lengthy periods. At the time of this inspection, 70 pupils with an EHC plan and 118 with special educational needs support were on these partial timetables.”
When can we expect the Timpson review, and does the Minister recognise the vital role of Ofsted in making our schools much more inclusive?
Finally, navigation for parents needs to be much simpler. Parents need clearer pathways and an understanding of their rights. They absolutely do not receive clear or timely information on the support available for their children and how to access it. One parent said to me, “It is so very wrong that a child who needs more educational support than others gets none at all. The lack of provision is a total disgrace and has created a sub-group of children with special needs and no schooling.” Sadly, that is the picture that many parents and children now face. Who could disagree with her?
I commend the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to speak on such an important issue. On most Fridays, I take the opportunity to visit a local school. Across west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, I see great schools. Among those are schools that excel because of their support for SEN. As a result of doing such a great job—we have heard this already—they find themselves attracting more and more parents and their children, and they are then presented with all sorts of funding issues.
There are two things that I want to bring to the Minister’s attention—things that I have raised before, but to which I have not had satisfactory responses. First, we have heard about the £6,000 that needs to be found once the educational plan is in place. Secondly, there is a bizarre situation in which a school will be counted—the register will be taken after 1 October, and this will settle the funding for the following April. For a time, a school that has taken in new children will not have any funding for those pupils, but will still have to find the £6,000. If children arrive after 1 October, there will not be any funding for them until up to 18 months later, and the school will still have to find the £6,000 as well as pay for the normal education costs that are incurred. I have asked the Department over and over again to look at how that funding follows the individual child, whatever their needs might be, so that schools really can provide the very best education and the best start for their children.
There are arrangements in place with local authorities and with those who support the funding of academies, but schools are not fully aware of them. I know that schools are not getting the funding to which they are entitled when new children arrive. We must simplify the way that school funding is distributed, particularly for children with special needs. Despite tremendous effort from our schools, I fear that we are at risk of failing many children. They will not be able to live full lives, and their life chances will be curtailed. As others have said, funding for schools and for this aspect of school education should be addressed properly and enthusiastically by the spending review when the opportunity arises.
I want briefly to mention some positive signs of movement towards a proper, sensible approach to the education of children with SEN. Ofsted recently launched a consultation and said that it is now prepared to look more at teaching rather than school results. The consultation finishes on 4 April. I encourage everyone to take part, so that Ofsted can genuinely recognise good schools, even though their attainment might not be quite as good as it could be, in view of the children that those schools support.
The 10-year health plan commits to accelerating assessments for children with SEN. Can the Minister provide us with more detail about that? We would appreciate more detail about how it can be delivered. The 10-year plan also says that there will be the right care for children with learning disabilities. Again, we would appreciate a bit more detail from the Minister about how the 10-year plan will be able to deliver that and what resources can support it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Gary. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this debate. It is an important subject and has not had enough attention in the House in recent times. I declare my interest in this matter, as my wife is a cabinet member for children and young people on Cheshire West and Chester Council.
Like other hon. Members, I know how much anxiety this issue causes the families who I see in my surgeries. Too often there is a delay in agreeing that an education, health and care plan is needed at all. When it is finally put in place, too often the plan is not delivered in full because the school has funding pressures elsewhere. The situation is distressing for all parties. Parents feel like they have to fight to get a plan for their child and then, once it is in place, fight again to ensure that the funding and support is adequate to meet the needs of their child, which is simply not right. It worries me even more that there are probably other parents out there who do not have the time, money or information that they need to keep fighting for the support for their child, which means that there are vulnerable people across this country who are simply not getting the support they need.
Not every child with SEND has an EHCP; the proportion of children with SEND who have an EHCP remains low. Hon. Members have already talked about Ofsted. I do not always agree with everything that it says, but given that the chief executive acknowledged last year that something was deeply wrong when parents were repeatedly telling inspectors that they had to fight to get help for their children, we know that we have to act. Ofsted concluded that support for children with SEND was too disjointed and too inconsistent, and that diagnoses were taking too long and were often inadequate.
As we have heard, the number of exclusions among children with SEND continues to rise, with the Department reporting that pupils with SEND are up to six times more likely to be excluded, accounting for almost half of all permanent exclusions. That should be a mark of failure. The number of pupils with SEND without a school place has more than doubled in recent years, up to 4,050, whereas it was only 776 in 2010. Perhaps that is why, as Members have asked, more children are being home-schooled—up by more than 40%. Are schools perhaps suggesting that a particular child should be home-schooled to avoid an exclusion or that the school environment might not be the best place if the child has SEND? In short, are parents being forced down that route because they have no real choice? It is a serious question because we now find ourselves in a situation in which many parents of children with SEND feel that the only way to ensure that their child receives the specialist education that they are entitled to is through legal action.
Thousands are taking their local authority to tribunal. In a staggering 89% of cases, the tribunal found in favour of parents, costing local authorities around £70 million since 2014. Such a high success rate at appeal throughout the country ought to send a warning to the Government that something is fundamentally wrong. The situation has got so bad that one group of parents has now launched a High Court legal challenge against the Government’s SEND funding policy, demanding that children have access to the specialist educational provision that current budgets are simply not able to fund. There can be no greater indictment of the crisis than the fact that legal action has been sought and a judicial review commenced.
Education is a fundamental right for every child. We should not aim for anything less and should not accept anything less, but I fear we are doing that by default. When will the Government take action and ensure that all our children are able to benefit from a full and inclusive education?
I will start with my four recommendations to ensure that I get them out in time. This is my first request to the Minister: when the Department looks at the high needs block formula, can it look at the historical element, because there is no justification for the allocations? They have simply come from history. Some of them are clearly unfair and my local authority has certainly been hit. Secondly, can the Minister speak to her education colleagues to ensure that capital funding is provided for a new special school in Kingston when the announcement is made shortly? Thirdly, as I said in my intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), can we look at the way the NHS contributes to the cost of EHCPs? I have spoken to many headteachers and Achieving for Children in Kingston and it is clear that the health component is coming out of the education component to deal with things such as physio, testing for diabetes, and members of staff in the classroom dealing with the child’s health needs, not their educational needs. The bills that the NHS is not meeting run into hundreds of millions of pounds across our country.
My fourth recommendation relates to looking at special needs education and health again in a cross-party way. I speak not only from the experience of looking after my constituents and their children, but as the father of a special needs child who has attended two special schools, and who we now educate at home. In my experience of dealing with the schools and with EHCPs and the process, there is a huge amount of waste, which is a scandal when children are not getting the service that they should, such as CAMHS and so on.
I speak as a governor of a local school. I am very impressed by how maintained state schools are properly held to account for their budgets; but some of the voluntary or private schools, which might be very good, are not properly held accountable for the money that they spend. This might be controversial, but in my experience some of them do not provide the quality of care with the money they are given, partly because special needs are extremely difficult to look at. It is much more difficult to get a proper distribution and proper comparisons because special needs are so broad and heterogeneous, and it is difficult to get a proper statistical analysis, unlike with mainstream schools. It is also difficult because Ofsted does not analyse well enough what special needs schools are doing, so I urge the Minister to look at that problem.
In my constituency in the Royal Borough of Kingston we have a crisis in special needs schools. If I could show the Minister the graph of the London boroughs and their overspending on their allocated formulas, she would see that we are a long way to one end—more than 40% above our allocated funding. If we do not bring that overspending under control—it is partly our job to do so, but we need patience and help from the Government—it will call into question the solvency of the council.
The love and care of parents and families with special needs children is humbling; we have all seen that. However, it has come to something—and we have to question ourselves as to how it has come to this—when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned, in December’s Ofsted report the chief inspector said that something was deeply
“wrong when parents repeatedly tell inspectors that they have to fight to get the help and support that their child needs.”
I get told that regularly; there is no need to be an inspector. All hon. Members present today, without exception, will have taken up cases for constituents. Sometimes we get improvement, sometimes not. I say to the Minister that as a country and as a society, it cannot go on: it simply is not good enough.
By the end of 2020, Nottinghamshire County Council will have a £9.2 million shortfall in its high needs budget. I can cite that. Other hon. Members have quoted other figures, and those figures are real in balance sheet terms. But what does it mean for each and every family and each child? I am fairly articulate, as are all the Members here, but finding one’s way through the system and finding the person responsible for making a decision is sometimes an impenetrable task.
There is a funding issue, so the Minister needs to go and bang on the door of the Chancellor, supported by every single Member, and tell him that it is not acceptable for any Government of any colour to be in power with the situation that we have at the moment, when so many families across this country cannot access the support that they need for their child. It is not the sort of country that any of us want to be a part of. We need to do something about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this crucial debate. I very much echo what the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has said, particularly about trying to navigate through such complexity when it comes to special educational needs. I appreciate that time is short, so I shall simply echo many of the points raised by other hon. Members about the pressures on mainstream schools in terms of financing and classroom support, the time it takes to obtain education, health and care plans, and the tensions that can be created between schools and councils in meeting statutory obligations to SEND children.
Since my election I have made it a priority to visit each of the 42 schools in my constituency to get to know the school community and its needs. The pressures on special educational needs services have been one of the most consistent themes in my conversations with parents and teachers, and I have highlighted those concerns to the Education Secretary and to the borough’s lead for children’s services. In Havering we have had the fastest-growing number of children of any London borough for the past few years, and funding has simply not kept up with that changing demography. Redden Court School in Harold Wood, for instance, has three times the national average of students with special educational needs and disabilities. That is more than 50 children with an education, health and care plan. The schools in my constituency are doing a fantastic job at ensuring that SEND children can be educated in the mainstream, but we must take into account the pressure that that can place on classroom staff and resources.
I was pleased by the announcement, before Christmas, of an additional £250 million of high needs funding, of which my borough will get more than £600,000. It is also welcome that the Secretary of State has allocated a £100 million top-up fund for new high needs school places and improved facilities, as well as removing the cap on the number of bids for free schools with special and alternative provisions. However, we must also look at the strain on third sector organisations at pre-school level, which often rely on diminishing local authority funds. Pre-school can be a critical time for getting the right support, and the right diagnosis of any condition, for SEND children before primary education begins. First Step, in Hornchurch, provides many fantastic services to local families affected by autism and other special educational needs. The Prime Minister has indeed promoted that charity’s work on my behalf on her own Twitter account. However, pre-school support for autistic children can be patchy, and new difficulties can arise, within the school environment and beyond, as those children grow older. I should be most grateful if the Minister would advise on what she is doing at pre-school level to ensure that parents and schools are equipped with the right support to help children to make the transition into primary education.
I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), but I take issue with him on one point: there is something Brexit-related about the debate, because Brexit is masking a crisis in special educational needs. If it were not for the focus of the media and politics on Brexit, issues such as the crisis in special educational needs and disability would be to the fore. More people would be talking about it, and there would be more pressure in Parliament—particularly on the Treasury—to give the Department for Education and the Department of Health and Social Care the funding they need to make things work.
Frankly, kids are being failed by a system that does not have enough money in it, that is too complex for people to navigate, and that is taking too long to get the support kids need. Councils and child and adolescent mental health services need more money, and I support the call for an increase in the high needs block funding. We need to make that case in the comprehensive spending review, as well as to the Minister here, and to make sure that the fantastic staff in mainstream and specialist schools get the support they need.
We should also support parents. In a debate on children’s social care, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) told most powerfully a story about one of her constituents, who said:
“I am a warrior, but I just want to be a mum.”—[Official Report, 17 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 1416.]
Parents are fighting every day to get their kids with SEND the support they need. They are struggling with it, and that is why so many kids are now home-schooled. The support is not there in mainstream education—not because teachers do not work hard enough to deliver it, but because there is not enough funding. That is why we need it.
Constituents come to my surgery nearly every week to talk about the difficulties. I imagine that the story in Plymouth is no different from the story across the country. There is a crisis in SEND support, and we need to restore the safety net that these kids deserve. If we do not invest in them now, not only will they cost us more in the short term as taxpayers, but we will lose the potential of these young people to deliver benefits in the future; we risk paying more for them throughout their lives. That is why it makes good economic sense to invest in these children and their families now and to make sure they get the wraparound support they need and deserve. We must restore the safety net, and that means funding services properly.
I too want to thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this important debate. Every one of us in the Chamber is here because we want to fight for children with special educational needs we have met during visits to schools, and for their parents, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) pointed out. Throughout the country every day parents fight for the best for their child, and we want to help them in that fight.
The situation of special educational needs funding in my constituency is particularly acute. West Sussex has a higher percentage of SEN pupils than the national average. For instance, 25% of the children at Chichester Nursery School have special educational needs or disabilities—a huge figure, considering that just 6% of young children in the general population are identified as having them. Meeting those additional needs has been tough on the council’s budget. For 2018-19, West Sussex has an estimated £4.9 million deficit in its high needs block. The one-time transfer of 0.5% from its dedicated schools grant has helped plug the gap. I think we all welcome the additional funding, as has been mentioned, but one-off payments cannot be the remedy for the funding pressures that schools face.
West Sussex wants to switch to a long-term invest and save model for its high needs block. Provision in the county—particularly for autism-related support—is chronically lacking. Because of this, the council spent more than £1 million last year sending children outside the county to specialist schools with the right resources. That is an expensive short-term response when the right long-term solution is needed closer to home. It is natural that parents want the best possible education for their children. We have all met constituents who battle to get that and to get the council to fund their child’s out-of-county school place. The aim of investing to save is to improve the standards of in-county provision and to avoid costly tribunals and out-of-county referrals. The average cost out of county for West Sussex is just under £44,000 per pupil. The in-county cost is £3,000 to £9,000 per pupil, so the business case is simple. The new centres of excellence will of course incur an initial up-front cost, but that will be offset by the decline in spending on out-of-county provision, which is not even the best provision, as it is so far from home.
West Sussex MPs have already had meetings with the Chancellor and the Education Secretary to discuss a fairer funding settlement for the authority, as well as the benefits of securing additional funding for long-term gains. We look forward to the upcoming spending review, and hope that they will listen to the invest to save plan. It is essential that the funds are available for schools and authorities to support the children who need the most support within the school system. Like many Members, I want sustainable funding, and I hope that the spending review can deliver that.
Thank you, Sir Gary. It is a pleasure to speak in this Chamber on every occasion, as it has been to hear the wonderful contributions made so far by right hon. and hon. Members. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on obtaining the debate and giving us the chance to participate.
I am taking part because I take an interest in school budgets and in children. Having been consistently cut, school budgets are unable to deliver in the way they have previously. Classroom assistants are losing hours, and the wait to get a statement for a child is getting longer. Instead of treating the meeting of special needs as an obligation, we should look at it as an opportunity to give such children the best possible education to enable them to overcome difficulties and meet their potential. If that is not something that requires additional ring-fenced funding, I do not what does. I look to the Minister to see what she can do about releasing that funding.
There are 49,000 babies, children and young people with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions in the UK, and the number is rising. Most of those children have complex health needs. They need constant care and support 24 hours a day. Most will also have a special educational need and/or a disability. The success of the system depends on whether there is equitable and sustainable funding for children’s education, health and social care provision. With great respect, that does not seem to be the case.
In the short time I have available, I want to mention a briefing from Together for Short Lives, which says that respite breaks are a part of the system that is not working. Seriously ill children and their families rely particularly on frequent short breaks for respite, which is provided by skilled people, who can meet the children’s often complex health needs. It may be for only a few hours, but it can be overnight or for a few days at a time. It is important because the 24/7 pressure on parents of having a child with a life-limiting condition is immense. Social care is vital to help them relieve the stress, catch up on sleep, spend time as a family and do the things that other families do. Frequent short breaks for respite for seriously ill children combine health and social care. They help to maintain children’s and families’ physical and mental health. Respite care is immensely important. The short breaks provided by children’s hospices can help to reduce stress and mitigate the risk of parental relationships breaking down.
There are some incredible statistics from research involving 17 children’s hospices in England and Scotland: 64% of divorced or separated parents cited having a child with complex needs as a reason for the breakdown of their relationship. Furthermore, 75% had had no access to short breaks, and 74% rated short breaks as having a direct, positive effect. Short breaks are necessary to help families regain some balance in their lives. Couples whose relationships were identified in the research as “non-distressed” were found to have received 43% more hours of short breaks on average from a children’s hospice than those who were in distressed relationships. Quite simply, respite care makes a difference. The facts are clear. If we deal with children’s needs in this way, there will be a lifelong benefit not simply to the child but to the entire family.
Just as they did for adult social care, will the Government review how social care for disabled children in England is funded? Will they address the £434 million shortfall in funding for social care services for disabled children that has been identified by the Disabled Children’s Partnership, by setting up an early intervention and family resilience fund? Intervention at that stage will provide benefits at later stages, and if we invest now to improve the quality of life of those who are most vulnerable and struggling the most, it will be worth every penny.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Sir Gary, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this important debate. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I will not reiterate what others have said or mention individual Members, but I will give the Scottish perspective on this issue.
In Scotland, like here, we believe that all children and young people deserve to receive the support they need to reach their full learning potential. The Scottish system focuses on overcoming barriers to learning and on “Getting it right for every child”, known as GIRFEC. Children and young people should learn in the environment that best suits their needs, whether that is a mainstream or special school setting. Some 97% of children in Scotland who need additional support are educated in mainstream schools, and the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 places a duty on education authorities to identify, provide for and review the additional support needs of their pupils. Local government financial statistics for 2016-17 show a 0.3% increase in real-terms spending on education, and £610 million of that was on additional support for learning—a real-terms increase of 2.3%. Teacher numbers have also increased, as have numbers of support staff.
Despite challenging circumstances, children and young people continue to achieve, and in 2016-17, 87% of school leavers with additional support needs had a positive follow-up destination—a 5% increase on 2011-12. The Scottish credit and qualifications framework highlights an interesting statistic, because 69% of school leavers with SEN left school with one or more level 5 qualifications. That is important for people with special educational needs, because such achievements help their employment possibilities and give them and their parents a far better sense of worth.
The 2004 Act places a duty on education authorities to identify, provide for and review the additional support needs of their pupils, including those with dyslexia. The Scottish definition of dyslexia has been developed by the Scottish Government, Dyslexia Scotland, the cross-party group on dyslexia in the Scottish Parliament, and a wide range of stakeholders.
Members have mentioned autism, and in 2018 the Scottish Government published “The Scottish Strategy for Autism: Outcomes and Priorities 2018-2021”. That document sets out the priorities for action to improve outcomes for autistic people, including support for improved educational outcomes for children and young people with autism. The SNP understands the importance of autistic people and their families being understood and welcomed within their communities.
The budget passed recently in the Scottish Parliament helps with concessionary travel schemes that allow disabled people to access education and employment opportunities, and Companion Cards are given to parents or carers to help with that.
With new powers over disability benefits coming to the Scottish Parliament, a Scottish social security agency—Social Security Scotland—has been established, with dignity and respect at its heart. The Scottish Government will maintain disability benefits, not cut them, and ensure that they remain universal, rather than means-tested. In Scotland, the carer’s allowance supplement is available to those who care for people who are sick or disabled, and it puts an extra £442 into carers’ pockets, which is important for parents who have children with special needs. I received an interesting briefing from the Association of Educational Psychologists, which is concerned that local government funding and changes to school funding arrangements are preventing it from doing its job as well as it would like.
I am a member of the Education Committee, and we are conducting an inquiry into special educational needs and disabilities. I have listened to the concerns raised by hon. Members this afternoon, including on issues that have been considered by the Committee. We have taken evidence from children and parents, local authorities, schools and other interested parties, and we look forward to more input from hon. Members here today. I look forward to the eventual publishing of the Committee’s report and recommendations, and to an effective Government response. In that regard, I urge the Minister to look at the good work being done in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and I thank the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) for securing this debate, and all hon. Members who have spoken today. Children and adult learners with special educational needs and disabilities are being failed by this Government. Competition instead of collaboration has harmed our education system, and the fragmentation and marketisation of education has left gaping holes in provision, accountability and support. The crisis in our education system of recruitment, retention and cuts across the board is impacting everywhere, but nowhere more starkly than in the arena of special educational needs and disabilities.
That view is shared by an army of parents, carers, children, learners, schools, colleges, universities, teachers, healthcare professionals, local authorities and a number of cross-party groups in the House. The reforms that led to this shambolic and damaging situation are rooted in the early years of the coalition Government, and summed up well by the then Education Secretary, who stated that the aim was to remove the “bias towards inclusion.” In other words, it was a move no longer to consider special educational needs as an intrinsic part of every learning environment—even though that has been proven to improve learning outcomes for disabled and non-disabled learners alike—but to start treating them as an add-on.
It is little wonder that in 2016 the United Nations expressed concern that for the first time in 25 years, more children with special educational needs and disabilities are being educated outside the mainstream, and that the Government have developed a dual education system that unnecessarily segregates children with disabilities to special schools, rather than providing for them sufficiently in mainstream schools. The following year the United Nations stated that this Government were guilty of
“grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities.”
The cultivation of that hostile environment has had dire, lasting effects on children and learners with SEND. The rushed reforms introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014 have created a postcode lottery of variable provision, and many children with SEND continue to be let down. During the passage of that Act, Labour Members warned that unless the proposed reforms were properly funded and proper demographic modelling carried out, the reforms would fail—and fail they did.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), Her Majesty’s chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills concluded last year that overall provision remained
“too disjointed and too inconsistent”.
That inconsistency comes from the lack of adequate funding. Schools have had £1.7 billion cut from their budgets since 2015. In a recent survey by the National Education Union, 94% of respondents confirmed that the cuts were having a negative effect on the support that schools are able to give to SEND pupils. The £365 million announced in December 2018 to help local authorities create new places or improve facilities for SEND pupils is a one-off cash injection, not the sustainable funding that people are crying out for, and it does not close the shortfall in local authority funding for SEND support that the Local Government Association identified at £472 million.
Recent steps to ring-fence SEND funding represent an inflexible policy, as the strict rules mean that only 0.5% of a school’s overall budget can be transferred to the high needs block. The policy isn’t working, as evidenced by the 43 local authorities that have appealed, asking for it to be relaxed to meet their local need. Can the Minister explain why a large majority of the successful appeals have been in Conservative-led authorities? This is a toxic combination of a misguided policy direction and savage cuts across the board to health and other support services. A recent survey from the National Association of Head Teachers found that 83% of heads are not receiving any funding from health and social care budgets to support pupils with SEND statements, and 94% have reported that they are finding it harder to resource the support required to meet the needs of pupils with SEND than they did two years ago.
The best intentions, will and desire of parents, local government, teachers and health professionals to do the best for learners with SEND are not being matched by the Government. In 2017, more than 4,000 children with SEND were left without a school place. Nearly 9,000 children have had their existing statement or education and healthcare plan taken away from them—not because they have moved school or have left school, but just because they have been denied the support that they were previously deemed in need of. The number of children with SEND statements in alternative provision has increased by more than 50%, and the number of children facing fixed-period, permanent or even illegal exclusions remains disproportionate compared with their peers. They account for half of permanent or fixed-period exclusions.
Some are lucky enough to get a plan, often at the end of a difficult and fraught process for them and their parents—a point made articulately by my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Ruth George), for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard)—but many of those plans are flawed or substandard. Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission found that access to therapy for children in adolescent mental health services was poor, and progress was minimal in implementing a co-ordinated service for those with SEND.
After the SEND reforms, the number of costly appeals against education, health and care plans rose to more than 4,000, and the number of tribunals almost doubled to 1,600, but that is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) noted, many parents do not have the time, energy, financial support or the opportunity to navigate that difficult legal action. The fact that almost nine out of 10 appeals are successful at tribunal confirms that there are serious flaws in the system.
It is not just children who are being short-changed. College principals have also warned the Government that support for learners over 19 is now being met by already stretched college budgets and is completely unsustainable. Some 16 to 19-year-old students with SEND are being charged up to £1,500 a year for their transport. Since 2015, university students have been required to pay a £200 contribution towards the cost of essential equipment for their study.
Behind all those statistics and figures are children and learners who just want access to education, which should be a fundamental right for all, no matter who they are, where they are from or what their circumstances are. Hopefully, when the Minister answers my points and those that other hon. Members have made, she will explain why, under her Government, that fundamental right does not apply to those with special educational needs and disabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing this debate, and I thank him for the constructive tone that he adopted in his opening remarks.
Provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and the support available for their parents and families, has been a particular concern for me since I was elected in 2005. Governments of all political persuasions have struggled to get it right.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the success of the Children and Families Act 2014, and pointed out some of the issues that have arisen. I was a Minister in the Department of Health when we were doing the early work on it. Much of what was done at the time was the right thing to do, but we must now resolve some of the issues that have arisen from that. Many—but not all—of the issues relate to funding. Many local authorities and schools are having to work very hard to make the best use of the resources available, particularly in supporting those children and their families.
I want to put on the record some of the things that we have done. We have prioritised funding for schools, and increased funding for high needs from £5 billion in 2013 to £6 billion this year—a 20% increase over five years. In December we allocated an additional £250 million funding for high needs, and in the next financial year we will ensure that every local authority will get a share of that additional funding. Across England, funding for high needs will rise to £6.3 billion in 2019-20. We have also announced an additional £100 million of capital funding to create new places and improve facilities for children and young people. That will take our total investment between 2018 and 2021 to £360 million.
We will invest in more of the new special schools that are needed locally. Sixty-five local authorities have applied for funding to build special and alternative provision free schools. We are currently looking carefully at those requests and will go ahead with all bids that meet the criteria and are of good quality, so that local authorities have the specialist provision they need. We are hoping to notify local authorities before Easter. I recognise that although that additional support is welcome, it will not provide a complete answer to the funding pressures that local authorities are reporting to us. We are preparing for the spending review with that in mind.
We have reformed the funding system and have introduced a new formula allocation to make the funding for those with high needs fairer. We introduced the national funding formula after extensive consultation. It marks an historic change to the way that we distribute education funding—one that previous Governments have long avoided. The formula that we use to allocate high needs funding uses a range of factors, including low attainment, deprivation and health factors, to direct funding to where it is most needed.
The formula ensures that the funding changes from year to year and takes account of changes in the overall population of young people and children, which the system it replaced did not. The formula also includes a substantial element of funding based on local authorities’ past spending, to reflect the fact that there are factors driving costs that depend on local circumstances and cannot be linked directly to the population and other characteristics represented in the formula. The formula also includes a funding floor to guarantee an underlying increase in high needs funding from this year to next year, subject to population and pupil or student number changes. Although the national funding formula is a significant improvement in the way that we distribute high needs funding to local authorities, we will keep it under review.
I will make sure that the right hon. Gentleman gets a letter on that point.
We want to ensure that the design of the funding system works in mainstream provision. The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) raised the issue of perverse incentives, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) and for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who has raised this issue with the Secretary of State. There is an expectation that mainstream schools pay for the cost of SEND support—up to £6,000 from their core budget—before accessing additional top-up funding from the local authority. We are very aware that that arrangement is deterring schools from meeting the needs of pupils with special needs.
A number of issues were raised in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) talked about the life chances of those young people and referred to proposed changes in Ofsted inspections, which are very important. I am the Minister with responsibility for post-16 further education, and I know what a brilliant job further education colleges do. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, getting education right early in a child’s life saves money and, in some instances, much heartache further down the line.
I point out to the shadow Minister that discretionary bursaries are available for transport, although I know that that is an issue for some local authorities. I do not recognise all that the shadow Minister said, which is disappointing, bearing in mind the consensual tone of the debate. I think that we all share and acknowledge the problems that families and their children face. There is no one system that works for every child. I remember that when I was elected in 2005, the whole issue of inclusion was much debated. Inclusion is positive, but it is not always the right answer for children or their families.
Home schooling is without doubt the option that some parents choose if their child’s needs are not being met. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) mentioned increase in demand for EHCPs and the issue of transport costs, while the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) raised the issue of the NHS not paying for the health part of the EHCP. When I was a junior Minister, bringing health and care together was at the heart of discussions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) talked about wraparound provision, which is exactly what the changes to the 2014 Act were meant to ensure.
The hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) talked about the fight that parents face—as if they do not already have enough to manage. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley talked about navigation of the complex system. It is a complete nightmare for parents who, as I said, already have a lot on their plate. There are right hon. and hon. Members present who are members of the Government—my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) is one—and who have an interest in this subject. If House convention had allowed it, they would have raised particular points, because this issue is shared by many.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education—
I will finish because I do not have much time. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education indicated that, alongside our announcement of additional funding for high needs in December, we will shortly launch a call for evidence to build our understanding of the current arrangements and the problems that they create. Money matters, but how it is spent matters as well.
I do not have time, sadly.
We have established a new special educational needs and disabilities system leadership board. Effective joint commissioning is key to meeting some of the challenges of high needs funding, and the board will focus on improving local joint working and strategic commissioning to help address some of the problems highlighted in Dame Christine Lenehan’s review into the experiences and outcomes of children in residential special schools and colleges.
Drawing on good practice, the Local Government Association has done good work and has published a report from the Isos Partnership that highlights how local authorities can work collectively and collaboratively with families, schools, colleges and others to make the best use of the available resources.
As the term suggests, children with special educational needs are indeed special, as are their families. I have dealt with some very poignant and tragic cases in which the family simply felt unable to continue to care for their child. The impact of care can often be very difficult for siblings in those families, and we have heard that marital breakdown often ensues. There is additional investment, but the call for evidence is much needed, and I am sure that hon. Members will want to contribute to it. The Secretary of State is determined to get this right. The invitation from the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton for cross-party work is well made and much welcomed, particularly in the light of his personal experiences of caring for a child with special needs.
The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) talked about the humbling experience of hearing stories from parents. Before I leave the remainder of the time to the right hon. Member for Twickenham, I would just like to say that I feel exactly the same. It is humbling to hear the stories of parents who struggle to navigate the system and who often have to fight local authorities. We know that in some areas provision is better, and that local authorities are doing a good job.
Finally, collaboration and joint working between health, care and teaching is what will make this work. There will always be funding constraints, so it is extremely important that we make sure that those collaborations are in place, to stop the parents of those children from facing such a terrible fight.
I thank the 13 Members who have contributed to the debate, which was very rich in content. They all pointed in pretty much the same direction, regardless of region of the UK or political party. We heard plenty of examples of the extreme tensions that parents face because of the pressures of special needs, and how so many of them have been disappointed.
I was struck by the example that the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) cited of children being kept waiting and falling two years behind in their learning before they are even assessed. There are many similar cruelties and disadvantages of that kind. We also heard many examples of the pressures on schools. The Minister acknowledged the point raised by several hon. Members about the £6,000 hurdle—the perverse incentive—and although I did not hear in her speech whether she was going to change that, she at least acknowledged the problem and recognised that much of it is hidden by home schooling, which is growing rapidly.
Several Members from different parties mentioned how their councils—of different kinds—are being put into serious financial difficulties as a result of the problem. Worst of all, councils, schools and parents are reduced to fighting and blaming each other for what is actually a collective problem. The aim of the 2014 Act was to deal with all this in a consensual way, and to focus on the needs of pupils, but the issue has become a cockpit of conflict—manifested in the tribunals system—which is growing rapidly and becoming increasingly costly, both emotionally and financially.
To conclude, I wish to acknowledge some of the constructive thoughts in the debate. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) talked about creating an intermediate triage system for picking needs up early before the formal assessment process is completed. The hon. Member for High Peak and others suggested that we could focus on getting more information to parents about their entitlements, to avoid their missing out or finding out too late in the day, and on changing Ofsted’s terms of reference, so that it incentivises rather than penalises inclusion, as is very often implicitly the case in its rating system. We also heard suggestions from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) and others about how the funding formula should be changed and how we could make more use of flexibility between health and education.
All that ultimately comes back to—I know that the Minster is painfully conscious of this—more money and the spending review. I know just how fraught that process is because I have been the head of a spending Department, but I can do no more than wish the Minister well and say on behalf of us all that we basically want a significant enhancement of special needs provision—alongside schools, not at their expense.
Finally, I will quote what I thought was one of the more memorable phrases. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) said that parents just want to stop fighting and get on with being parents. I thought that was a very good way of summarising what we are all trying to say.
May I break a few rules by saying from the Chair that I strongly support the broad thrust of the debate? I very much hope that our Government will sort this out in the next 12 months. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That is the end of me chairing.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered special educational needs and disabilities funding.