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House of Commons Hansard
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Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Suffolk)
05 November 2019
Volume 667

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)

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May I, Mr Speaker, add my congratulations to those already given in respect of your elevation, both metaphorically and physically, to the speakership?

Suffolk has a greater than average number of special educational needs and disability assessment cases going to tribunal; poor communication between providers and with parents; a lack of specialist placements; an inadequate resource in the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, which is supposed to provide mental health services; insufficient respite services; a growing gap between the provision described in education, health and care plans and what is actually provided; an acute shortage of autistic spectrum disorder provision; and an overall lack of staff and funding to address these issues, either in mainstream education or in specialist provision.

Since the revisit from Ofsted in January this year, and its report in February, little seems to have been done to hold Suffolk to any action plan that might deal with the failings identified. There has been no increase in monitoring since the failed revisit and no appreciable changes in senior management. Mental health services—or the lack of them—continue to cause distress to young people and their parents, and young people are harming themselves or falling into greater mental health need while they wait for support that does not come.

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First, may I, too, publicly congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your election as the Speaker of the House? It was a great pleasure to watch that.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this issue is critical, not only for him and his constituents but for me and mine, and the Minister has responsibility for it. The time allocated for direct contact time with educational psychologists is just 15 hours a year for pupils at one primary in Northern Ireland. For children dealing with anxiety and other social issues, that is simply not enough. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the provision of support and early intervention in respect of social anxiety issues can positively impact lifelong mental health, and reduce the need for further intervention in high schools at a greater cost? In other words: do it now, do it early.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct; he has put his finger right on the main point.

Two days ago, in response to the news that I had secured this debate, I received an email from a distressed parent. She says:

“My son has been out of school for 3 years in December. He was signed off by our consultant paediatrician as medically unfit for mainstream school. He has an Education & Health Care Plan. He has all the paperwork to state he has autism with a pathological demand avoidance profile but he cannot sit through the formal assessment as it runs for too long and he finds it too difficult to cope in the situation.

I have contacted the local authority so many times with regard to providing my son with an education; I have put in formal complaints and yet he still has no education.

I applied to the tribunal last December as the Local Authority insisted in his Education Health Care Plan that mainstream schooling was suitable for him, but they simultaneously refused to name a school he could go to.

The tribunal have made numerous orders ordering the Local Authority to name a school for my son but these have all been ignored.

We went to the tribunal last Tuesday, 29th October, at which the Judge told the Local Authority that they need to name a school on his education and health care plan and that the tribunal had to be adjourned until 13th December because of this, adding more of a delay to my son getting an education. He is now 12 years old.

My son is still without an education and we are in limbo.

My son deserves the correct education but he has been thoroughly let down by the education system. The strain of fighting the system tires you out but you still have to keep going. It should not be like this—every child has the right to an education. We keep being told that it is not the label that counts, but the child’s needs. Well we know our son needs an education but we cannot access any support for him to get that education because he doesn’t seem to have the right label.”

I had already secured this debate when that message was sent to me. The reason why I applied for the debate was that parent after parent has written to me, emailed me, met with me at my surgeries, and invited me to visit their child’s school or visit the school that their child would be going to if they had enough support in place, or the school that would be ideal for the child, but which has no more capacity.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, but before I make my point, may I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, for the first time on your appointment? I think you will be a brilliant arbiter in this Chamber.

To the hon. Gentleman, who is also my neighbour, may I just say that I, too, have cases in my constituency that are very challenging? Does he accept that underneath all of this is resource, that it is the long-term funding formula that has caused us to receive such a small allocation, and that by fixing that we actually have at least a chance to see significant increases in SEND funding in Suffolk?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman and agree that underlying all of this is a lack of resource, but I think the problem is not the formula, but the overall lack of resource.

I have met parents whose child had been placed in another county hundreds of miles away. I have met parents whose child is taken to school every day, but then regularly leaves the premises without any sort of supervision to prevent them from leaving. I have met parents who desperately want their child to receive some specialist support, but who believe that he or she is just left in the corner of a classroom for most periods because the school does not have the resources to provide the extra care required.

For years, resources for child mental health, school health visitors, children’s centres, mainstream schools, county educational services, school transport and family social workers have been more and more tightly rationed, and the situation for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities has suffered as a result of all of these cuts.

For children on the autistic spectrum, the situation is dire. It can often take years to get a diagnosis. Child and adolescent mental health services often tell parents that they need to get an initial assessment from the school first, but in most cases the school has nobody on the staff who is qualified to make such an assessment and will pass the buck back to CAMHS. In some cases, such as the one I mentioned at the start, the child will never be in the school to be assessed, because one of the defining characteristics of many mental disabilities is the refusal to submit to stressful situations.

Even once a child is properly assessed and their needs are understood, there is nothing like the necessary range of provision for those needs in Suffolk, and in particular, in my constituency of Ipswich. I am not a supporter of free schools as a model for educational delivery, but I still supported a free school for children on the autistic spectrum simply because there is a crying need for that provision and there does not seem to be any other way of obtaining it. Such a school has still not been built.

It is not just a problem for children with mental disabilities. There are 637 deaf children in Suffolk. Far too many of them are not receiving an adequate education. Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission carried out a local area SEND inspection in 2016 and found significant failings. The revisit in January of this year found that, in this area of provision, there was still not sufficient progress. It is not surprising that little progress has been made for deaf children. The numbers of trained teachers of the deaf in Suffolk have fallen by 8% in the past six years. The county is now trying to change the way that social care support is provided for deaf children, but it is not involving the families in the design of the new provision. “Nothing about us without us” is not just a woke slogan—if we do not include service providers in the redesign of a service, we will not be able to understand the problems and frustrations that have led to the need to redesign the service in the first place. The problem is not just confined to children who are profoundly deaf. There is very little provision for speech and language therapy in schools in Ipswich, and the few schools that were able to provide it in the past have had to think very carefully about whether they can continue to do so because of the inadequacy of the funding regime.

In many cases, parents are being forced to seek private provision because they cannot obtain anything through the educational system or the NHS. Both our educational system and our NHS were founded on the principle that education and health should not just be the preserve of the rich. It is, quite frankly, appalling that whether a child gets the support that they need to lead a satisfying and productive life can depend on whether their parents have sufficient resources to buy them the help that they need.

The Ofsted report from February this year is not encouraging. It identifies three areas of serious weakness that were all previously identified in 2016. The first is the poor timeliness, integration and quality of SEND statutory assessments and plans. This includes when statements of special educational needs are transferred to education, health and care plans, and the delivery of subsequent individual packages of support. The second is the lack of local understanding of the support available and the poor quality of the local offer, including access to child and adolescent mental health services support across the area. This leads to high levels of parental complaints and anxiety. In this section of the report, Ofsted particularly points out the long waiting times for assessments for autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and states that current pathways do not support best practice in line with National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance. The third area of weakness is the lack of joint working to monitor, quality assure and maximise the effectiveness of the work undertaken to improve outcomes for children in a diverse range of settings and circumstances. In all three cases, Ofsted says leaders have not made sufficient progress to address the serious weaknesses.

Underfunded schools, a failing mental health service in Suffolk and a lack of adequate leadership have all come together to produce wholly inadequate SEND provision in Ipswich. This is not just about the provision of nice-to-have services. It is about us failing people and leaving them with ruined lives.

Let me describe some of the situations in which young people in my constituency have found themselves. One student was transferred from a statement of special educational needs to an education, health and care plan. The plan is supposed to give access to medical and social care services as well as appropriate education, yet the entire preparation work for the plan fell to teachers who did not have the qualifications, time or support to provide such a plan. This is one of the areas that have been assessed as failing by Ofsted.

There is also a student in my constituency who has profound difficulties, and would respond well to music and other arts stimuli, but who is being taught to recognise coins, even though there is no likelihood they will ever be able to shop for themselves. Another student built up a good rapport with a midday supervisor in the school, but then lost that personal support when the midday supervision service was outsourced and the staff were forced to spend time logging their activities on paper to ensure that they were fulfilling the contract, instead of interacting with the children.

Mainstream schools do not have the resources to deal with the issue. Teachers are already near breaking point, and some are leaving the profession as a result. Analysis by the school cuts coalition shows that 94% of schools in Ipswich still have less income per pupil in real terms than in 2015—£290 per pupil less. The results-driven competition between schools leads to decisions that particularly hit SEND pupils. The local authority does not have the resources to deal with the issue. The invaluable county educational advisory service, which used to be one of the jewels in Suffolk’s crown and led to the county reaching the top quartile for educational provision between 2000 and 2005, has all but disappeared. The county no longer has sufficient powers to properly control admissions, exclusions, recruitment or the allocation of funds within schools. The Ofsted report repeatedly blames “local area services” or “local leaders”, but it cannot pinpoint blame because, in reality, nobody is in charge anymore.

There are things that the county could do, but unfortunately it is doing the opposite. Improved children’s centres would go a long way to helping in early diagnosis of childhood problems and, in many cases, in preventing those problems from becoming embedded. As identified in the Local Government Association report on the subject in January, Suffolk County Council is in the process of closing many of its children’s centres and converting the rest to hubs, which will supposedly cater for young people aged nought to 19, although what a newborn baby has in common with a 19-year-old is somewhat beyond me—unless, of course, the 19-year-old is the parent.

Whenever hon. Members raise the issue of systemic difficulties in various services, it is normal for the Minister or Secretary of State to explain patiently that everything is now improving and the picture is based on past errors that are now being rectified. I do not believe that in the case of SEND provision in Suffolk. I believe that there are profound problems in the way in which the county approaches the issue, and that there is an underlying belief at Suffolk County Council and in other related services such as CAMHS that, somehow or other, the affected parents are just making things up and the problems will eventually just go away. I do not know what the answers are, but I do know that SEND provision in Suffolk is failing children and their parents in Ipswich, and that doing nothing is not an answer.

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Congratulations on your new position, Mr Speaker. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) on securing this important debate.

Supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities is one of my key priorities, so let me begin by stressing that I know and recognise that some families and teachers are unhappy, and both I and the Department are committed to listening to them. While I am pleased that we have been able to secure an additional £780 million in high-needs funding for next year, we do realise that this is about much more than just money. I want to ensure that children and young people with SEND have the best chance in life and that the system supports them to do this. That is why we have recently launched the SEND review, which will look at how the system has evolved since 2014 and how it can be made better for all families.

About 1.3 million children have special educational needs. In Suffolk alone, 4,735 children and young people have education, health and care plans, and a further 11,369 are in receipt of SEND support for Suffolk schools. The Government are clear that our ambition for these children is exactly the same as it is for all children: we want them to reach their full potential in school and college and to find employment and lead happy and fulfilled lives. I have seen this happening in my own constituency. The 2018 Ofsted-CQC SEND inspection report for Wiltshire said:

“Young people are increasingly well supported as they move into adult life.”

In 2014, we introduced major reforms of the SEND system to improve and streamline the support provided to children and young people with SEND, and to put their needs, and those of their families, at the heart of the SEND system. Local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and education, health and care providers have all been working hard to implement the reforms, and we recently heard from the Education Committee that they remain “the right ones”. But it is important to note that most parents think that they get a lot of support through parent carer forums, which are providing a crucial voice in local SEND decision making.

The Ofsted and CQC inspections of SEND services will see all local areas in England inspected by 2021, and they have identified a range of strengths in the way that local areas are delivering the reforms. The reforms made it clear that SEND decision making must be informed by, and co-produced with, children, young people and parents, and we have played our part in securing that. We have invested heavily in the development of parent carer forums in every local authority, and forums have received £2.3 million in grant funding each year since the reforms were introduced. Every local authority has in place an information, advice and support service that provides impartial, free advice for families. We know from SEND inspections that in most local areas families really value that advice and support.

We know that most children with SEND are educated within mainstream schools and colleges, and we have committed to maintaining and developing still further an inclusive mainstream system. This really can work, as I have seen in my own constituency, where Abbeyfield School’s latest inspection showed that the experiences of their children are proving effective for all. So to support inclusion, my Department has awarded a two-year contract to the National Association of Special Educational Needs and University College London, on behalf of the Whole School SEND consortium, to help to embed SEND in school improvement and equip the workforce to deliver high-quality teaching across all areas of SEND.

As I said, I know and appreciate that there are concerns, particularly from parents, about the way that the reforms have been delivered across the country. While strengths have been reported in every local area, SEND inspections have also identified weaknesses in many local services. This does include Suffolk, whose inspection report was published in January 2017, as alluded to by the hon. Gentleman. That report identified issues with SEND leadership and governance, the timeliness and integration of needs assessment systems, and the poor quality of the local offer. Nobody, for one minute, is denying or underestimating the importance of those grave concerns. Where there have been concerns, we have worked with partners, including NHS England. Support and challenge are offered to all areas required to produce an action plan through regular advice and monitoring from the Department for Education and NHS England advisers and through access to funded training opportunities and resources.

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My hon. Friend is right to be open and clear about the challenges that we face in Suffolk, but does she agree that it partly reflects the long-standing impact of the funding formula, which has given our county a very low share of overall funding? Can she assure me that we will not only provide extra funding next year but back SEND children in Suffolk in the years to come?

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I thank my hon. Friend, who has been an assiduous campaigner on this issue, as well as others. Of course it is important that we get the right resources and funding into areas, including Suffolk, so that they have the tools and ability to ensure that SEND children have the same opportunities, choices and chances in life.

I recognise that there have been problems in Suffolk, but I want to reassure the hon. Member for Ipswich that, despite what he said, we are monitoring progress closely. This remains a key priority for our Department. We will hold a formal progress review meeting later this month, to which stakeholders and parents will be invited. Despite what he said, Ofsted and the CQC highlighted several improvements since the original inspection, particularly in the area of governance and leadership, from which one would expect the rest to follow. Improvements were also found in access to speech and language therapy; positive work by outreach and inclusion services; activity to reduce exclusions; and the active role and contribution of the Suffolk parent carer forum in shaping the development of services.

Many areas are facing pressure on their high needs budgets, which the hon. Gentleman stressed. That is why we recently announced £780 million in additional high needs funding for next year, which is an increase of 12% compared with this year, bringing the total amount for supporting those in need to £7.2 billion. Every local authority will see an increase in high needs funding of at least 8% per head of population aged two to 18, with some seeing gains of up to 17% per head. In Suffolk, the provisional high needs funding allocation for 2020-21 is £75 million—a 17% per head increase, and a staggering amount, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome. In May 2019, we launched a call for evidence on financial arrangements for SEND and alternative provision. We are currently considering the responses and will look at the high needs formula in due course, to consider whether any changes are needed.

Creating the right number of school places in the right settings is a challenge. That is why I am pleased that Suffolk County Council is developing more than 800 new specialist education places between 2020 and 2025. That will include the establishment of three new specialist schools, up to 36 specialist units attached to mainstream schools and an in-county specialist setting for children with the most complex needs. As part of the capital programme, Suffolk will open a social, emotional and mental health school in Bury St Edmunds, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) was instrumental in ensuring. It is expected that those schools will open across the next two to three years. Alongside Suffolk’s capital programme, through the DFE scheme, it is opening two special free schools in Ipswich.

The hon. Gentleman has raised some important concerns today, and I once again thank him for securing the debate. The Government have invested heavily in reforms of the system for SEND support, and local areas are all working hard to ensure that they are a great success. However, we know there is further to go, and we remain determined to tackle the issues that exist. That is one of the reasons why we announced the SEND review. The review will consider how the system can provide the highest quality of support to enable children and young people with SEND to thrive and to prepare for adulthood, including employment. It will ensure that quality of provision is the same across the country and that there is joined-up thinking across health, care and education services. Finally, it will ensure that public money is spent in an efficient and effective way to deliver for all children.

Mr Speaker, I am delighted to have the final word of this Parliament on my passion for education, which I have always said has the ability to transform lives for all children, including those with special educational needs. I must stress that I am committed to work relentlessly with my colleagues across the Government to ensure that the system delivers for all children—those in Suffolk and those up and down the country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.