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Disabled Children: Accessible and Inclusive Education

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered accessible and inclusive education for disabled children.

It is an absolute honour to present this motion with you in the Chair, Ms Eagle. I thank a number of organisations for their hard work on the issue of disability inclusion in education, including the Disabled Children’s Partnership, Sense, Scope, Mencap, the Alliance for Inclusive Education and the One-Handed Musical Instrument Trust, to name but a few. I have been asked to raise these issues with the Government in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for disability. I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake), who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities.

Children with disabilities have often been most affected by the coronavirus pandemic. In terms of immediate impact, people with disabilities have accounted for six out of 10 deaths involving covid-19, while Mencap’s social care survey has shown that seven out of 10 people with a learning disability have had their social care provision reduced as a result of the pandemic.

Looking at long-term consequences, the Centre for Mental Health estimates that 1.5 million children will need mental health support for conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the pandemic. The NHS’s digital report anticipates a 50% increase in mental health problems for children and young people as a result of the pandemic.

When we account for the heightened immediate impact of covid-19 on children with disabilities, coupled with the mental health consequences predicted for young people, it quickly becomes apparent that the wellbeing and inclusion of children with special educational needs and disabilities must be prioritised. That is why I secured the debate today.

One of UNICEF’s seven principles of quality education is disability inclusion. The presumption that children with disabilities would be welcome in mainstream education was first introduced into law in the Education Act 1996 and expanded in the Children and Families Act 2014. That Act also enshrined into law disabled children’s rights to special educational needs provision and, where necessary, the provision of education, health and care assessments to establish what adjustments a child with special educational needs might have, and how best to facilitate their integration into mainstream educational facilities.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I am aware of this issue in my constituency and it is important to address it. Does she agree that education by Zoom, which many people have had to do recently, does not achieve the best results for some sensorially-impacted children? That underlines the importance of face-to-face teaching, where it is safe to do so. I understand the circumstances, but that is not the most suitable option for people with disabilities or those who are sensorially disadvantaged.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is an excellent point and it was well made. Children with disabilities have often lost out on educational provision because the format has moved almost wholeheartedly on to Zoom and the internet. I have been contacted by many families who have children with autism, who do not particularly like that format and will not engage with it, and by families who have children with sensory impairments, who cannot receive the adaptations in time to use the format at all. That has led to children with disabilities being disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. I want to raise the issue of access to education for disabled children. They cannot access education if they cannot get there, and, despite personal transport budgets, the school transport system is limited. I have a case where only 50% of a constituent’s costs are covered. Is it not right that we ensure that local authorities have sufficient provision to enable all children to access education?

Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point, which is echoed by my experience in my constituency. I have been contacted by a number of families. Local authority provision means that a young child with autism, who does not like close physical contact, has had to travel for hours in a taxi with individuals to whom he is not accustomed. That has caused behavioural issues and really impacted on his education. It is incumbent on us as legislators to make sure that those who are most vulnerable have access through local authorities to the provision that they need to meet their educational and care needs, and that takes account of their sensory, development or learning difficulties. I thank the hon. Lady for making that point.

Provision of inclusive education was greeted with absolute optimism by those who had long campaigned for it. Unfortunately, however, many aims have been left unfulfilled. There are gaps in support and a need for additional funding, as I have highlighted. Another issue that must be addressed is specialist professionals providing support for children with disabilities. As with so many underlying issues in our society, covid-19 has shone an additional light on the many challenges and barriers that children with special educational needs face in their everyday lives. It has exacerbated them, as I have explained.

Before the pandemic, the Disabled Children’s Partnership identified a £1.5 billion funding gap in health, social care and education, which would need to be filled to adequately support disabled children and their families. Sense has also noted that the gradual erosion of specialist support available to disabled children has significantly hampered the ability of the school system to provide accessible and inclusive education. There is an ever-decreasing number of teachers for the deaf, the visually impaired and those with multi-sensory impairment. Will the Minister comment on that provision and funding, and outline a plan to meet the needs of children and families? The lack of provision not only hampers participation; it also means that education, health and care needs assessments often lack input from an education specialist, such as an educational psychologist—I declare an interest and refer to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Appropriate adjustments in the classroom can also be missed.

Since the start of the pandemic, many parents of children with special needs have done their absolute best to educate them from home. We should celebrate the introduction of tools to help them, such as Freeview’s accessible TV guide, which has helped facilitate remote learning through making programmes such as “Newsround”, “Bitesize Daily” and “Horrible Histories” accessible in a range of formats during the pandemic. However, a lack of specialist equipment and broader resources for parents has meant that many now fear that their children’s education has suffered disproportionately. Parents have struggled to cope.

Despite schools returning full time, the Disabled Children’s Partnership has found that 24% of children with disabilities have not yet returned to school full time. Many are being taught on part-time timetables due to health and safety concerns, making their needs all the more immediate. The return to school has been particularly challenging for pupils with tracheostomies and those with aerosol-generating procedures, as delayed Government advice, finally published on 13 November, left many families feeling in limbo for months. Furthermore, the Coronavirus Act 2020 suspended a number of key provisions in the Children and Families Act 2014, which has meant that 31% of children with disabilities are still waiting for key therapies to be restarted. Some 51% of those waiting for an assessment for an education, health and care plan have been waiting more than six months, which is entirely unacceptable for families who are struggling to provide the care that is so necessary for their children.

With that in mind, I implore the Minister on behalf of children with disabilities and the all-party parliamentary group for disability to do everything in her power to ensure that children with disabilities are able to return to specialist and mainstream education as soon as is safely possible. I also ask that she ensure that provisions in the Children and Families Act 2014, which are key to ensuring disability inclusion in the classroom, are resumed without delay.

There is increasing anxiety among many qualified health professionals and therapists who work in schools—and who are absolutely key to disability inclusion in the classroom—that they might be redeployed to hospitals and health services in the coming months. That could be incredibly detrimental to the learning of children with special educational needs. I therefore ask the Minister to ensure that medical support for children with disabilities is maintained out of this pandemic, and that continuity of care for children with special educational needs in the classroom is protected.

I have been contacted by the OHMI Trust, which undertakes truly innovative work adapting musical instruments for children with special educational needs, to highlight the importance of music as a key element in inclusive education. To this day, this is often denied to children with special educational needs due to lack of awareness among music teachers or tuition providers, or a lack of specialist equipment that has been tailored to a child’s particular disability or needs. Music can provide an opportunity for socialisation and creativity, and has also been linked to improved academic achievement. I would welcome a comment from the Minister about ensuring that music is not omitted from any efforts to include children with disabilities going forward, and to work collegiately with the OHMI Trust to develop specialist instruments for children across the United Kingdom who have special educational needs.

Before I finish, I will touch on further education for those with special educational needs, and particularly the case of Mr Gary Copland from my constituency. A student at the University of Glasgow, Gary is in his mid-20s, has been registered blind since birth and has autism. He is currently studying for a bachelor of law. Gary was forced to go part time due to poor levels of support, and is now in his fifth year. In his first year, he was given only one course text adapted for his disability, five days before the end of term. In his second year, he had only four textbooks, leaving him to write all essays and take exams from memory. He has had no working IT for over 43 weeks, leaving him unable to graduate with everyone else in his year. The whole family is suffering from trauma as a result of these issues, and Gary has lost 30 kg and is now medicated for depression. I ask the Minister to speak with universities to look at these issues, Gary’s in particular—perhaps the Equality and Human Rights Commission could review this particular case.

Finally, I would welcome a statement or response from the Minister on the Government’s funding plans for disability-inclusive education. In 2019, a review of special educational needs criteria and practice was promised, but this publication has been delayed. It would be remiss of me, therefore, not press the Government for a date or timeline for publication. Despite the current circumstances, it is an absolute priority. It would also be helpful to have an update on autism assessments and the progress the Government are making, because many families tell me that they cannot receive the support required for children who have autistic spectrum disorder in school, or at home, because they are still struggling to get assessments.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for mentioning autism, because currently it is very much viewed through a medical model, so people are unable to access the support they need until they have a diagnosis. Does she agree that we need to look at this through a much more social model, in order to ensure early intervention support for parents, as well as for young people?

Absolutely, that is crucial. Getting earlier assessment, intervention, and support, even if a diagnosis is taking a long time, is crucial to help and support children and families to cope. That really must be addressed, and all too often children and families who are awaiting diagnosis have no support in the interim, which is really a failure of the system for those who are most vulnerable.

Lastly, speaking from my background as a psychologist, I believe that disability has to be at the heart of Government’s response to the mental health concomitants of the pandemic among young people. Children with disabilities are far more likely to have been isolated during the last eight months, to have seen disruption to their care and treatment, and because of the difficulties of adapting to home learning they are at increased risk of seeing their academic progress fall apart and fall behind that of their peers. We must do everything we can to support, include and cherish every single child with special educational needs across the United Kingdom. That is the aim of the all-party parliamentary group on disability, because we know that these children have so much potential and so much to offer their families, the community and society at large.

It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Ms Eagle, and good morning.

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) on securing a debate on this important subject. Let me start by stressing that we want all children and young people, no matter what their special educational need or disability is, to have the ability to reach their full potential and to receive the right support to succeed in their education, and as they move into adult life. The ambition is for every child, no matter what challenges they face, to have access to world-class education—an education that sets them up for life. If education is to be accessible and inclusive, it must also be world-class, which is why we have increased the high needs budget by £1.5 billion, or nearly a quarter, over a two-year period. I am also pleased to report that at the beginning of this month 80% of children with education, health and care plans were back in schools in England.

Ofsted’s regulatory inspections have been recently updated, and Ofsted is explicit in its inspection framework that all schools need to have an inclusive environment that meets the needs of all pupils. In addition, the cross-Government SEND review is looking at the reasons for the increased demand by parents for places in special schools that we have seen over recent years, and one of the review’s aims is to identify ways to strengthen the role of mainstream schools in SEND, by having faster access to extra help where needed.

In 2014, the legislation that we introduced on SEND made it clear that where a child has complex needs, and their parent or the young person themselves wants a mainstream placement, they can express that preference, and local authorities are then under a qualified duty to ensure that preferences for mainstream placement are met wherever possible. However, there are some circumstances where a child’s special educational needs may be best met through specialist provision, and it is absolutely right that parents should have that choice of being able to access places for a child with complex SEND at mainstream or special schools, depending on the child’s individual needs.

Throughout the pandemic, I have had the great pleasure of meeting—often virtually—mainstream and special school leaders up and down the country, and hearing from them about how they are have risen to the challenges of providing education during the outbreak. I really thank all of those staff, headteachers and children who have spoken to me. I am currently on a virtual tour of special schools in tier 3 areas, so I thank everybody who has spoken to me during that. I particularly thank the staff, children and young people from Thriftwood School and College, which is in my constituency, for talking to me as I sat in their playground—in a socially distanced way—about how much being back at school has made a difference to their lives. It has been an absolute privilege to talk to all of those children and teachers.

I am proud of the SEND system in England. There are plenty of things about it that can and must be improved, but fundamentally it is a good system based on the well-supported principles of co-production with children and young people themselves and with their carers, and a focus on the whole child and their education, health and care, as well as a focus on life outcomes, backed up by strong protections of the rights of parents.

We should all acknowledge that life for many families raising children with SEND was already hard before the pandemic came, but then they faced the extra challenges of lockdown and coronavirus. It has been a high priority for me and the Government to put children and young people with SEND and vulnerable children at the heart of our response. That is why I have spoken to many parent carers directly on many occasions and regularly written open letters to them and those working closely with SEND children to let them know what we have done to support them and what they should be expecting from the services on the ground.

Throughout the pandemic, we asked schools to stay open to pupils with EHC plans, where it was safe to do so. I am really proud that, even at the peak of the pandemic in the spring, we were one of very few countries in the world to keep schools and colleges and early years open for vulnerable children. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, keeping those schools and colleges open is critical for children’s wellbeing, as well as for their education. Since September, our priority has been ensuring that those children and young people have returned to college. It has been challenging for certain groups, such as the small number of children who need aerosol-generating procedures, but I am very glad to hear the vast majority of them are now back in school.

We have published detailed guidance throughout this time to schools and colleges, specialist settings, residential special schools and many others to support the return and to support their safety, but we do not underestimate the challenge that this represents. We know that special education settings may face even greater challenges, which is why we work so closely with them.

Our £1 billion covid catch-up package includes £650 million to support schools for lost teaching time, and there is an additional weighting for special schools, which get three times as much as a mainstream school. Headteachers can decide how to use that. They could be spending it on educational psychologists, speech and language therapy or other activities to support children.

We recognise the importance of respite for families with disabled children and young people themselves. We reaffirmed that message and legislated to allow a wide range of respite services to continue, including in the family home. We encourage local authorities to prioritise that support.

There may be circumstances where a child is not able to attend school due to coronavirus—for example, if they are self-isolating—and that is why we have made it clear that schools have a duty, in line with the guidance and the law, to provide remote education for state-funded school-aged children who are unable to attend a school due to coronavirus. We have also reviewed the remote education guidance. Schools should always work collaboratively with families to put in place adjustments to enable pupils with SEND to successfully access remote education alongside their peers.

I raised the issue of transport into schools, which comes out of local authority budgets. I have a constituent who currently is not in school because they need specialist transport and cannot travel with others, and the parents are having to pay for 50% of that travel. Will the Minister go back and look at the issue of children being unable to access school because of the insufficiency in the transport budget for local authorities?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Of course, we have given local authorities additional funding during this period for exactly the matter of transport, but if she cares to write to me about that specific case, I am very happy to look into it. Some parents have decided that they will do the transportation themselves, particularly if they want to reduce the amount of contact that their child has with other people outside the family bubble or school bubble.

We know that children and young people have needed to work online, and we have provided additional support, including for those children with SEND, but of course there are extra challenges. The Oak National Academy provides video lessons on a broad range of subjects from reception to year 11, including specialist content for children with SEND. In April, we launched the EdTech Demonstrator network, which is a peer-to-peer support network for the expert use of technology. It has done some phenomenal work supporting teachers—especially SEND specialists—across the country. Specialist support is provided by Highfurlong School in Blackpool, and the National Star College in Cheltenham has been running webinars weekly in which over 1,800 schools and colleges have participated so far, with many more accessing the recorded content. That shows how, throughout the pandemic, teachers and staff are absolutely passionate to learn more about how they can use technology to support those with SEND. That will have a lasting, positive benefit.

I am also delighted to announce today that one of those specialist providers, the National Star College, will roll out assistive technology-specific training. As colleagues will know, we are on course to have delivered nearly half a million laptops and tablets by Christmas to support disadvantaged children in years 3 to 11 where face-to-face education may be disrupted. Many of those laptops will be provided to children and young people with SEND.

The hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow mentioned the importance of other medical treatments and specialists. The chief nurse has made it clear that health visitors and school nurses should not be redeployed elsewhere in the NHS this winter. We have also been clear that specialist therapists should be back in schools.

The debate comes at a timely point, because the Government are working both on the new cross-Government disability strategy for publication in the spring and on the autism strategy. As the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) said, autism is extremely important. The Department for Education is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on the comprehensive review of the autism strategy. In developing the strategy, we are listening closely to autistic people, including over 2,700 people who contributed to the call for evidence.

Early identification of autism is really important. Under the Government’s opportunity areas programme, there is a fantastic project in Bradford using the outcomes for each individual child at the early years foundation stage tests and teacher observations to find out whether there are markers of early autism. The results are so impressive that we have rolled it out from the 10 first pilot schools to the next 100 schools. I am hopeful that in the future that could lead to much earlier diagnosis.

The SEND review, which the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow asked about, has always aimed to enable the education system to have that transformative effect on those with SEND and to focus on the person as a whole, with a joined-up offer of transparent services co-produced with them and their family to suit the child’s individual needs. That was the driving force behind the legislative changes we made in 2014 and it is the driving force behind the SEND review. It will require significant change from everyone involved in the system to deliver those changes. It is a fundamental and cross-cutting review in which we are working hard to find ways to make best practice in the SEND system become common practice. During the outbreak of the pandemic, it was necessary to reduce the pace of the review, but I and the whole of Government remain completely committed to it, and our ambition is to report in the spring. The areas we aim to improve are of long standing, but we are determined to deliver that real and lasting change.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for drawing our attention to this important agenda. We are as committed as ever to getting the right support in place for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities so that they can thrive and achieve their potential. Both she and the hon. Member for York Central raised important concerns, which I hope she is happy to hear the Government take seriously.

I thank the Minister and everyone for taking part in the debate. I pay special tribute to Greenburn, Sanderson High, and Duncanrig schools in my constituency and invite the Minister to the all-party parliamentary group for disability to further discuss these issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.