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SEND and Alternative Provision

Volume 729: debated on Monday 6 March 2023

Before we come to the statement, I would like to point out that British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on

With permission, I will make a statement on our progress to improve outcomes for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities or in alternative provision in England. For those with special educational needs and disabilities, many schools and councils are doing a brilliant job. I have met many wonderful teachers who are unbelievably passionate about supporting children to be happier, more confident and better prepared for adulthood. However, too often our children and young people do not get the support they need and their parents have lost trust in the system. Our special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper set out proposals to deliver a more inclusive system, and I give credit to my predecessors, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), for the work they have put into this area.

I would like to put on record my thanks to the thousands of people who responded to the Green Paper consultation, and to the parents, children and young people who shared their experiences with us. Most people agreed that the experiences and outcomes of children and young people vary significantly around the country. We heard too many stories of families who were frustrated by the system, and who were battling to access specialist education, health or care services, including mental health services. I assure the House that we have taken those contributions and comments on board.

On Thursday, we published the “Special Educational Needs and Disabilities and Alternative Provision Improvement Plan” jointly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. The plan sets out the next steps that we will take to deliver a more positive experience for children and families. Our mission is threefold. First, we want every child and young person to enjoy their childhood, and feel well prepared for their next step, whether that is into employment, higher education or adult services. Secondly, we know that the system has lost the confidence of parents and carers. We need to regain their trust by improving the support that is ordinarily available. Finally, we have increased the high-needs budget by over 50% in the past four years; we now need to make sure that the funding is being well spent.

We will establish a single national system that delivers for every child and young person with special educational needs and disabilities from birth to age 25. To do that, we will develop new national special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision standards, which will cover early years, school, and post-16 provision. The standards will set out what types of support should be available, and who, according to the best possible evidence, should be responsible for making sure that it is. That will include clarifying the types of support that should ordinarily be available in mainstream settings, so that families can have confidence and clarity about how their children’s needs will be met. We will develop new practice guides to support frontline professionals in implementing evidence-based best practice. We will start by building on best practice, including on early language support, autism and mental health and wellbeing.

To deliver for children and their families locally, we will establish local SEND and AP partnerships. They will support local authorities in producing, together with families, local inclusion plans that are in line with the national standards. Those plans will set out how good-quality alternative provision will be made available. In our new approach to AP, instead of it being a permanent destination, it will be used as an intervention, in order to support those who may feel anxious, or struggle with their behaviour, in mainstream school. This system will mean that more children and young people have their needs met effectively in mainstream settings. That will reduce the reliance on education, health and care plans for accessing support.

Early intervention is crucial. That is why we are training thousands more early years special educational needs co-ordinators and 400 more educational psychologists, who will be able to identify children who need support, and to provide expert advice. We will ensure that children and young people who require an education, health and care plan or specialist provision will get prompt access to the support that they need, within a less adversarial system. We will introduce new standardised EHCPs, and will support local authorities in increasing their use of digital technology, so that the process is easier and quicker for families. By providing a tailored list of settings that are able to meet the needs set out in an EHCP, we will ensure that families can express an informed preference for a placement, so that children and young people can get the right support in the right setting. We will continue to work closely with families and local authorities as we test this proposal.

It is crucial to have the right school places in an area. We will invest £2.6 billion by 2025 in new special and alternative provision places, and in improving provision, including by opening 33 new special free schools; a further 49 are already in the pipeline. We will shortly launch competitions to run these schools.

I am determined to ensure that all children and young people progress to the next stage of life with confidence and optimism, so we will publish guidance on ensuring effective transitions between all stages of education, and an effective transition into employment and adult services. To improve transitions into employment, we are investing in supported internships; we aim to double the capacity of the programme between 2022 and 2025. We will also continue to work with the Department for Work and Pensions on the introduction of the adjustments passport, so that employers know what support young people require.

I know that the whole House will wish to join me in thanking everyone who works so hard to deliver for children and young people with SEND or in alternative provision. Honestly, some of the most inspirational visits that I go on involve meeting them. For our reforms to succeed, we need a strong, confident workforce with robust leadership, and access to specialists where needed. We will deliver a new leadership-level national professional qualification for special educational needs co-ordinators, so that this key part of the workforce receives high-quality, evidence-based training. We are also extending the alternative provision specialist taskforce pilot programme, which co-locates a diverse specialist workforce in alternative provision schools.

Informed by a stronger evidence base, we will take a joint approach to workforce planning with the Department of Health and Social Care, and we will establish a steering group this year to drive this work forward. We will also partner with NHS England to trial new ways of working to better identify and support children with speech, language and communication needs in early years and primary schools. Meeting children’s social, emotional and mental health needs is also a crucial aspect of strong special educational needs provision. Our school and college mental health support teams will be expanded to around 400 operational teams later this year, covering around 35% of pupils in England, and it will reach around 500 operational teams by 2024.

I began by saying that we had to regain parents’ trust, and I know that part of this means strengthening accountability across the board so that everyone is held to account for supporting children and young people. The new Ofsted and Care Quality Commission area SEND inspection framework now focuses on the experience of children and young people with SEND or in AP. Going forward, Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission and the Department for Education will provide oversight and ongoing monitoring of reforms, including delivery in line with the local inclusion plans. From this autumn, parents will be able to monitor the performance of their local systems through the establishment of local and national inclusion dashboards. Where there are disagreements about an individual’s special educational needs provision or support, we will make it clearer how concerns and complaints should be dealt with by local areas. We will also strengthen the quality of mediation and test different approaches for resolving disputes earlier.

So that all children and young people can access the support they need to fulfil their potential, we must put the system on a stable and sustainable financial footing. We secured £2 billion a year in additional schools funding in the autumn statement from this April, of which £400 million has been earmarked for SEND and AP. We are working with local authorities to address deficits through our delivering better value and safety valve programmes. Parents told us that some reforms would need careful consideration, so I am pleased to announce that a £70 million change programme will fund up to nine regional expert partnerships to design and test our reform proposals in collaboration with parents. To get this under way, we are today launching the tender for the programme’s delivery partner.

Oversight of reform will be provided through a new national special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision implementation board, jointly chaired by myself and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who is the Minister responsible for mental health and the women’s health strategy. Delivering for children and young people is of the utmost importance. My priority is to make sure that every single child and young person can access the support they need to make the most of their lives. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of her statement.

“Every family in the country with anyone with special educational needs will have felt at times like they’re battling the system…you’re fighting for it, fighting for support.”

This is how the Education Secretary spoke about the SEND system last week, and I know that her words will chime with many parents and families across the country. So my question to the Minister today is this: does she really believe this plan is good enough? Does she truly believe it will shift the dial and end the fight for support, end the battle for places at special schools and end the scandal that sees so many children with special educational needs held back?

I know there is support right across this House for action to improve the lives of children and young people, yet in the words of the Children’s Commissioner, the plan the Government have set out risks seeing

“more years of children being fed”

into a “vicious cycle” of poor outcomes. Much of the substance in this plan will not even come into effect until 2025 or even 2026, at best six years after the review was announced. New national standards, new special school places, new standardised digital education, health and care plans—none of this will be coming online until a further 300,000 children with SEND have left secondary school. So can the Minister say what the Government are doing right now for the children in the system today? How can parents, carers, and families be better supported now for the children whose needs are currently going unmet?

I welcome the fact that the Minister has listened to Labour’s call for a focus on the early years. Identifying children’s needs early is vital and the evidence could not be clearer, yet over 5,000 early years childcare providers have closed since August 2021. I am proud of Labour’s record in Government: the network of life-changing children’s centres we delivered across the country. The Minister’s Government closed over 1,300 children’s centres, and now, 13 years on, why on earth do Ministers expect parents to be grateful for the promise of the much more limited family hubs?

The plan sets the aim of reducing the number of children with education, health and care plans. Reducing EHCPs through improving support in mainstream schools and getting better support in place early would be welcome, but it must not simply be seen as a means of reducing costs within the system. Which of the proposals discussed will reduce the need for EHCPs, and how will they be delivered? Will the Minister provide reassurance to parents, already facing an adversarial system, that an EHCP will not become more difficult to obtain for children who do need that level of support?

I want to thank the thousands of staff working every day to support young people with special educational needs and disabilities. School support staff are frequently working with children with the most complex needs, yet all too often they are not given the training or recognition they need and deserve. Meanwhile, less than half of teachers feel that they receive sufficient training to support pupils with SEND. I am sure the Minister will point to the promised new practice guides, again, sadly, not due until 2025, but can she today go further and tell us when all school staff working with children with additional needs will receive greater support?

The plan talks about accountability within the system. After 13 years of Conservative Governments, we hear time and again about the same problems: “significant weaknesses” in local services for pupils with SEND; health services disengaged; families bounced from pillar to post, unable to access the support they need. This is a national pattern of failure that requires a national response. When do the Government intend to get their own House in order?

Parents, providers and all people working in the system to support children and young people are already asking whether Labour will stand by the direction of travel set out in this plan, because while it is right to test policies to ensure they work, this plan is symptomatic of a Government who have simply given up, and who are governing through a mixture of distraction and delay, pushing the tough decisions to the other side of the election. So, I say to all parents, carers and children with additional needs, “Labour wants to work with you to get this right and deliver the system that you have rightly been calling for over so many years, and to enable every child and every young person to achieve and thrive.”

I would like to come back on some of those points.

First, on the ambition of the reforms, these are systemic reforms: we are looking at every single part of the system and addressing a lot of the challenges that providers and parents talk about. Communications with councils comes up a lot with parents, for example, and we are setting out a new standard on that. On timeliness of EHCPs, we are working on joint-partnership working with health providers and local councils so that they can deliver on that. On teachers, we are talking about training as well. So, yes, I do think this is an ambitious set of reforms and that it will improve people’s lives.

On the timeline, we have not waited for the publication of the improvement plan. Not only have we increased the amount of funding for the high needs block by over 50% in the last four years, but we have also taken schools funding to historic record real-time highs, so anyone who is in mainstream funding can also get additional support.

We have also set out £2.6 billion on a capital programme to increase the number of specialist places. We set out 33 new free-schools last week, but we have already built 92 and there are 49 in the pipeline with seven due to open in September. We have also set out funding on educational psychologists. So there is much that we have already started to do, and we have not waited for the improvement plan. When setting out steps like national standards, however, it is important that we consult and take time to get it right.

The hon. Lady mentioned teacher training. We are going to review both initial teacher training and the early careers framework, which will work in tandem with our best practice guides to make sure that all teachers have the best possible evidence base to work from.

Lastly, accountability is something that we have been baking into the system for a while. We have put forward a new area inspection framework. Again, that brings in all the partners, because we know that education is as important as health. We will have a new social care inspector on those area inspections for the first time. In 2019, we changed the standards for schools so that a school cannot be considered good or outstanding unless it gets good outcomes for its special educational needs children. We are looking at all those points of accountability to ensure that the system works as well as possible.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), and the Minister for Health and Secondary Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), for all the detailed work they have done in this area. There is much to be welcomed in the improvement plan. The aspiration in the foreword to

“deliver a more dignified experience for children and young people with SEND and to restore families’ confidence in the system”

must be one that colleagues from all parts of the House can agree with.

Important strides are being taken to invest in new capacity where it is needed. In that vein, I warmly welcome the announcement of a new all-through autism school in south Worcestershire. I have long supported and campaigned for that, as has my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin).

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that, to maximise opportunities for children with SEND, we must get the right support for inclusion in mainstream schools, early identification of need and the right specialist provision where it is needed? With that in mind, I urge her to continue to work with Worcestershire Children First to ensure that we can meet the increasing level of need in early years and primary in my neck of the woods.

I would also say that implementation is crucial. We have a strong plan, but getting the implementation right will be very important. With that in mind, will my hon. Friend agree to give evidence to the Select Committee when we look further into these issues in the near future?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right that getting the right provision in mainstream is the key to success, particularly in respect of early identification, so that needs do not escalate, as we know they so often do if people do not get the help that they need at the right time. I welcome the new specialist provision that my hon. Friend will have in Worcestershire. I know that he has campaigned long and hard on that. I would also be delighted to give evidence to the Education Committee.

The goal must be to ensure that every child with a special educational need or disability gets the support that they need now—not in a year or in two or three years’ time—in order for them to achieve their potential. The curriculum framework for children and young people with vision impairment provides a framework of support to those children to access the curriculum and develop the broad range of skills that are necessary to learn alongside their peers and live independently. The curriculum also involves developing life skills for visually impaired children and young people. Will the Government agree to include that new curriculum framework for children living with sight loss in their new standards, or the soon-to-come code of conduct, and draw on the vast knowledge from within the sight-loss sector?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As we set out national standards and best practice guides, we will be trying to work with the best possible evidence from all providers to ensure that we have those included. We have also set out a new apprenticeship, with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, for teachers of children with sensory impairment. That may be an area that we can collaborate further on.

I congratulate the Minister, her predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), and the Secretary of State for Education on an excellent paper. I would press her further on the initial teacher training review. When will that conclude? That is obviously crucial. Early identification is at the centre of this review. Early identification of neurodiverse conditions—including, for example, dyslexia —is critical, so what tangible action will we see for better screening and better early identification so that every neurodiverse child can reach their potential, and we can support all children to succeed?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Obviously, he has been a doughty campaigner on the issue of dyslexia, and he has had many constructive conversations with me about the issue. On initial teacher training, we will be working at pace to get that right. On early identification, one thing that will really help is that we are setting out a best practice guide on early speech and language support. Coupled with the phonics test, I think that will be effective in working out which children are struggling with their reading, so that we can get the best support in place as quickly as possible.

This is quite a confession from the Minister after 13 years of Tory Government. In my constituency, children have waited months, if not years, for an education, health and care plan. Children are waiting three years for an autism diagnosis. There is parental anxiety over schools that do not have the right provision for their children, and anger that special needs children are excluded for misbehaving and left at home with no support. In one case, a teenager with a maturity age many years younger was left to cope in mainstream—they don’t! Does the Minister really think that parents trust her and her failing Government to get it right this time?

I am not sure I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman for that particular question, but I understand the frustration parents feel. It is something I have talked to lots of parents about since I became an MP, as I am in an area that has seen a huge rise in need. That is something the system is facing. The Conservative Government enhanced parents’ rights through the Children and Families Act 2014. We are seeing a huge rise in needs and we are setting out plans to deal with that. One thing that I think will help in particular—he mentions cases of children who are struggling in the system to find a place—are the local inclusion plans and partnership working. We will look at every single part of the system to ensure that we can assess needs and that there is suitable provision for all children and young people.

I refer Members to my registered interests. I thank my hon. Friend for what is both a detailed and serious piece of work that identifies the issues that remain in the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision system. She will know that I took the original reforms through in 2014 in the Children and Families Act. The legislative framework still holds together well, but as the Chairman of the Select Committee said, this is a lot to do with the implementation and the experience on the ground, not least when it comes to the role of health in bringing EHCPs together, especially in mainstream schools. To that end, can she say a little more about how she will make health bodies comply with their statutory duties, and about any greater powers that the Health Secretary may have to take robust action where children’s needs are not being met, both within the current legislative framework and in any future national standards? It is so important that this is done with parents and children, not to them.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for everything he has done on children’s policy in his time in government. He is absolutely right that we must make sure the health sector is also held accountable. One thing we have done is to change the area inspection framework, as I mentioned, which means that for the first time we will have a social care inspector looking at the health element. The Health and Care Act 2022 requires every integrated care board to have a named person accountable for SEND, which will take on the statutory responsibilities from clinical commissioning groups.

The implementation plan will not work if the workforce is not in place. As we know, to be able to achieve an EHCP, the workforce needs to be in place and it takes many years to train. Those professionals are not there currently, so how will the Minister ensure that the workforce is in place not just in the health pathway but in the school? The experience I am seeing in a particular multi-academy trust in York is that it is laying off the staff who would take responsibility for those children, as opposed to providing the therapeutic environment that children so need.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that specialist support is really important. We are working with the Department of Health and Social Care on specialist health support, whether that is occupational therapists or speech and language therapists, but we are also training educational psychologists and changing the special educational needs co-ordinator training. More importantly, we want all teachers to be trained in SEN. That is why we are looking at initial teacher training and the early careers framework. A huge proportion of the school population now has an SEN and we need everybody to be trained in it.

I welcome the Government’s new improvement plan on special educational needs and disabilities. I recently held an autism roundtable in Stafford to discuss the pressures parents are facing with gaps in support locally. What new support will now be available for parents of children with special educational needs?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for meeting me when she pressed me on this issue. We will be putting lots of things in place for parents, but in particular we will be ensuring that a specialist workforce is in place, that increased funding is going into schools and that there is better communication from councils, which is one of the new standards we will be bringing in. Hopefully, all that will help give parents confidence in the system. On the particular challenge with EHCPs, we will be streamlining and digitising them, which will hopefully help parents with the bureaucracy of trying to get their children the support they need.

Alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), I recently held a meeting with parents of children with special educational needs. They raised a number of issues, including having to wait years for support, a lack of psychologists available and a lack of specialist school places. Barnsley has one of the highest numbers of EHCP plans in the country. I therefore welcome a number of the proposals in the statement, but how many young people with SEND will have left formal education before the plans come into effect? May I press the Minister again on what resources are available to help people now?

As I mentioned, we have been increasing the budget, the high needs block, for the last four years. We have also set up further funding for schools, which will be going into the system. On specialist provision, as I said we have 92 new free special schools, with 49 in the pipeline and seven opening in September. We have also announced a further 33.

I warmly welcome more resource and better service in this crucial area. Where new schools are being considered, will the Minister ensure that local MPs are properly consulted, because there will be a lot of local public interest in the location, the style of development and the impact on existing provision?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Yes, I am happy to discuss with him the school—I think there might be two—coming forward in his area.

This plan comes three years after the SEND review was launched. Given that most of the national standards will not be published until late 2025, the new EHCP template will not be rolled out until 2025, the cross-departmental steering group will not complete its work until 2025 and no new primary legislation will be proposed until at least 2025, what message would the Minister like to give to the parents and children in my constituency and right across the country who have already been waiting too long and fighting far too hard to access the support they need and are entitled to?

We have not waited for the improvement plan to take action. Not only have we increased the overall budget for the high needs block by 50% in the last four years; we have increased school funding to record highs, we are bringing online more educational psychologists and we are building more specialist school places. All that work is under way. We are improving speech and language in primary school, and we are now looking at what we can do in the early years. All that stuff is under way. We are trying to make sure we can take forward standards in a way that works. We will consult heavily with parents and carers. It is really important to get that right, but there is much action we have been taking already.

Like many right hon. and hon. Members, I have met and got to know families who have children with special educational needs and disabilities. The difficulties those families face in finding the right educational support in the right location can be frustrating and tortuous, as the Minister will know. For too long, the most vulnerable children in Selby have had to travel long distances to find the education they need. As she will know, there has been discussion for some time about a new SEND facility in Selby. I welcome her plan and I know she is passionate about this area. Can she inform me, and the families and children in the Selby district and North Yorkshire, when such a facility will be delivered?

My right hon. Friend has long campaigned for this kind of facility in Selby. I would be happy to meet him to talk further about the details. We are setting out a lot more special free schools in different areas. For those who have not got one in the recent tranche, we will, I am sure, set out more in due course, but we will also be setting out local inclusion plans, which will mean that every area has to assess and meet the needs of its children.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on special educational needs and disabilities. I also have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyspraxia and dyslexia, so I speak with some experience of difficulties in school. I am concerned about the national standards, which I welcome, but we need to ensure that personalisation is not lost in the process and that there is not a levelling down of standards where they are currently good. I am also concerned that mental health support needs to be accessible for every single child with SEND. Can the Minister reassure me?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that national standards should not be levelled down but there should be a minimum. Across the country, there is huge variability. Some schools, colleges and early years settings do things incredibly well, and we want to ensure that we use the best evidence and make things as transparent as possible. On mental health, we are rolling out support in schools, and we are working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on child and adolescent mental health services.

I welcome the measures to help children with special educational needs and their families, particularly the focus on speech and language therapy, which I have discussed with the Minister. Will she consider Norfolk and Waveney as one of the early language support pathfinder areas, and may I encourage her to accelerate these reforms and good ideas?

My hon. Friend has had constructive conversations with me about speech and language therapy. I am delighted that we are rolling out pathfinders, and I would be happy to discuss his options in Norfolk further.

The Disabled Children’s Partnership will tomorrow publish its new research report, which shows that just one in five parents reports that they receive the support needed to enable their disabled child to fulfil their potential. That is no surprise considering that it can take up to a year for a case to be heard at tribunal, which delays access to the crucial support that those families desperately need. What are the Government doing to speed up the process, to ensure that every child receives the support to which they are entitled in a timely manner?

The hon. Lady is right that too many families are waiting too long. There has been a huge rise in need. We have put elements in place to help: the workforce strategies will ensure specialist provision; the local inclusion plans will ensure that each area is assessing and can meet needs; and the inspection framework will look at health partners, their roles and what they are delivering, so that all children and families can feel confident that the local area will meet their needs.

Too many desperate parents have been seduced by glossy brochures and slick salesmanship to engage in the adversarial process that the Minister mentioned, and to send their children to settings that are often far from home and where the profit motive of their venture capital owners sometimes takes precedence over education delivery. Does she agree that today’s announcement means that more children will receive education that meets their needs closer to home, which will be more cost-effective for the taxpayer?

I have seen a range of provision, including some private provision that is absolutely excellent, but I agree that too many children have to go outside of county to get the specialist provision that they need. Our plan will ensure that each area must assess its local needs and put the specialist provision in place if there is demand for it, so that people can get help on their doorstep, which is good for them and their families.

I welcome the Minister’s undertaking that, “we now need to make sure that the funding is being well spent.” I do not think that that has always been the case in Devon. I have a constituent whose son’s placement in a special school has become unviable, but the child is still on the school roll and the funding connected to his placement is being held in limbo. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that SEND assessments happen in a reasonable timeframe and that the funding follows the child?

In the new area SEND inspection framework, timeliness will be assessed, which it was not previously. The educational psychologists that we are bringing on stream will help to speed up the assessments, as will our other specialist workforce plans.

Stroud district families of children with special educational needs are exhausted from battling. Schools raise SEND all the time, so more power to the Minister’s elbow for the welcome systemic changes she is trying to work through. I would like to hear more about the Department’s work with local authorities, because it is the day-to-day experiences that are exhausting many parents, in councils all over the country of all different colours. Getting back to people, managing expectations and giving advice about delays all need to work better, because they are causing additional stress for families who absolutely do not need it.

My hon. Friend is passionate about this area. She is absolutely right, and I have heard from parents in my area and across the country that it is the daily grind of poor communication that can wear them down. We will set out more guidance and training for SEN caseworkers in councils, and better communication standards, to stop that happening to parents.

The Children and Families Act 2014 set out national standards in legislation, but families, parents and guardians of children with special educational needs and disabilities in Slough regularly lament that they feel completely let down because even those legislative safeguards have failed to provide support for children and young people. After so many years of failures, why does the Minister think that announcing new standards and a plan with no legislative underpinning will deliver better outcomes?

A combination of plans within the strategy will support that. We have seen an increase in need and better awareness of different conditions, so the national standards will bring together the best evidence so that people’s needs are met consistently and at a high quality across the country. On accountability, we have improved the area inspection framework by recognising that we need to bring in not just education and councils but health partners.

My hon. Friend the Minister will recognise that one of the greatest causes of strain and stress in the system is the assessment process. I welcome much that is in this plan, including funding for additional educational psychologists, but they will not be present in the system for some time. More urgently, what can we do to accelerate the assessment process so that children in need can take advantage of all the good things that she has described?

There are two things: increasing the number of educational psychologists, which will improve the ability to get a diagnosis quickly; and ensuring that identification happens in schools or early years. If we can catch things early, we can treat them and make sure that people get the right support so that they do not escalate. Too often, people do not have their needs met and they escalate into a crisis. That will help children and young people to get the exact support that they need earlier on.

I want to give a voice to Oliver, who has high-functioning autism and an EHCP plan in place. The fundamental issue is that the resources have not followed—there has been a lack of specialist provision in the area, and the local authority talks about a lack of resources. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that particular case?

If the hon. Gentleman’s constituent has an EHCP plan and resources have been set out, they should be delivered. In the case of autism, we need to ensure that people are properly supported; it is one of the areas that has risen greatly over the last few years, and I am passionate about ensuring that we have everything in place. I will be happy to look at meeting him.

I welcome the focus on ensuring that general, non-specialist teachers have a better understanding of new neurodiverse conditions. Many young people with learning disabilities are in the mainstream setting and have teachers who understand that neurodiverse people think differently. When it comes to diagnosis, can we please push harder, because so many of my constituents still cannot get an assessment for their kids and are having to go privately?

More generally, could we do a national campaign to encourage employers to do more to hire neurodiverse individuals? This is not about virtue signalling; neurodiverse people are among the great minds—the unconventional, creative thinkers—so the more we can do on that, the better. Neurodiversity week is coming up; I am not usually a fan of such weeks, but on this occasion I think we should put rocket boosters up it.

My hon. Friend has been a brilliant campaigner and has shown me around some brilliant special schools in his patch, such as the Sir Bobby Robson School. He is absolutely right to recognise neurodiverse people’s opportunities and the benefits that they bring. When I was Minister for disabled people, I saw lots of employers champing at the bit to hire neurodiverse people because of the brilliant skillsets that they draw on. I would be happy to look at what we can do further on the matter.

I thank the Minister very much for her detailed and helpful statement on special educational needs, which builds on a previous statement about the Stable Homes, Built on Love programme. It is important that that is a key foundation.

With more children struggling to integrate into multi-ability groups, and with funding pressures affecting the ability to provide classroom assistance, does the Minister agree that it is time for an overhaul of the system and that a pupil-focused approach is required? In the meantime, what can be done to stop capable children falling through the gaps? Will the Minister consult the Northern Ireland Department of Education on taking these ideas forward?

I would be happy to discuss any matters in this area that the hon. Gentleman would like to talk about. He is absolutely right that we must get the support right, with a focus on pupils. It is about early identification, flexibility and ensuring that each child and young person gets the support that they need to thrive in an educational environment.

SEND provision is one of the most critical issues in education in Oxfordshire. Exasperation is frequently expressed by parents who are frustrated by Oxfordshire County Council’s processes. I welcome the extra 50% in funding since 2019, but what is the Minister doing to work with local authorities to ensure that we cut through the bureaucracy, get people assessed and give help where it is needed?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have heard from a lot of parents about their frustrations. We will streamline and standardise the EHCP process to make it much simpler for parents to deal with. To improve access to diagnosis, we are increasing the number of educational psychologists. We are also trying to raise standards in schools so that early identification can happen even in mainstream settings.

I was thrilled last week to receive notification from the Minister that the Department will fund a new SEND school in Bracknell for pupils with autistic spectrum disorder at key stages 1 to 5. That will be massive locally, so I thank her very much.

Having fought for improved SEND provision since becoming an MP, I know the importance of today’s announcement. Again, I am thrilled and I thank the Minister, but may I politely point out that diagnosis is really important? We have to fix CAMHS as well.

My hon. Friend has long campaigned for extra specialist provision in Bracknell, so I am delighted that that is happening. He is absolutely right that diagnosis is important, which is why we are increasing the number of educational psychologists. We will work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on CAMHS and will ensure that we are rolling out mental health support in schools.

Carers and parents of those who need SEND and alternative provision are often battling against the system. Their children are their heart and soul, so it is heartbreaking to find that they cannot get provision and support when they need it or that they face reams of forms: it makes their life, which is already difficult, even harder. Will my hon. Friend confirm that we will put those who are helping children who need support at the heart of our approach, and that we will not create more bureaucracy? We must not just cut the red tape, but get rid of it forever.

I hold very near my heart the plight of parents who are struggling with the system. They know that their child gets only one shot at education; it is very stressful for them, and it can be heartbreaking when they feel that specialist support is not there. We will streamline the EHCP process and try to make it easier—we want them to spend more time with their children rather than doing paperwork. We are also trying to ensure that everything in the system is available so that they can get the specialist support they need.

How closely is the Department for Education working with the Department of Health and Social Care? In Westminster Hall on 6 February, as my hon. Friend may be aware, there was a very constructive debate about ADHD at which it emerged that a bottleneck is being caused by a lack of psychiatrists to make the initial diagnosis. Will she say a little more about the resources that may be made available on the health side for her educational project?

We are working so closely with the health Department that it has jointly published the report with us. We will also be working with it on a joint steering group. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about diagnosis, which is why we are increasing the number of educational psychologists in the system. I know that the health Department takes the matter seriously, including by looking at what can be done to improve autism diagnostic pathways.

I commend the Minister for her statement: it is really refreshing to know that she has such a passion for understanding the situation, especially the fact that alternative provision is an intervention and not a destination. I thank her for meeting me to discuss issues in local children’s services and for the important announcement of a special free school in North East Lincolnshire, of which Grimsby forms part. Does she agree that this is part of levelling up for children, parents and young people with jobs and opportunities? Will she work with me on how we can advertise and promote the jobs and careers available in special educational needs?

My hon. Friend has huge personal experience in improving the skills and life chances of children and young people. She is absolutely right that this is about levelling up, which means helping people to live the best lives they can, get the best employment opportunities they can, and enjoy their adulthood. I would be absolutely delighted to meet her to discuss the matter further.

I thank my hon. Friend for her statement, which I am sure will provide some reassurance to many of my constituents who have voiced their frustration with the whole SEND system. Dorset Council does its best, but problems have been identified in diagnosis prior to SEND support, particularly for those with autism.

On a related matter, we were delighted to hear that a special school for 14 to 19-year-olds was due to open on Portland in September this year, but now there is to be no sign of it until September next year. We are all nervous that somehow it may disappear. May I meet the Minister to discuss it and, hopefully, to confirm that it will come next September?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about diagnosis. Autism is one of the areas in which need has most risen. We will work with the NHS on new autism diagnostic pathways, as well as increasing the overall number of educational psychologists in the system so that people can get a diagnosis as early as possible. I would be delighted to meet him about his local specialist school.

As another dyspraxic MP in this House, and one whose handwriting closely resembles Guy Fawkes’s confession note, I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement. In Bassetlaw we have some outstanding specialist provision at St Giles School in Retford, as well as many excellent examples of mainstream provision and some very dedicated and hard-working staff, but SEND support for pupils varies across the country. Does the Minister agree that working to equalise that support and ending the postcode lottery is vital to levelling up SEND provision and increasing parental choice?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have seen some areas and schools doing unbelievably brilliant work, and some areas that are not doing so well. We want to reduce that variation and ensure that we use the best possible evidence all the way through the system so that there is much more consistency and choice for parents.

I welcome the alternative provision implementation plan that the Minister has outlined, particularly the focus on early intervention. As she knows, many of the children who end up in alternative provision are those most at risk of being involved in the criminal justice system in future. A particular concern that has been raised with me as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on school exclusions and alternative provision is the short-term nature of funding in the system. AP places are often called on at the very last minute when a child is excluded from school. Could the Minister say a little more about what her announcement today will mean for the commissioning contracts that are in place?

I am passionate about alternative provision: it is where some of our most vulnerable at-risk young people go, so we want to ensure that it is of really high quality. We will bring out new standards for it, which will be included in the Ofsted area framework for the first time, and we will look at how it is funded. Importantly, the local inclusion plans that we will set out will look at all parts of the system so that whether someone is in AP or struggling in mainstream, we can ensure a place for them and ensure that they are properly supported.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the measures that she has announced. They include provision for a new and much-needed school in Darlington, which is warmly welcomed. May I put on record my thanks to Councillors Jonathan Dulston and Jon Clarke for the work that they have done in this regard, along with parents and carers in my community? May I also ask my hon. Friend what assessment she has made of whether this additional provision in Darlington will meet all unmet need, and what more can be done to speed up the woefully inadequate waiting times for CAMHS assessments by Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Trust?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is to have that specialist school. He has raised the subject with me on many occasions. We will work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on the entirety of the plan, but we are looking at mental health support in schools as well.

I welcome the announcement of the SEND improvement plan. I was also delighted when, in August 2020, the Government announced £17 million of funding for a new SEND school in my constituency. Six months ago it was given the green light for planning, but there now appears to be a delay owing to a change of contractors. These things really matter, and we need to speed them up. Will my hon. Friend agree to look into the situation and find out what is going on, so that we can avoid any further delays and get on with completing this new and brilliant provision?

I know that my hon. Friend is passionate about SEN support in Cheadle, a subject that she has raised with me numerous times. I should be delighted to meet her and discuss it further, and I will certainly raise it in the Department.

As a number of us know from our mailboxes and surgeries, many parents face an uphill battle against the bureaucracy and, often, the postcode lottery of SEND provision. That is why I was so happy to receive an email from my hon. Friend last week with the news that we were to have a brand-new free school with SEND provision in south Birmingham. Will she join me in calling on anyone who is passionate and ambitious about young people in Birmingham to step forward and consider submitting a bid to be the sponsor body for the new school?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me many times, and I am pleased that we will be able to end the postcode lottery by reducing that variation while also improving the specialist education provision in south Birmingham.

I welcome the statement. I should probably declare an interest, as the husband of a senior learning support teaching assistant.

Sinkholes are making playgrounds unusable in one pupil referral unit, windows are being locked owing to fumes from a petrol station built next door to another, and there is widespread use of unregistered alternative provision. My Labour council has long ignored the needs of children who are unable to attend mainstream schools and who, like all children, need to be given opportunities. Its recent alternative provision building programme ignored west Cumbria entirely. I have supported a bid as part of the recent programme—the results will be announced later in the year—for an AP free school to be built in my constituency. May I ask the Minister to help me to give these kids a chance by enabling AP schools to be built outside the control of the council, which sees them only as a problem to be managed rather than as youngsters who need to be nurtured?

I thank my hon. Friend for everything he has done in his area for alternative provision, which he clearly cares about. AP schools are important because they are where some of our most vulnerable young people go, and we need to ensure that they are of the highest possible standard. I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend’s bid.