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Neurodivergent Conditions (Screening and Teacher Training)

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2024

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about screening for neurodivergent conditions in primary schools; to make provision about teacher training relating to neurodivergent conditions; and for connected purposes.

I stand here in this Parliament to represent all those who need a different type of support because their brains work differently. The Bill I am presenting is one important step in getting everyone the education they deserve. We have a principle in this country, and have had for more than a century, of a universal education system. Ensuring that we have proper, tailored provision for children with neurodivergent conditions is a critical part of that education.

Society now recognises neurodiversity more than it ever has, and we certainly have a much more positive debate about neurodiversity than at any point in my lifetime. We have more recognition in society broadly of the strengths that neurodiversity can bring and of the support that people with a neurodivergent condition need to thrive. I think that attitudes over a generation have shifted. I notice that myself: I am dyslexic, but for over 20 years I hid my dyslexia and I felt a sense of shame about it. Now I see that as wrong, but that is how I felt. That impact of society’s attitude has reduced.

However, I am one of the lucky ones. Because I was good at maths, I could get through school well and I got into an amazing university, where my dyslexia was identified. Still today, only one in five dyslexic children have their dyslexia identified in school. Parliament and the law have not yet caught up with the change in society, and there is further to go; that is why I present this Bill.

The Bill will make provision for, essentially, two things. The first is the early identification in primary school—preferably in the first year of primary school—of neurodivergent conditions, including not only dyslexia, but a broad spectrum of neurodivergent conditions. Only if we measure such things and find out how each individual child’s brain works can we best get tailored support for them. The second is the strengthening of teacher training. I recognise the work of the Minister and his predecessors to introduce specific requirements for neurodivergent conditions to be part of the teacher training syllabus, but much more still needs to be done. I also recognise his work in the Green Paper, published last year, on the early identification of those conditions, but still far too little happens. Turning policy from a consultative Green Paper into action on the ground is critical.

Neurodivergent people often have the skills that are increasingly needed in the world. The straight line thinking can be done by computers—artificial intelligence is accelerating that change yet more—but future jobs will need skills such as creativity, lateral thinking and enhanced communication that are often more prevalent among those who are neurodiverse. It is great to see some employers, such as GCHQ, Deloitte, UBS and Universal Music, proactively hiring neurodivergent people, but if people do not know that they have a condition, they will not be empowered to do what is necessary to make the most of those extra skills.

It is great to talk about the positive benefits that a neurodivergent condition can bring, but the stark reality is that children with such a condition are far more likely to be excluded from school and end up in the criminal justice system. Academics describe that as the “school to prison pipeline”. Shockingly, 97% of children excluded from primary school had a special educational need, and 80% of children cautioned or sentenced in the youth justice system have a special educational need—80%. They are nearly all teenagers. If their condition could be identified early, when they are five or six, then they could get the support they need. The impact on the nation’s finances, let alone the impact on those individuals, would be significantly improved. Research consistently demonstrates the efficacy of early interventions to support neurodivergent children. For example, research by the Education Endowment Fund revealed that those who received the Nuffield early language intervention programme made on average the equivalent of four months’ additional progress in language skills, compared with pupils who did not get access to NELI. The Department has funded access to NELI in many primary schools, but not all. I welcome that, but there is more to do. That shows the cost-effective nature of early intervention.

Technology is making early intervention more and more possible. Through the power of AI, screening of all children will allow us to understand how their brains work and teachers better to help them, identifying those who need a formal diagnosis at an early stage. That is critical. According to a London School of Economics report published last November, 15% of children with special educational needs and disabilities lived in the most affluent decile, while only 6% lived in the most deprived. Those statistics are important, because they show that the distribution of access to a formal diagnosis is clearly unfair. It cannot be true that 15% of children with SEND come from the most affluent decile, while only 6% come from the least affluent. Obviously, parents in the most affluent areas are more likely to be able to pay for a diagnosis, so there is an issue of social justice here in terms of access to provision. We must take action to ensure universal screening and identify who has these conditions. We can then ensure a fairer distribution of formal diagnosis.

I want to thank the huge number of campaigners, including many who are here today. I draw attention to the work of the Accessible Learning Foundation, which campaigns both on policy and on the availability of screening in schools. I also thank Dan Harris, and share his son’s powerful story as an example of when this can go right. His son, The Joshie Man, was identified as autistic very early on in life. His parents were told that he might never talk, but due to his loving parents and their ability to get him the support he needed, including the technology and his reader which he carries around with him, he can now communicate, learn how to ride a bike and help to cook meals. I was incredibly moved to see in the past month or so that he can now speak a few words. That shows what can happen if we get it right.

As the Bill progresses, I ask the Government to listen carefully to the evidence, the science and the data, and ensure we get the access that children deserve, so that we have equality of opportunity in our education system for those whose brains think in a straight line and those who think differently.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Matt Hancock, Yasmin Qureshi, Jim Shannon, Henry Smith, Holly Mumby-Croft, Jane Hunt, Andrew Selous, Tom Hunt, Kelly Tolhurst and Paul Bristow present the Bill.

Matt Hancock accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 June and to be printed (Bill 205).