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Children: Special Educational Needs

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to publish the outcome of their departmental review into children with special educational needs, announced on 6 September 2019, and whether this will include a response to other recent reviews and consultations on this subject.

My Lords, the Government are committed to carrying out a SEND review. The 2014 reforms gave vital support to more children, but we know that for too many children and parents the vision has yet to become a reality. We all want a system of support for those with special educational needs and disability which is consistent, high quality and integrated across education, health and care. We will take the time we need to get that right, drawing on evidence from the relevant reviews.

My Lords, at a time of enormous challenge, those who face challenges on a daily basis need our support most of all, so it is extremely disappointing news about the review of the education high-needs block for local government, which started between May and July last year, and the review that the Minister referred to, announced in September last year. The House of Commons Select Committee report of 23 October, which has not yet been responded to, and the Budget on 11 March, failed completely to deal with the challenges that children with special educational needs and their parents face on a daily basis. Is it not time that there was action rather than review?

My Lords, the review is a comprehensive review led by the Department for Education across government. It incorporates last year’s call for evidence on the funding of schools. We need to take the time to get this right. This year, we have given another £780 million to support education for those with special educational needs and disability. At this time, it is not possible to give a specific timetable for the publication of the review. I hope noble Lords will understand that.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us what the focus of the review of the autism strategy will be, and whether it will focus in particular on providing more support for girls with autism?

I am grateful to my noble friend. Under the 2009 Act, the Government are required to review the autism strategy every three years. This is the first time that the strategy will include children and young people; my noble friend is correct that one of the areas we will also address within that review is the misdiagnosis, and what we are convinced is an underdiagnosis, of girls with autism, who often present later and are better at camouflaging it. They often present very differently to boys with autism.

My Lords, do the Government accept that there are huge numbers of people who have moderate problems, which are being left for a long time and then have to be dealt with in the high-needs category? This is because we are not investing in classroom support. Could this be a key part of any review and new strategy? At the moment, all it does is to make people’s lives worse and costs us more money.

My Lords, I will take the specific question for the review about moderate needs becoming high needs. As the noble Lord will be aware, most young people who have special educational needs and disabilities—the SEND population—are accommodated within mainstream schools and without an EHCP, which was in the 2014 reforms. We are providing through dyslexia organisations and the Autism Education Trust, as he will be aware, further teaching qualifications and support for those in the classroom.

My Lords, I endorse the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lord Blunkett, but there is a more immediate issue as far as special educational needs are concerned. It can surely be only a matter of time now before all schools in England are closed. When that happens, the effects will be widespread across the country but for SEND children and their families, the impact will be profound. What planning are the Government undertaking with a view to ensuring that the vital support that SEND children and their families rely on will be prioritised in the weeks and months ahead? Will local authorities and other agencies be properly funded to enable them to deliver it?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. Obviously, within priorities at the moment the most vulnerable group at risk has been that of older people; but, as of last night’s guidance, there was reference to those young people with specific medical conditions, such as severe asthma or cystic fibrosis. They will be contacted directly by the NHS. But we are acutely aware that there are groups of young people, particularly within the SEND population—for instance, those in special residential schools—where there are implications in having any kind of household-type isolation. There are also profound implications for the families; those children are in residential special provision for very good reasons. As we completely realise, it is not as simple as saying “You now need to go home”, so that guidance is being worked on as well.

My Lords, is it not important to try to reduce the large sums of public money that are being spent by local authorities as they attempt to resist legitimate requests by families for special educational needs?

My Lords, I think my noble friend is referring to the tribunal process. Since 2014, the percentage of decisions being taken to the tribunal as a proportion of the overall number of plans is the same. Numerically, it is going up because the number of plans is going up. There are actually now five different decisions, or combinations of decisions, that parents can appeal. But my noble friend is right, too: we have given £365 million of capital so that local authorities can build more spaces because—he might not be happy to hear this—it is actually cheaper for local authorities to provide the spaces themselves, rather than use private or independent providers.

My Lords, I declare my interest in that I have an adult son with learning disability and autism. Will the Government’s review consider ring-fencing the money for special educational needs, which has always been a problem? This is especially given the fact that local authorities and other institutions are facing extreme cuts and pressures at this time.

My Lords, as I understand it, the funding goes out to local authorities and schools now receive, within the national funding formula, a proportion of that money. The money that I referred to—what is now over £7 billion—is given to local authorities and it is for them to determine locally what the needs of their population are. We believe that to be the right strategy, as they are closer to the needs on the ground.