It is always a pleasure to follow Kevin Foster.
I want specifically to speak about special educational needs funding. A growing number of parents come to my constituency surgeries in real distress because their children just do not get the support that they need in class. Although parents generally have a good experience of support in primary schools, I am afraid that they really struggle when their children transition to secondary education. They find that support just is not there at secondary schools, and that those schools cannot cope with their children’s extra needs. More and more children suffer with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges, and there simply is not enough support to help them with those things at such a crucial stage of their life.
I have been contacted by several parents whose children simply do not attend school—they have dropped out—because of their anxiety and because support for their special needs just is not in place. Their parents are fined as a consequence. I believe that has also led to a number of informal expulsions of vulnerable children and to the growing use of home schooling, which I am concerned is used to hide the number of children who drop out because they do not get support for their special educational needs in school. Children are being written off and abandoned, and that concerns me greatly.
I do not for one moment blame schools and teachers. I know they work flat out as they suffer real-terms budget cuts. In fact, challenges with special educational needs are often the biggest issue that teachers themselves raise with me. They work with our children and see those challenges day in, day out. However, we know that councils do not have the financial capacity to provide the specialist mental health support that children need.
Across the country, council overspending on children’s special educational needs and disabilities trebled in just three years, from £61 million in 2015-16 to £195 million in 2017-18, yet, as the Secretary of State probably saw, research in The Observer this weekend identified 40 councils that have either cut special needs funding or are considering doing so next year. I am afraid his warm words are meaningless unless councils are given the funding they need by his colleagues.
We know that support staff are the key to supporting pupils with higher needs. They are always the first to be hit when funding pressures bite. Since 2013, there has been a 10% cut in the number of teaching assistants in secondary schools, despite the number of pupils having risen. Teaching assistants provide more than just educational support. They play a fundamental role in supporting learners with a whole range of emotional and behavioural needs, helping to address difficulties such as lack of self-esteem and confidence, and other hidden mental health challenges. However, when their numbers are cut, their work in this area has to be picked up by teaching staff, who already have to deal with bigger classes.
Between 2015 and 2020, schools in my constituency will have lost more than £4 million in real terms. That is a massive per-pupil loss of £226. Given those funding pressures, it is no surprise that disadvantaged and SEND pupils struggle to receive the support they need in schools. I was shocked by reports in the media that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was cut out of Budget discussions for having the temerity to ask for an extra £155 million for SEN places for some of our most vulnerable children. That is a damning indictment of the Government’s priorities when making Budget decisions. If the education of all our young people—particularly the most vulnerable—is not at the top of the Government’s priority list, they need to take a long, hard look at their position.
We have only one chance to give our children the best start in life. Support should be available to meet the individual needs of everyone. I urge the Government to take a look at education funding, particularly for children who face the most challenges—please do a fundamental review and commit to investing in the next generation.