Backbench Business - Services for People with Autismbackbench Business

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:43 pm on 21st March 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee 1:43 pm, 21st March 2019

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. This is one of the many aspects of this challenge that makes life very difficult for the families of children with autism, and we really need to do better by them.

Even those families who do get a plan are often not given the support they need. A report published by the all-party parliamentary group on autism found that only one in 10 parents were very satisfied with the process of agreeing an EHC plan for their child, with 60% saying that they were dissatisfied. In Liverpool, a recent Ofsted inspection into how Liverpool City Council and the local clinical commissioning group catered for children with special educational needs and disabilities found “significant concerns” and “long-standing issues” in local practice. In particular, the inspection found serious weaknesses in the EHC planning process as well as in the quality of the plans that were being made. In response to these concerns, the city council is required to submit a written statement of action to explain how Liverpool will tackle the areas of significant weakness identified.

I am pleased that the council is responding with the urgency that that report demands. It has responded positively, but we know that Liverpool is far from unique. In fact, a majority—more than 50%—of the SEND area inspections nationally have resulted in the requirement for a statement of written action. This is a huge national challenge.

Across the country, devastating cuts in local government funding have contributed to a crisis in funding for children with special education needs and councils are struggling to meet their statutory duties for children with autism. Data from freedom of information requests and council reports show that councils are overspending massively. Overspending on SEND has trebled in the past three years, and it is continuing to increase, with councils having to raid their overall schools budget for millions to respond to demand. Cuts to local authority budgets have further reduced the kind of support that used to be in place for social activities for children with autism and additional support for their families.

Despite this challenging environment, there are brilliant examples across the country of great support for autistic children and their families. In Liverpool, we have some truly outstanding special schools, and it is not just me saying that: Ofsted says that they are truly outstanding, too. They include three in my constituency—Redbridge, Bank View and Ernest Cookson—which serve children with autism.

I want to focus on Abbot’s Lea School, which is in fact in the constituency of my hon. Friend Maria Eagle. The school caters for over 250 students from three to 19 years old, and its philosophy of education is the ASD model. I pay tribute to headteacher Ania Hildrey, who told me this week that she focuses equally on academic progress, specialist therapeutic support and development of life skills. She has transformed its curriculum, and she unapologetically aspires to be the best special school in the world.

Like so many other specialist schools, however, Abbot’s Lea is being held back from being able to provide the very best service, because local government funding does not go far enough to meet the demand for specialist placements or mainstream support. Ania told me that some of the welcome reforms in the Children and Families Act 2014 have not been implemented as planned, leading to poor school planning and a lack of joint commissioning. Delays in autism diagnosis often mean that schools receive referrals much later than they would like, and that limits schools’ ability to transform pupils’ lives.

Abbot’s Lea is keen to engage with both Government and the local authority to help shape the provision of education for children and young people with autism. I urge the Minister and her colleagues in the Department for Education to listen and engage with the concerns of brilliant headteachers such as Ania and with families in Liverpool and elsewhere and to work on a cross-Government basis to improve outcomes for children with autism. We urgently need to improve the quality of services provided to children, young people and their families, but that can be achieved only with proper resourcing and by ensuring that the barriers that still exist between our health and education systems are broken down. If we are truly going to make the progress that we all want to see, it is incumbent on us to listen to children and young people with autism, to their parents and families and to professionals, such as Ania Hildrey, who are working so hard to deliver the best in schools in Liverpool and around the country.