Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Suffolk)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:10 pm on 5th November 2019.

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Photo of Sandy Martin Sandy Martin Shadow Minister (Waste and Recycling) 7:10 pm, 5th November 2019

I thank the hon. Gentleman and agree that underlying all of this is a lack of resource, but I think the problem is not the formula, but the overall lack of resource.

I have met parents whose child had been placed in another county hundreds of miles away. I have met parents whose child is taken to school every day, but then regularly leaves the premises without any sort of supervision to prevent them from leaving. I have met parents who desperately want their child to receive some specialist support, but who believe that he or she is just left in the corner of a classroom for most periods because the school does not have the resources to provide the extra care required.

For years, resources for child mental health, school health visitors, children’s centres, mainstream schools, county educational services, school transport and family social workers have been more and more tightly rationed, and the situation for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities has suffered as a result of all of these cuts.

For children on the autistic spectrum, the situation is dire. It can often take years to get a diagnosis. Child and adolescent mental health services often tell parents that they need to get an initial assessment from the school first, but in most cases the school has nobody on the staff who is qualified to make such an assessment and will pass the buck back to CAMHS. In some cases, such as the one I mentioned at the start, the child will never be in the school to be assessed, because one of the defining characteristics of many mental disabilities is the refusal to submit to stressful situations.

Even once a child is properly assessed and their needs are understood, there is nothing like the necessary range of provision for those needs in Suffolk, and in particular, in my constituency of Ipswich. I am not a supporter of free schools as a model for educational delivery, but I still supported a free school for children on the autistic spectrum simply because there is a crying need for that provision and there does not seem to be any other way of obtaining it. Such a school has still not been built.

It is not just a problem for children with mental disabilities. There are 637 deaf children in Suffolk. Far too many of them are not receiving an adequate education. Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission carried out a local area SEND inspection in 2016 and found significant failings. The revisit in January of this year found that, in this area of provision, there was still not sufficient progress. It is not surprising that little progress has been made for deaf children. The numbers of trained teachers of the deaf in Suffolk have fallen by 8% in the past six years. The county is now trying to change the way that social care support is provided for deaf children, but it is not involving the families in the design of the new provision. “Nothing about us without us” is not just a woke slogan—if we do not include service providers in the redesign of a service, we will not be able to understand the problems and frustrations that have led to the need to redesign the service in the first place. The problem is not just confined to children who are profoundly deaf. There is very little provision for speech and language therapy in schools in Ipswich, and the few schools that were able to provide it in the past have had to think very carefully about whether they can continue to do so because of the inadequacy of the funding regime.

In many cases, parents are being forced to seek private provision because they cannot obtain anything through the educational system or the NHS. Both our educational system and our NHS were founded on the principle that education and health should not just be the preserve of the rich. It is, quite frankly, appalling that whether a child gets the support that they need to lead a satisfying and productive life can depend on whether their parents have sufficient resources to buy them the help that they need.

The Ofsted report from February this year is not encouraging. It identifies three areas of serious weakness that were all previously identified in 2016. The first is the poor timeliness, integration and quality of SEND statutory assessments and plans. This includes when statements of special educational needs are transferred to education, health and care plans, and the delivery of subsequent individual packages of support. The second is the lack of local understanding of the support available and the poor quality of the local offer, including access to child and adolescent mental health services support across the area. This leads to high levels of parental complaints and anxiety. In this section of the report, Ofsted particularly points out the long waiting times for assessments for autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and states that current pathways do not support best practice in line with National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance. The third area of weakness is the lack of joint working to monitor, quality assure and maximise the effectiveness of the work undertaken to improve outcomes for children in a diverse range of settings and circumstances. In all three cases, Ofsted says leaders have not made sufficient progress to address the serious weaknesses.

Underfunded schools, a failing mental health service in Suffolk and a lack of adequate leadership have all come together to produce wholly inadequate SEND provision in Ipswich. This is not just about the provision of nice-to-have services. It is about us failing people and leaving them with ruined lives.

Let me describe some of the situations in which young people in my constituency have found themselves. One student was transferred from a statement of special educational needs to an education, health and care plan. The plan is supposed to give access to medical and social care services as well as appropriate education, yet the entire preparation work for the plan fell to teachers who did not have the qualifications, time or support to provide such a plan. This is one of the areas that have been assessed as failing by Ofsted.

There is also a student in my constituency who has profound difficulties, and would respond well to music and other arts stimuli, but who is being taught to recognise coins, even though there is no likelihood they will ever be able to shop for themselves. Another student built up a good rapport with a midday supervisor in the school, but then lost that personal support when the midday supervision service was outsourced and the staff were forced to spend time logging their activities on paper to ensure that they were fulfilling the contract, instead of interacting with the children.

Mainstream schools do not have the resources to deal with the issue. Teachers are already near breaking point, and some are leaving the profession as a result. Analysis by the school cuts coalition shows that 94% of schools in Ipswich still have less income per pupil in real terms than in 2015—£290 per pupil less. The results-driven competition between schools leads to decisions that particularly hit SEND pupils. The local authority does not have the resources to deal with the issue. The invaluable county educational advisory service, which used to be one of the jewels in Suffolk’s crown and led to the county reaching the top quartile for educational provision between 2000 and 2005, has all but disappeared. The county no longer has sufficient powers to properly control admissions, exclusions, recruitment or the allocation of funds within schools. The Ofsted report repeatedly blames “local area services” or “local leaders”, but it cannot pinpoint blame because, in reality, nobody is in charge anymore.

There are things that the county could do, but unfortunately it is doing the opposite. Improved children’s centres would go a long way to helping in early diagnosis of childhood problems and, in many cases, in preventing those problems from becoming embedded. As identified in the Local Government Association report on the subject in January, Suffolk County Council is in the process of closing many of its children’s centres and converting the rest to hubs, which will supposedly cater for young people aged nought to 19, although what a newborn baby has in common with a 19-year-old is somewhat beyond me—unless, of course, the 19-year-old is the parent.

Whenever hon. Members raise the issue of systemic difficulties in various services, it is normal for the Minister or Secretary of State to explain patiently that everything is now improving and the picture is based on past errors that are now being rectified. I do not believe that in the case of SEND provision in Suffolk. I believe that there are profound problems in the way in which the county approaches the issue, and that there is an underlying belief at Suffolk County Council and in other related services such as CAMHS that, somehow or other, the affected parents are just making things up and the problems will eventually just go away. I do not know what the answers are, but I do know that SEND provision in Suffolk is failing children and their parents in Ipswich, and that doing nothing is not an answer.