SEND Provision and Funding

– in the House of Commons at 11:48 am on 11 January 2024.

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[Relevant documents: e-petition 634116, Increase funding for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) education; e-petition 619720, Fund more specialist school places for children with special educational needs; e-petition 607849, Make SEND training mandatory for all teaching staff; e-petition 591092, Require School SENCOs to be fully qualified for the role; e-petition 587365, Require all school staff receive training on SEN children; and e-petition 584129, More Funding For SEN Children To Access Appropriate School Provisions.]

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I would just like to explain to colleagues how we intend to proceed this afternoon. We have two very well-subscribed debates and I will try to ensure that all Back Benchers have a fairly equal opportunity across the afternoon. The guidance is that the opening speeches are to be between 10 and 15 minutes. I advise that, in order to be fair to everybody, we will start off with the guidance that six minutes will allow everybody an equal opportunity from the Back Benches. If people cannot stick to that, I will have to put on a time limit, but I think that will ensure that everybody gets a good chance to contribute.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden 12:25, 11 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
calls for a review of funding for SEND provision.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will try my absolute best to stay inside your guidance. We have 24 applicants to speak in the debate, which I think is a record, so forgive me if I do not take interventions. Nearly 100,000 people signed petitions relating to these subjects and I am pleased to say that they will have their voices heard in the Chamber today.

The debate about how best to cater for those with special educational needs and disabilities is often dominated by hard numbers: money, places, headcounts and so on. That is obviously a vital part of the discussion, but the real heart of the matter is the human impact, and the children and families behind the figures. My part of the world, the East Riding, has the lowest per capita funding, which is about a third of the highest-funded areas.

I declare an interest, or more than an interest: a prejudice. I have a grandchild who suffers from something called SYNGAP-1, a genetic disease that makes her non-verbal and gives her daily fits and seizures, so she has a very high intensity of requirement. In the two years of covid, she missed 40 days of teaching, over and above lockdown requirements, because of a lack of resources. That is eight weeks of schooling lost, causing enormous distress to a child who needs continuity and stability. We can see immediately how that has an effect. Chloe has complex needs and meeting those needs is a daily challenge for her parents and teachers. For her to miss so much school is simply awful and puts huge pressure on Chloe herself and on the rest of her family.

As important as Chloe is to me, the point is that her case is not unusual. Many of her classmates had and continue to have the same experiences, as do thousands upon thousands of children across the country. Parents, teachers, teaching assistants, mental health workers, carers and a host of others do incredible work to ensure that children get as much help as possible, but they are struggling to provide adequately for everyone. At the moment, the resources are simply not there.

A bit of background here is important. Education, health and care plans—EHCPs, as they are known—were introduced in 2014. This was a well-intentioned reform that sought to provide holistic support for young people in need. But what the reforms failed to do was provide resilience in the system to deal with future changes to demand for services. In recent years, there has been a huge increase in that demand: population growth, better detection of conditions such as autism, and longer life expectancy because of medical progress all put pressures on the system. As a result, the total number of EHCPs and statements of special educational need has more than doubled since 2015. That is a rise of more than a quarter of a million cases, with large increases in every age group, but the funding from central Government simply has not kept pace.

Part of the answer is to update the funding formula. The existing allocation of funds is based on an out-of-date assessment of each area’s special educational needs. Of course, some level of differentiation of funding makes sense, as not every area has the same needs. For example, rurality has a huge impact, as staff, campaigners and families in my area know only too well. Those national pressures lie behind the call by the f40 group, representing local authorities with some of the worst rates of SEND funding, for £4.6 billion in additional annual funding from central Government. The figure is based on that huge growth in the number of EHCPs local authorities have to support, as well as significant inflationary pressures. Each EHCP, tailored to the specific needs of a child requiring additional support, costs the local authority cash, so the more EHCPs are needed, the more local authorities have to cough up and the greater the pressure on their already tight finances. We should remember that in the past two years, six local authorities have already declared themselves effectively bankrupt.

The impact of these pressures on SEND provision is clear for all to see. In 2022, less than half of EHCPs were issued within 20 weeks of application. In other words, one in two children waited more than five months. Given that 13% of children have special educational needs, that is a huge number of kids waiting for help, and many have to wait a lot longer to get the support that they need. In some cases children have to be sent to schools far away owing to a lack of local places, and families struggle, over and above their normal needs, to get appropriate support.

Parents and carers have supplied me with many illustrative examples. One, Jennifer, said that

“we have been on a waiting list for 22 months for my son to see a Speech and Language Therapist...The lack of SEN schools needs addressing as a matter of urgency” as children are being

“let down and are suffering”.

Another, Esther, said:

“My son hasn’t had his EHCP met in four years in an SEN school... he has not had speech therapy for over three years, nor has he had his physio, occupational therapy, sensory or educational needs met...There is urgent need for more funding so that SEN schools can have appropriate class sizes with therapists and enough qualified and skilled support staff.”

According to one special needs specialist teacher, Louise:

“Services such as speech and language therapy have been reduced dramatically. In my Autism Spectrum Condition Resourced Provision class, we used to have three hours per week and now have three hours per half term.”

Another teacher, Catherine, said:

“We have large numbers of children who require specialist support to allow them to thrive and stay safe”.

Owing to a lack of resources, however, other children are

“receiving minimal support as we are firefighting, just to keep the children…safe.”

The financial impact of all this is, of course, enormous. The cumulative deficit in local authority high needs budgets is estimated to be £2.3 billion, and is expected to reach £3.6 billion by March 2025. There are more than 80 local authorities with large high needs deficits. Currently those deficits are being kept off local authority balance sheets by a statutory override, but the override is time-limited and will expire in 2026 if it is not extended. If and when it does expire, many councils will be bankrupted overnight, with huge implications not just for education but for all local services. That is why the f40 group considers the expiry to be a sword of Damocles hanging over the entire sector. Fifty-five local authorities have had to sign up to the Government’s Delivering Better Value in SEND programme and 34 have had to sign up to the Safety Valve programme—both set up to meet the challenge of dealing with the rising demand and costs—which means that nearly 90 authorities have already had to go to the Government for help.

Of course, it is also crucial that we are able to plan for future challenges so that we can meet them when they arise, rather than constantly firefighting with limited resources. To that end, there needs to be a substantial increase in capital funding to allow local authorities to invest in SEND projects. I say to the Minister that the recent announcement of £2.6 billion for that purpose is welcome, but more is needed. Without the start-up cash, we will simply find ourselves in another crisis in five years’ time. The numbers may sound big, and we all know that these are straitened times for the economy after covid, but in reality, failing to invest is a false economy. We might save some money in the short term, but the long-term costs, both to the budgets and to the children concerned, are huge.

Let us take an example. A child suffering from poor physical and mental health, suicidal ideation and poor school attendance spent a great deal of time refusing to engage at all. Special needs staff, having set out an action plan, gave him one-to-one mentoring support, thrice-weekly pastoral sessions, regular counselling and organised work experience. As a result his school attendance improved, he began to develop friendships with peers, and he was able to manage a full school timetable. His life was transformed.

The reverse scenario, however, happens all too often. As Mo, a speech and language therapist, put it:

“It is widely acknowledged that early intervention is key. However, due to a lack of funding, staffing levels and subsequent long waiting lists, we are unable to provide” that intervention. A child might, say, have autism and anxiety, and might be struggling to get into school and struggling to cope with the day’s work. Without help, those things get worse. The children come to school less, they find it harder and harder to carry out basic tasks, their friendships suffer, and it is then more difficult for special needs staff to get through to them. Ultimately, they will need a much greater—and more expensive—effort to reintegrate them into schooling, and will require much more long-term care. Intervening early is transformative, and that requires resources to make it possible to act before problems spiral out of control.

A further problem is the severe workforce difficulties that SEND employers face. Specialist teaching assistants, for example, now cost employers about £24,000 each, up from about £16,000 10 years ago. However, the place funding has been not changed from £10,000 per child, so we are not matching that extra demand. Many SEND workers would be better remunerated in less skilled jobs, and in a challenging economic climate, they may be forced to vote with their feet. One therapist, Hayley, said that she had seen

“a huge decline in skills and knowledge of the workforce.”

That will not come as a surprise to anyone in the sector. Of course Ministers say they value the work that SEND staff do, but it must be backed up by funding. Otherwise the workforce will continue to dwindle, with dire consequences for those who rely on their support.

There are many other aspects that I should like to mention, but you wanted me to be sharp, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will not deal with most of them.

These challenges extend to further education. Young people aged 16 to 25 make up 27% of those with EHCPs, and I know that some of my colleagues will want to touch on that. Moreover, as I have said, this is not simply a matter of funding. Just this week the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Mike Freer, recognised the need for “systemic reform” because families were waiting between nine and 13 months for a hearing after appealing against EHCP decisions.

I am sure that some of my colleagues will go further into these issues in their speeches, and will mention their own experiences of helping families in their constituencies. My right hon. Friend and neighbour Sir Greg Knight cannot be here this afternoon because of a constituency engagement, but I know that he agrees with all the points I have made. Front Benchers who cannot contribute to the debate also have their concerns. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend Victoria Prentis has, like many others, been contacted by numerous constituents about this subject, and has taken their worries on board. The same is true of other Ministers who did not particularly want me to mention them; I cannot think why!

The bottom line is this. The support that a society provides for its most vulnerable is a measure of its compassion, and, to my mind, a measure of its civilisation. That is the key. I am sure that the Government share those principles, but now we must find a way to deliver the change that is needed to make them a reality.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade) 12:38, 11 January 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Sir David Davis, who did a superb job of setting out the strategic argument for more funding for those with special educational needs. I hope that we will get some hint from Ministers that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has heard the calls from parents across the country, and that more revenue funding and, crucially, more capital funding will be made available.

I want to raise a series of parochial issues that are nevertheless relevant to the more strategic arguments advanced by the right hon. Gentleman. Let me say at the outset that I entirely recognise from my own casework the stories of parents and their difficulties in obtaining support for their children with special educational needs. I am sure that is the experience of everyone in this House.

At the outset, I acknowledge the skill and commitment of those who work with and teach children with special educational needs, both in my constituency and across the country. Teachers are remarkable at the best of times but, like other school staff, they are not valued enough. They are fundamental to the future of our country and to the future of the vulnerable young people we are talking about today.

I am fortunate that Harrow is blessed with good special schools. Alexandra School in south Harrow, in my constituency, is particularly good, but Shaftesbury High School, Kingsley High School and Woodlands School are also very effective. I commend their staff to the House. I also acknowledge the impressive performance of special educational needs co-ordinators and other staff who support young people in Harrow’s mainstream school settings.

There is a clear need for a new 300-place special school in Harrow. The four special schools I mentioned face serious financial difficulties, and more investment is needed for the young people in Harrow’s mainstream schools to get the support they need. Harrow has seen a 55% increase in the number of young people with EHCPs over the last five years, and Harrow Council estimates that the figure is likely to increase by about 100 a year. The four special schools in Harrow have just under 500 places between them, but 700 young people a year from my community are being placed in special schools. The council already relies on finding placements for vulnerable children with special educational needs in out-of-borough schools and private special schools that are further away from their family settings.

As I understand it, Harrow already has a much greater reliance on private SEN schools than the national average. There is very little space to expand the borough’s four special schools, and Harrow is unfortunately surrounded by neighbouring boroughs that are also seeing very significant increases in the number of young people with significant special educational needs. Pressure is also rising fast on the private and independent schools catering for those with special educational needs on which Harrow might draw.

That means that a much higher proportion of Harrow’s high needs budget is being spent on significantly more expensive placements than would be spent if an additional special school were built in the borough. As I understand it, my council is now worried that there will be further significant fee increases for those schools, placing even greater pressure on the existing special needs budget.

The Department for Education has turned down Harrow’s application for a special school three times, even though the Department accepts that it was an effective bid and worthy of funding, had funding been available—hence the urgent need for more capital funding.

Finally, I underline the point that special schools in Harrow, and I suspect across the country, are already facing serious financial problems. I understand that the National Network of Specialist Provision has revealed that 80% of special schools responding to its survey reported a budget deficit in year one of their financial cycle, rising to 90% in year two. The average size of that deficit is £145,000 in year one, which has huge implications for school budgets. That needs to be urgently addressed in the forthcoming Budget.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 12:44, 11 January 2024

It is a great pleasure to speak in this hugely important debate. I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing time, and to the Petitions Committee for organising and managing many of the important petitions to which it relates, some of which I hope to address.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis on championing this vital campaign. Having worked alongside him on one or two challenging issues over the years, I now have the pleasure of doing so again. I support his motion for three key reasons. As we have heard, Members across the House have huge case loads relating to special educational needs. As Chairman of the Education Committee, and as a long-standing and committed supporter of f40 and its campaign for fairer funding, I think that getting the right support to children with special educational needs and disabilities is a vital challenge, and we have to be frank that it is a challenge with which successive Governments have struggled.

The Committee praised the aims of the 2014 reforms, but it concluded in 2019 that their implementation had not been effective and that funding was “wholly inadequate”. It is to the Government’s great credit that high needs funding has since increased substantially, more than doubling since 2015 and increasing by 60% since the start of this Parliament.

There has been a real focus on providing more specialist places but, while it is undoubtedly true that this Government have prioritised the needs of SEN children in spending reviews, it is also true that the real and substantial increases have not been enough to meet demand. The vast majority of local authorities are facing high needs deficits. Worcestershire is by no means among the worst, but it has told me that it expects its deficit to rise from £34.5 million at the end of March 2024 to £44 million next year.

Not only are specialist and mainstream settings in every constituency struggling to meet the demands of the parents and families that they do accommodate but, as my right hon. Friend made clear in his granddaughter’s case, too many children are not in those settings when they ought to be. The Education Committee has heard that non-elective home education is too prevalent in this space. It is therefore right that we use this debate to press for more resource for what is, legally and morally, a meeting of basic need and the fundamental right to education.

I pay tribute, as others have, to the incredible work happening in every single school in my constituency to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. I say every single school, because it is clear that SEN children and children with EHCPs are spread across the entire school estate—mainstream as well as specialist. I hear from teachers and leaders in mainstream primary schools, early years settings, secondaries, sixth forms and colleges, and, almost without exception, they speak about observing rising levels of need and complexity of need.

That is even more acute in specialist settings, which some years ago were dealing with a few highly complex cases of children with multiple and severe conditions, alongside larger numbers of children with a single diagnosis. Today, an increasing proportion of their intake is taken up by those with multiple and severe conditions, and both Regency High School and Fort Royal Community Primary School in my constituency have described the pressures that creates.

We should all be supporting the incredible parents and carers who support SEN children, while recognising, as the Government’s Green Paper and White Paper have, that the current system has been a source of frustration and confrontation for them. We should be supporting the aspirations of the Green Paper and the White Paper to deliver the right support in the right place at the right time, but to do so will require the scale of resource and investment in training, infrastructure and needs-based funding for which this debate is calling.

There are brilliant people providing support to SEND children across the country, but the rising tide of demand for specialist support needs to be acknowledged from the start. That is why the case for more funding, as well as fairer funding, is really important. Ahead of this debate, f40 prepared a detailed and instructive briefing setting out that the areas that have among the lowest overall school funding also have among the lowest extra funding for high needs. For the record, Worcestershire has the 30th lowest overall funding and the 32nd lowest high needs funding. That position has improved since 2010, but it still puts our school pupils, and particularly our special needs pupils, at a huge disadvantage compared with those with exactly the same needs in better funded areas.

I know that the Department for Education drafted legislation to take the next step in delivering on our manifesto promise of a fairer funding formula by making dedicated schools grant payments directly to schools, rather than through local authorities, but that the legislation fell victim to the demise of the late Schools Bill. I ask the Minister for an update on when the Department plans to take that crucial next step.

Today, f40 is calling not for reallocation but for growing the size of the pie, and for doing so with urgency. That call has been backed by the National Education Union, the Association of School and College Leaders, the National Association of Head Teachers, the Early Years Alliance and the National Governance Association, which all agree that the high needs block requires an extra £4.6 billion a year just to prevent the current crisis in high needs from getting worse. That has been estimated through the growth in the number of EHCPs since 2015.

The substantial revenue funding ask in today’s motion is only part of the solution. We also need to reduce lengthy journeys, which have placed huge strains on home-to-school transport budgets but do nothing for the welfare of children. My local authority, like many others, is seeing huge increases in its home-to-school transport budget. That is contributing to another growing deficit, putting more pressure on local families and other services. Although I appreciate that the Department for Education is not the funder for those budgets, joint working with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that they are properly funded and effectively used is vital.

We need to ensure that the worthy aspiration set out in the last spending review settlement—the £2.6 billion to provide new places—is not just dealt with as a one-off; it needs to be continued in future spending reviews. With that in mind, I am very grateful for the investment that has gone into a new all-through specialist autism school in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin. However, I know that my primary special school, Fort Royal, and my secondary special school, Regency, are desperately in need of expansion. We need to see that capital continue to come and we desperately need a new specialist assessment centre for the early years in Worcester.

Spending to save in this area is very important, and the Government have rightly set out to halve the disability employment gap. My Committee’s inquiry on careers education highlighted how SEN children could benefit from more support in advice and guidance on their careers. I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said about the importance of speech and language therapy and investment in that area. I supported the calls for SEND in the specialists campaign last year, and I am glad that the Government have responded positively to a number of those, but we also need to look at auditory verbal therapy, teachers of the deaf, and the number of child psychologists and paediatricians in our health and care teams. Some areas that go beyond the education budget need to be looked at in this respect.

I briefly wish to touch on some of the petitions in support of this motion that related to training for SEN. They are very important, and I welcome the fact that the Government have made some moves to include more SEN content in the initial teacher training curriculum. I urge them also to look at the early career framework in that respect, and that echoes some of the calls that my Select Committee has made. Petition 591092 called for greater qualifications for SENCOs and for us to set a higher bar for their expertise and training. My Committee has welcomed the Government’s commitment to national professional qualifications for SENCOs and heard some positive information on the number of people taking the level 3 qualification. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend David Johnston, who is on the Front Bench today, wrote to us in October to say:

“We have increased funding for an additional 2,000 SENCOs to be trained, taking the total up to 7,000… The project is on track to train a minimum of 3,000 SENCOs by August 2024.”

Can he confirm that that trajectory is being maintained?

This is a hugely challenging and important area. It would not only ease a large and growing financial burden affecting every local authority up and down the country, but particularly benefit children with SEND and their families if the aspirations set out in this motion could be delivered. I therefore commend it to the whole House.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the two opening speakers for being nearly within time. I remind Members that my guidance is that they should speak for six minutes. I call Ian Lavery.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck 12:53, 11 January 2024

We can be said to be a decent and humane society only if we have done our utmost to provide help and support for the most vulnerable children in our communities. We should be able to proclaim not only that we provide for reasonable levels of material wellbeing for such children, but that we are also allowing them access to the education they need to better their lives. On both counts, this Government have failed, but one of their most glaring failures is the failure to provide the necessary funding for the educational requirements of children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the regional inequalities in respect of both the prevalence of EHCPs and the inadequate resourcing that reflects this particular need?

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

I thank my hon. Friend for that very clear intervention, and I will deal with that point later in my contribution.

As a nation, we generally fail to make education provision the priority that it deserves to be. We can develop a modern and diverse economy only if we have people with the necessary skills and knowledge that such an economy requires. Most importantly, our working-class children will continue to be held back if we do not prioritise the proper funding of our schools and further education colleges. Shamefully, the UK spends only 4.2% of our national income on education, compared with the average of 5% spent by OECD members.

When one considers the financial resources provided for the educational needs for pupils with SEND, one sees that the underfunding is even more pronounced. According to the f40 organisation, which represents the 40 local authorities with the lowest amount of education funding, an additional £4.6 billion for baseline funding is required to make up that shortfall. Without this additional spending, children with SEND will not find the places they deserve in either mainstream or specialist schools. Yet at a time when more SEND funding is so desperately needed, the funding is actually decreasing.

In September 2023, my local authority, Northumberland County Council, reported that the number of EHCPs in Northumberland is increasing by 10% per year. Increased need should, of course, be met by increased funding, but central Government have increased the element for SEND funding within their grant to the council by only 8.84%. Indeed, over the past four years there has been growth of 72% in the number of EHCPs, while funding from the DfE has increased by only 42%—it is unbelievable.

In 2023-24, for the first time, the Northumberland schools high needs block will overspend. Expectations for April 2025 are even worse, and there will be a minus 12% deficit at the minimum. On a positive note, there are more learners with SEND having their needs well meet in Northumberland schools than ever before. That is testament to the fantastic work of the school and local authority staff, who are finding way to continue amid the chaos, but they are being stretched to the limit. I want to pay tribute to the staff, pupils and parents at The Dales School, Cleaswell Hill School, Collingwood School and Castle School, among others in my constituency, which continue to do a fantastic job. Shockingly, however, the amount per SEND child per year allocated by the Government is £10,000—an amount that has been frozen for 11 years. Costs pressures on all schools have increased greatly, yet the amount per child with SEND has remained frozen for more than a decade—that is astonishing.

Many children with SEND can only attend schools that have the physical environment that is appropriate for them. That requires ensuring that their schools have, at all times, the adjustments in layout and means of access that these children must have. Some students with SEND also need specialist electronic education equipment and IT provision. Those needs can be met only with adequate capital spending. Last summer, the Government announced £2.6 billion of increased capital funding for the support of specialist provision, yet that has to be assessed within the context of the 80% cut in devolved school capital funding that was made in 2011-12, at the time of the Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition Government, which of course has led to the current school repair bill of £11 billion. This increase also does not reflect the recent inflation in construction costs and it is grossly inadequate.

It also has to be remembered that when local authorities are unable to provide their own places for children with SEND, they often have to pay for expensive private schools to take them, putting further strains on their budgets. Students aged 16 to 25 with SEND need access to further education in order to enrol in the courses they want and to maximise their full potential, both academically and in their future employment prospects. There are specialist further education colleges for some students with SEND, which are more costly for local authorities and do not have adequate places to meet demand. Those FE colleges may be best for some, but many would benefit from enrolling in mainstream further education.

There are wider social issues at stake. Parents who cannot find specialist places for their children with SEND are often forced to care for their children at home. As recently reported by the BBC, that can take its toll on such families, in terms of both finances and mental health. The parents can find themselves isolated, stressed and depressed. Moreover, they are unable to work and, in many cases, are forced to rely on benefits. Instead of concentrating on helping families by increasing funding so that children can attend schools that meet their needs, the Prime Minister this weekend seemed to be interested only in depriving the sick and disabled of their benefits.

In conclusion, we have to address the lack of fair funding for SEND schools. There cannot be any further cuts or delays.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

It may be helpful if I actually put the clock on, or else other Members wishing to speak will have their time cut down.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 1:01, 11 January 2024

I am sure the clock will be very helpful, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow Ian Lavery, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis for securing this important debate.

I will start with something that is unusual in this place: a mea culpa. I served on the Bill Committee for what became the Children and Families Act 2014. We debated education, health and care plans at length and how we aspired to their making a real difference. We thought they would make a difference by bringing together education, health and social care funding, enabling the children we are speaking about to have the opportunity to thrive and achieve everything that we know they can and need to achieve.

Sadly, I remember the word “fight” recurred again and again in that debate. Parents were tired of fighting for the right school place, for a statement, which would later become an EHCP, or for the right transport to get their child to the education setting they needed. We thought that Act would see an end to the fighting, but it simply has not, because that has again been the recurring word that parents from my constituency have used in emails to me when I told them that I planned to speak in this debate. They are still tired, still fighting and still seeing children making no progress in a range of settings across our constituencies, whether they be specialist or mainstream provision, as the Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, said. The sad truth is that those parents are worn out.

Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield

To reinforce that point, a lady called Jill Mothersdale in Sedgefield came to me and said exactly that. They are so tired of trying to fight the system and get results. It is not anywhere, but everywhere, and I endorse the comments made by my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Caroline Nokes Caroline Nokes Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee

My hon. Friend is right that it is everywhere. A mother contacted me about her two daughters, one of whom she says has made no progress in her school setting for years and is being allowed to sit at the back of the classroom, making no contribution. She will not pass her GCSEs and, more than likely, will never move into employment. It is about transition: children have to be given the opportunity to achieve the maximum they can, so that they will go on to perform useful roles in society and in work, and so that the children of today are not the problem of the Department for Work and Pensions tomorrow or, worse, the problem of the Ministry of Justice. That is the stark reality. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, we need change.

I do not want my contribution to be entirely negative, although I fear I may get a bit pokey and political at some point. I want to talk about a brilliant school in my constituency: St Edward’s School in Melchet Park, a specialist school for boys with emotional and mental health challenges, with particular social needs. It is a private school the sole customer of which is local education authorities. Any increase in the fees of that school will be an increase for local authorities and the hard-pressed taxpayer.

St Edward’s School does a brilliant job. The year before last, I visited the school on International Women’s Day, and a 12-year-old boy asked me what I was doing to celebrate the day. I, in my role, had forgotten it was International Women’s Day, which is absolutely shameful, but he had not. I planted a tree at the school with a young man called Jacob, who made me properly laugh, despite all the challenges he faced, because he was in a setting that was safe, secure and appropriate for his emotional and behavioural needs.

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee was right to refer to transport, because that school transports children in every single morning and out every afternoon, over massive distances. They come from across the whole of Hampshire. Some of the kids are sat in taxis for well over an hour at both ends of the day. The school wishes to extend the residential offering, so that the children can have the same stability and security in the extended day as they get in their school hours. It is particularly important for children with social and emotional needs to have consistency and certainty about how their day will pan out. It might be awkward for those of a different political persuasion to recognise that a charitable part of the private sector is producing the goods for young people and making sure that those boys are getting the security they need, but we have to face up to that.

I will finish on a point about special educational needs that is often overlooked, and a challenge that we all face. Girls on the autistic spectrum are often much better than their male counterparts at mirroring the behaviours of their classmates and masking their condition. As a result, they are less likely to get the EHCPs that they desperately need. We have to make sure that we do not overlook that, and recognise that there can be differences across the sexes in the way conditions present. We have to make sure that diagnoses are easier to get for girls, who in too many instances will be stuck in mainstream settings because their EHCP has not been granted because they have been much better at masking their additional needs.

To conclude, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate. It is important that we recognise that the changes we made in the 2014 Act have not given us the change that we need, and we must do better.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West 1:07, 11 January 2024

I thank the Backbench Business Committee, on which I served many years ago, and Sir David Davis for bringing forward this important debate. That so many Members are present shows the importance of SEND education to our young people.

People are disabled by barriers in society, not by difference. Children with special educational needs and their families in Leeds North West are consistently made to feel that they are the problem. The system is a complete mess. There is a huge shortage of specialist provision and enhanced mainstream provision, so children are forced into schools that do not have the expertise to manage their needs. That leads to exclusion, isolation and children being withdrawn. Support staff do not have adequate training or care, and many are paid less than those working in supermarkets.

The number of children with special educational needs and disabilities who are either excluded or waiting for a place at a school has jumped by almost a third since 2020. The severe delay in children receiving EHCPs means that families in Leeds North West have been left in the dark for months about which secondary school their child will attend. That is especially distressing for children with autism, who often struggle with routine changes and would benefit massively from knowing where they will be placed.

One of my constituents told me that it took until the end of year 6 for their child to receive an EHCP, which is far too late to secure a place for specialist provision for year 7. Only this December, in year 9, has my constituent’s son been able to secure a place in specialist provision—that is three years too late. He will never be able to get back those years of his childhood spent struggling with no support for his complex needs.

Early intervention is non-existent. In many hospitals, an initial appointment at a child development centre has a waiting list of more than 18 months, but after waiting 18 months, it is not really early intervention any more, is it? Health visitors are unable to identify children who need speech and language therapy interventions, because they only have time to visit for child protection. Although child protection is vital, we need a holistic approach for children.

Child and adolescent mental health services are on their knees. Leeds CAMHS is taking on only the most egregious cases, as it has huge waiting lists, massive underfunding and a workforce crisis. It is estimated that only one in four children who need help for mental health issues obtain access to CAMHS services.

I wish to look briefly at some positive examples of provision in Leeds. I recently visited two settings with my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn. We went to a specialist Lighthouse School for young people with autism in my constituency and to the Vine, which is part of Leeds City College, in my right hon. Friend’s constituency. I had one of the most challenging and interesting question and answer sessions with a group of young people. The first question put to me was: what is the meaning of life. As I am sure all Members here know, that is not the normal question we would get when we go to school Q&A sessions.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

My answer was 42, referencing Douglas Adams, which all the young people understood far better than me. They were a very bright and articulate bunch, but they were there because of the school and the additional support that it provided. Lighthouse is struggling for funding. It is a charity so, as well as the funding that it receives, it gets additional funding and support from charitable means, but that should not be how a school operates. It should be able to survive and thrive on statutory funding.

The Vine is a specialist facility for profound and multiple learning difficulties, with a very challenging cohort of young people, many of whom are non-verbal. The families we spoke to were so grateful for the provision, but we need so much more. Its facilities include a hydrotherapy pool, rebound facilities and sensory perception rooms. It is the only place in Leeds that offers such facilities, so it attracts people from miles away.

Making sure that we have suitable schools and services for these children should be a priority, but, unfortunately, due to the Government’s abandonment of funding for local authorities, Leeds City Council does not have the budget to manage and enhance these school places. This is not just a systematic let-down. To knowingly force children into school placements that we know are not right for them, or simply to accept the fact that they will not receive any education at all, is neglect, and I am afraid the neglect of vulnerable children amounts to abuse.

Photo of Jake Berry Jake Berry Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 1:13, 11 January 2024

What a pleasure and privilege it is to have the opportunity to speak today. I thank the Backbench Business Committee and my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis for securing the debate.

Like many, I wish to start by thanking not just our specialist schools—Tor View, Belmont School, Cribden House School and Crosshill School in Darwin—but all the schools in my constituency that support children with special educational needs. I see my hon. Friend James Daly in his place; he is the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, so he will not get the opportunity to speak today, but I know that he is a huge campaigner on this issue in his adjoining constituency. Many of those schools will be shared between us to support our constituents.

I come to this debate as a parent of a non-verbal six-year-old who has an EHCP. The experiences we are talking about today and the struggles that parents face have been the experiences and the struggles of my wife and I as we try to navigate the system on behalf of our son, which is why I am so grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this debate.

I want to ask every colleague in the Chamber to do a favour for me, my son and other parents with children who have autism and other additional needs. There is a brilliant organisation in my constituency called Spectrum of Light, which is run by Julie Nixon, who has given so much of her time to supporting the parents of children with additional needs. We teamed up to hold an additional needs, autism and special needs fair, bringing together all the councils, including Lancashire County Council and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, and the support groups into one room, and asked parents of children with additional needs to come along. It was the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I have done as a Member of Parliament for at least a decade.

It is our job to help people—to help parents. I know that many colleagues across the House support apprenticeship fairs and job fairs. We all try to support our constituents. We had 400 parents attend our fair. I had parents contacting me from Cumbria who wanted to attend. This is something that we, as MPs, can do. We can all support parents who, like me and my wife, have really had to struggle to get the support that they need for their child. As Members of Parliament, we can make a difference by coming and talking in this debate—it is a hugely important debate. We can also make a difference by using our offices to support parents.

The fair that we held made such a difference to all the parents who attended. I just hope that this is something that we can all do on a cross-party basis. It does not matter what party we are from; this is just about doing good work and rolling it out across our constituencies. If anyone wants to contact me about how to do it, I am more than happy to deal with the inquiries.

That autism, special needs and additional needs fair in Lancashire demonstrated to me that we have a real challenge in servicing the demands of people like me and other parents. I recently visited east Lancashire adolescent centre at Burnley General Teaching Hospital, because it had been given a national Quality Network for Community CAMHS accreditation award. The lead psychiatrist told me that there has been a 300% increase in the number of children presenting with a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since the covid lockdown. The centre is trying to service that additional need without any additional funding, and that, in particular, is why this debate is so important. It speaks to the challenge that other councils face. I do not criticise anyone at Lancashire County Council or Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council; they are doing a brilliant job, but they are very, very pushed.

Spectrum of Light and I recently held a teleconference for parents who are struggling to receive an EHCP. I will talk about some of those conversations. Sarah, a Rossendale resident, said that the deadline for the completion of her EHCP was 8 December. She has had no appointment with the educational psychologist. Her seven-year-old son is rarely at school—he has attended school for only 20 hours since September. Hannah, another Rossendale resident, has three children who are currently trying to get an EHCP. Her daughter has ADHD and is struggling in school through isolation, but she cannot get an EHCP. Her son has autism and cannot get an EHCP. They both attend a school in my constituency—in fact, all three of her children attend schools in my constituency. The challenge, or the blockage, seems to be the lack of availability of educational psychologists to push through these EHCPs to support parents.

As well as asking every colleague to contact my office, which my staff will not thank me for, I want each of us to hold a fair to support parents who, like me, have a child with additional needs and really need help. My big ask of the Government—not just for Lancashire but for authorities across the country—is to find a way to increase the number and availability of educational psychologists. We cannot ration EHCPs through waiting lists; that is not the intention. It is not what the Government want to do, but it is, in practice, what is happening on the ground because of the lack of educational psychologists.

My ask of the Minister—I hope he will deal with this in his summation at the end of the debate—is to please find a way to support councils to fast track EHCPs. That would make a difference. EHCPs do work when people get them. I know that it works for me, my family and my son. The challenge is that people just cannot get them in a timely manner.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 1:19, 11 January 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Sir Jake Berry. While I cannot speak from personal experience in the way he movingly has, I hope to shed light on some of the issues through examples that I have come across around the country and in my constituency.

One of the reasons I am in this place is that I am passionate about children and firmly believe that every child, no matter their background or needs, can achieve great things. As we have heard, too many vulnerable children are not getting the support that they need to thrive and achieve their potential, and too many parents are fighting an adversarial system because of the growing demand and the lack of resource. EHCPs are inevitably being rationed in the way that we have heard. We have heard about the growing number of councils with high needs deficits. That is why the Local Government Association says that the Government have not gone far enough in addressing the cost and demand pressures.

Since 2016, there has been an upward trend in the number of children with special educational needs, but in the same period the number of speech and language therapist vacancies has soared. In my constituency, special schools tell me that they just cannot recruit the teaching assistants they need. There is also a lot of pressure on staff in mainstream schools. I hear that week in and week out from schools in my constituency. I went to visit Coppice Valley Primary School in Harrogate in October, where I had a long chat with the leadership team about SEND issues. Heartbreakingly, the school’s SEND lead, who is passionate about his job and brilliant at it, is leaving his job because he does not feel that he can meet the needs of the children he has been hired to serve, due to the problems that the school is having in accessing the resources that it needs from North Yorkshire Council.

My hon. Friend Helen Morgan, who cannot be here today, wanted me to share the story of a 16-year-old boy in her constituency, who has a life-limiting degenerative condition and is totally reliant on the care of others. He has attended a specialist school for many years, but has been unable to attend since September 2023 because he has now moved into post-16 education, and his parents’ travel allowance to get him to and from school was cut by 62%. His parents are now unable to afford to transport him.

I heard of a set of twins in Guildford, one of whom is going through the local secondary school while their sibling has languished at home for years, getting little or no education. The lack of contact with children their own age and of a school routine is making the situation far worse. Imagine how devastating it is for the parents to see one child thrive while their twin suffers. That cannot be right.

In my constituency surgery just a few weeks ago, I saw a parent whose year 10 child was getting a handful of hours of medical tuition at sporadic times through the week, which was a logistical nightmare for the parent, because the school that offered the alternative provision that they needed, and that was suitable for them, simply did not have the space.

With the growing number of children who are being identified as having SEND, there is insufficient provision and funding to keep pace. In particular, there are not enough spaces in our special schools. Unfortunately, the gap is often being filled by some who are just out to make money. Let me be clear: I have no ideological issue with private SEND schools. Many are brilliant, not-for-profit charitable schools, delivering an excellent education, but there is profiteering, often by private equity companies. One company last year had a turnover for SEND of £134 million, and a £25 million profit after tax. Far too many SEND schools are making obscene profits, while the sector struggles to provide basic education for so many. That is putting huge pressure on local authority budgets, as are some independent children’s homes that are also run by private equity firms.

We already have 34 local authorities under the safety valve agreement with the DFE, and we expect more to go on to that list. We are being held to ransom by people making money from those in need. We are all asking for more money to be put in by central Government, but there is definitely a case to be made that there is a saving to be found by having more state-funded specialist provision and giving local authorities the power to open special schools when no other provider is coming forth to set one up.

Briefly on tribunals, I think everyone will know from their casework that local authorities won only 1.7% of appeals but spent over £100 million fighting them. Again, that money could go into the system. Every child matters. They deserve the very best. I am afraid that reform on SEND from the Government has been very slow. There has been delay after delay, not helped by the political chaos at the top of Government. Even the latest reforms that were announced last year will not work without adequate funding. I congratulate and thank Sir David Davis for securing the debate and shining a spotlight on the issues. I hope that the Minister will listen, and I look forward to his comments.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Independent, West Suffolk 1:25, 11 January 2024

It is striking that there is such strong cross-party support for the motion moved by my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis. I congratulate him, and agree with every word of his speech. The Minister is a very smart man. I am sure that he will welcome the cross-party pressure, because he cares a lot about this subject, and it will help him in his battles within the Department and with the Treasury for the much-needed increase in funding in this area.

Suffolk is also a member of the f40. We are underfunded, even compared with Norfolk, which I can tell the House makes us in Suffolk feel particularly bad. Some 27% of the local funding formula is still based on 2017-18 spending, and because that was low in Suffolk, it is a drag anchor. While that drag anchor remains, it is explicit in the formula that the funding is unfair between different counties. That needs to be fixed so that counties such as Suffolk get fair funding. Despite the very tight funding, Suffolk County Council works incredibly hard. There are some excellent examples of best practice—for instance, at St Mary’s in Mildenhall, Exning Primary School and others that I have visited—but they all suffer terribly from the very tight funding.

In addition to the points that have been made already across the parties, I want to put a slightly uncomfortable truth on the table. Having served in the Department, and elsewhere in Government, I think I know a bit about what is going on. The challenge is that when EHCPs were introduced in 2014, they improved the system by making statementing more consistent across the country, but that did not resolve the fact that ultimately the budget is limited. I want the budget to be bigger, but however big it is, it will always be limited, so it is also about how the budget is allocated.

Thus far, we have had a discussion about how the budget is allocated between different counties and regions, led—he was rather humble about it—by my hon. Friend Mr Walker, who was not only part of f40, but is f40 and has led f40. We have also discussed who individually gets a diagnosis, and therefore who gets an EHCP. Here there is a bigger social injustice that needs to be named and then dealt with: the silent scandal of access to diagnosis. I come at the issue from the point of view of dyslexia. I am dyslexic and it is the area that I am most expert in; until recently, I was vice-president of the British Dyslexia Association.

A study in November by the London School of Economics found that 15% of children with specific learning difficulties are in the most affluent decile and 6% are in the least affluent. That cannot reflect reality. It is simply not true that 15% of those in the most affluent decile have specific learning difficulties, and only 6% in the most deprived. The truth is—this is just a fact of life—that in the most affluent decile are parents who can pay the £600 for diagnosis outside the state system, and more parents who are articulate and able to fight, and go to their MP and to the council to make their case, as my right hon. Friend Sir Jake Berry does for his child. That means that there is an unjust allocation of diagnosis within the system, with relatively too much diagnosis among those in the upper echelons of the demographic scale, and relatively too little for those who are less well off. That is unfair. Ultimately, that is an affront to universal education.

I believe in universal education because it underpins universal equality of opportunity in this country. However, what leads to the disparity we see in the data of who gets a diagnosis is if we say, “You can have universal education, but if your child has a special need, you can pay £600 to get them identified, which will make it more likely they will get the EHCP, and therefore much more state money following them. If you don’t have the £600, or the wherewithal to find one of the many brilliant charities like Evelyn’s that helps you get it, you will not get that extra money and therefore the extra support”. That is harder to fix than just asking for extra money because it implies that, in one part of the income distribution, too many people are getting a diagnosis. That is the uncomfortable truth. The fact is that there is not enough diagnosis, early identification and funding, but, crucially, there is also an inequality in the diagnoses that lead to the EHCPs.

I founded a charity—the Accessible Learning Foundation —to try to champion that need for early identification and support. That is how much I care about the issue. I know the Minister cares about it as well, and I hope that he will address the point about the distribution of access and who gets identified, as well as the overall level of funding, because both need to be fixed.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 1:31, 11 January 2024

I also thank Sir David Davis for securing the debate. Back in 2014, during the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014, Labour, alongside a multitude of teachers, local authorities, professional organisations and parents, warned the Government that their rushed reforms would create a postcode lottery of variable provision where many children with SEND would continue to be let down. We warned that unless the proposed reforms were properly funded and proper demographic modelling was carried out to assess the actual number of children and learners who need support, the reforms would fail—and fail they have. Even the Government agree that the reforms have failed, stating in 2019 as they launched a review into SEND that they aimed to

“improve the services available to families who need support” and end the “postcode lottery” they still face.

After a three-year delay, the Government finally published the review in 2022, highlighting their own failures again: that, too often, children and young people with SEND and those educated in alternative provision feel unsupported and their outcomes fall behind those of their peers. Eventually, in 2023, the Government’s SEND and alternative provision improvement plan and road map were published. Many have concluded that those are insufficient and ineffective given the crisis we face. That view is shared by my constituents, who are absolutely exhausted from having to fight every single step of the way for their child’s education.

Despite our local council’s SEND department coming out of special measures in 2022, our children’s services are now rated inadequate. Despite hardworking council staff and dedicated teaching staff right across South Shields, the situation has not improved for many parents or children with SEND thanks to continued cuts. Assessments are grossly delayed, EHC plans are not being implemented and children are travelling miles out of our borough. In the midst of a cost of living crisis, my constituents are paying for private assessments, private tuition and independent schools. There is simply not enough specialist provision and not enough support in mainstream education.

Costly appeals against EHC plans have risen to a record high since the 2014 reforms—nearly 14,000 last year—yet 98% have been successful, so it is clear that there is something grossly wrong with the system. That is likely only the tip of the iceberg, because many parents do not have the time, energy or financial support to continue legal action. The parents I have spoken to said that they wanted me to use their words in the debate, but not their names for fear of any repercussions. That just shows how threatened they feel by the system as a whole.

It is not just our children who are being short-changed. For young adults with SEND, access to further education is severely hampered by funding cuts. They deplete the sector, which now survives largely on donations and fundraising. As always with this Government, it is charities, community interest companies and others that have to fill the gap left by the state for essential services. Without the North East Autism Society and AutismAble in South Shields, I know that my constituents’ learning needs would not be met.

Access to education should be a fundamental right for all children, no matter who they are, where they are from or what their circumstances. A good education can mean the difference between where someone begins in life and where they end up. People across the House may already know that I struggled throughout my education with undiagnosed dyspraxia and dyslexia. I also did not come from a wealthy or privileged background and was certainly not destined to end up in this place, but I got here through good education, good teachers, work experience and training. Education can make the impossible happen. That is why my party’s goal always has been and always will be for educational excellence for every single child in this country.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford 1:35, 11 January 2024

I thank my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis for bringing this important debate on SEND to the Chamber.

Before I speak about SEND let me say that some young people and children have been sitting in the Gallery in different groups throughout the debate. I would like to say how incredibly proud I am of our nation’s children and how incredibly proud they should be of themselves. Today our children rank 11th in the world for maths and 13th for reading. I do not know whether they are year 13s, but if they or any children watching today are in year 13, I can tell them that when they started school in reception, they were 27th in the world for maths and 25th for reading. It has been a massive change.

I fundamentally believe that every child should have the right to a world-class education, because that education is what will give them the freedom to make choices about what they do with their future. Every child should have that choice, and that is why special educational needs children are so important. We should ensure that they have those choices, too. No child should be left behind; they should have the right support, opportunities and places.

The high-needs budget has doubled since 2015, so it is not fair to say that there have been funding cuts—it is not true—but there has also been a significant growth in demand. As Children’s Minister during the pandemic, I know that the toll the pandemic took on children, not just in this country but globally, breaks my heart. We know that it took a big toll on those children who were already known to have SEND, but it also meant that more children present today with special educational needs than in the past. Part of that is to do with the early years, which are so crucial to a child’s development, particularly their communication and education skills. Very young children missed out on those crucial three years.

When I visited a primary school in my Chelmsford constituency last term, I was told that 50% of the children in their reception class are not properly toilet trained. That is a massive change. Other primary schools have told me that they see more reception and year 1 children presenting as somewhere on the autistic spectrum, as well as with some ADHD needs, but because they were not assessed earlier or given more support in the early years environment, they have arrived at school without support that could have helped them cope more easily with mainstream schools. I have been working with Essex County Council and some of my schools to see what we can do about that. There is clearly a backlog in assessing children. Could we, for example, encourage or do more with educational psychologists to see whether they could see more children? We know we have a shortage of educational psychologists, and they are in great demand, but could they be seeing more children in the time they have? I am sure we could do more with specialist hubs within mainstream schools, which are key—where they work, they work really well.

Anecdotally, I am concerned about the rise in children being put on part-time timetables, especially those who may not yet have an EHCP. Part-time timetables should only be used for a very short time. I wonder whether there are some systemic social issues that are impacting on young people’s mental health—in particular, some have pointed out to me a suggested link between an increase in online gaming, poor mental health and non- attendance at school.

I wanted to mention school attendance, because it has been in the press a lot this week with the new statistics showing that the proportion of students that are persistently absent from schools has more than doubled. As colleagues have pointed out, where children have unmet SEND needs, that can lead to them missing school because they face issues with attendance. There can be good reasons why children with SEND sometimes have higher rates of non-attendance than others, but we need to make sure that their needs are met.

That is not a new issue this week, however. The Department for Education has focused on it and produced new guidance, “Working together to improve school attendance”. The Select Committee also produced a detailed report, the No. 1 recommendation of which was that that guidance should be made statutory. Before Christmas I presented a private Member’s Bill to the House, the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill, which will do two things: it will make that guidance statutory and it will require local authorities to support families, schools and children with their attendance.

Within that guidance there is the understanding that children with special educational needs need bespoke support and that that support needs to be carrots, not just sticks and fines. I hope that every single Member of this House will get behind my private Member’s Bill as one of the things we should be doing to support children with their attendance, including making sure that more children with SEND get the support they need.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam 1:42, 11 January 2024

I thank Sir David Davis for securing this important debate. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities—everyone is very welcome to get involved in that—and as one of the few openly neurodiverse MPs: I have dyspraxia, dyslexia and ADHD.

Across the sector it is a truism that SEND provision in the UK is chronically underfunded. Others have already alluded to the f40 estimate of £4.6 billion. While additional funds delivered through the delivering better value programme and the additional £2.6 billion on capital funding are welcome, it is clear that they just do not meet the funds needed to stand still, let alone the additional demand for services, which is growing every year. Fixing the investment gap is critical to addressing the issue, but I want to make a plea that we cannot see this as simply a numbers problem.

We have seen that approach recently from Ministers, for example with the revelations reported in The Observer last October of a target to cut EHCPs by 20% in a contract to develop the delivering better value programme. It is not just about the target; it is about the method of getting there, through early intervention and through making our education system more inclusive. However, we should also be clear about the reality that, although hard-fought and hard-won, in a heavily under-resourced system, an EHCP is a lifeline for young people and families in advocating for the provision they need. For many SEND families, the 20% target will be a source of alarm.

Behind those numbers are families and young people who are struggling. The measure of a policy is not a falling statistic or the amount of money it saves, but the extent to which it addresses the needs of young people trying to access the education that is their right. I strongly believe that our approach to the issue should start with treating SEND young people and their families with the dignity and respect that all people deserve. That should mean a supporting hand from day one, but we lack the infrastructure for that kind of early intervention.

A survey last year by the Institute of Health Visiting found that only 37% of health visitors in England felt that they were delivering a good or outstanding service. That is too low. Only 6% were working within the recommended ratio of 250 children per visitor, and 28% —more than a quarter of the workforce—were servicing the needs of 750 children. That is a terrible statistic. The institute estimates a shortfall of 5,000 health visitors in England, and 48% say they will leave the profession in the next five years. We have also seen dramatic cuts in Sure Start services, with 1,416 centre closures since the onset of austerity in 2010. As an aside, the scale of those closures throws yesterday’s inadequate announcement of 75 new family hubs into stark relief.

As has been said, early identification of SEND also requires having trained early years staff who know what they are looking for. To most people, that seems like common sense. A recent survey by the Fair Foundation found that people overestimated early years pay by 47%. People value this workforce, but their pay does not value them. Nearly three quarters of the survey participants thought that people working in early years should be paid more, and I agree. We need to invest in the workforce charged with looking after our children and properly value the work they do, as well as training and upskilling them where necessary.

On all these points of early intervention—the crisis in the health visitor workforce, cuts to Sure Start and the undervaluing of early years staff, the lack of multi-sensory teaching workforce and speech and language therapists, and the difficulties accessing physio—we are moving in the wrong direction. We need more healthcare visitors, with visits on day one of a child’s life; we need more early years support for families and young people; and we need a professionalised early years workforce that knows how to identify the SEND needs of our children.

Those problems are systemic. They are also about how services integrate. It is no good identifying needs if there is not enough capacity to give a timely referral. In March 2023 the waiting list for speech and language therapy had gone up by 42% since 2021, from 51,000 to 73,000—and no wonder. Last year, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists found that almost one in four jobs were vacant across the UK. If we take ADHD, we know that the referral rates are going up, and there are some shocking statistics of people waiting up to three years for a referral—the wait is up to a decade in some adult services. We need to cut down the waiting times for all forms of assessment and diagnosis. To do that will require looking at those backlogs as we would any other backlog and taking seriously the staffing shortages we are suffering.

We should be promoting strength-based approaches to SEND. In the education system, we should be looking to create inclusive spaces where young people can truly be themselves. There is no good reason why children with SEND should not flourish, but that means rethinking how we approach behaviour in classrooms, training and supporting teachers to understand that all behaviour is a form of communication, not off-rolling young people because they do not fit into a certain box or just to cheat the figures. I will finish with the point that Ofsted should not be rating any school excellent if it does not have good-quality SEND provision.

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield 1:48, 11 January 2024

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this very important debate, and to my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis for securing it. I hope that I can contribute with some experience as the leader of a local authority and as someone who sat on the Education Committee’s SEND inquiry in 2019.

I want to describe the problem from a local authority perspective for colleagues in the House. The 2014 legislation was well intentioned, as we have heard, but it has not delivered on those intentions. In some ways it has created an impossible circumstance, where very high levels of demand and expectation now exist on a service that faces huge budget and capacity pressures. That is not sustainable.

Local authorities in many ways are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are expected to meet the demands of families but also have to balance a budget, and all the time with the knowledge that any steps taken to reduce costs may well end up being overturned in tribunal. Inadvertently, and understandably, seeking to give parents of SEND children some authority and control over what support they get is creating an adversarial system. There are funding issues to all that, but fundamentally the system does not work, so funding alone will not fix it. Because it is a partnership across health, schools, local authorities and others, there is a challenge both in meeting expectation and in accountability for the outcomes.

Fundamentally, at a policy level we have a system that says to families that they can have whatever support and services they want. That is a laudable aim, but in reality there are limited budgets and capacity in the system, which means that local authorities and delivery partners are constrained in what they can do. The system has not recognised that contradiction, so the local partnership is still judged against an unachievable target, which is why, in the latest inspections, nowhere nationally is any better than “inconsistent” in its SEND outcomes.

In Nottinghamshire, we fully recognise the need for improvement in the capacity for SEND support, in tackling waiting times for outcomes, and in the scrutiny and accountability of the system, among other things. We have introduced a new SEND improvement board—Dame Christine Lenehan of the Council for Disabled Children it its independent chair—with the intention of driving improvement in the system with proper scrutiny and oversight. We have already seen positive steps from it. We are fully committed to tackling those issues, to the extent that I have also created a specific cabinet role for SEND support.

In truth, though, we are constrained. The inspection regime is not really sure of what it is asking us for. Many authorities have huge deficits in the high needs block, so they are massively overspending, yet they have still received more positive inspection outcomes. We have balanced the budget and do not have a deficit, which clearly has an impact on services, but that does not seem to be a factor in inspection outcomes. Are we being asked to balance that budget or not? We have a legal duty to do so, but it is not recognised by Ofsted.

Nottinghamshire is among the most poorly funded authorities in this space, but we still balance our budget for additional needs. Other authorities have more money and still overspend massively but are rewarded with better inspection outcomes. Fundamentally, the system does not have a shared and coherent view of what it is asking us to deliver. That is a huge issue.

We are also told that the Government’s approach is to increase inclusion in mainstream schools where possible. It is absolutely right for children to receive appropriate support in mainstream setting wherever possible, and for us to work with schools and SENCOs to deliver it. Notts has taken that approach for many years and been held up as an exemplar of good practice in some Government circles, but at inspections we are marked down for it. Again, different parts of Government are telling us different things, so it is not always clear what we are being asked to do.

We take a graduated approach and step children up the pyramid depending on need, but the first response is to try to support children to remain in mainstream school, partly because that is very often the best outcome for the children, and partly because it is a requirement of a system with limited funding that we try low-cost options first. From an outcomes perspective, that is often the right thing to do, because although some children will require lifelong care, we want many of them to go on and live independent lives and be in employment—we should have high ambitions for our children. It is not often the best thing to become more reliant on more services than we need, because it can make that journey to being an independent adult more difficult.

Every child and every circumstance is different, but from what I am saying, Members can see where the tension and conflict arises at each stage. The opinion of health professionals and people tasked with achieving the goal of helping children to become independent adults often clashes with the totally understandable desire of parents to get the most and very best bespoke support for their child.

SEND transport is one of the biggest pressures on council budgets at the minute. Our budget has risen by 50% over five years because of rising demand, inflationary costs of fuel and contracts and wage rises, so we are again in a position of trying to save money. In some cases, that is the right thing to do because the expectation outstrips what is reasonable. However, it will inevitably lead us to further conflict as we have to go back to families and say, “I know you’ve had a one-to-one taxi service to school with a supportive member of staff every day for the past several years, but we now need you to share with somebody else,” or, “We now need you to take your child to school yourself, because you have a mobility vehicle for that purpose.” That might be the right thing to do—these might be rational decisions in order to offer the best services within a limited budget—but it will inevitably cause issues. That is coming down the track. If we end up with such decisions being overturned in tribunal, we are back to the question of what we are being asked to achieve within our limited budget.

On a brighter note, I want to mention some of the work that we are doing in Nottinghamshire. We are taking this incredibly seriously through our independent improvement board and cabinet-level focus, as I have mentioned. We are creating 494 SEND specialist places, including at the Newark Orchard SEND School, which opened last year, and at a new school that we are building in Mansfield this year—I am very proud of that. We are working with SENCOs in our schools to improve the graduated approach and the available support.

Money is not the ultimate answer here. We have well-meaning legislation that does not work. I ask Ministers to consider two proposals: first, the help with SEND transport costs—

Photo of Ben Bradley Ben Bradley Conservative, Mansfield

—and the other I will come back to.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central 1:54, 11 January 2024

Such is the need in York that I have undertaken a comprehensive project on SEND. At a recent constituency SEND summit of parents, agencies and charities, all were desperate to see children have their care needs met. To put it into context, York is the 17th worst area for school funding, and it is in the bottom third for higher needs funding. Children in York deserve the same as children across the country; there should be no differentiation.

I recently met York Hospital’s paediatric team. They highlighted the change that they are seeing. In 2018, they assessed 42 children for autism. By 2022 that figure had risen to 118, and last year it rose again. The story is that funding is not rising with the needs that those children have. The same is occurring for education, health and care plans. We need those rises to be met with increased funding for the workforce—health visitors, physios, psychologists and speech and language therapists —and for special school places and mental health services. We need a comprehensive, multi-agency workforce plan. That is my first ask of the Minister.

Secondly, we know that early investment saves money over a lifetime. We should see that not as spending but as investment in young lives. We need to ensure that children with physical impairments have the equipment they need, so that they are not waiting forever for a wheelchair, for example, but getting it on spec and on time. One of my constituents has now been placed in residential care halfway across the country because they need an accessible shower in their home. As I read this week, saying goodbye brought tears to both parents’ eyes. Goodness knows the long-term costs. We need to smarten up when it comes to children with needs.

This is not just about health or local authority funding; it is also about education. I have seen the travails of teaching assistants in York who have been stripped of 52-week contracts and given term-time only contracts. They are juggling at least two jobs just to survive on the lowest pay scales imaginable. Every day, they teach, nurse and support emotional, physical and mental health needs with a high degree of skill. We need a proper job evaluation scheme and a national pay spine for teaching assistants. They need recognition and wages that reflect it.

As we have heard this week, we also need to consider excluded children. We know from the data that autistic children are almost twice as likely to be excluded with or without a plan, which comes at a heavy cost. The disciplinary process at South Bank Multi Academy Trust in my constituency, about which I am meeting the Minister shortly, is turning away children with SEND at such a high rate. Children there are melting down at home because they are not getting the support they need. My third ask of the Minister is that, when he leaves the Chamber, he goes to the Department, rips up the draconian guidance on discipline, and starts again by instituting therapeutic schools.

Fourthly, we need to have a look at the shortage of childcare and special support after school, during holidays and out of school. I thank York Inspirational Kids, Snappy, Choose2, the Island and so many more for the provision that they offer, but their funding is also challenged. We need to ensure that they get the resources that they need to provide support for children outside school.

For far too long, parents have battled. They are battling, they are fighting, and they are exhausted because they are not getting support. They wait for months and years to get the diagnosis that is key to unlocking everything. We need to ensure that parents who are waiting for a diagnosis get the advice and help that they need to best support their children in those early years. What a difference that could make for them.

I thank all those who work in SEND in my constituency. I know how desperate they are. They are stressed and stretched because they are trying to deliver far more than their time allows. We value every penny spent in their direction, but we need to look again at the funding formula, which is simply not working, and ensure that we see it as an opportunity for the future. Invest in these children—ensure that they have the opportunities they need.

Finally, we need a complete overhaul of the SEN improvement plan. It needs to be far more evidence-based, based on the data as well as the best therapies possible. We need to look around the globe at where they get things right first time, and ensure that our children get that benefit too. Ensuring that services are properly funded will make such a difference to these young people. It will give them the opportunities in life that they are currently being denied; it will help to heal the relationships between children and parents, which are often so stressed as they struggle to get by, week by week; and it is the right thing to do.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner, The Second Church Estates Commissioner 2:00, 11 January 2024

I thank all school staff for the amazing work that they do, day in and day out. I saw that at first hand as a school governor for 20 years, during my time as an MP, and I am in awe of what teachers and school support staff do. They have massively improved the performance of children in England in reading and maths—we have shot up the international league tables—and the first place to start is by giving a big thank you to schools for what they have done.

I have seen the work that our dedicated teachers do for children with special needs and disabilities in Heathwood Lower School and many other schools, and I have also spent time with voluntary groups such as Freddie & Friends in Leighton Buzzard, which sets out to provide a safe and welcoming place for children with special needs and disabilities. I hope that the fact that time out of school is equally important for these children does not get lost in the debate.

Like other local authorities, Central Bedfordshire Council benefited from recent increases in funding for special educational needs and disabilities, which was very welcome. Despite that, the council has had to vote a further £5 million of additional funding to balance the books.

On the issue of fairness, I have looked at the 2023-24 DSG funding figures for Central Bedfordshire and for Hampshire, which is a statistical neighbour of Central Bedfordshire. Hampshire gets £5,528 per child, while Central Bedfordshire gets £4,742—a difference of £786. If that higher figure is good enough for children in Hampshire, it is good enough for the children I am proud to represent.

Notwithstanding the massive investment on the part of the Government and the extra money put in by Central Bedfordshire Council, Central Bedfordshire manages to complete only around one in five of its education, health and care plan applications within the statutory timeframe, and a number of children with EHCPs are still without a school. I wonder what the Government do to monitor and enforce local authorities’ statutory duties.

There is a wider problem at play in getting children in my constituency the support that they need. Many—probably a majority—of the children who go on to need an education, health and care plan need to see a specialist doctor at our local child development centre, the Edwin Lobo Centre. The waiting list for that centre, which serves my constituents, currently stands at between 65 and 72 weeks. Once the appointment has taken place, there is often a delay of a further four to five weeks before the doctor’s report is received.

All that takes place before the 20-week clock starts ticking, and in four out of five cases it will be missed anyway. That means that children are routinely waiting more than two years in either an inappropriate setting or a school where there is insufficient funding to properly meet their needs. For many younger children, that can represent a very large proportion of their school life, and leads to them missing out on those vital first few years.

It is clear to me that what is needed is what we tried to get back in 2014: a more joined-up approach to special educational needs and disabilities by the Secretary of State for Education and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, to look at this issue in the round. When the Minister responds to the debate, I would be grateful if he could address my points about the differences in local authority funding, the waits in the health system, and what we can do to bridge the gap and get the care that these children need to be provided on a timely basis.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 2:04, 11 January 2024

All Members present have experiences of their own constituencies. I was the chair of governors of a specialist school; like Sir Jake Berry, I brought together local organisations and parents over time. I declare an interest: my wife, Dr Cynthia Pinto, is an educational psychologist. She chairs the British Psychological Society’s education and child psychology division, which is in conference at the moment. I will circulate a couple of pages from a briefing that has been sent to me that contains some of the discussions that are taking place at that conference.

All the experiences we are reporting in this House are very similar. We have come across some wonderful young people who have achieved so much despite the disadvantages they have had, and some incredibly dedicated staff—true professionals doing the best they can—but also a large number of tragedies related to the struggles those young people face, particularly to get the assessment and support they need. Members may remember that last September a report was released regarding the increase in the number of complaints from parents to the local government ombudsman. There was a 60% increase in the number of complaints upheld by the ombudsman from parents who were failing to get access to the services they desperately needed. As the right hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen said, most of those complaints were about access to the assessment to get the plan itself in place.

I do not want to repeat what has been said before, but I am afraid this does come down to money—it is about finances. As we have heard from other Members, people have failed to get access from the very earliest stages, and if my constituency is anything like others, the closure of the Sure Start centres has had an impact. The development of family hubs may be a bit of a solution, but as Sir David Davis outlined at the very beginning —as always, I congratulate him on securing this debate—the gap in overall local government expenditure is huge, and it is cumulative over a number of years.

I welcome the additional money that the Government have provided in recent years, but the lack of investment has built up over a long time. The f40 group’s figures are incontestable, and that lack of investment is reported right across the country. The motion we are debating calls for a review of SEND funding; I am interested to hear from the Minister how that review will take place if the House passes the motion, because it is urgently needed.

To turn back to the issue of educational psychologists, I want to cite the Government’s own stats. The educational psychologist route into the plan is so key to ensuring that parents have confidence that there is something they can build on at least, and they use those plans effectively in their negotiations with their local authorities to get the resources they need. As the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) said, due to the lack of access to local authority educational psychologists, too many parents are having to raise the funds themselves to bring in a private educational psychologist, which of course then advantages them over others.

The figures that the Department for Education has published regarding educational psychologist recruitment state that 88% of local authorities are reporting difficulty in recruitment; 48% are citing pay as a reason; one third are reporting difficulties with the retention of educational psychologists; and 69% are not confident that they will be able to meet the demand for educational psychologist services. A staggering 96% of local authorities that report recruitment and retention issues say that those difficulties affected outcomes for children and young people requiring support. The inability to get a plan as a result of the long waiting times for educational psychologist assessments is almost the foundation stone of the current failure of the system.

I have to say that the recent pay deal has not helped at all. This year, for the first time in its history, the Association of Educational Psychologists took industrial action because it was desperate on the issue of pay. It has just had a settlement, which it has reluctantly accepted, but the argument coming back from the association is that it does not think the settlement will do anything for retention or future recruitment. That has to be looked at, and it will undoubtedly come back as an issue—not, I hope, as an issue for industrial action, but as an issue for proper negotiation.

How is the Minister going to respond to all the issues we have raised? Today we will agree that there should be a review. Unfortunately, the review that took place and the plan put forward by the Government have not worked and have not embedded confidence in the minds of others. I would therefore welcome the Minister’s view on how such a review should take place. I also say to those on my own Front Bench that this issue has to be addressed when we go into government—I hope, in the coming months—and that will require resources.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 2:10, 11 January 2024

It is a pleasure to take part in this very important debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis on securing it.

I have two special needs schools in my constituency: Alderman Knight School—I should declare that my wife is a governor of it—and the Milestone School. They provide the most amazing care and education for children with special needs. Specifically, Milestone provides for children with far more complex needs, while Alderman Knight provides for those with a range of difficulties.

One of the problems we have in Gloucestershire, as has been said about other areas, is a lack of special school places. Estimates put that figure at about 330 places short across the county. The problem is that because they have been given places on appeal, 100 children have had special school places awarded to them, but no places have yet been found for them. That is a very big difficulty that both the schools I mentioned have raised with me.

Alderman Knight was built 10 years ago for 120 pupils, and there are now 235 pupils on its roll. That puts a big strain on the school itself, and it also means that class sizes have increased. The problem with that for special schools is that as the class sizes get bigger, they tend to lose what makes them special, which is something they are very concerned about.

Such schools are obviously very concerned about their budgets. As has been said, the formulas for calculating the cost of educating children in special schools is outdated and does not work, especially when children require a one-to-one situation. It simply does not enable the schools to provide that kind of care. The problem is that even if they could find extra teachers and even if they could recruit them, they could not actually afford to do so because of their budgets.

All this means that the schools are under great strain, but it also means that as places are not found for some pupils who should be educated in special needs schools, they end up in mainstream schools. It has always been the case that an awful lot of pupils with special needs are educated in mainstream schools, which have coped magnificently for very many years with many of those pupils, but some of those pupils should actually be in special schools, not mainstream schools, and such schools tend to struggle to provide the kind of care and education that their pupils need. They also have problems with funding, because the formula they depend on is outdated and not accurate, so they have a similar problem. We have a big and growing problem.

As mentioned by right hon. and hon. Members, we have a problem with the overall funding formula. Gloucestershire has traditionally been lower funded. I do not know why, and no Minister in any Government has ever been able to persuade me of the reasons for that or the need to continue with such a situation. I am aware that a few years ago, because of pressure from f40 and many of us in this Chamber, the formula was improved, but by no means has it been improved to the extent that it needs to be improved. I am not necessarily asking for more money from the Treasury; I am asking for the cake to be sliced up in a much fairer way and for the formula for calculating how much is needed to educate children with special needs to be reassessed and changed.

I think that each county or metropolitan area—however it is divided up—needs to carry out a full assessment of how many children have special needs and require places in special schools, and against that they need to assess how many places are available. If there is a shortfall, the Government must come forward with proposals for how that will be put right. We certainly need to assess how much it is costing mainstream schools to educate children with special needs and whether they are getting enough money. It is my submission that they are not, so we need to decide what we will to do about that.

I am not going to speak about EHCPs because that issue has been covered by several hon. Members. The only thing I would add is that it is not only the time it takes to get the plan that is the problem; the plan also needs to be reassessed as the child progresses through schools. Quite often, that takes far too long, so the child does not get the care they need and they do not then get the money following those new assessments.

There are lots of issues, but I only have a very short time, so I want to finish by paying tribute to the special schools not only in my constituency, but across Gloucestershire. We had something of a battle many years ago to save special school provision in Gloucestershire, and I am glad we did because such schools carry out the most fantastic work. However, we do need to reassess the situation, and we need to make sure that those schools can carry on serving what are very special children.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission

Order. It will be obvious to the House that many people still wish to speak. After the next speaker, I will have to reduce the time limit to five minutes. The next speaker, with six minutes, is Ruth Cadbury.

Photo of Ruth Cadbury Ruth Cadbury Shadow Minister (International Trade), Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:17, 11 January 2024

Fantastic —thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate Sir David Davis on securing the debate. We have heard many excellent speeches from across the House, although I notice that there are demands for more funding from Members whose party has been responsible for these budgets for the past 13 years.

Every time I visit a school in my constituency and discuss my role and the children’s aspirations with them, I go on to meet the head or senior leadership team, and without exception the first and most pressing issue they raise with me is SEND. They tell me they do not have the resources to adequately support these children or their parents. They feel that these children are being abandoned. That is not for want of adequate legal powers, with the EHCP system brought in in 2014, or due to the support structures of Hounslow council, but because of a chronic lack of resources to deliver what the law expects.

Heads also tell me that there seems to have been a recent rise in the number of children who clearly have additional needs, with children exhibiting extreme stress, which is hardly surprising given the housing and income pressures that many local families face. A growing number of children also appear to be presenting with some form of neurodiversity. Most teachers are not specialists in mental health, neurodiversity or other forms of SEND. However, schools feel that they cannot teach a child, or indeed the other children in the class, if five children in a class cannot sit down, cannot stop talking, or are even screaming, ripping things up, chewing things, or as I heard about one child, spending hours on end switching a particular light switch on and off, on and off. These children are not naughty. The experienced educationalists telling me this know that, with appropriate and adequate specialist support, these children can and would learn. They can thrive and they can achieve, but the schools just do not have the resources to provide the world-class education that all children need.

Treating SEND as a serious policy priority is important not just for children with additional needs, but for their parents and siblings, their teachers and the other children in their schools, but under this Government these people are not getting the support they need. They are being let down, and children’s futures are being failed.

In 2014, the Government extended the SEND duty of local councils to include young people up to the age of 25 and added social and healthcare needs to what was previously a statement just of educational needs, yet there was no additional funding for the additional legal requirements. Despite this Government undermining local authorities’ role in school management and governance, local authorities are still expected to provide appropriate SEND provision. They cannot do that when there are sweeping cuts to their budgets: Hounslow council has faced budget cuts of over £150 million since 2010, and the cuts have had a huge negative impact on local SEND support in the borough.

Countless local parents have told me they are having to wait far too long for their child’s EHCP, and when the plan is issued, there are huge flaws and not enough support. Thresholds for support rise as funding declines. One indicator of the scale of such problems is that, nationally, there were 14,000 appeals to tribunal in 2022-23—an increase of 24% in the last year—and 98% of the cases are resolved in favour of the parents and children. Often, the appeals mark the first time parents feel they have been listened to, but as Matt Hancock said, the tribunal system only helps parents who have the ability and the resources to push through the jungle. Many of our constituents would not know where to start. No parent should have to fight for an appropriate education for their child.

What about the specialist resources taken up by the assessments and the tribunals that should be spent on providing appropriate education and support for these children, appropriate training for their teachers, and appropriate support for their parents, which together will enable the child to thrive? The briefing we received from the National Autistic Society highlighted the inefficient spending of what funds there are in the system, although as I said, funding is insufficient. The hurdles in front of parents before, during and after the process of appeal are immense. That was the central message I received when I visited and met the Hounslow Parent Carers Forum and heard about the problems they faced.

The shortage of resources means that there is a lack of training for teaching assistants for one-to-one support, a lack of transport and a lack of specialist therapeutic support, and for many children it even means the lack of a school place. Children with high needs are stuck at home, with parents who cannot go out to work, because there is no special school place for them. More families with one or more children with additional needs are also facing housing stress. I have constituents with a very disturbed child, who is always trying to jump out of a tower block window.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 2:23, 11 January 2024

The Government have taken many positive steps, including doubling high needs funding since 2015, but increased demand for SEND support, together with changes to the code of practice in 2014 and then the covid pandemic, have exacerbated the challenges. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis on bringing this debate to the House.

I will talk about early years and early intervention. There has never been more funding poured into early years and childcare provision than there is now, but that is extending the provision of the free entitlement. Early intervention is crucial, and it requires skilled staff who can spot special educational needs or gaps, and a coherent strategy aligned with funding policy to deliver early intervention and early support effectively. SEND policy and more funding for it need to be brought into early years. We need more focus on high-quality provision for those who need it the most. That will require significant funding initially, but it will save billions in the long term. I know the Government take seriously their plans to deliver long-term change for a brighter future for everyone in the UK. We need to invest to save.

I will focus on Hastings and Rye and East Sussex County Council, where the need for SEND support is a daily issue in my inbox. I call for more alternative provision in Hastings and St Leonards, and the heads of the three secondary schools in the area are united with me in this call. High-quality alternative provision is desperately needed to meet the needs of the left-behind children. No child should ever be left behind. We now have a huge number of children with SEND; it is not sustainable for schools and East Sussex County Council to meet the high needs of those children with the current model. Every child deserves to have their needs met, so they can flourish and be useful members of our society.

The implementation of the Children and Families Act 2014 placed significant new and unfunded burdens on local authorities. There has been an exponential increase in the number of children being identified as having significant SEND needs, many to the extent that it is felt that they cannot be provided for in their local mainstream school. Only this week, I received a letter from the Conservative leader of East Sussex County Council regarding the council’s financial situation. Although inflation has fallen, it has had a permanent impact on budgets, as some significant costs have risen at a higher rate than the quoted inflation rate. At the same time, demand for statutory services, particularly children’s social care, home-to-school transport and adult social care, continues to rise at an exponential rate. For example, the number of children in care whose placements cost more than £10,000 a week has risen, with the single costliest one currently £31,000 a week, or £1.6 million annually.

East Sussex County Council is a member of f40. We need a fairer funding formula—which should have cross-party agreement so that there are no changes in the coming years—for local authorities that reflects local need. Alison Jeffery, the excellent and experienced director of East Sussex children’s services, which are rated outstanding by Ofsted, has given East Sussex MPs a comprehensive briefing for today’s debate in which she outlines the challenges, but also suggests sensible solutions. I have sent the Minister the full briefing paper by email for his consideration and discussion, and I hope he will meet me to do that. Ms Jeffery states that while she and East Sussex children’s services always want more investment, the policy and legal framework for SEND is of equal importance.

The SEND Green Paper identified a range of factors, some of which are being tested through the SEND and AP change programme, which has significant challenges. Many of the things being tested are not main drivers of either demand or costs; more importantly, no legislative changes are being made as part of the programme. The things that do drive demand are not being addressed: for example, we need to review urgently the threshold for a full SEND needs assessment. One option is to give mainstream schools the resources, autonomy and responsibility to support pupils with SEND short of an EHCP, without labelling them as such. That would allow a readjustment of the threshold for accessing an EHCP, so it would be met only when it was evident that provision in a mainstream setting was either not possible, or possible only with specified extraordinary support.

There are other challenges and solutions, and I hope the Minister will meet me to discuss them.

Photo of Keir Mather Keir Mather Labour, Selby and Ainsty 2:28, 11 January 2024

I congratulate and thank Sir David Davis, a constituency neighbour of mine, for securing this debate on such an important subject. He is quite right to point out that the resources available for children with additional needs in our part of Yorkshire are under immense strain, and I look forward to working with him on a cross-party basis to improve provision for those in our area who desperately need it. He painted a bleak picture of SEND provision nationally, with local authorities’ high-needs funding deficit predicted to reach £3.6 billion by March 2025. It is clear that we are failing in terms of both the quality and the quantity of provision across the country.

It is important that we think about the lives of the people I come across every day who are wrapped up in this failure: the child prevented from realising their full potential by a system that works against them; the parents trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of pushing disjointed agencies and authorities, often trapped in their homes with little respite; and finally the overworked and under-resourced service providers, who are forced to paper over the cracks of a broken system—a system that appears to be failing everyone in my local area who tries their best to engage with it in difficult circumstances. Those who operate our services are nobly trying to do more with less to meet the needs of a growing number of children with additional needs, but meeting this growth in demand is simply not possible without increased resources. Refusing to recognise the resource crisis in this sector is an unparalleled false economy, and insufficient emphasis on intervention at the early years foundation stage stores up huge cost pressures further down the line. That is evident in the nationwide data on this issue.

Across the country, the number of children with SEN who are either excluded or waiting for a school place has risen by 29% in the past three years. That is the consequence of not facing up to the challenge of proper funding and refusing to take the hard choices to do the right thing to provide sufficient support for these children and their families. The national figures are compounded by the particularities of the area I represent. In Selby and Ainsty, our rurality, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, our poor public transport infrastructure and the wealth inequality that we see across our constituency create challenges of provision that are harder to crack on a public policy level, but also make the experience of living without provision more isolating and overwhelming for the parents and children affected.

In the Selby district, SEND provision is not just in a rut; it is truly in freefall. As I said in my maiden speech, parents have to suffer through the uncertainty of sending their children to travel in taxis for hours a day to attend schools in Scarborough or Harrogate. Those children are often exhausted and stressed. Non-verbal autistic children are unable to communicate the sheer scale of the stress that such journeys create for them. Any reasonable person in my constituency can see that the situation cannot continue.

I am glad that the Department for Education has engaged constructively with me on this subject. I thank the Minister personally for his efforts to do so, but I would like to push a little further on a few specific points that I have raised previously. First, though I concede that the phase-in period for a Selby SEND school must be well managed, I press the DFE to make every effort possible to explore efforts for temporary accommodation uplifts in the intervening years before the school is opened and to ensure that these temporary places are extended to many local children as quickly as possible. I am sure that the Minister can understand the frustration of local parents, who have already been waiting half a decade for the school to open. In the first year, only 40 students will be accommodated, in the second year it will be 75, and the school will only reach its full complement the year after. That means that by the time it reaches full capacity, it will have been almost a decade since funding was first allocated by the DFE. Maintaining options for temporary accommodation throughout this process will be crucial.

I remain resolute in my conviction that every child in the Selby district, regardless of their needs, has the right to a world-class education in a well-funded British school. I will keep fighting to make that a reality, and I once again thank the Minister for his engagement and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden for securing this crucial debate.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill 2:32, 11 January 2024

Every child is special and deserves the best possible start in life. That is why I am a passionate advocate for SEND. Like many in this place, I wish I had a magic wand to resolve all the issues that have been discussed this afternoon, but I do not. Resolution requires dedication, vision, hard work and, above all, lots of money. As the MP for Bracknell, it would be easy for me to knock Labour-run Bracknell Forest Council for what it is and is not doing, but that is not my style. I am a team player, and those who know me will realise that the best politicians are those who work cross-party to resolve issues of great importance, as SEND is to everyone in Bracknell Forest. There is also work to do locally, and I will continue to do my bit in Westminster.

Nationally, I am comfortable right now that the Government are moving in the right direction on the offer for those with SEND. The headline is that the Department for Education is investing £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to support local authorities to offer new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND. That is reinforced by the SEND review published in March 2023. The headline there was that spending has increased by more than 60% from 2019-20 to £10.5 billion overall by next year, which is a lot of money.

The SEND paper reviewed a number of key challenges, particularly the difficulties that parents have in navigating the SEND system. I have met many families locally and the stories have moved me to tears in some cases. There are difficulties of access to provision, children not in school and places not available. It is a difficult thing to have to deal with as an MP, and I do my best, as we all do. Outcomes for children with SEND are not comparable with their peers. Despite the continuing and unprecedented investment, the system is not financially sustainable.

What is being done? We have an extra £1.4 billion for the high-needs provision capital allocations. In June 2022, the Department announced that it would build up to 60 new centrally delivered special needs schools. One of those will be in my constituency in Crowthorne, and I am pleased to have played a small part in securing the funding for that, but let us be more ambitious and go for a third. We have Kennel Lane and the new school in Crowthorne, and let us go for a third, because there is demand for those places. I urge Bracknell Forest Council to be more ambitious in what it seeks from the Government.

I recognise that the high-needs budget has risen by more than 40% over three years, and the Department is continuing to work with local authorities with the highest dedicated schools grant deficits as part of the safety valve programme. I recognise that this is of great difficulty for schools locally. Bracknell Forest has the safety valve programme. I recognise the impact that it is having, and it may be the best option in the short term.

Overall, more money than ever is being invested in schools right now, ensuring that every child gets a world- class education. The total budget of £59.6 billion in 2024-25 is an increase over previous years and the highest per capita funding ever. That is also the same for SEND funding, but it is still not enough. I will raise two quick issues with the Minister. The first is that mental health services need a shot in the arm. We have £2.6 million in children’s mental health in Bracknell, but CAMHS is a disaster, and it needs 20,000 volts put straight through it. It is not right that families are waiting two years or more for a consultation. It is immoral and inept.

The irony will not be lost on the Minister that a GP cannot prescribe medication for any neurodiverse condition without a diagnosis from CAMHS. There is a vicious cycle whereby we cannot get diagnoses, we cannot resource EHCPs, we cannot place children in settings and we cannot even give the parents and the kids themselves some solace without a diagnosis from CAMHS. I would like every local authority in the UK to comprehensively review its SEND provision so that it becomes available in every area for every child. Specialist settings are the way forward for those who need them, and every local authority should have those specialist settings under their wing.

We need to invest in our children with SEND as never before. Yes, there is more to do, and yes, more money is needed—lots of it—but we also need to make better use of what we have. We need to be efficient and able locally to give the kids what they need.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon 2:37, 11 January 2024

Devon is in the middle of a special educational needs pandemic, unrelated to the pandemic. I taught briefly before being elected to this place, and I was shocked by the number of children with special educational needs. I had entire classes where every single child had a special educational need. A newly qualified teacher simply cannot do anything beyond what a more experienced colleague advised, which is to treat every child as special, as indeed they are.

I start by paying tribute to all the parents, teachers and students who are battling the system to get what they believe is right for their child back home in North Devon. I recognise those frustrations, and my inbox is full of those concerns, but my words today are not about individual cases. When looking at this issue, we need to aggregate to try to better understand what is happening. In Devon, we seem to have far too many children being given a label, rather than the help they need to fulfil their potential.

An excellent report by the South-West Social Mobility Commission found that the south-west has the fewest children from disadvantaged backgrounds reaching the expected levels in reading, writing and maths at age 11 of any region, at just 37%, compared with 53% in London. The region also has the fewest young people from any background going on to level 4 or above education or training. Progression rates among those from disadvantaged backgrounds are just 50% in the south-west, compared with 76% in London. Within those statistics, Devon is an enormous education authority. On average, it clearly does not look too great from these figures, but even that hides the variance of what is going on in the northern part of the county, where our social mobility is significantly worse than the south.

Devon is diagnosing SEND and giving out EHCPs at twice the rate of our neighbouring councils. In Devon, the number of children and young people with an ECHP has grown from 3,718 in 2017 to 8,400 in 2023: a 126% increase. Families in Devon pursue an EHCP as they know that will gain them better support than being without one, but it is no wonder that budgets are under pressure given this explosion. I would like to see far more work being done to understand why that is the case, how we can reduce it and how we can raise the educational attainment and social mobility of our young people rather than increase the number of labels they carry.

The situation in Devon has gone on for years. We now have a cohort of young people leaving school with few qualifications, a special educational need and limited support to move forward. The situation is so severe that a recently arrived academy trust has had to adapt its normal processes because of the level of SEN and the high number of pupils unable to cope with its discipline regime. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that regime, that things are so different in northern Devon from elsewhere in the country does ring alarm bells. That is particularly because, being so sparsely populated, it is not like a city where a child can switch to another school if something goes really badly wrong at school.

My schools have some of the biggest catchments in the country, and if children and their parents feel that they would be better served outside their existing school, that results in children being home educated. For some families, that is ideal; for many, it is not. Having been the home education for a child while I taught, I do not believe that the one hour a week that I provided replaced a school education. No one seems to be able to track fully where these children are, how many have opted out of school or been off-rolled, and what provision they are receiving.

For those who have particularly complex needs and require a special education, we currently have 140 applications for every 30 places. Children are travelling halfway across the county to get to school. Ninety minutes in a car is no way to start the day. It also means that any friendships are unlikely to extend beyond school, and the costs involved are astronomical. Devon’s SEN transport costs have risen from £10.4 million to £26.8 million: a 157% increase.

There is clearly an argument that Devon needs more funding as we receive an average of £790 a head compared to the national average of £886, ranking 122nd out of 151 local authorities. We budget far too much funding, at £289 per capita, for independent specialist providers—double the English average—and in 2022 we budgeted 25% larger per capita spend. Against that backdrop, I warmly welcome the Government’s work and their commitment to work with Devon County Council to tackle that, with the Minister’s engagement and that of his predecessor.

I warmly welcome the commitment to build new special schools in Devon. However, the delay on two of them is putting further pressure on council budgets. The arrival of the new, proactive chief executive at Devon County Council, with her experience of delivering in rural areas, does give me hope for the future, but the rate of growth in SEN is not sustainable. Rural per-pupil funding—particularly for transport—does need addressing, and we need better, sustainable early years support and intervention so that pupils can avoid the need to apply for an EHCP. I hope that the Minister will be able to find time to meet me and Devon colleagues to discuss the challenges that our constituents and councils are facing.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling 2:42, 11 January 2024

The Conservatives’ record in education over the last 13 years has been very good. From phonics and academies to free schools and the recent news that the total core schools budget will be at its highest ever level in the next financial year— £59.6 billion—there is much to be proud of. However, the story is not universally good. When I visit schools in my Gedling constituency, I always ask the headteacher at the end of my visit, “If I could wave a magic wand and solve one thing for you, what would it be?” The almost unanimous response—specifically of primary heads—is about improving SEND provision. I therefore congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis and the Backbench Business Committee for making this important debate possible.

I welcome the news that between 2022 and 2025, there will be an extra £2.6 billion to support local authorities to deliver new places and improve existing provision for children with SEN. The f40 group, which we have heard much about, has produced information showing the high-needs block funding per pupil allocations by local authority, which shows that Westminster and Camden are at the top of the table—Camden gets more than £2,500 per pupil—but Nottinghamshire is fourth from bottom, at about £1,000. Now. I appreciate that there can be various regional factors—London weightings and so forth—but in 2023-24 Nottinghamshire has received £7.4 million less in funding compared with Worcestershire, and £20 million less than Warwickshire. So although I acknowledge the significant uplift in funding in the last four years, Nottinghamshire still has the poorest funding per head compared to neighbours.

Nottinghamshire saw an increase in education, health and care plans of just over 12% in 2021 and just over 11% in 2022, in line with the national annual increase of 11%, but the lower funding levels increase pressure on mainstream settings to meet the needs of children with complex special educational needs and disabilities, and the pressure on school budgets combined with the increase in levels of complex needs means that schools are struggling to fund the notional SEND allocation per child required before they request additional top-up funding.

We heard earlier from the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, my hon. Friend Ben Bradley. I applaud his work at the county council to increase high-quality special school and alternative provision places. He outlined that there are plans in place or in development for 494 places, but, with a recent capacity survey suggesting that 657 will be required by September 2027, there is still the risk of a shortfall.

My hon. Friend raised the subject of SEN transport, which is a significant issue in Nottinghamshire. It is a reasonably large county, and SEN transport expenditure has increased significantly, from £7.6 million in 2018 to over £12.4 million by 2023. That cost increase has been driven by: increased pupil numbers requiring specialist provision; a lack of local specialist provision so travel is required; increased journey times; and significant inflationary pressures, with fuel costs increasing by 40% in the last 18 months and wages by 10%. All that has meant that the average retendering contract for SEN transport has increased by between 10% and 35%. Therefore, although I welcome the fact that the Government have met their inflation target—they have halved inflation over the last year, and inflation is coming down—those cost pressures obviously remain.

I will also highlight the time that it can take to process funding applications. Nottinghamshire has a lot of stand-alone infant schools—I went to one myself: Pinewood Infant School in Arnold in my Gedling constituency—and one issue that can be faced is that, by the time the funding has come through, the child has already left the infant school. Nottinghamshire County Council is doing much work to streamline funding for children in the transition from nursery setting to school, with a particular focus on stand-alone infant schools, but I would welcome further work by the DFE to help make that process better.

The f40 Group is campaigning for equitable funding for all schools to deliver high-quality education. I appreciate that some of its asks are big and, with billions of pounds required, that will not be resolved overnight, but I do ask whether the process can be streamlined and made quicker so that we get the money to where it is needed. There is also serious work to be done to address the regional variations that mean that areas such as Nottinghamshire have been left out.

I do not intend this to be a critical speech. As I said at the outset, the Conservatives have a good story to tell from the “Right Support, Right Time, Right Place” Command Paper to the doubling of high-needs funding since 2015 and investment in new special schools, but there is more work to be done on levelling up in this area.

Photo of Steve Tuckwell Steve Tuckwell Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip 2:47, 11 January 2024

I thank my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis for securing this important debate.

For many years we have recognised the importance of universal education for all children and young adults. Back in 1880, school attendance was made compulsory for children aged between five and 10. In 1893, Parliament extended the principle of compulsory education to blind and deaf children, establishing the first specialised schools. Similar provisions would be made for physically impaired children by the end of that century.

Why does that matter? We as a nation recognise and champion the idea of universal education. This House recognised that principle back in the late 1800s, but it was not until 1921 that the local education authorities were given the responsibility to identify children with physical and non-physical disabilities—what we call today special educational needs—and ensure that children were provided with education right the way through to the age of 16. Today, we cannot guarantee a universal education for every child, or at least not at the level to properly help children grow and learn. Nowhere is that more the case than for children and young adults with special educational needs or disabilities.

Across England, 1.4 million pupils have a diverse range of educational needs, and not every one of them is getting the education they need or deserve. The Government have acknowledged that and vowed to tackle it, which I welcome, and I will continue to work with the Government on that. When unveiling the SEND review in 2022, the then Secretary of State for Education admitted that while prior reforms such as those in 2014 gave critical support to more families, the reality is that the system is not working. As many Members have mentioned this afternoon, parents email me constantly and visit me at surgeries, asking and pleading with me to help them secure adequate provision for their children. I care deeply about this, which is why I have made it one of my priorities as the Member of Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

As a serving councillor in Hillingdon, I am all too aware of the work that Hillingdon Council has to do to provide suitable SEND provision to those children and young adults who need it. Despite the challenges in Hillingdon, the children services team has recently been awarded outstanding by Ofsted. What is more, I have been lucky to see the work being done when I visit local schools. Through charity visits, I have been able to hear more about what they are doing to help children and young adults with special educational needs. I am proud to say that that included the SeeAbility programme at Moorcroft School in Uxbridge. SeeAbility is an amazing organisation that works to ensure that children with disabilities do not miss out on eyecare and plays a part in championing the Government’s national scheme to bring eyecare to all special schools.

That work by the council, charities and other organisations is being undone by incredible strain—financial strain—especially, as many colleagues have mentioned, from transport costs. It was great to see the various announcements and projects in the SEND review, but we run the risk of them being undercut by this issue. Sufficient funding is vital for local authorities such as Hillingdon to have the resources to secure the requirements for children and young adults to achieve their full potential. The billions in funding that the Government have rightly set aside to better protect and expand SEND provision across the country is a far cry from the 10 shillings awarded back in the late 1800s. However, there are concerns that there is a lack of recognition of inflationary pressures, as well as those related to supply-side matters, such as fuel costs.

Councils such as Hillingdon play a key role in supporting children and young adults with special educational needs. These pupils are not asking for anything outrageous or to take liberties. They just want suitable education provision to fulfil their full potential. Their parents and the local authorities want them to fulfil their full potential. We can realise the idea of universal education, truly making it universal for all children and young adults across Uxbridge and South Ruislip and the whole nation. I pay tribute to everyone who provides educational provision across Hillingdon, and to parents and pupils for their amazing work with the difficult challenges around them.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney 2:52, 11 January 2024

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis on securing this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. As in the rest of the country, SEND provision in Suffolk is in crisis. We urgently need a review not just of the funding but of how we provide a vulnerable and very needy group of children and young people with the education that they need and deserve.

Almost daily I receive emails, first from desperate parents unable to secure an appropriate school setting for their children, who quite often receive very little education at all, and secondly from primary school headteachers, SENCOs and staff exasperated at being unable to obtain the support they need and at being asked to provide schooling for pupils who really should be in a specialist setting. The system is broken, and the situation has been exacerbated by inflationary pressures since 2015 and covid. It often takes years to obtain an education, health and care plan, on which there probably is too great a reliance. In the Waveney area, schools and staff are doing great work—including the Ashley School and Castle School East—but we urgently need more local provision and to get away from a model whereby vulnerable young children are driven hours around Suffolk and Norfolk.

In the remaining time available, I shall briefly focus on four funding issues. First, as we heard from my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock, Suffolk receives a very poor high needs block funding settlement. It is based on historical need and bears no resemblance to the needs of today. Local authorities with similar SEND responsibilities receive wildly different and better funding settlements. Suffolk, as we heard, is a founder member of the f40. The funding discrepancies that exist both in my own county and across the country must be evened out as a matter of urgency.

Secondly, it is important not to forget the vital work done by further education colleges, such as East Coast College. For colleges, disadvantaged funding should be reformed to include a specific block to support students with SEND who do not have high needs. For high needs funding in colleges, tariffs should be set at levels that will allow colleges to recruit and retain support staff.

Thirdly, it is all too easy to overlook the bespoke needs of specialist further education colleges that provide education and skills training for those with SEND who are aged 16 to 25. At this stage, it is important to remember that special educational needs and disability legislation requires local authorities to create a local offer from birth to age 25 for young people with SEND. Specialist FE colleges play a vital role and, although they are publicly funded, they are not currently eligible for the capital revenue support to address RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. That inequality should be removed.

Finally, it is great news that a GCSE for British Sign Language is on the way, and I congratulate my constituents Ann and Daniel Jillings on all their campaigning work to make that happen. But there is an acute shortage of qualified teachers of the deaf to teach this new exam. The National Deaf Children’s Society highlights the immediate need to train 200 more qualified teachers of the deaf. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will keep that particular request in mind.

In conclusion, there is a national crisis in SEN provision, and it is felt particularly badly in Suffolk. As a whole, we are badly letting down large numbers of students, their families and their teachers. In that respect, I support the motion. A review of funding should take place without delay.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay 2:57, 11 January 2024

I congratulate Sir David Davis on securing the debate and on the strength of his opening speech, which set out well the issues faced across the country.

Many colleagues have already outlined the overall funding challenges facing SEND services, so given the limited time I will focus on another aspect: the impact of delays in diagnosis and the wider opportunities for making an impact on this issue, which inevitably impacts on the funding of it.

It might be helpful to illustrate the issues being faced by using the example of Barton Hill Academy in Torquay. I want to thank the principal, Samantha Smith, and her team for the work they do to inspire and educate so many of our next generation, particularly those with additional needs. Barton Hill Academy has two classrooms for students with additional needs: one for younger students with issues such as autism; and another for slightly older students with mental health and behavioural issues. It deploys several staff members to support those students. Many students are waiting for a diagnosis through the NHS. The school has assigned a member of staff to help support parents of children with autism through the process and to fill out the referral forms, but it is still a difficult process. The delay in getting an assessment and a diagnosis through the NHS, which is not directly related to the education system, inevitably has an impact, because until there is a diagnosis there is not the ability to provide the service that is needed or, in some cases, to look at moving to more appropriate provision.

One key issue raised is that headteachers can be left with a rather unenviable choice. They can keep someone with them who is clearly having an impact on the wider school, when the type of resources they have available are not suitable for them. That said, they know that the issue is not so much behaviour as the fact that the pupil concerned has medical needs that are not being met and is awaiting diagnosis. That can lead to the unenviable process of deciding whether to exclude the pupil, which is far more suitable in the case of those with behavioural issues. In practical terms, headteachers feel that that is the choice they must start to consider, given the impact on the wider school and the fact that it is not set up to deal with that pupil’s needs, but in moral terms it is highly unlikely to produce the best outcome for the child.

This really comes back to the issue of getting the assessments done and ensuring that there can be a clear link between an NHS service and the impact for SEND. One family opted for private provision because they were told that there was a three-year waiting list for an appointment with a paediatrician for an official assessment, which would have meant that their primary-school child would be at secondary school before they saw any outcome from the assessment. The family paid £300 for a private diagnosis, but some local authorities do not accept such diagnoses as a basis for educational provision.

It was useful to discuss with Torbay Council the challenges that it faced—although I welcome the improvements that have been made in the delivery of children’s services in Torbay under a number of political parties in recent years. Council representatives cited the impact of early intervention through family hubs. We need to ask what provision there is when people start to home-educate their children, and I think some reviews could be carried out in that regard. We also need to ask what can be done about prioritisation in NHS lists. Rather than people working methodically through a backlog, there should be a point at which children who are in need of treatment but face potential exclusion from mainstream schools could be prioritised for appointments that become available for the usual reasons why an appointment might become available at short notice.

I am interested to hear what the Minister can say about family hub funding beyond next year, and about what focus there will be on overall SEN skills across the wider teaching profession. SENCOs are clearly important, but now that more children with additional needs are in mainstream schools, this is an issue that more teachers are encountering. There is also the question of 90% attendance targets in the context of funding, and how that can be gradated for those with fairly low attendance. Finally, there is the need for co-ordination with the NHS.

The debate has given us a welcome chance to discuss these issues, and, again, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing it.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury 3:02, 11 January 2024

Like everyone else, I will start by congratulating my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis on securing this important debate.

One of the key priorities in my campaign to be elected to this place in 2019 was to give children in the Aylesbury constituency a brilliant start in life—and that means all children, including and, indeed, especially those with special educational needs and disabilities. I am pleased to say that there are several specialist SEND schools in my constituency. I have had the privilege of visiting many of them, including Pebble Brook and Booker Park, Chiltern Way Academy, and the independent Pace Centre. The work they do is awe-inspiring, and I pay tribute to their staff, who constantly strive to give the children for whom they care the best possible opportunities and experiences.

Too often, however, the families of the children with SEND feel that they are being left to fight a ferociously complicated system to get their child into those schools and ensure that they have the support they need. Thankfully, they have local support from people in a similar position, including members of the GRASPS group, which is run by volunteers in Buckinghamshire, but they have told me at length of their concerns about delays in assessments, complexity in form-filling, and then the long waits for the EHCPs about which we have heard so much this afternoon.

The team at Buckinghamshire Council and I have discussed those concerns to try to find ways in which to help, and I know that the team are determined to do so, but it is no surprise that the council has highlighted funding as a major challenge. As we have heard, the cost of SEND education can be exceptionally high, and it is not unusual for the cost of residential placements for children with the most complex and serious needs to run to hundreds of thousands of pounds a year.

The SEND Green Paper and the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, published in March 2023, made clear the need to update the funding model. The Government are not ignorant to this, and I am pleased with their direction of travel. We have an excellent Minister to drive that forward in the months ahead. I am pleased that £10 billion of high needs funding has been allocated for the coming financial year, representing a cash-terms increase of 12%.

It should be stressed, and it has been, that high needs block funding has nearly doubled in cash terms since 2013-14, which demonstrates this Government’s commitment to helping SEND pupils and their families. However, Buckinghamshire Council fares very poorly compared with many other local authorities, with much lower allocations of funding. The cost to all local authorities of providing support for SEND pupils is increasing dramatically, both because of the number of cases and because of the complexity of need.

Locally, since 2016, there has been a 101% increase in requests for EHCPs. Since 2020, the unit costs for children’s placements have increased by 30%. As a result, Bucks Council is looking at bringing some provision in-house to try to contain some of the costs, but that cannot happen overnight. In the meantime, it must try to find the extra money.

Members from all parties will know that I have a profound interest in youth justice. Having spent many years as a youth magistrate and as a member of the Youth Justice Board, I have always been struck by the disproportionate number of young people with SEND in the criminal justice system. According to data published in 2022 by the Department for Education and the Ministry of Justice, 80% of children cautioned or sentenced for an offence have been recorded as having special educational needs at some stage—80%. That is an appalling statistic.

It cannot be morally right that so many children with SEND wind up on the wrong side of the law and, all too often, behind bars. We must do more to give children with SEND the appropriate education and training so that they have the same potential to live law-abiding lives as their peers, and we must ensure that provision for those who unfortunately end up in the youth justice system is properly tailored and funded.

I end on a positive note. Many Members of this House run an annual competition for local schoolchildren to design their Christmas cards. For the past two years, I have done something slightly different. I have gone out to local SEND schools, one each year, to ask them to produce the design for my card, and the reason is very simple. All too often, children with special educational needs are airbrushed out or considered incapable of achieving the same as their peers, but I take a different view. I want local children with special needs to be celebrated for what they achieve. I want them to be visible, and I want to give them a showcase in the local community. The simple act of getting them to design my Christmas card has enabled me to do that, and I thank the children at Booker Park School, who designed my 2023 card, and the children at Chiltern Way Academy, who did it in 2022. Both cards had excellent pictures that carried real meaning. This emphasises that there is potential in every child, and we need to approach children with special educational needs and disabilities with a spirit of optimism and positivity.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) 3:07, 11 January 2024

I congratulate Sir David Davis on securing this important debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time. I pay tribute to the teachers, support staff, educational psychologists, speech and language therapists and all who work with children with special educational needs and disabilities.

I am grateful to every right hon. and hon. Member who has contributed to today’s debate. We have heard heartbreaking stories from across the country of the desperate situations facing the families of children with special educational needs and disabilities, and we have also heard about the impact on local authorities and professionals of a system that simply is not working. The sheer number of contributions this afternoon speaks to the magnitude of the issue and the depth of the crisis.

We have heard from the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr Walker), for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Steve Tuckwell) and for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), and from my right hon. Friend John McDonnell and my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury, about the funding crisis in SEND.

We have heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and for Selby and Ainsty (Keir Mather), and from the hon. Members for Gedling (Tom Randall), for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and for Bracknell (James Sunderland), about the pressures on school places.

We have from the right hon. Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell), about the terrible battles that parents face.

We have heard from the hon. Members for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Bracknell, for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster) about the intolerably long waits that families face for diagnoses and EHCPs.

We have heard from Sir Jake Berry and my hon. Friend Olivia Blake about the intense shortage of staff to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. We heard from my hon. Friend Ian Lavery and others about the financial impact on families of a system that cannot deliver the support that they need.

After 13 years of Conservative Governments, the system of support that children with SEND and their families rely on is beyond breaking point. Far too many families of children with SEND face a battle for the support their children need. It is often a battle that has to be fought many times over throughout a child’s life: a battle for recognition and diagnosis in the early years; a battle for support in primary school; another battle to find the right secondary school and ensure that support is put in place; and a further battle to secure a place in further or higher education.

The consequence of this failing system is heartbreak for families; precious children being made to feel that they are the problem; and, ultimately, attainment of children with SEND going backwards. That leaves families increasingly reliant on going to the courts to get the support to which their children are entitled. It cannot be and is not right that the Government’s failure to provide an efficient courts system is now rationing access to the entitlements children have. We each get only one childhood, and support delayed is support denied.

This issue should be an urgent priority for the Government. The current system is failing children and their families, and it is an increasingly prominent factor in the number of councils issuing section 114 notices—in effect, declaring bankruptcy—because they can no longer balance their budget. This issue is on the national risk register for the Department for Education. So what has been the Government’s response? They delayed their SEND review, first announced in 2019, three times. Much of the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan will not come into effect until 2025, six years after the review was announced. During that time, 300,000 children with SEND will have left secondary school having spent the entirety of their school education under an increasingly failing system of SEND support.

The Childhood Trust has found that families of children with SEND are disproportionately affected by the cost of living crisis and are more likely to be living in poverty than families of children without SEND. That is in no small part driven by the great difficulty that families of children with SEND have in finding a suitable childcare place throughout the early years; for before and after-school care; and, for older children, during the school holidays. We know that one in four parents across the board have had to give up work due to the cost of childcare, and the figures are much higher for parents of children with SEND.

Our education and childcare systems should deliver for every child in the country. Children with SEND deserve so much better than the complacency and neglect they have suffered for the past 13 years, and the piecemeal, sticking-plaster measures that are now being proposed. Labour believes in high and rising standards for every child. We will work with parents and carers, local authorities, health services and professionals to deliver for children with SEND. We will work to make mainstream schools inclusive for children with SEND. We will ensure that teachers and support staff have the training they need to work with the diverse range of children who are in every classroom throughout the country.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I am pleased to hear of the number of things the hon. Lady is suggesting, but will she also support my private Member’s Bill to tackle the issue of school attendance?

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her intervention. She will know that it is not the protocol for Front Benchers, on either side of the House, to support private Members’ Bills. She will also know that my colleague the shadow Education Secretary comprehensively set out this week the priority that Labour places on school attendance and the package of measures we will put in place to start to improve a situation where we have a dire crisis across the country. The right hon. Lady is right to bring that issue forward through the means available to her—her private Member’s Bill—and I wish her success with her attempts to raise the priority of the issue and to seek action from the Government to address it.

We will ensure that teachers and support staff have the training they need to work with the diverse range of children who are in every classroom across the country, with a new annual continuing professional development entitlement. We will ensure schools are inspected on their inclusivity as well as the attainment of children by changing the Ofsted inspection framework. We will roll out evidence-based speech and language interventions for the youngest children, because we know that unlocking communication is an essential foundation for learning. We will increase mental health support in every school and we will join up records to reduce the exhausting battles parents face as they have to retell their child’s story to every professional they meet.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

I will not. It has been a long debate and the Minister needs to come in shortly.

We will build an early education and childcare system that works for children and families, from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school. And we will put money back in parents’ pockets, with free breakfast clubs in every primary school, ensuring no child has to start the school day hungry, and by placing limits on the cost of school uniform.

This Government have been failing children and families for 13 long years. Labour will put children first again and we will work to rebuild the support for children with special educational needs and disabilities, which has been so badly broken on this Government’s watch.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:16, 11 January 2024

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir David Davis on securing the debate. I know how passionate he is about ensuring that his constituents get what they should from the SEND system and ensuring that his granddaughter, Chloe, gets the support she needs. He made a powerful case for both. Before I go any further, I formally congratulate him on the announcement of his knighthood, which is a well-deserved honour for his decades of public service.

By way of background, I am an MP in an f40 area, so I am familiar with the case the organisation makes and I met the group towards the end of last year. I have been children’s Minister since the end of August, but in the two years before being appointed to that position, the issue of parents and teachers being unable to get the support they need for children with SEND was already in the top two items in my casework and surgery appointments. I pay my own tribute to all the staff supporting children with special educational needs in schools, colleges and alternative provision, both locally and nationally.

The issues raised in the debate are very familiar to me. In previous debates, I have talked about parents having what they feel is a war of attrition with the system to try to get the support they need for their children. That is a war that any parent would wage, but no parent should have to. We know the system is not delivering consistent support and outcomes and that there are significant financial pressures on it, despite considerable Government investment.

I will begin with investment and funding, as that has been the biggest issue discussed this afternoon. As has been touched on, the Government have increased the higher needs budget considerably. In 2024-25, it will be £10.5 billion, which is 60% higher than the figure in 2020. In the past two years, there has been a 32% increase in per head funding in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. Most Members would agree that that is a considerable amount of money, as my hon. Friend James Sunderland said in his speech. Some Members may only agree with that privately, but not many Government budgets, under any Government or in any area, have increased by 60%, which demonstrates the Government’s considerable support for and commitment to the area.

We have two programmes supporting local authorities that face financial pressure in their SEND system, and a number of Members in the Chamber have local authorities involved in those programmes. First, the safety valve programme, which includes 34 local authorities with the highest percentage deficit, helps local authorities pay down accumulated deficits and reform their systems. By March 2025, the Department will have allocated nearly £900 million through that programme, and if what we are trying to deliver is delivered, those deficits will be eradicated.

Secondly, we have the delivering better value programme for those with substantial but less severe deficits, which involves 55 local authorities, including East Riding of Yorkshire in the area of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. That is helping to deliver high-quality outcomes with sustainable costs. Under that programme, each area develops a reform plan and receives £1 million to support its delivery.

As has been touched on, the high needs budget has doubled since 2015, but even if a Government were able to triple or quadruple it, that would not by itself deliver the outcomes we all want to see. Parents and teachers know that and frequently say that the issue is not just about money. My hon. Friend Ben Bradley made that point well in his speech, and I intend to pick up with him the discussion about conflicting priorities.

The system needs reform, which is why we published our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan last year, with the aim of getting children and young people the right support, in the right place, at the right time. There is a lot within the plan, but I wish to draw out three key areas briefly, because they are the ones that have come up most this afternoon and are in the petitions attached to this debate.

First, on special school provision and capital funding, which was raised by Gareth Thomas and others, we are making a £2.6 billion investment, £1.5 billion of which has already been allocated. That is on top of our delivery of new special and alternative provision free schools. There are currently 106 special free schools open and a further 78 have been approved to open in the future.

Secondly, on combatting regional variations, the plan will move us towards a national system with national standards, which we have never previously had. Across the country, we now have nine change programme partnerships, which each have between two and four local areas, together with local schools, health services and parents. What they are doing is, for example, testing an EHCP template that we hope can be used nationally, which will improve the timeliness and quality of EHCPs. We are developing national standards of support for special educational needs, beginning with one for speech and language, which will be released later this year. We are also publishing a local and national inclusion dashboard, which parents will be able to access. They will be able to see how their local area is doing, which will drive accountability.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend Kevin Foster asked about the skills and knowledge of staff in mainstream schools. Our teacher standards already include clear expectations that teachers must understand the needs of all pupils, including those with special educational needs, but we are reviewing the core content framework and the early careers framework to improve their confidence in this area. We have a universal SEND services programme, which more than 11,000 staff have already accessed to improve their knowledge and skills. We are also funding the training of 7,000 early years staff with a level 3 SENCO qualification, as my hon. Friend the Chair of the Education Committee said. Some 5,200 staff have begun that training, so we are on track with that target.[This section has been corrected on 23 January 2024, column 3MC — read correction]

There are many other points that I wanted to respond to, but I have only eight minutes, so I will just say to my right hon. Friend Matt Hancock and my hon. Friends the Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Gedling (Tom Randall), for Waveney (Peter Aldous), for Aylesbury (Rob Butler) and others that I understand their point about regional variations. It is based partly on deprivation and other factors and partly on the historical spend factors that have been referred to. I am happy to sit down with anybody to talk about those things.

To Olivia Blake, I say that it is already the case that a school has to be outstanding in all areas to receive an outstanding grade from Ofsted, and it is not the case that we have a 20% target for reducing EHCPs, or indeed any other such target.

In conclusion, I reiterate my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden for securing this debate and to all Members who have contributed to it. We may disagree on certain aspects of how to achieve this, but we are united in our desire to ensure that the SEND system provides excellent outcomes to all children and young people, and that is what this Government are determined to deliver.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden 3:24, 11 January 2024

As we saw earlier this week, clear injustices induce an extraordinary unity of purpose across the whole House. We have seen a little of that this day, because we all want to give every child the best possible chance in life, irrespective of their circumstances when they are born and thereafter. To that end, we have had some formidable speeches from Members on both sides of the House. For me, the speech that crystallised the issue most clearly was that of my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes, who said that in 2014 we set out with the EHCP system to try to stop tired, frazzled parents having a never-ending fight to get the right outcome for their children in our system. The EHCP system has not worked. It has not delivered what we wanted because of the massive increase in demand and in complexity.

The increasing costs have overwhelmed even the large increases in expenditure that the Government have provided. That is why we need the review of funding and of allocation, both individually and across regions. The House has heard about my council in East Riding, which is the worst off, but we have heard about the unfairness of the system for individuals too. On behalf of the support staff, who work harder than anybody I know, the teachers, the parents, who have the toughest job there is, and of course the children, who we are here to give a decent life to, I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
calls for a review of funding for SEND provision.