There is nothing more important than ensuring that everyone in our country, regardless of need, gets the very best education possible. That is why our special educational needs and alternative provision improvement plan will ensure that all children get the support they need to reach their potential. We have opened 108 special free schools, including 15 since September, and launched a £70 million change programme to test and refine our systemic reforms, benefiting every region in England. Earlier this month I announced an extension to our short breaks programme. We have a plan and we are delivering on it.
Today, many parents of children with special educational needs, including those in my constituency, are at their wits’ end. Either they are fighting to get an education, health and care plan for their child or they are struggling to access the right support when they get one. That is a waste of public money, a waste of parental energy and too often a waste of their child’s precious potential. Does the Secretary of State agree with my constituents, who feel that the system is broken?
I would agree that there has been an absolute increase in special educational needs in the past five, six or seven years, largely because we know more, but also because covid has added some pressure on the system. We have expanded the system and want to ensure that all children with special educational needs, even more than before, get the help they need. We have an improvement plan in place, which was published in March 2023 and focuses on early identification and improved support all the way through the journey. We are training many more people and putting more support in place for the hon. Lady’s constituents.
In smaller and rural communities such as mine in West Lancashire, populations and services are often very sparsely distributed and SEND students often have to either travel upwards of an hour to reach any provision, or go without. What is the Government’s plan to address that issue?
We have been trying to increase the number of places within both mainstream and special educational needs and alternative provision settings. As I say, we have 108 more special educational needs schools already built and 76 more approved. We have worked with many local authorities, including in rural areas, to make sure they get the provision they need.
Every child with special educational needs or disabilities should receive the high-quality support they deserve, but schools and councils do not have the necessary resources to meet increasing demand and rising costs. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the funding and powers available to councils to improve SEND provision?
That is one reason the high-needs budget is up by over 60% in the past four years, and will reach £10.5 billion in 2024-25. We are also supporting local authorities with financial deficits through the safety valve and delivering better- value programmes. In most constituencies, including in the hon. Lady’s area, the funding has gone up by 25% to 35%.[This section has been corrected on
I also have several cases in my constituency, where children and young people can wait months, if not years, not just for assessment but for a plan to address their needs. Sense has reported that less than half of local authorities have multi-sensory impairment teachers, and the National Autistic Society reports that three in four parents say that their children’s schools do not fully cover their needs. What are the Government doing about that?
Our plan to introduce national consistency and standards will be published in 2025. We will deliver it through local partnerships and inclusion, digitise records, and make it much more transparent so that parents can see what is happening. In terms of mainstream support, we will improve early language support, we are working with integrated care boards to improve support for neurodiversity in schools, and 100,000 teachers have received autism training. There is additional special educational needs co-ordinator training as well as vital early language support.
My office operates a regular advice surgery for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, in conjunction with the University of Liverpool law clinic, to which I pay tribute. There are simply not enough places in mainstream schools or special schools. Children with SEND from the most deprived areas are less likely to be identified compared with similar children from more affluent areas. What are the Government doing to ensure that children in constituencies such as mine are identified early and can get the help they require?
The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. Early identification is absolutely key in providing support and ensuring that it impacts the child as early as possible. I am very happy to understand more about places. Local authorities have made lots of bids, and that is why many more special educational needs schools have been, or are being, built—I announced 15 recently. Although I do not know whether his local area bid into them, we have many schemes to ensure that local authorities have financing to improve the number of places in mainstream schools and special educational needs schools.
What work is being done to support local authorities in addressing the placing of children with special educational needs and disabilities out of their own counties and localities to receive the essential support they need? In Essex, the problem is ongoing and affects all our Essex colleagues. I pay tribute to our county council, which is doing incredible work—it is well rated—but frankly it needs help, assistance and support from central Government.
There are a number of things there. We have put £2.6 billion into increasing the number of places—Members across the House will have heard of additional school places in their areas—and we have a £70 million change programme to ensure, through work with local authorities, that the improvement plan that we published in March 2023 goes from being a piece of paper to being implemented on the ground and felt by all our constituencies and all families with children with special educational needs.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the provision of training in SEND during initial teacher training to ensure that more teachers are aware of the support that children might need, and on the recruitment of specialists, such as educational psychologists and speech and language therapists?
We are implementing a gold thread of high-quality teacher training reforms to ensure that teachers have the skills they need. The Department has been exploring opportunities to build expertise, through a review of the initial teacher training core content framework and the early career framework, to identify how we can equip new teachers to be more confident in meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND. There will be more investment in educational psychologists, of which there will be another 400, and more investment in early years SENCOs, of which there will be another 7,000.[This section has been corrected on
Similarly to my right hon. Friend Mr Jayawardena, I welcome the introduction of a new SENCO national professional qualification—I declare an interest, as my wife is a SENCO—but to create a truly inclusive school environment, all teachers need the knowledge, skills and practical training to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. What steps is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State taking to ensure that initial teacher training gives them that support and training?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and also for all the work he has done in this area. We worked together when he was Minister for children and families and I was working in the Department of Health and Social Care, and it is something that we both care deeply about.
As I said in answer to the earlier question, there is a golden thread of high-quality teacher training reforms. We will be looking at a revised framework and working with providers so that they can ensure that the contracts deliver the very best support for teachers. What will be vital, and something that Members will feel, is the additional 7,000 SENCOs that will be trained in the coming years.[This section has been corrected on
Worcestershire County Council has some welcome plans to set up a new autism free school in Malvern. Recently, I visited Our Place—an independent provider—in West Worcestershire, which provides specialist education, mainly for children with autism. Is it the Secretary of State’s understanding that such independent provision would be affected by taxation should the Opposition bring in a tax on independent schools across this country?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point: there are 2,408 independent schools across our country, many of which provide special educational needs support and excellent education in particular specialties. If those schools were subject to increased taxation, that would make provision more difficult. We will have to assess what that would mean.
A number of colleagues have mentioned initial teacher training. Perhaps they and the Secretary of State should look no further than tomorrow, when my ten-minute rule Bill comes before Parliament—a Bill that aims to increase and ensure there is autism training for all teachers. Will the Secretary of State back it?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s work in this area. Initial teacher training courses must equip trainees to meet all the teachers’ standards, including standard 5: that teachers must
“have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils”, including pupils with autism. Through the delivery of our improvement plan, we will develop new practitioner standards to support frontline professionals, including a standard on autism. I look forward to my hon. Friend’s working with us.