My Lords, my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen has referred to our shared educational experience at St Francis School in the Welsh mining village of Abersychan, a village of less than 7,000 people that produced several Members of Parliament, some of whom ended up in the House of Lords. Among the Members of Parliament, there was a Secretary of State for Wales, a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a Home Secretary and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. We may have lacked many things in our village but, clearly, we did not lack ambition.
I went on in later life to represent a former mining area. The areas of south Wales with which I am familiar experienced deprivation, with many people facing massive challenges of social change with the loss of the pits and heavy industry. The spirit of the folk who lived there was sorely tested, but for the people of my parents’ generation, and for mine too, there was a belief that education was a pathway out of poverty. We saw education as a gateway to opportunity and a better, more enriched and fulfilled life. Alas, I am not sure that spirit and belief is as widespread today. All too often, I am struck by what I call poverty of ambition. I remember visiting a primary school and the head saying that when he came there, no one expected anything from him, because no one in the village had gone to university. It was not because people were unintelligent or lacked ability—far from it. He told me a story: a few weeks before, he had told a mother of a pupil at the school that her son was heading for university. The boy was intelligent, inquisitive, confident and articulate. The mother replied: “Don’t be daft. University is not for the likes of us”. That poverty of ambition is a barrier to the advancement of working people.
In stark contrast, since I entered this House, I have been privileged to work with people who desperately want to grasp all the opportunities that education can offer. For so many of those I have in mind, people with autism, their battle has been that much harder. All too often, simply to get a statement or even a diagnosis of autism can take years. Despite the obstacles, there are many parents of autistic youngsters who will fight for their children to have all the opportunities in life that education can bring.
Last week, the APPG on Autism published a report entitled Autism and Education in England in 2017. I pay tribute to two excellent MPs: Huw Merriman and Maria Caulfield—both Conservatives—who were co-chairs of the inquiry that produced this report. In examining how the education system works for people with autism, they found that 78% of parents said that it has not been easy to get the support their child needs, 42% said that their child was refused an assessment of their needs the first time it was requested, 50% said that they waited more than a year for their child to receive support at school, and 40% said that their child’s school place does not fully meet their needs. These are not small numbers. They demonstrate that there are serious shortcomings in educating children and young people with autism in our country. I should declare an interest as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society and a vice-chair to Cheryl Gillan MP, the chair of the All-Party Group on Autism. Cheryl Gillan, the author of the Autism Act 2009, has called for a national autism and education strategy. Such a strategy should set out how autistic youngsters could be supported and what society should expect from the education system.
Why do we need a strategy? I will tell noble Lords: three years on from the introduction of significant reforms of special educational needs, children on the autism spectrum are being let down. Fewer than half of children and young people with autism are happy in school. Six out of 10 young people and seven out of 10 parents say that the main thing that would make school better for them is a teacher who understands them. I remember a mother telling me that she had not visited her child’s school for some months, whereas, in the early part of his school life, she had been there almost every week. Why the change? Her son now had a teacher who had a child with autism and who understood his problems. That is why we desperately need more teachers trained in understanding and educating children and young people with autism.
The most reverend Primate has titled this debate,
“the role of education in building a flourishing and skilled society”.
For me, education and a skilled society are two sides of the same coin. In an excellent report recently provided by the National Autistic Society, entitled I’m Not Unemployable, I’m Autistic, the NAS highlighted the problems people with autism have in gaining employment. Just 16% of autistic people are in full-time employment and a further 16% work part-time. We should not be surprised by this; I have tried to demonstrate the barriers that people with autism have in trying to get an education, let alone employment. What a waste of a life and of a talent that could enrich our country, our society and our economy. In the 21st century, this lack of educational opportunity for autistic people is a wrong that we in Britain should be ashamed of and want to put right.
I conclude by asking the Minister a few questions. Huw Merriman and Maria Caulfield have called for the Government to develop a national autism and education strategy by the end of 2019. Will the Government agree to do this? The MPs want local councils to become more effective commissioners for children on the autistic spectrum. Do the Government agree with that? The MPs argue that schools should be equipped and welcoming to ensure that autistic pupils can thrive. Do the Government agree? They urge all Ministers to show leadership and to drive forward change by making sure every child is supported in the way the law says they should be supported. Is this Minister himself prepared to take that leadership role in his own department?
As I look round the Chamber today, I see many colleagues who have bravely championed the rights of people from ethnic minorities, the rights of Christians and non-Christians to practise their faith and the rights of people to decide and define their own sexual orientation. All I ask is for each one of us, if we have the opportunity, to champion this cause too and to make a difference.