My Lords, in 2016 the House’s Select Committee on the Equality Act 2010 and Disability recommended changing these regulations. These aim to provide more protection to children whose disability means that they have a tendency to physical abuse. In response to the committee’s report, we committed to consider how the exemption around the tendency to physical abuse of other persons applies to those under 18 in the education context. We will be looking carefully at the arguments for and against changing the law, and will confirm our intentions later this year.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s reply, but I remind him that it was two years ago this month that the Government promised action on this matter. In the meantime, schools exclude pupils with autism and learning difficulties on the grounds that their behaviour may be disruptive. They do so rather than making amendments to help and support the teaching of these youngsters. Will the Government accept that the Equality Act as it stands permits discrimination against vulnerable children and should be amended soon?
My Lords, this issue is, by common consent, considerably complex. We have been looking at it in depth and giving careful thought to what would be in the public interest. We will be ready later in the year to confirm our intentions, which we will do publicly. We do not accept that discrimination exists at the moment, but I would like to take this opportunity to recognise the huge contribution that the noble Lord makes to this important area through his role as a vice-president of the National Autistic Society. I look forward to meeting him and some of his colleagues from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism next week.
My Lords, I declare my professional interest in this particular matter—when they hear what I have to say, some may even say my professional prejudice—in so far as the last figures that I have been given show that our primary schools are 80% staffed by one-year-trained teachers who do a PGCE after doing a Mickey Mouse degree at university. The reality is that you cannot train a teacher in one year. Is the weakness not a question of failing to train our teachers properly?
My Lords, we have done a lot over the last few years to improve the training for teachers in order to increase their awareness of both autism and other issues. The department issued a new framework for initial teacher training content in July 2016, and we are now funding the Whole School SEND Consortium to build a community of practice involving 10,000 schools. A new SEND regional lead, supported by a deputy, will bring together practitioners and networks in their local area to build a community of practice.
My Lords, there has been a 72% increase in exclusions from primary schools. Does this not suggest that something is fundamentally wrong in the system as it stands? If the Government are not prepared to take the action suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, will they make sure that teachers are better trained and prepared for handling these children in the classroom? Those are the only two options that we have.
My Lords, the noble Lord is correct that it does not prevent a pupil with SEN being excluded, but any exclusion must be lawful, reasonable and fair. Schools must also balance their responsibilities for children with SEN or disabilities with their responsibility to ensure that all children are able to experience good-quality teaching in a safe environment. The guidance is also clear that, when a pupil is identified with SEN, head teachers need to consider what extra support is needed to identify and address their needs. Lastly, I remind the House that we have commissioned a report from Edward Timpson specifically on exclusions.
My Lords, is the Minister concerned that, as increasing numbers of initial teacher trainees are trained in schools, there is a risk that they will not get the training they need to work with these complex children? Will he look in particular at the apprenticeship route into teacher training and ensure that their mentors have time with them not only in class but protected time outside the class to talk to these trainee teachers and support them in their development?
My Lords, we have funded the Autism Education Trust and have recently extended that to improve the awareness of these conditions of education staff. We have now brought that awareness to more than 175,000 teachers and education staff in the past five years, which is 25,000 more than when I last answered a Question on autism only a month ago.
My Lords, the Minister says at the Dispatch Box that we need more evidence. We do not need any more evidence; the evidence is all around us. Children with disabilities in schools are being discriminated against. The evidence is everywhere. Why do the Government need another inquiry before they act to stop this discrimination?
My Lords, it is important that schools take the appropriate steps to address the underlying causes of poor behaviour. In this Question, we are dealing with the propensity to violence of some children in schools. We have to have regard to 7 million pupils, 465,000 teachers and 265,000 teaching assistants, and we must take their interests into account as well.
My Lords, I certainly support what has been said, but I have had the pleasure of seeing that government at both ends are highly supportive of trying to improve the situation, and everybody in this House wants to help these youngsters. I see it through the eyes of my little grandson; I am learning all the time about it. It is all very well having records, but, as has already been said, when a school has headmasters and mistresses and staff who are trained, understand and know what a meltdown is all about, it makes so much difference to that child’s future. Could that whole system be accelerated?
My Lords, we have done a great deal over the past five years to raise awareness of these issues in schools, and we will continue to do so.