My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for securing this debate and introducing it with knowledge and passion. Maya Angelou once said that we must
“teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”
This debate is about including all children in education and ensuring our schools are proud of their diversity. My focus is on the positive impact that comes with providing a good education for every child.
I start by considering the problems children face in schools at the moment. Every day, autistic school children must contend with sensory challenges, social communication problems and a lack of routine. Looking at the bigger picture, I ask whether our education system is willing to teach or even capable of teaching autistic children at all. Why do I say that? A National Audit Office study in 2017 found that SEND pupils accounted for 45% of all permanent school exclusions and 43% of fixed-term exclusions, despite accounting for only 15% of pupils. This is not to mention unofficial “soft” exclusions, whereby parents are asked to take their children home for a “cooling off period”. In 2017, Ofsted found an “alarming number” of these, despite unofficial exclusions being unlawful. In 2017, 12% of inquiries at the National Autistic Society’s schools exclusion service related to informal exclusion. A survey carried out by the society and the All-Party Group on Autism found that one in four parents said that their child had been “informally” excluded at least once from school in the previous year.
In 2018, the Fischer Family Trust found that there were 7,700 more children “missing” from schools in England than the government figures revealed. What is being done to find these missing pupils and crack down on these illegal exclusions? The problem is also linked to the ongoing scourge of off-rolling—the practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without using a permanent exclusion. It is aimed at serving the best interests of the school, rather than that of the pupil. Ofsted found that off-rolling is more likely to happen to children who have special educational needs. Can the Minister say how this is being combated?
We should look for solutions first, and acknowledge that off-rolling can come from underfunding and school competition. Ofsted should crack down on schools that off-roll pupils and thereby deny them the education they deserve. It would also be worth reviewing school league tables and the role that competition plays in schools wanting to offload pupils who have worse results. We should encourage our schools to value all their pupils; the variety of ideas and talents that are brought from the neurodiverse community is so important. We must consider the role that school league tables play in promoting anti-neurodiverse practices in schools in favour of the superficial facade of good results. Do the Government intend to review school league tables?
Underfunded training and fewer resources to support children with special educational needs is another factor. While the number of children identified as having the greatest need rose by 10% between 2013 and 2018, funding for pupils dropped by 2.6% in real terms. The Government announced £700 million for special educational needs this year, but nothing in the following years. Why? Can the Minister explain that?
Finally, the benefits of ensuring children with special educational needs are in school are evident to all of us. Studies show that inclusive learning is beneficial to all students, not just those with special educational needs. Children with special educational needs have fewer absences, develop stronger skills in reading and maths, and their peers are more comfortable and tolerant, increasing self-esteem and encouraging diverse and caring friendships.
We are right to discuss this problem this evening. Children with special educational needs deserve to be, and are right to be, in school. First and foremost, we must ensure that they can be there in the first place. The beauty and strength of diversity that comes with ensuring every child attends school will improve the learning skills of all our children, ensure that they have a well-rounded education and contribute to the more inclusive society which we all want in our country.