Schoolchildren: Dyslexia and Neurodiverse Conditions - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:25 pm on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 8:25 pm, 4th March 2020

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for the huge amount of work that he undertakes on behalf of people of all ages with dyslexia, of which securing today’s debate is merely the latest example. He speaks with great authority on the subject, of course, something of which I am sure the Minister will be aware.

Children affected by neurodiverse conditions are entitled to extra support in schools, but all too often these children and their families do not receive support they need to enable them to make the most of their life in general and their educational experience in particular. Not only does the £700 million of extra funding for SEND announced by the Government last year fail to reverse the funding cuts of recent years, it is less than half the amount that the Local Government Association says is needed annually for special needs and high-needs education.

Schools find it increasingly difficult to support SEND pupils due to the loss of learning support assistants and teaching assistants resulting from general school funding cuts, increased class sizes, long waiting times for SEND assessments, and the workload of special educational needs co-ordinators. Parents without the resources to obtain their own assessment often regard an education, health and care plan as the only way to get the support their child needs. Yet to achieve even an assessment of the child by a local authority—far less receive an EHC plan—takes on average more than a year: that is time wasted in which the child has continued to underachieve, lost interest or perhaps even given up on their learning.

This has led to the almost inconceivable situation whereby councils pay almost as much in legal fees to avoid EHC plans as it would cost to provide and support the plans themselves. As highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, councils lose 90% of the cases at the First-tier Tribunal when challenged, which surely underlines the futility of their stance. I am reluctant to blame local authorities, given the funding situation in which they have been placed by successive Governments.

Last year, Ofsted highlighted that even when a child has been assessed, they still struggle to access the services and support they need. In 2018, more than 200 children with a statement or EHC plan were awaiting provision—almost three times the figure in 2010. Amanda Spielman said:

“One child with SEND not receiving the help they need is disturbing enough, but thousands is a national scandal.”

That was Her Majesty’s chief inspector speaking, which should have caused great alarm in the DfE and among Ministers. Did it? A year later, the picture has not improved.

My noble friend Lord Touhig spoke, as he always does, with passion and panache on autism, which is the most common type of special educational need for children who have an EHC plan or statement, with 27% of these children having it as their main need. Despite these numbers, too many children on the autism spectrum are held back from getting the support they need to succeed, and 43% of appeals to the SEND tribunal are on behalf of these children.

The British Dyslexia Association has outlined policy changes to noble Lords that it believes are required for young people with dyslexia. Many GCSE and A-level exams still test pupils’ communication skills through a written exam, awarding marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar, or SPAG as it is known. This was also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. This system is particularly disadvantageous to young people with dyslexia, who are marked down for a skill that can be easily managed in a modern workplace. Will the Government consider whether SPAG marks are the best approach to assessing communication skills for the modern workplace?

As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, awareness-raising of SEND issues in initial teacher training is simply not adequate to equip newly qualified teachers with the skills necessary to support SEND pupils in a classroom setting. The recently introduced ITT core content framework fails to give clear guidance on the amount and standard of training on SEND. It would be helpful to have an explanation from the Minister as to why the Government decided not to make the changes that the sector had asked for when the current approach is failing newly qualified teachers and young people with SEND.

In the short time available, it has not been possible to speak about other neurodiverse conditions, but that is not to ignore or disrespect the issues associated with dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD or Tourette’s. We await the publication of the Government’s SEND review. On Monday in another place the Secretary of State said:

“We are very happy to look at any suggestions … because as part of our special educational needs review we are trying to see how we can best deliver these services for the benefit of every child.”—[Official Report, Commons, 2/3/20; col. 606.]

I welcome that, because it suggests that the Government are planning more than just changes to the funding regime—possibly even structural changes. I say to the Minister that both are required if SEND children and their parents are to receive the support that they need and have a right to expect.