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Schoolchildren: Dyslexia and Neurodiverse Conditions - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:31 pm on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for International Trade) (Minister for Women), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 8:31 pm, 4th March 2020

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute once again to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who is a noted champion of neurodiversity. I thank him and other noble Lords for their speeches this evening on this important topic.

The attainment gap that we are dealing with here is a very serious issue. It is the Government’s ambition that every child should have access to a world-class education of the type that the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, outlined. Therefore, it is clearly important that all children with special educational needs and disabilities—I will use the acronym SEND—including dyslexia and other neurodiverse conditions receive appropriate, high-quality support so that they can achieve well in their education and future lives.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Sterling that early detection is important. He referred to these children being in mainstream education. That is enshrined in law, and we are concerned that an increasing number of those with EHC plans—about 50%—are now in special provision.

As noble Lords will remember, in 2014 we introduced major reforms to the SEND system. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mann, for his humble recognition that, prior to these reforms, the situation was far from perfect and there have been improvements. This was part of the focus to deliver that world-class education for all our children. Our ambition was to establish a multiagency, person-centred system, from birth to the age of 25, that identified children’s needs early and focused on progress and outcomes.

These reforms gave vital support to more children, but, as has been recognised in your Lordships’ House, the problems they sought to address were complex and of long standing. For too many, the vision of the Children and Families Act is not yet a reality. On that score, I agree with many of the comments from the noble Lords, Lord Watson, Lord Addington and Lord Bilimoria. The vision that we set, on which there was a lot of cross-party support, has not become a reality for too many families.

That is why officials are working across government to review the SEND system. To assure the noble Lord, Lord Watson, it is a full, root-and-branch review. They are looking at ways to ensure the system delivers the high-quality, consistent support that should have been delivered by joining up health, care and education services. To that end, the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England are working closely with my department. They are working at pace, but these are complex issues. I am sure noble Lords would agree that it is more important to address them fully and get them right than to do so quickly. We welcome the scrutiny and challenge provided by the reports from the Education Select Committee and the National Audit Office, which will be taken into account in the review.

While the review is ongoing, we are continuing to build on what is working and improve what is not. I am pleased that the new Ofsted/Care Quality Commission inspection regime, which we introduced in 2015, has identified some really strongly performing areas, such as Portsmouth, Calderdale and Wiltshire. We also see improvement in areas that were initially found to have weaknesses, such as Middlesbrough, which recently had a strong revisit from the inspectors. These areas will have positively impacted on the experiences of the children and young people that we have talked about this evening, but I accept that this is a patchwork situation and we need to look at consistent provision across the country.

At the heart of the reforms was co-production, to ensure that children and young people with SEND and their parents and carers felt genuinely empowered, as my noble friend Lord Sterling pointed out in relation to parents’ involvement. Although I know that there are challenges around parental confidence in the system, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, mentioned, there are some fantastic examples of co-production in action. In Warrington, Ofsted and the CQC found that families are becoming increasingly influential in the design and implementation of plans and services across that local area. However, I accept that there is a patchwork nature to this provision.

To support this co-production, we are funding parent carer forums in every local area to ensure that they play a greater role in designing and commissioning local services. It is wonderful to hear of the role that noble Lords have played as parents to ensure the provision for their children and relatives. We are prioritising working with parents as the review progresses. The new Minister for Children and Families has already met parents to hear about their experiences.

We recognise the financial pressures that educational establishments and local authorities face. We are responding to this by investing £14 billion more in schools over the next three years to 2022-23, the biggest funding boost for a decade. This includes an additional £780 million to meet high-needs funding in 2020-21. Other years will be referenced in due course. This should support those with some of the most complex needs. It is a 12% increase in funding from the previous year, bringing the total high-needs budget to over £7 billion, to answer the queries from the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Watson, about the funding that is going into this matter. We have also invested a total of £365 million in expanding and improving special provision from 2018 to 2021 and opened 43 special free schools, with a further 48 in the pipeline and 37 currently being assessed.

In reference to the points made by my noble friend Lord Lexden, there is excellent provision in the independent sector. As I understand it, when an EHCP says that that is the specific provision for that child, the local authority should be delivering it, but we need to have those special places within the state-funded system so that they are available without having to go to the independent sector. However, the Government accept that additional funding will not in itself be sufficient to address pressures on the system, which was a theme of many noble Lords’ speeches. We must ensure that funding is spent fairly, efficiently and effectively, and that the support available is sustainable in the future. We are talking about young people’s lives, so it must be sustainable.

We are intent on avoiding the situation referenced in the moving story told by the noble Lord, Lord Mann. There are manifesto commitments regarding alternative provisions, but we need to avoid the scenarios that he described by having better provision and better support through EHCPs, and special educational needs support within schools, which is available to many children. About 11% of children are having that support but do not have an EHCP.

To answer the noble Lords, Lord Touhig and Lord Addington, and other noble Lords, obviously the school workforce is a vital part of delivering this support, and workforce development is critical to closing that attainment gap and ensuring that children and young people with SEND fulfil their potential. Qualified teacher status is awarded to new teachers only if they can show appropriate teaching approaches to meet pupils’ individual needs. There are SENCOs in each school, each with a master’s-level qualification, and should be at least attaining the specific SENCO qualification. There is more to do in relation to this, but there are examples of good practice where special schools and mainstream schools in certain areas are working together to share best practice, to upskill the workforce within the mainstream, because most children with special educational needs are within the mainstream system.

We have worked with SEND sector organisations to develop resources to assist with the early identification of and support for children with SEND, including neurodiversity. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is aware, these resources are available on the SEND gateway. Between April 2018 and March 2020, we have provided £3.9 million to the Whole School SEND Consortium, to support schools to embed SEND into school improvement and equip the workforce to deliver high-quality teaching across all types of SEND. As many noble Lords will be aware, the consortium includes the British Dyslexia Association and the Autism Education Trust. Through a specific contract with the Autism Education Trust, we have trained up over a quarter of a million teachers, but I recognise that there is more to do.

On the vexed issue of off-rolling, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, in relation to Ofsted, this is a stronger part of the new framework for Ofsted. There is a strength and focus around this issue. We do not want to see this practice happening. There are now examples of schools in which Ofsted have identified this practice and therefore the school is requiring improvement, or is inadequate, as a result of off-rolling. This is a practice that the Government do not want to see happening. Regarding exclusions, we must not be nervous about saying that there are certain groups more likely to be excluded. We must address this. It is also a matter that is part of the inspection regime.

Many noble Lords raised the issue of appeals, and this is quite a nuanced issue. Yes, there is a high rate of parents being, to some degree, successful in those appeals. The percentage remains stable at around 1.6%, but because the number of plans has gone up, the number of appeals has been rising. That situation will be part of the review.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to assistive technologies. We recognise their potential to support pupils with special educational needs including dyslexia. Our edtech strategy, which was launched in April 2019, has identified accessibility and inclusion as one of five key areas of opportunity where technology can help drive a step change in support for these pupils.

On the point raised by my noble friend Lord Sterling, in our manifesto we have also committed to publishing a national strategy for disabled people before the end of this year. We are exploring multiple options for how we approach this, to ensure that there is a positive impact on disabled people across the country.

In relation to specific questions regarding the percentage of marks in certain qualifications for spelling and grammar, I will talk to my colleague, the right honourable Nick Gibb, about school standards, to fully understand how that might be impacting this group of students.

We are committed to improving the educational outcomes of all children and young people with special educational needs. The SEND review is an absolute priority for the Government. Debates such as the one we have had this evening are important for gathering information and views on the system. I am grateful for it and hope that noble Lords will continue to hold our feet to the fire. I expect to see much more of the rugged determination of, particularly, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, as we deal with matters that are so important to so many young people. We all wish to see a rapid closure of the attainment gap. It is a waste of talent if young people cannot access the support they need to fulfil their potential.

Sitting suspended.