7. Debate on petition P-06-1392, 'Reform of the additional learning needs Code of Wales 2021'

– in the Senedd at 4:39 pm on 8 May 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:39, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

Item 7 is a debate on petition P-06-1392, 'Reform of the additional learning needs Code of Wales 2021'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Jack Sargeant.

(Translated)

Motion NDM8567 Jack Sargeant

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the petition P-06-1392, 'Reform of the additional learning needs Code of Wales 2021', which received 15,160 signatures.

(Translated)

Motion moved.

Photo of Jack Sargeant Jack Sargeant Labour 4:40, 8 May 2024

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. As Chair of the Senedd Petitions Committee, thank you for the opportunity to help introduce today's debate, a debate on a subject that has triggered more petitions over the last few months than any other subject apart from speed limits. 

The way our schools identify and support young people with additional learning needs has been a recurrent theme in recent weeks and months. Today, we are debating one of five petitions currently under consideration by the committee, and there are a further three petitions that are still collecting signatures in our system. Deputy Presiding Officer, this is not just a hot topic for the Senedd Petitions Committee, but it also is in our individual inboxes, and I doubt that there's a Member in this Chamber today who hasn't received messages about a case in their local constituencies. And I know that members of the Senedd's children and young people committee—including myself and the Chair, Buffy Williams—are undertaking in-depth work to consider the wider issue and possible solutions.  

Today's petition was submitted by Victoria Lightbown, who I believe is in the viewing gallery to watch this debate this afternoon. Victoria is one of a number of parents who have experienced their own challenges, and dedicated their free time to supporting other parents who are fighting for their children's needs to be assessed and to be met. The petition received 15,160 signatures. It is titled, 'Reform of the additional learning needs Code of Wales 2021'. The petition reads:

'Despite only a couple of years into the changes and promises of earlier and better support for children and young people with ALN, more and more ALN pupils are being missed in Wales. There are also issues with consistency and accountability.

'There is still a large focus on Universal Provisions as opposed to the holistic approach of Person Centred IDPs for ALN pupils. Pupils with mental health / physical disabilities should have equal access to support and a quality education.

'Children under the age of 5 years are being denied support based on an "assumption" that they will simply "catch up" by the time they reach statutory school age. When IDPs are produced schools are able to "interpret" what is required without adequate accountability and contact of specialist health therapists for guidance. We call for the rights of all children under the UN Convention of Disabled People to be respected by ensuring: 

'A universal code of practice to provide an inclusive quality education for all ALN pupils. 

'Educational settings providing properly resourced provisions and trained staff that reach a quality assured standard of education to make the system fair, reliable and able to meet ever increasing demand. 

'Education and health need to work more closely together. 

'Compulsory specialist training and support for teachers and their staff.' 

Dirprwy Lywydd, at the start of my contribution, I said there were other petitions in the system at the moment, and these too include calls for financial penalties, a review of ALN policy in Wales, accessible guidance for schools and teachers, and additional funding and resource. Today's debate offers all Members the chance to have their say on this issue. It's an opportunity to highlight the incredible challenges that many parents face in all parts of Cymru. But there is a baseline of facts. We know that the system for supporting children in Cymru is still new. We know that evaluation is ongoing to ensure that the system works. We know that Estyn have noted that there is inconsistency in the application of the Act and the code. And we know that the number of children considered to have additional learning needs under the new system is far, far lower than the number of children who were considered to have special education needs under the old system.

Deputy Presiding Officer, I have no doubt that today we will hear some harrowing personal experiences. I too have heard many of those stories, talking to the petitioner and talking to fellow campaigners. I don't envy any parent having to stand up for their child in a system that can sometimes feel inflexible and unsympathetic. Like many Members across the Chamber, I have had residents contacting me with concerns around a wide variety of conditions. These include difficulties getting support for pupils with ADHD, autism and severe social anxiety. This takes its toll not just on the learning experience of the child, but the child's wider mental and physical health, as well as the family's wider well-being. I know the previous Minister was working hard on a number of these issues to try to solve these issues, and I know the Cabinet Secretary, the new Cabinet Secretary, is absolutely passionate about this. She was a champion for ALN pupils in her previous roles as a committee Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee in the previous Senedd, and a champion for children and young people as the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being.

Llywydd, this may sound a bit trite, but I want every child in Cymru to receive the education that meets their needs, the education that allows them to achieve their potential. And I hope this debate today will highlight some of the issues being faced by pupils, parents, teachers, governors, local authorities and the education department. And I hope that the challenges we are talking about today will push us all on to a better place, a place where we can meet these challenges head on and find the solution we all need to see. Diolch.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 4:46, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

Buffy Williams, as Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee

Photo of Buffy Williams Buffy Williams Labour

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm speaking today in my capacity as Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee. I was also a member of the Petitions Committee at the time that this petition was being considered. I would like to thank the petitioner for bringing these critical issues to the Senedd's attention. I would also like to thank her for her role in supporting our committee as a member of our online advisory panel for our disabled access inquiry, which is helping to ensure that the voices of families are at the heart of our work. 

Like her, I believe passionately that children with additional learning needs deserve to have their educational needs met. I know that this belief is shared by the previous and current members of the committee. It is also shared by every single education professional that we have spoken to and every parent who has engaged with us, and I believe that it is also shared by the former and current members of the Welsh Government with responsibility for the ALN system. 

We're in the middle of our third check-in of our Senedd-long inquiry into the implementation of the ALN reforms and the new curriculum. Each check-in involves engagement with schools and other stakeholders, and, of course, scrutiny of the Welsh Government. Our work has revealed that there is also widespread enthusiasm for the core principles of the ALN Act, but, unfortunately, the picture on the ground is not as consistent as it should be. I therefore recognise the concerns set out by the petitioner. We had a useful evidence session with the Cabinet Secretary this morning. We have not yet come to a final view on what we heard, but I will highlight today some of the key findings that have come out of the evidence we have taken that are relevant to this petition.

Firstly, a new category of pupils is emerging. Pupils in this category tend to have some relatively low level additional needs. They were on schools' old SEN registers, but for various reasons, which include funding, workload and perhaps the flexibility offered by the new curriculum, they are not being recognised as having ALN and therefore they do not have individual development plans. This may explain why there are 32 per cent fewer children recorded as having SEN or ALN in the 2022-23 academic year, compared to the 2020-21 academic year. 

Secondly, new terminology is emerging to label the provision supporting these learners with additional needs who do not have an IDP. Some schools call it 'universal provision', others call it something different. But the president of the education tribunal told us very clearly that universal provision cannot be used as a reason not to give a child an IDP. If a child has additional learning needs compared to the majority of children, however mild, and those additional needs require additional learning provision, that child must, by law, have an IDP.

Thirdly, additional learning needs co-ordinators need to work harder than ever before under the new system. ALNCOs need more non-teaching time to do their role justice under the Act, even if fewer children in their school have an IDP than were previously on the SEN register. One school told us that they held 190 separate meetings with parents about children with ALN in one year alone. That’s absolute absolutely incredible, considering that there are only 190 teaching days in the entire school year.

We understand that the Act needs time to bed in; that’s completely normal. This is a massive culture change for local authorities, schools, parents and pupils. But it has been around six years since the Act received Royal Assent. It has been three years since the ALN code was approved by the Senedd. We are concerned that we are not where we should be at this stage of the implementation journey.

So, once again, I thank the petitioner for her ongoing commitment to our learners with additional needs. I can assure her that my fellow committee members and I will continue to work with stakeholders, families and the Welsh Government to deliver the reformed ALN system that all our learners deserve.

Photo of Sam Rowlands Sam Rowlands Conservative 4:51, 8 May 2024

I’d like to start by saying I’m sure we all agree in this Chamber on the importance of petitions. I’m very grateful to the work of the Petitions Committee, grateful to the Chairman for opening up here today and outlining so clearly the concerns within the petition, but most of all, grateful to the petitioners themselves and the thousands of people who put their name to this particular petition, because it’s a really important issue for us to debate here in this Chamber; it’s an important issue for people in Wales to be concerned about as well. And as the Chair of the committee outlined a few months ago, there are other petitions on a very similar topic, if not the same topic, showing the strength of feeling relating to the Additional Learning Needs Code for Wales 2021, and I know the Cabinet Secretary is keen to hear those issues here today as well.

And there’s good reason why thousands of people are putting their name to this particular petition and to petitions that are very similar, because they are rightly concerned about the way ALN provision is managed here in Wales. And let’s not forget, when we talk about ALN provision, we’re talking about some children who need the most support in our schools at the moment, so they need that highest level of attention at times. And, obviously, there's the process of the massive overhaul of the system that’s taking place, but the concern that the petitioners have, as outlined, is that there are too many gaps in the system, and, sadly, far too many children are falling through those gaps as time progresses.

And I was grateful to be able to meet recently with ALN Reform Wales, a group of mothers who have children with additional learning needs, and I know they're also grateful for the Cabinet Secretary’s time with them as well, and they are parents who are located all over Wales and who have campaigned strongly on this issue, and they’re right when they say that there are, and I quote, 'issues with consistency and accountability’. And I wonder whether the Cabinet Secretary would want to respond to those two particular points at the end of this debate around the consistency and accountability, because that’s something that was stressed to me by them when we did meet. And as any parent would expect, they want a suitable level of provision across Wales that is consistent and reliable.

It was Estyn who pointed out in its recent report some of the reason for that uncertainty from council decision makers in particular, and I quote from the Estyn report. They say:

'A few local authorities and schools' stated that they

'were unclear of...the legal definitions'  and what this meant in practice. So, I expect there’s some work to be done there to tighten up some of those definitions so that our children—. And with support provided by schools and local authorities, that is the clearest possible guidance around those definitions.

And from a Welsh Government point of view, of course, it's Welsh Government that brought these changes in on the ALN code, and as the Cabinet Secretary I'm sure will respond, it's the Welsh Government's responsibility to ensure that they are effectively being implemented by schools and by local authorities.

I also just wanted to highlight concerns raised by the National Autistic Society. They’ve written to me to pinpoint local authority consistency again, and the lack of consistency as a big barrier to the ALN support. An example I think other colleagues here have already pointed to is the work of ALNCOs and the lack of resources to develop the IDPs that are so important for these children. 

They also have criticism about the lack of good-quality data that is publicly available, and we're aware of the challenges around data across Wales generally, but I think that's something else perhaps the Cabinet Secretary may want to comment on about the data available to ensure that children are provided the best support possible.

Just a brief side note, I had the pleasure recently of visiting Pengwern College in my region, and they provide vital specialist further education for young people aged 16 to 25 with learning disabilities in particular. And the ALN code for schools and other providers was at the top of their agenda when they met with me.

So, to wrap up my contribution, I'm grateful for the work of the petitioners in raising this here today. There's an issue around consistency, there's an issue around accountability. What we're doing is to tighten those points up, because we need to make sure that these children are properly supported, the resources are there properly for those local authorities to provide that support and there's clarity for schools and local authorities when they're providing that support as well. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 4:56, 8 May 2024

I'd like to begin my contribution today by stating my full support for the petition. It's clear to me from meeting with protesters, from being a member of the Children, Young People and Education Committee and from the casework that I receive as a Senedd Member that too many children and young people are unable to access the support and education they need and deserve, and that this is having a significant impact both on them and their wider families. Access to support is ad hoc and often described as being a postcode lottery. Whilst I have heard about and seen some brilliant work that's being done to support learners with additional learning needs, I've also heard stories that have brought me to tears. We can and must do better to ensure equity for every child in Wales, and we must ensure that schools are supported and resourced to be able to do this work. Currently, that's not consistently the case.

Because of an increase in casework, last year I undertook a survey to capture some of the issues being faced in my region, and can I thank the 117 people that responded and all of the organisations that helped to promote the survey and also shared with me their views on the matter? With the support of my colleague Eleri Griffiths, I've collated some of the responses into a report, and what's evident is that parents and young people want to be part of shaping the solutions and want to work with the Welsh Government to bring about the improvements that we all want to see. But it's also clear that this needs to happen as a matter of urgency, as many families are at breaking point. Action is needed. I'm sure, Cabinet Secretary, when you've met with the campaigners who are here—I'm very sorry that they have to fight for their children, their love for their children is so evident. But they've had to fight for everything, and the detriment then to them as people, as parents, and the impact on their other children is just soul-destroying.

There was a big protest outside of the Senedd in October, and it was an honour for me to go outside, but it wasn't an usual protest, because everyone there was desperate. One person in particular told me of having contemplated suicide on a number of occasions because of the strain of trying to fight. This is the level of concern there is in our community, and the support is desperately needed.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 4:59, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

When it comes to learners who need additional support through the medium of Welsh, there are incredible inconsistencies. Families have had to change the language of their home in my region, are assessed as a family through the medium of English rather than the medium of Welsh, meaning that assessments are incomplete, and others not having any sort of appropriate provision close by. How can this be the case in 2024? If the Welsh language belongs to us all, it belongs to us all, not just to some. 

One thing that's consistent in terms of provision in English or in Welsh is parents' description of having to fight for appropriate provision, with many describing it as a terrible situation. Many describe the psychological damage that being excluded from education has on children and young people who are neurodiverse. Some of the studies that I've uncovered—. A four-year-old crying because of the experience of being at school, the parents saying that they spent 10 weeks at home to develop his confidence once again. Children being bullied, being excluded from school trips and from being part of Christmas concerts, all of the things that make school fun—but not for everyone; not if you have additional learning needs. We must ensure that schools do have the necessary resource to make adequate provision and that teachers do get the training that they need so that they can meet the needs of pupils, but also that we understand the incredibly important role of those supporting within classes. We must ensure that that resource continues to be available.

So, today, we need to recognise these problems, but also agree that we need solutions. So, can I ask you, Cabinet Secretary, what's your assessment of the current situation and what are your priorities to address the issues raised by the petition?

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 5:01, 8 May 2024

Thank you so much for the petition and making sure that we do make sure that we are able to highlight some of the real problems that we're facing with ensuring that every child receives the support and education they need and deserve. It shouldn't be a fight. Many of us will fight with you. But we need to see those changes, so thank you for your work. But you're not alone; we'll continue to support you.

Photo of Vikki Howells Vikki Howells Labour

At the start of my contribution, I'd like to also offer my thanks to the petitioner, Victoria Lightbown, and everyone who signed up in support of it. This is such an important subject, and I'd like to thank them and the committee for giving us the opportunity to consider the issues upon which it touches today. And as the Chair of the Petitions Committee noted during his committee's consideration of the petition, this also gives us a chance to consider points raised in other similar submissions too, all of which highlight a sense that more needs to be done to ensure that we create the correct supportive person-centred learning environment that our children and young people need.

Now, the first point that needs to be recognised is that the transition to the new system isn't fully complete yet. The issuing of the ALN code in 2021 was followed by a commitment that the new system would be introduced on a phased basis over a nearly four-year period, which is due to be completed next year. This does, however, allow us to learn from how the code has operated over the past 31 months. We are just over halfway through the process, so lessons can be learned and important points drawn from how it has worked so far in practice, about what the experiences of children and young people, their families and carers and educational practitioners and the wider school community have been. And it's important that we try to do this as soon as we can. When problems are identified, it's not fair to expect people to wait. From my own casework, it is clear that this must be a priority.

Now, I appreciate the nature of constituency casework. If people are happy with the process and feel that the support that they or their children are getting, for example, through the IDP, meets their needs, they are, of course, unlikely to be raising concerns with their representative. But the casework I've received is enough to identify an evidence base to make a case for change and to address the challenges with deep-rooted issues that, in some cases, even predate the system as set out in the 2018 Act. This is a point that the level of support that the various petitions have garnered reinforces.

Looking at my own postbag, I'd like to pick out a few key themes. The first is about the process itself. I've dealt with several cases where, despite children showing signs of complex additional learning needs from a very early age, they still have to enter mainstream education. Only then can they be observed and go to panel to try and access the specialist schooling that they so need. Surely, there is a better way for us to be responsive in how we can approach this issue. 

Secondly, I've dealt with several ongoing cases in which children attend mainstream education, but teachers are unable to meet their additional needs. This leads to a pattern of children being sent home from school for long periods, impacting on their education, their home life and their parents. I recognise the comments in the Welsh Government's reply to the petition around teachers' professional learning and development, but, reflecting on my own classroom experience, there is only so much give in the system, and, clearly, there are barriers to tackle.

My third point, and conversely to this, I've dealt with cases whereby individualised support is refused because schools can just about manage in addressing need. Again, I appreciate that there are finite resources, but in these cases it's the child or the young person who loses out and the school that must bend to take up the slack. Finally, again reflecting that point about resources, a feeling experienced by parents was of there being insurmountable difficulties in accessing one-to-one support, and I do feel that that's just not good enough.

As I close, I would like to do so on a positive note. Firstly, I want to welcome the Cabinet Secretary for Education to her post. I was really pleased to read the press release earlier announcing a further £20 million for schools to improve facilities to meet the needs of children and young people with ALN. I believe that this demonstrates the Welsh Government's and the Cabinet Secretary's personal commitment to this issue and to ensuring that those affected get a fair deal. I look forward to her reply in the debate shortly. Very finally, I'd like to place on record my thanks to groups such as ASD Rainbows in my constituency, who work so hard to support families where a child has ALN—thank you for all that you do.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru 5:06, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

As a member of the committee, I'd like to thank the petitioners for bringing forward this petition and the other petitions that have been discussed this afternoon. I'd also like to echo much of what has been said by Members, particularly Heledd, and I'd like to thank her for all of the work that she has done on this issue.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru

This matter is, clearly, a big issue for all parts of Wales. This is why we now have had the five petitions come before the Petitions Committee on ALN provision in Wales. There's clearly a strength of feeling among parents of children with additional learning needs that they are not getting what they need and getting what has been promised to them by legislation. I've met with some of the petitioners and constituents, and I've heard their stories. It's fair to say that there's a strong sense of frustration and, in some quarters, anger. This is because parents want what's best for their children; that is completely understandable. The anger stems from the dismay at seeing their children getting provision that is second, or even third, best.

In the last week, an alarming letter from headteachers was issued to all parents and carers in the Blaenau Gwent Country Borough Council area. This was an unprecedented move that painted a very bleak picture for the future of education provision in the area. Contained within the letter was the following paragraph, and I quote:

'Additional learning needs support is of considerable concern. Schools can no longer afford to recruit the required number of staff to support our most vulnerable learners. Headteachers and governing bodies will have to make the impossible choice between which child receives or does not receive support.'

In another letter to parents, from the Wrexham Association of Secondary Headteachers, they stress that ALN reform will be affected by cuts to education budgets,

'impacting on our most vulnerable learners as specialist support services are reduced at a time of great need.'

It seems that this is another case of the Government ushering in a policy that is universally welcomed but not universally financed. Unfortunately, it's extremely vulnerable children who are paying the price right now.

The underfunding of local government in Wales is having serious consequences for ALN provision, which appears to be in crisis. Given that the Wales Governance Centre has estimated that our local authorities are facing a £354 million funding gap during the next financial year, which could rise to as much as £744 million by 2027-28, things are looking grim. With this in mind, I'd like to know what the Government is planning to do about the situation and how you are going to alleviate the problems that these families are facing. Diolch.

Photo of Hefin David Hefin David Labour 5:09, 8 May 2024

I took some time out from the Children, Young People and Education Committee—a number of years, actually—because some of the things we were discussing became so close to home for me that I found it quite uncomfortable being on the committee, because I'm living this every day, what we've talked about. But now I'm happy to say that I'm in a place where I'm content with the support my daughter, who is severely autistic, is receiving. And I'm back on the committee now, and I have to say that the Minister gave an excellent account of herself this morning. She faced questions on this in detail, and I'd like to just touch on two of those issues later, but I have to say that we've got a Minister there who is incredibly thoughtful and has committed herself to looking at what is not working about this Act, I think you said, Minister, at a granular level, reviewing what has not worked and finding a way through to make those improvements, and doing that in conjunction with the community who have children with additional learning needs and those children themselves.

One of the things that happens when you have a child with additional learning needs, or additional learning needs in your family, is that it isn't a moment of revelation; it's a slow discovery. So, you think you've got a child, particularly if it's a first child, who's just developing as they should, and it slowly, gradually, dawns on you that that is not the case. My daughter was three when she was diagnosed with autism, but all the signs had been there, and I was in a state of denial. It was actually on a holiday that my mother said, 'She's not developing as she should be', and I said, 'Oh, she's fine', but she wasn't and it was obvious to everyone but me and her mother. So, this is a period of discovery, and you must have alongside you the clinical and the educational support to help you through that period. And too often, the educational and clinical support is there, but not connected, so you find yourself in a system. I likened it in a Western Mail article to being in a pinball machine; you're the pinball going around the machine, from place to place. And when you're discovering about your own child, and sometimes discovering about yourself as well, as other parents of autistic children will say, it's difficult when the system is passing you from pillar to post. Those are some of the difficulties that this system has, and we'll look at why in a second.

So, I just wanted to share that personal experience, because it is very similar to the experience that others have said, but I would also say that, as I said in committee this morning, I'm quite lucky in that my daughter is very clearly diagnosable and therefore is very clearly in the right place in the system. The problem you've got is where the children have more grey-area diagnoses, harder to diagnose—it's much harder for them to find their place in the system as well, and I know others have had that experience. That's where we really need to pick up.

But there were two issues that I found in committee this morning that were really interesting to speak to the Minister about. First of all was the different patterns of ALNCO services across Wales. So, the school I visited for the committee in Neath had an ALNCO, a deputy ALNCO and three teaching assistants who were not really teaching assistants—they were mini ALNCOs, supporting that team. It was almost like an ALNCO department, and it was functioning nicely, but they, as Peredur has mentioned, were concerned about the future and the cuts that were coming forward. And as a parent, by the way, I received that letter from Blaenau Gwent.

The other thing I'd say is that I should declare an interest as a governor on Heolddu Comprehensive School; I'm the link governor for ALN. I've met the ALNCO in Heolddu. She is one person, she is excellent, and they've got brilliant computer systems in place, but those systems are no substitute for people on the ground. She's got to do 75 IDPs in a short period of time—it's not easily done. And that isn't because they have fewer resources—different schools have to direct their resources in different places.

The other issue I'd raise is the DECLOs. When we were taking the legislation through the committee, the designated education clinical lead officers we thought were going to be key people in this process, linking education and health, but, for the seven health boards, there are only four DECLOs. Now, the people I went to see in Neath, they talked about Dr Luke Jones very highly, they thought he was an excellent DECLO, but he's one, and he can't do it on his own. And I think that linking education and health—. We said in the committee this morning that health are doing the best they possibly can, education are doing the best they possibly can, but where we need to improve is getting those links between those two services. Schools can't directly contact health boards, they have to go through the local authorities, so schools themselves find themselves like a pinball as well. 

I can see my time is up, Dirprwy Lywydd, so I'm just going to say that I very much welcome the commitment the Minister showed in committee this morning, and I think we've started a journey of review now, and we look forward to seeing how that progresses. I would like to thank the Minister for engaging with this so seriously.

Photo of Mabon ap Gwynfor Mabon ap Gwynfor Plaid Cymru 5:14, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

Thank you very much to those who brought this petition before us—a petition that is clearly hugely important, but one that has emerged from the lived experience of far too many people. And it is an issue that comes up far too often now in my own inbox, in my day-to-day work. I see far too many parents contacting me in the office concerned about their children. And just as the petition says, particularly for those children under five, the response far too often is that there is an assumption that those children under five will at some point catch up with the rest of the pupils. Although they show very clear traits from a very young age that they do have additional learning needs, there is a presumption that they will catch up. So, there is no understanding in the system of what the needs of children with additional learning needs are.

Also, far too often, as we’ve heard with Hefin saying this just now, we see that the education system and the health service can’t communicate effectively with each other. There is one department taking responsibility or another taking responsibility, but they don’t talk to each other and they don’t share that information, which is hugely frustrating for a parent who is only seeking the best for his or her child. So, we do have to see a system where both of those elements work far more closely together and are able to share that information.

But the fundamental truth is, as we’ve touched upon, and as we’ve heard expressed very eloquently here today, there isn’t enough money and resource put into the system in order to allow the service to work for our children. And the shortage of resource is holding people and families back, and we see children and young people who are going through long periods of education before they get that understanding and get that diagnosis. I have examples in my own constituency of children who are six years old seeking a diagnosis and can’t get that diagnosis until they’re 12 or even 13. They’ve gone through the whole of primary school and are preparing to go into the secondary sector before they even get a diagnosis. That simply isn’t good enough, and it’s even worse, believe it or not, for those children who are waiting for a diagnosis through the medium of Welsh, where the waiting time is even longer. So, we must see those resources put in place so that those children do get the necessary support.

But my question to the Cabinet Secretary, therefore, is: given the need for a diagnosis, the long waits for diagnosis that we’re experiencing, and the fact that so many people are having to wait so long, wouldn’t it be better, in truth, rather than wait for a diagnosis, to provide the necessary support to children who do show traits associated with additional learning needs, so that they receive that support without having to wait for a diagnosis, and rather than them being held back, that they’re given the proper support throughout their education? Isn’t that a better way of doing things? Thank you.

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. Firstly, I'd like to thank Jack Sargeant and the Petitions Committee for bringing this debate forward, and I'd like to thank ALN Reform Wales for the work on their petition. I know many of those involved in ALN Reform Wales will be listening today, and I want to thank them for their determination to deliver an inclusive, quality education for all learners across Wales. I want them to know that I'm listening. I really do share their ambition. ALN has been an immediate focus for me since I started in this position six weeks ago. I care passionately about delivering for all learners, including children with ALN.

The aims for education reforms are really ambitious, systemic changes to culture and practice in Wales. It is crucial that children and young people have their needs identified and responded to, and that we take a whole-school approach to meeting their needs. We must remember that it is still relatively early days. ALN reform was always going to be an incredibly ambitious programme of change that will go beyond the implementation period of transferring from the SEN to ALN system.

Photo of Lynne Neagle Lynne Neagle Labour 5:20, 8 May 2024

Over the last few weeks, I've made it my priority to listen to children and young people, to parents, to school leaders, ALNCOs and practitioners, DECLOs, local authorities and the president of the education tribunal for Wales, to hear how the reforms are going on the ground. Last week, I visited Ysgol Gymraeg Gwaun y Nant and saw the work they are doing to meet the needs of all the children in the school, and we do have much to be proud of. There's some excellent practice happening in schools. The sector is embedding the new system and person-centred practice, all while running the SEN system in parallel.

So, I do want to thank everyone in schools, further education, local authorities and in health boards who are working so hard to deliver on what is a complex and challenging reform agenda. But I do recognise there are real challenges. I've listened to parents from ALN Reform Wales who told me of their experiences and concerns with the system and the ALN code. I've digested the monitoring and evidence reports. I met with the president of the education tribunal for Wales. I'm worried that some children, young people and families may not be getting the support they need now. 

I'm making it my priority to act now to improve the implementation of the ALN system, focusing on the fundamental issues that are being raised with me. My priorities going forward are twofold. Firstly, I want to ensure firm legislative foundations are in place to underpin our policy aims, and that we have the data we need for oversight. I have asked my officials to work through options for me on this. Secondly, this isn't just about the law. I want to strengthen implementation now. I'm going to personally drive this to increase the consistency of interpretation and approach to implementation of ALN reforms.

We will keep working with local authorities to understand the barriers at a local level, and support them to fulfil their current statutory duties. This will include making sure that the legal definition of ALN and local authority duties are clearly understood and applied. I want to ensure that we have the right data and accountability to monitor performance, and that equity and inclusion are at the heart of our school improvement work.

I will also continue to invest in ALN. Today, I've announced an extra £20 million funding to ensure that school environments are accessible and inclusive for all learners. This financial year, we've protected £56.3 million to implement reforms and boost resources and support in schools, further education institutions and local authorities. Educators have such a vital role and need more support to understand and respond to the diversity in the classroom. I'm really pleased that we're developing new professional learning on child development, neurodivergence and mental health to support more inclusive environments, high-quality teaching and learning, and holistic practice.

Throughout this, I want to continue listening and building learner and parental confidence in the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018, and education in Wales, by working with local authorities and responding to what families are telling us. This includes families receiving consistent communication and understanding the ALN system. Of course, this builds on work already under way to strengthen the leadership approach to drive forward the remaining period of implementation.

My officials have already taken action to strengthen our accountability mechanisms through termly meetings with key delivery partners to explore issues, support and challenge implementation. Estyn are delivering the second phase of their review to understand action within local authorities and schools on recommendations from their autumn review, and the second phase of their evaluation is under way. And officials have held productive fora with local authorities, Estyn and the education tribunal for Wales to share what's going well and what needs to improvel and to clarify legal interpretations of the Act and code. 

In response, local authorities are actively learning and reviewing their local policies. They have surfaced fantastic examples of effective practice that have been shared between practitioners, through national equity and inclusion network events and case studies available on Hwb. And I'm really pleased that a new health and education multi-agency group is working together to improve health and education collaboration, and to work through the operational issues. But I recognise there is more work to do to join up health and education, and I don't want any parents ping-ponged around the system.

I'm really pleased that we've recruited a new national Welsh language implementation lead to drive forward the vital area of promoting the Welsh language within our ALN system. But we do hear too often that the families of children with ALN have to fight for the right support and education, and this must change. I am committed to acting now to improve the ALN system, and I will work collaboratively with all partners and parents to do this. Diolch.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:26, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

 I call on Jack Sargeant to reply to the debate.

Photo of Jack Sargeant Jack Sargeant Labour

Diolch yn fawr, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I thank members of the Business Committee in the Senedd for granting us additional time to have this debate today? I thought there were good contributions from all Members, and I thank them for it, and for the Minister's positive response, a response of acting now and wanting to act now, sharing the ambition of the ALN Reform Wales group, and all those petitioners who signed the other petitions. The Minister continued to say that the priority was to listen, and the priority now is to act, ensuring the legislative framework is one that is sound and one where data is being collected as well, to strengthen the implementation of the Act, and personally have the ambition of tackling the inconsistencies across the country. I think that'll be a welcome announcement from the Minister, along with the funding announced earlier today.

We heard from Buffy Williams, the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, a former member of the Petitions Committee, about the third check-in that we had with the Cabinet Secretary earlier on this morning, highlighting the evidence that they've heard throughout their inquiries. Sam Rowlands, again, talked about the important work of the petitioners, particularly ALN Reform Wales, who I know have met with the Cabinet Secretary, who've met with many Members of the Senedd and our teams. I know I've met with the members, Victoria and others, and my clerking team have as well, and I should thank the clerking team to the committee as well.

Heledd Fychan and Mabon ap Gwynfor spoke about the importance of support in the medium of Welsh, and that is something that was raised this morning in the Children, Young People and Education Committee, and something that needs to be on top of the agenda of the Cabinet Secretary's work, going forward. We heard lots of personal experiences, local experiences and situations, from Vikki, Peredur Owen Griffiths and Mabon again. I think, Vikki, you mentioned ASD Rainbows and praised them for all the work that they do in being responsive and supporting parents and families with children with additional learning needs.

I should mention, Presiding Officer, in closing, Hefin David's contribution, who, in the last Senedd—he mentioned his time on the Children, Young People and Education Committee, and having to come away from that due to his own personal situation. I think we should place on record our thanks to Hefin David for the work that he did, not just during that time, but since then and going forward, on the committee. I know, in the conversations I've had with Hefin David privately, as friends, Presiding Officer—we do have some, between us—that both his daughters are extremely lucky to have him fighting their corner and to have him as their dad.

Heledd said that parents are doing their very best for their child and fighting their corner for their child, and it's that level of unfairness where, sometimes, the system—you know, they shouldn't have to fight that hard. And I hope, with the Cabinet Secretary's ambition and recognition of that, we can come to a better place for these children who deserve a better education—an education, as I pointed out in the opening, Presiding Officer, that is fit for their needs, the one that they very much deserve. We should do all we can to do that.

I hope that this debate has been a further step in the right direction today. To me, it sounds like it has. I want to pay final thanks to the petitioner, Victoria Lightbown, and all of the other campaigners who have raised this issue today. What they were particularly keen to stress is that they want to be part of the solution going forward. I know they've had conversations with the Cabinet Secretary as well, but it's how we make those solutions a reality for their children and other children across Wales. I hope that they can be very much part of that solution. They've pointed out some key points in this petition, one being the education and health link, which we heard from Hefin and others, and the Cabinet Secretary, but they do have more ideas, and I hope that their thoughts can continue to be listened to by the Welsh Government and acted upon. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 5:31, 8 May 2024

(Translated)

The proposal is to note the petition. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

(Translated)

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.