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The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-14097, in the name of Daniel Johnson, on a report on autistic children’s experiences of school. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament acknowledges what it sees as the important insights in the report,
Not included, not engaged, not involved
; understands that the paper, which has been co-authored by Children in Scotland, the National Autistic Society Scotland and Scottish Autism, focuses on experiences of the education system that have been faced by autistic children and their families; expresses concern that 13% of parents of autistic children who responded to the survey said their child had been formally excluded in the last two years, 28% said that their child had been placed on a part-time timetable, and 34% of parents said that their child had been sent home without formal exclusion, which the report terms “unlawful exclusion”; acknowledges the view that education should be inclusive and that children in the Edinburgh Southern constituency and across Scotland who have additional support needs should be adequately resourced and supported, so that they can be fully included, and notes the calls for the Scottish Government to review the report and to implement the nine action points that it sets out.
I could begin the debate by reeling off percentages and numbers, but I will not. I will start with a feeling.
Every member in the chamber will know the feeling of sitting in an over-hot car. We would rather be practically anywhere else. Even when we put the fan on, it just blasts hot air in our face.
Now let us imagine what it would be like if there was a wasp in the car beside us. Most of us would flinch, and we might flail a little bit. If we realised that the doors were locked and we could not wind down the windows, we might start banging on the windows. Some of us might start shouting. If there was someone sitting next to us who did not help us, and just told us off, or told us that we could not use the car because of our reaction, we would find that very unfair.
The reason for my using that analogy is that someone used the wasp in the car to express what it feels like to have a meltdown for a person who has autism. In our education system, we are too often telling those people off and excluding them from the car.
This is what the debate is about: it is about building understanding. Yes—there are important details in the report, but first and foremost, if there is one thing that we can do in the debate, it should be to build understanding of autism and what it feels like. That is the start that so many people with autism need.
I thank the National Autistic Society Scotland, Scottish Autism and Children in Scotland for the brilliant report that they have compiled, because it does the important job of shining the light of experience to show how autistic children in our school system feel.
Above all, I thank the parents and young people who participated in the survey. Without their participation, the survey would not have been possible. I am also pleased that so many fellow members of the Scottish Parliament who were at the report’s launch are in the chamber this evening. I know that they share my feelings from the event. There was shock and anger at hearing about parents having to lawyer up to fight for the legal rights of their children to be educated; at hearing about families who were forced to home school their children, not through choice, but because there was no other option for them to have their children educated; and at hearing not just about children being told off, but about seven-year-olds who are barely able to write their own name being asked to sign pledges that they would modify their behaviour at school.
Most shocking to me was hearing about the experiences of young people being forcibly taken from their classrooms and put into a 12ft by 12ft windowless soft room because of their behaviour. That is what is happening to some children today, in Scotland, in our schools. We need to make this debate the first step towards ending those experiences.
The report is important. It shines a spotlight on the experiences of many children in our education system. The most distressing finding was on the number of formal and informal exclusions from our schools: 13 per cent of parents said that their children had been formally excluded, and three-quarters of those had been excluded on more than one occasion.
On top of the formal exclusions, the truly worrying picture, however, is the degree to which unlawful and informal exclusions are being used. More than a third—37 per cent—of parents reported that their children had been excluded informally, and a quarter of those said that it was happening more than once a week. Those informal exclusions are described as “cooling-off periods” or “time outs”, but they are exclusions of children without records being made or notification being given. Let us be clear here this evening: that is against the law and should not be happening.
Use of part-time timetabling can also be part of the educational solution for children with autism. Unfortunately, in the majority of situations it is being instigated by schools and not by parents. For some children that part-time timetable means as little as an hour of education a day.
We have to be careful with the numbers, which are not necessarily representative. They are from a survey that was informal. However, the total number of respondents equates to about 10 per cent of the autistic pupil population, so we have to take the numbers seriously.
Beyond the findings on exclusion is the finding on the impact on children, including children whose education progression has been diminished, and children who are a number of years behind their peers. Most important is that many of them feel isolated and that their overall wellbeing and mental health are impacted by their experience at school.
Beyond that, the impacts on families were also reported, as were occasions when parents had to choose between their work and their child receiving education, and the impact that that has on their mental health and wellbeing, and on their relationships.
Perhaps most troubling are the views on what would make a difference. They are simple things—improved understanding on the part of the teachers who are entrusted to deliver the children’s education, improved support and improved communication. Those are not complicated things: they are basic, and we must make sure that they happen.
There are a number of calls to action in the report including dealing with the exclusions, improving the level of specialist teachers and skills within schools and the wider school community, the need to have the neurodevelopmental disorders in autism included within initial teacher education, and there being minimum standards on hours of education. Those should be adopted in full; I would like to hear what the minister has to say on them.
However, those calls do not go far enough. We must invest in teachers and their capacity to deal with additional support needs. They do an amazing job, and no word of my speech here this evening, or of the report, is a criticism of the fantastic job that teachers do, but they are not getting the support that they deserve. Specialist teacher numbers have been cut by 20 per cent since 2010. We know that, despite recent funding announcements, the number of educational psychologists has declined over a similar period. We also know that there is a lack of provision for ongoing training and development, which is a recent finding of the Education and Skills Committee.
We must ensure that appropriate placements are available for autistic children. Although we should aim for mainstreaming, some children need specialist education, but those specialist places are becoming rarer and rarer for those who need them.
Above all, I would like to look at call 9 in the report, which asks that people be made more aware of rights to education. I do not know whether that call is right—I do not think that people should have to be told of their or their child’s rights to education. They should expect it. The Government must step in, because there is a legal duty on local authorities to provide education, and there is a duty in the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 to provide support regardless of formal diagnosis or assessment. That law must be enforced. People deserve their legal rights: the Government must ensure that local authorities extend them.
Above all else, we have a very honourable commitment to mainstream schooling because, at the end of the day, we live in a mainstream world, and if we do not prepare our young people to live in it, we fail them. However, equally, that commitment to mainstreaming is for nothing if, in reality, mainstreaming means exclusion from school and a very limited timetable. [
I thank Daniel Johnson for securing this members’ business debate on such an important issue.
Tonight, I want to tell my constituent Kieran’s personal story. I have only four minutes to do so. Kieran attended mainstream primary in North Lanarkshire from primary 1 to P3. It was evident even then that he had social and emotional difficulties, and at times he struggled with slightly challenging behaviour in school, although none of it was noteworthy or enough to prompt real investigation. His parents thought that if investigations were required, teachers would highlight that, because they are the professionals.
In primary 3, Kieran’s mother made the decision to move him to a smaller primary school which she had researched and found had a supportive ethos. The family moved only a couple of miles, but that move put them in South Lanarkshire. My constituency is made up of areas of North Lanarkshire and South Lanarkshire.
His parents were very unhappy that Kieran’s behaviour was being put down to trouble making, bad temper and so on, when he was actually struggling to cope with sensory, social and emotional issues, and was generally a kind and sensitive boy.
On moving schools, they were linked up with educational psychology in South Lanarkshire and, from there, to many agencies within the national health service, to pursue a diagnosis of autism. Kieran did not have formal support in school. However, due to the skills and experience of the individual teachers and a lot of luck, he was fairly settled until primary 6. By that time he had been through the assessment process for autism, but it was felt that he did not meet all the criteria. That is another failing, and Kieran is just one such case.
As the move to further independence in education advanced, along with peer issues and a change of teacher in P7, Kieran began really to struggle. He had many absences, his mental health became very poor and anxiety about school became a daily struggle. That resulted in Kieran becoming suicidal, so a referral to child and adolescent mental health services was made. The family worked with CAMHS, which felt that Kieran met the criteria for an autism diagnosis. Kieran was eventually diagnosed in December 2017.
The family moved back to North Lanarkshire and Kieran was enrolled in his local secondary school. His parents had reservations about Kieran’s ability to cope in mainstream high school, given the impact that his last year of primary school had had on him. However, no alternatives were offered.
It became apparent that Kieran was not coping with high school. Alongside his autism diagnosis, he has hypermobility, which restricts his mobility and causes a lot of pain and fatigue. His parents approached the school to highlight their concerns. Guidance teachers observed how upset Kieran was, and his parents were assured that action would be taken.
By October, Kieran was so impacted by his daily adverse experiences at school that he again became mentally unwell. His mother had to take him to see their general practitioner. Kieran attended school sporadically until January, when the decision was made by the school and staff in North Lanarkshire to put in place a part-time timetable. However, lack of support for Kieran meant that he got only nine sessions before he became so unwell that he completely refused to attend.
Kieran is still out of school. He has mentally recovered and is keen to be educated. His mother has researched, contacted and visited many independent schools. He was offered a place at an independent school that specialises in boys with autism spectrum disorder. His mother applied via a placing request to North Lanarkshire Council. It refused the request. His mother has now contacted Govan Law Centre.
Quite honestly, local councils are failing Kieran and others like him. Having been a councillor, I know that a council can serve such people better. I press them to do so.
I would cover the report that Daniel Johnson spoke about, but I am running out of time.
We are all parents, grandparents, uncles or aunts—therefore, we as politicians must look into the subject and aid councils to do better. We cannot fail Kieran and others like him.
I thank Daniel Johnson for bringing this important debate to the chamber. As the convener of the cross-party group on autism, I am really pleased to see autism getting the attention it deserves. When I set up the CPG, a year ago, I never anticipated the level of interest it has received.
From meeting to meeting, we have seen more and more people attend, which is evidence of just how strongly people feel about the need for change. At our most recent meeting, in October, we focused solely on education, and I am grateful to the Deputy First Minister for joining us at that meeting. We used the joint report by the National Autistic Society Scotland, Scottish Autism and Children in Scotland as our point of reference.
These experiences will, of course, not be representative of everyone—there will be examples of great practice across Scotland—but it is clear from the key findings of the report “Not included, not engaged, not involved” that there is a systemic problem. Thirty-four per cent of parents and carers said that their child
“had been unlawfully excluded from school” in the previous two years; 28 per cent said their child
“had been placed on a part-time timetable in the last two years”; and·85 per cent said that their child
“did not receive support to catch up on work they had missed.”
Many children with autism regularly miss school due to stress and anxiety, and, as a result, they suffer from low self-esteem.
At the meeting, we heard from two young people, Rachel Birch and Jasmine Ghibli, who are representatives of the Scottish Women’s Autism Network. I thank them both for allowing me to share the following stories with the chamber.
As someone who was diagnosed with autism only at the age of 14, Rachel had no transitional support when starting secondary school. By her third year, her anxiety was so bad that she began to refuse to go to school and experienced panic attacks. Upon her diagnosis, the school was unsure of how to support her, and she believed that the support that she did receive was in line with punishments for non-autistic individuals. Rachel ultimately felt suicidal, and she now feels strongly that teachers should receive better training and that a more positive narrative should be built around autism.
Jasmine, who was diagnosed with autism at four, spoke of how she felt ostracised at school due to a lack of understanding about the condition. As a victim of bullying, she felt that things were made worse when she was put in separate classes with children with additional support needs, which eventually led her to attempt to take her own life. Although Jasmine’s situation improved after she left school and received cognitive behavioural therapy, her experience is evidence of how the system can fail to support those youngsters who need it most, with potentially drastic consequences.
Thankfully, there are ways in which the situation can be improved. As we heard from Daniel Johnson, the report outlines nine calls to action, which focus on improving understanding of autism in schools. They include a call to increase the number of specialist teachers and enhance programmes in initial teacher training and continuing professional development. They also focus on monitoring the use of part-time timetables, on reducing the number of formal and informal exclusions and on ensuring that children are aware of their right to additional support for learning and that, should they need it, the resource is there.
The Scottish Conservatives support those proposals in the belief that it is imperative that children and young people with autism are given the best start in life. This is a systemic issue in Scottish schools and one that affects not just those with autism. The number of specialist additional support needs teachers has declined by 16 per cent in the past five years, with the number of pupils identified with ASN increasing by 55 per cent over the same period.
It is clear that the pressures on teachers are huge. If we are to give those with autism the best start in life, the Scottish Government needs to take action to support schools and pupils. The CPG will continue to play an active role in monitoring whether the calls to action are being delivered on.
I thank Daniel Johnson again for bringing this important topic to the chamber. The years that we spend progressing through school play a huge role in shaping us and our values as well as how we make our way in the world. They help to create opportunities and the confidence to take on our chosen career. However, for those faced with autism, those years can be even more make or break. We should all strive to change that, and I remain fully committed to doing so.
I start by saying well done to Daniel Johnson for securing the debate. More to the point, I say well done to the three organisations that were involved in producing and publishing the report.
This is one of those issues that we all suspected was happening but it was almost impossible to prove. I suspect that most of us have had constituents who are parents of autistic children come to us about a failure to provide their child with the education to which they are entitled. However, the fact that occurrences are hidden among 32 local authorities and among thousands of schools makes the scale of the problem difficult to see. Moreover, as it turns out, the most egregious failure—the use of unlawful exclusions—is even more hidden, as it remains unrecorded.
We really should acknowledge the effort that went into establishing the evidence in the report—and what shocking evidence it is. A quarter of parents had seen their child formally excluded in the past two years, but more than a third had seen their child suffer informal—in other words, unlawful—exclusion.
We all know what the issue is. Mainstreaming children who have additional support needs is absolutely the right principle, but the right principle is worthless without the right practice. Manifestly, that means having enough support staff and enough resources to make mainstreaming work for all concerned—above all, for the children themselves. Otherwise, we are simply mainstreaming failure and frustration, and, frankly, it is hypocrisy on our part when we pretend to be all about fairness.
The issues do not apply only to children with a diagnosis of autism, who account only for 8 per cent of children with additional needs, but the fact that the Enquire special needs helpline receives 46 per cent of its calls from parents of autistic children tells us that they are particularly ill served. They are, so to speak, the canaries in the coal mine who alert us to a wider problem to which we must respond.
Now that we have the evidence, the onus is on the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to tell us what he is going to do. Warm words will not be enough to solve the problem; only more support, including more additional needs teachers and additional support workers, will do that. Yet, at the Education and Skills Committee last week, the head of the learning directorate’s support and wellbeing unit admitted that she has no idea how many additional needs support workers we have in our schools, never mind how many we need. She suggested that, because it is up to councils to employ additional needs support workers and because the role is given different names, it is too difficult to find out how many such support workers there are—or, indeed, whether there are any at all. She told committee members that additional support is provided not just through additional needs teachers and support workers. That is true, as can be seen from eight of the nine recommendations in the report. However, she gave the impression that it was a bit quaint of the committee to think that such a thing as specialist staff mattered much at all.
The report tells us that autistic children are routinely being illegally denied their place at school. More specialist staff to support them may not be everything they need but, my goodness, it would be a start in turning the issue around. I hope that the cabinet secretary will tell us how and when that will happen.
Like colleagues, I thank Daniel Johnson for the opportunity to discuss this issue in the chamber.
The title of the report “Not included, not engaged, not involved” should not surprise anyone in the Parliament. As Iain Gray said, many of us are used to receiving such case work on a regular basis. It will certainly not surprise young people with autism or their parents, carers, teachers or support staff.
We should be grateful for the valuable work that has been carried out by Children in Scotland, Scottish Autism and the National Autistic Society Scotland in producing the report, which provides an invaluable insight into the lives of young people with autism in Scotland today. It sets out how our education system is failing far too many young people. More than a third of parents and guardians who responded to the survey reported that their child had been unlawfully excluded from school in the past two years, most of them on multiple occasions. Just under 30 per cent said that their child had been
“placed on a part-time timetable”.
Eighty-five per cent said that their child
“did not receive support to catch up on work they had missed” while they had been excluded.
The report only adds to the substantial body of evidence that is building in relation to the failure to properly support children and young people with additional needs in Scotland. The number of specialist additional needs teachers has dropped by over 400 in eight years. The loss of that expertise means that classroom teachers are left without the additional support and the specialist knowledge that is needed to support every pupil. The classroom teachers themselves are struggling to support every young person in their class, and they are doing so with increased workloads and having lost 3,500 of their colleagues over the past decade. The result is that fewer people with less expertise are being expected to do more with less. It is not working.
Support staff, who used to directly assist pupils with additional needs, are being stretched to support the whole class instead. Often, the staff with specialist skills and training have been cut completely and the general classroom assistant staff are expected to take on the role of supporting young people with autism and other needs that the staff simply do not know enough about.
As Iain Gray mentioned, the Scottish Government has even redefined the information that is published on specialist support assistants, now grouping them into a more general—to the point of being almost meaningless—category of pupil support assistant. It feels as though, instead of asking why the specialist assistants are no longer doing that job, the Government has given up and accepted the loss of that defined and important role.
“Not included, not engaged, not involved” is far from the only evidence that we have. Last year, the Education and Skills Committee undertook an inquiry into additional support needs in Scottish schools. We received hundreds of submissions, particularly from teachers and parents of pupils with additional needs. I think that the chamber will recall some of that evidence, such as the staff member who was told to watch “The Big Bang Theory” to better support a pupil with Asperger's syndrome. We were told how patchy training on additional needs for teachers is in Scotland and that much of additional needs training is based on a cascade model in which one teacher gets the training and passes on what they know to others. That is why specialist additional needs teachers are important, but the loss of so many of them means that passing on that knowledge is often not possible.
The range of recognised additional needs is vast. The range of potential forms of support that young people with autism need is vast. Every young person is unique, and their needs are unique as well. Many teachers and parents highlighted the importance of identification of additional needs in the first place. Again, that is an area in which specialist teachers and support staff who are able to identify additional needs are key, but it is an area in which there is colossal inconsistency across the country.
Educational psychologists play a vital role, but the number of educational psychologists in our schools has dwindled, particularly after the Scottish Government cut the bursary for that qualification in 2012. The Greens were critical of the loss of the bursary, and we welcome its reintroduction, which was announced earlier this year. That was absolutely the right move for the Government to make. We will wait with interest to see whether it helps us to recover the number of people who go into those courses and then into those roles.
Accessing the support that they are entitled to is clearly an issue for young people with autism and their families. Since 2010, there has been a drop of a third in the number of pupils with a co-ordinated support plan, which is the only statutory support plan. CSPs allow parents and young people a right of appeal if their needs are not being met, so their decline is deeply alarming. We have a principle of mainstreaming in our schools, but mainstreaming without adequate support is not inclusion—it is exclusion.
This is all entirely avoidable. Our young people absolutely deserve Government action based on the suggestions in the report. They deserve the Government genuinely getting it right for every child.
Due to the number of members who still wish to speak in the debate, I am minded to accept a motion without notice to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[
Motion agreed to.
I thank Daniel Johnson for securing this important debate. As he did, I commend the work of the National Autistic Society Scotland, Scottish Autism and Children in Scotland in pulling together the report and the parents and young people who contributed their experiences in order that we might better understand what is, or is not, happening in our education system.
With that in mind, I will focus the majority of my speech on the experience of one of my constituents. She has requested that I anonymise her and her children, so I will refer to her as C. Her experience centres on her children, A and M. Much of what she sent to me has had to be abridged, but I will write to the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills with full details after the debate, if he would find that helpful.
When C discussed her various concerns about A with his health visitor and nursery staff, they were dismissed as typical boy behaviour or something that he would grow out of. By the time that he was at primary school, concerns were raised again but were dismissed on similar grounds. By P2, A was really struggling and displaying challenging behaviour at home, prior to and after school, and he began to refuse to attend school. Finally, following a meeting with the headteacher, a referral to CAMHS occurred and a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder and comorbid attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was received.
In primary 3, despite various measures being put in place, A was being taught one to one in either the corridor or the headteacher’s office if a pupil support assistant was unavailable. The family made repeated requests for alternative provision to be considered, such as at Camphill or Mile End school, but they were advised that A was too able academically and that the school was meeting his needs.
Eventually, while he was in primary 3, A was removed from school by his family due to a deterioration in his physical and emotional health.
Following an emergency GIRFEC meeting, it was finally agreed that Aberdeen City Council would consider an alternative placement and he was eventually granted a full-time place at Camphill. He now thrives in the environment that Camphill provides, as opposed to mainstream education.
C advises me that with her son, M, she had to relive the entire experience again. Despite M already being under assessment for ASD, the nursery system did not adapt to or support his needs. Multiple measures were put in place at school, as they had been with A, but they were always reduced or removed when M showed any sign of coping, thus escalating matters and forcing the cycle to repeat.
Both A and M experienced illegal exclusions and being placed on part-time timetables, before C eventually took the decision to remove M from mainstream education and to home school him instead. After a year of home education, C looked into returning M to mainstream education, but his catchment school refused to provide the one-to-one support that had been in place prior to home schooling and insisted on replacing his current reading method, which had proven successful, with phonics, which had been unsuccessful for three years at primary school.
C feels that she has been completely failed by the education system. As a result of the traumatic experiences of A and M, her third son has refused school and is also being home educated.
C advises me that although home education is working, and her sons are thriving, it is not the choice that she wanted to make. It has led to the household being dependent on a single income and the family struggles financially as a consequence. In turn, that places a great deal of worry and stress on the family unit.
C is not the only constituent in such circumstances. I have seen many examples of part-time timetabling, where parents are forced into a situation of either sourcing childcare or reducing or quitting their employment. At the same time, I have spoken to parents who have found that mainstream education can work for their children, although in many of those cases it has been through the work of a specific school or teacher, rather than as a result of a wider ethos. One parent told me that her son does well at his current school, but at his former school she was advised that his behaviours were probably a consequence of how she parented him.
I have spoken in the Parliament many times regarding autism, often viewed through the experience of my son. I am fortunate that he has been placed appropriately in education, but that does not matter to the people who responded to the survey: parents do not want a system that works for other people’s children—they want a system that works for their children, too. The review of mainstream presumption was instigated by a question that I asked in the previous parliamentary session and I hope that we might now see some progress on the issue.
I have devoted a great deal of my time in the Scottish Parliament, and will use whatever remains of it, to ensure that we live up to the principles that we have collectively signed up to in relation to GIRFEC. GIRFEC means getting it right for every child, not getting it right for most children or for the majority of children. The survey shows that we still have a journey to travel to achieve that ideal. That must give us pause for thought and the resolve to do better.
Like Daniel Johnson, I will start with a feeling: I felt compelled to add my name in support of the motion that we are debating tonight. I did so after reading the report, “
Not included, not engaged, not involved”. As other members have done, I commend the report’s authors: Children in Scotland, the National Autistic Society Scotland and Scottish Autism.
It is not right, on any level, for any child not to receive their educational entitlements, as highlighted by the survey of nearly 1,500 parents. I know that that view will be shared by MSPs and ministers alike. I do not say this lightly, but the level of exclusions, unlawful exclusions, part-time timetabling and missed schooling found by the survey is utterly unacceptable and shocking. If that was not bad enough, 85 per cent of the children in the scope of the survey did not receive any support to catch up on the work that they had missed.
Like other members, my main motivation for speaking in the debate is to speak up for the countless parents that I have had the privilege of representing over many years. Being a parent is the most important and hardest job that anyone will ever have and it is harder still if your child has an additional support need, such as autism.
Parents of children with additional needs are always having to fight tenaciously for their children’s rights and battle for what should be the norm. It must be utterly exhausting to constantly do battle with services—whether it is the Department for Work and Pensions, education, health or social work—only often to be labelled as difficult, controlling or overprotective. Services and politicians need to work harder at listening, and responding, to what parents tell us about their children.
A few weeks ago, I hosted a reception in the Parliament to showcase the work of the Multi-Cultural Family Base, which supports children and families from a refugee or migrant background with those crucial early years transitions. It is a voluntary organisation that supports the whole family on a wide range of issues, in a flexible way that works for the family.
In addition to statutory services, we must tap into the talents of the third sector, particularly when it comes to developing the whole-school approach that is recommended in the report. We must get better at providing the right support at the right time, and we must get it right for every child the first time, because the impact of failed educational placements is hugely disruptive and damaging to children’s wellbeing and it adds to that sense of rejection and exclusion.
The report quotes a parent who said:
“I had to come and pick him up every day at 12” and
“it was like that for seven years.”
That testimony screamed to me that the boy had no package of support or the wrong level of support, or that he was in the wrong school. Unlike cases in which I was involved a decade ago, the issues do not appear to be with diagnosis or unidentified needs. It is about not responding to known needs. That is potentially negligent and—as Daniel Johnson said—in breach of the law of the land. It raises important questions for all of us.
A constituent showed me the statutory plan that was devised for her wee boy last year when he was in primary 1. Nothing happened, and he is now in primary 2. It is now groundhog day for them, chasing up reviews and planning meetings. He is only five once in his life, so where was the support and early intervention for that wee boy? Clearly, there is a need for that fuller spectrum of services, whether mainstream or specialist, so that plans are acted on and words are put into action.
I do not demur from the importance of resources—they are central. Of course, there are questions for local and national Government, some of which are tough. There is something about culture, attitudes, how services are delivered—and by whom—and, crucially, about putting our laws into practice where it matters the most: on the front line and in the classrooms. Therefore, I support the recommendations in the report.
I thank Daniel Johnson for bringing this important topic to the chamber and I thank members from all parties for their support.
When I was first elected as an MSP in 2016, I knew that casework would be a priority; the topic of autism and Asperger’s quickly became a growing concern. At first, it was just a few cases of families reaching out for help with their children, who had been diagnosed with autism. However, the scale of the issue then became more apparent, with adults, teachers, social services, the council and others bringing forward the lack of support for those with autism and Asperger’s.
Having spoken to those who work with the autism community, I note that the report “Not included, not engaged, not involved” applies as much to Aberdeenshire as it does to anywhere else in Scotland. For all the good intentions of the Scottish Government’s strategies, if those people who are required to create and deliver the strategies are not supported, the result is failure.
That applies not only to education, but to employment, housing and mental health services. Many families face great difficulty in finding a pathway for an autism diagnosis. However, even with a diagnosis, the support is often lacking. I commend our teachers, but unfortunately not enough of them have autism qualifications. Ultimately, that results in a failure to implement the correct support, which means that children and families fall through the net.
I met someone last week whose story echoes the issues that arise from today’s debate. I do not have the time to tell the full story of what the family has gone through, but even an abbreviated account shows how badly it has been let down. The primary school refused to submit the child for diagnosis for dyslexia; after the family paid for it privately, a diagnosis was given. The same happened at secondary school, where the parents had to pay privately for a diagnosis of Asperger’s.
A general practitioner referred the family to an organisation, which blamed the parents for the child’s behaviour and accepted that the child had Asperger’s only after the privately paid-for diagnosis was passed on.
The school, on the basis of the guidance, referred the family to social work as a family in crisis, which put even more stress on it. The organisation forced the child to appointments, which was a struggle because they had to be escorted to school due to their Asperger’s. At one appointment, the child was told that it was good that they had not mentioned suicide. The parents were horrified that that idea could be put into their child’s head.
The school has done its best to provide what support it can, but with lack of access to practical support and help from resource centres, the family is unsure about their child’s future.
Mental health is a topic that has come to the forefront of national conversation in recent years, which I am grateful to see. After working with families and organisations in the autism community for more than two years, I am keen for our education system to take the lead on treating those with mental health conditions with the correct support. I call on the Scottish Government to ensure that all children are provided with the correct support so that they all reach their full potential in life.
I congratulate Daniel Johnson on bringing the debate to Parliament and thank him for raising an important topic. I have enormous sympathy with the issues that he has raised.
I also thank Children in Scotland, the National Autistic Society Scotland and Scottish Autism for their report, “Not included, not engaged, not involved”. I gave Parliament a commitment that I would engage with the organisations to consider the report’s findings. I have met all three organisations and I am looking at the issues that are raised in the report.
As a number of colleagues have done in this debate, I will set out what I have done as a member of Parliament. In my 21 years of service, I have met many constituents who have wrestled with such challenges. These are very difficult situations in which parents find themselves. They want to make sure that their children are given every opportunity to prosper and thrive in the way that Mr Burnett has talked about, and they want to ensure that services are available to support them in achieving their potential. That is an utterly natural aspiration for any parent. Over time, I have wrestled with some cases, and I will talk about the challenges that I faced in addressing the issues that members have raised. Yes, those challenges are to do with resources, but they are also about attitudes and ethos. We kid ourselves if we think that all this is simply about resources. Resources are a significant issue, but there are significant issues about attitudes and ethos that are relevant in the consideration of these questions.
Attitudes and ethos underpinned the policy thinking that went into the approach set out in the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Act 2000, which was supported extensively in this Parliament. The legislation brought in the presumption of mainstreaming for the education of young people, and the set of policy interventions that have been designed to give guidance to our education system about how the policy and the principle of mainstreaming in education should be deployed flows from it.
Much of the practice that I read about in the “Not included, not engaged, not involved” report regarding the experiences of particular families and exclusions from school education—as I confirmed to Mr Mundell in response to a question that he asked a few weeks ago in Parliament—is completely at odds with the guidance that is in place.
We must address an important question about the degree to which our policy framework as it stands provides sufficient guidance and rigour to ensure that Parliament’s aspiration, which is broadly shared across the political spectrum, is delivered by authorities.
That brings me on to Mr Johnson’s call for the Government to step in with local authorities to enforce the law on the right to education. I agree entirely with the sentiments about every young person’s right to education—I stand here as a firm advocate of the principle of our obligation throughout the system, in every respect, to get it right for every child. However, to be frank, Parliament would have to consider whether it wished to empower the Government to step in to instruct, require or oblige local authorities to take certain courses of action. At present, Parliament seems reluctant to empower the Government to require or oblige local authorities to do certain things, and many of the operational decisions are taken by local authorities.
I do not dispute that point at all, but I say to Mr Johnson and Parliament that, if Parliament wants the Government to intervene in local authority practice to the extent that he suggested, Parliament needs to consider actively the support that it gives the Government for intervening in local authorities.
I thank the Presiding Officer and the cabinet secretary. If the Government cannot intervene, will the cabinet secretary support the calls that I have made for the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland to step in and look at the breaches of children’s rights to education? Is that a potential avenue for tackling the bad practice that we see?
I do not think that anything would stop the commissioner deciding to inquire into anything—he is a parliamentary appointee who is free to inquire into any topic that he chooses. However, my point to Mr Johnson was not about that; it was about the relationship between the Government and local authorities, as he raised significant issues about what practice should be taken forward.
Does the cabinet secretary agree with my concern about the suggestion that we are talking only about resources or only about attitude and ethos? Attitude and ethos are important, but the Government has the powerful tool of willing the means to deliver on the policy commitment that we all have to providing inclusive education. Local authorities, teachers, support staff and families say that the resources are simply not there to support their young people.
That brings me on to the point about resources that I was just about to make. The most recent data that is available to us shows that, in 2016-17, local authorities delivered a real-terms increase in expenditure on education services and, within that, there was a 2.3 per cent real-terms increase and a 4.5 per cent cash-terms increase in the funding that was made available for additional support for learning in the education system. Those are the local government statistics, which I quote to Johann Lamont.
My next substantive point is to the Conservatives. I listened with care to Annie Wells and Alexander Burnett, as I listen carefully to the points that all members make. Johann Lamont has a fair point about willing the means, in that when it comes to budget decisions the Conservatives do not generally argue for more public spending on the day when that matters—budget day.
On that day, we have to make hard choices about the money that is available. Last year, we as a Government took decisions—for which the Conservatives roundly criticised us—that involved increasing available public expenditure. Yet, they come here—for quite understandable reasons—and make a plea for more resources. In the space that is available in this members’ debate, I simply encourage the Conservatives to reflect on the real choices that face us in relation to public expenditure.
D oes the cabinet secretary agree with the Scottish Conservatives that it is already stated in legislation that children should have the right to a proper education? The cuts that have been made so far are 16 per cent, but we have seen the number of people being diagnosed with autism increase by 55 per cent.
Annie Wells has made my point for me. Because of the financial approach that has been taken by the Conservative Government in London, we are—and, since 2010, have been—dealing with a set of financial circumstances that have been acutely challenging. We have taken decisions to try to counter that, for which the Conservatives in Scotland have criticised us. Yet they come here, asking us to spend more resources on additional support for learning—for which, in my view, there is an absolutely justifiable case—but without seeing the deepest sense of irony in what they are arguing for, given the profile and the position of the Conservative Government.
I know that this is a members’ business debate, but the cabinet secretary cannot, on the one hand, make the argument to Labour members that the issue is not about resources and then, on the other, point the finger at the Conservative Party for not helping his Government to provide those resources. There is clearly a problem here, and it is above party politics. Education is so important. Does the cabinet secretary not recognise that?
I have been at pains to suggest that the issue is not just about attitude and ethos, or just about resources; it is about the combination of those factors. That is why I make my point to the Conservatives that if they are interested in truly investing in public services and in improving outcomes for young people as a consequence of the resources that we allocate, they must be prepared—[
It is all very well for the Conservatives to shout things at me when I am making the pretty simple point that if they want to be part of the solution by increasing the resources that are available for additional support for learning, they have to be prepared to support budgets that will enable that to be the case. Their other spokespeople come to Parliament and argue for reductions in public expenditure and against tax measures that the Government has brought in to boost public expenditure. Those are the hard, arithmetical arguments that the Conservatives cannot avoid.
Does the cabinet secretary agree with Chris Cunningham, who is the education spokesperson for the Scottish National Party on Glasgow City Council, who has said that one of the problems in education has been that local government funding has been cut disproportionately? Such choices were made by the Scottish Government. I contend that, as a consequence, young people with additional support needs are being disproportionately disadvantaged in our education system—
Cabinet secretary, we are all obliged to you for taking so many interventions in this very important debate. However, before you answer that, I say that I want to bring matters to a conclusion, so I ask you respond to Ms Lamont’s intervention and then to bring your remarks to a conclusion.
I am in danger of overstaying my welcome at the Government’s dispatch box.
In the most recent figures that are available, education spending has increased by 2.5 per cent, in cash terms. Therefore, there is here a combination of issues to be wrestled with. They are, on the one hand, attitudes and ethos—the good guidance that is available from Parliament, supported by parliamentary discussions, which creates the climate to support young people in fulfilling their potential—and, on the other, the question of resources. I contend that we have a rise in resources that are being applied in education and a rising number of teachers who are being recruited into the system.
In closing, I will make two points, the first of which relates to my colleague Angela Constance’s point that there are examples of great success in supporting the needs of young people with additional needs in mainstream education, and of the achievement of good outcomes for them by ensuring that the right approach is taken in individual schools. Crucially, we must ensure that we have in place approaches that involve the provision of support and training to our teachers and our professional staff so that they can support those young people.
The “Not included, not engaged, not involved” report has given me pause for thought and has resulted in my holding back the publication of the updated mainstreaming guidance to make sure that we properly address the issues that are raised in the report, and that we do everything in our power to address the issues that affect the life chances of some of those precious young people in our society. It is our obligation to make sure that we get it right for every one of those children.
Meeting closed at 18:06.