[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair] — Children and Young People with Autism

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 8th October 2008.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Claire Ward.]

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 9:30 am, 8th October 2008

Good morning, Mr. Caton. I welcome you to the Chair, and this rich galaxy of parliamentary talent to our debate. I begin by declaring an interest as the father of a four-year-old boy, Oliver, who has been diagnosed as exhibiting the characteristics of high-functioning autism. In addition, I thank the National Autistic Society, TreeHouse, Research Autism and Buckinghamshire county council for their invaluable briefings for this debate.

Autism is a complex, lifelong neurological condition that affects a person's ability to communicate with and relate to other people. It is estimated that approximately one in every 100 school-aged children is on the autism spectrum. The vast majority, approximately 70 per cent., are in mainstream schools. They are, I am sorry to say, three times more likely to experience mental health problems than their non-autistic peers. Equally, it is estimated that only about 12 per cent. of them end up in employment. The cost annually of that sector of the child population is thought to be about £2.8 billion.

I emphasise that we are talking about a spectrum condition, which implies that there are many variants on the theme. The nature and intensity of the difficulty and the resulting need can and do vary substantially, but to encapsulate the concept I would say that all autistic people have one characteristic in common. They all suffer from the triad of impairments: that is to say, they suffer from problems of social communication, social imagination and social interaction.

In the course of this debate and in my opening remarks, I shall focus on three principal issues. In order to learn and be educated, a child or young person must be safely in a setting in which he or she can do so. It should therefore be a legitimate matter of ongoing and serious concern to right hon. and hon. Members that people on the autism spectrum are disproportionately more likely—to be pedantic and precise, approximately nine times more likely—to be excluded from school than their non-autistic peers. That is a salutary and disturbing thought. Typically, 27 per cent. of children on the autistic spectrum are excluded, compared with 3 or 4 per cent. of their non-autistic counterparts.

Significantly, however, there is an additional and more disturbing phenomenon—not merely exclusion of an official kind but unofficial, informal, sometimes internal and frequently if not invariably unrecorded exclusions of children and young people. I refer in this context to the TreeHouse constructive campaigning parent support project survey report following research conducted between January and July 2007, the results of which, in summary or detailed form, have recently winged their way to the Minister of State. That report found, alarmingly, that 43 per cent. of respondent parents said that their child had been excluded from school at least once, and possibly more than once, in the previous 12 months.

Members, wise and savvy as they are, will know that guidance exists on exclusions, of course. I do not know whether the Minister thinks it is necessary to send the guidance—all 80 pages of it—to schools again to remind them of their responsibilities to cater effectively within the school for the needs of the child. If he is reluctant to do so, which I can understand, I hope he will accept at the very least that memories should be stirred and schools should be reminded of page 15 of the latest guidance—I think it is paragraph 27, but I stand to be corrected if I am wrong—which underlines that unofficial exclusions, even with the parents' consent, are illegal. They are not just undesirable, ill-advised and a failure to cater to the needs of the child but illegal.

Let me give an example of unofficial exclusion, culled from the annals of briefings from the National Autistic Society: a teacher says simply to the parent of a child, "It would be better if he went home." Very often, disability and disobedience are mistakenly and ignorantly conflated. It is incredibly important to get a grip on the distinction between the two.


It is my opinion that school classes should be musch smaller as was promised. Children with any severe health problem should have a special "monitor" to work with them, who is aware of their difficulties, and can help them to the best of their ability. It is also essential that a good relationship between the school and the parents is formed and maintained. We are living in a very pressurised society, and the presence of one or other parent in the home is particularly desirable for children with difficulties. This brings us to finance, asmany parents are in need of two incomes to buy their home. The financial aspect should therefore be looked at closely, and the pressure on parents which the present financial crisis is causing.
I have diverted from Autism alone, but consider that all I have said pertains to both autistic children, and to family life as a whole.

Submitted by Alix Cull

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem is that, as a recent survey by the National Union of Teachers found, 44 per cent. of teachers are not confident teaching children who are on the autistic spectrum? That pressure could lead to some of those exclusions.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is true that work force training—not merely of teachers but of the entire children's work force—is the elephant in the room in this debate. My loyal friend, with his helpful prompt, will not be surprised to know that I shall return to it in due course.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman is saying, but before he leaves the subject of exclusions, may I ask whether he is aware that some teachers, knowing it is illegal to exclude in such a way, will say to parents, "It would be better if you withdrew your child from this school and found another school; then we wouldn't have to exclude", without telling the parent that it would be illegal for them to exclude?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

That is both true and outrageous. In addition, it is not uncommon for it to be decided that an awkward, administratively inconvenient, potentially distracting or expensive pupil should be relegated to the veritable dumping ground of a pupil referral unit—75 per cent. of whose occupants have special educational needs—when many of them are profoundly unsuited to that substandard educational provision, which I know the Government are seeking to improve. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

On bullying, some 40 per cent. of parents of children on the autistic spectrum say that their child has been bullied by other children. Sometimes bullies are excluded from school—temporarily or, in extremis, permanently—but I am sorry to say that sometimes it is not the bully who is excluded but the bullied, again due to the bureaucratic mindset that "it would be better if he didn't distract". Often, children are excluded at key and predictable times, such as just before Christmas, to coincide with a school inspection, visit, play or something of that kind. That is intolerable.

Let us be clear what bullying means. It might be physical or verbal, or through discrimination; it might be abuse, theft or neglect. I think of a parent who told TreeHouse, "My son has been bullied to the point of wanting to end his own life, and he has self-harmed." The Government have published guidance on bullying, as recently as September 2008 and running to 55 pages, on which I congratulate the Minister, but there is a difference between publishing guidance and ensuring compliance with it. We need data to be published. We need regular checks. We need comprehensive area assessments to kick in.

I politely suggest two things to the Minister. First, let us have a theme of anti-bullying, segmented during different parts of the year—bullying of the disabled, bullying of gay, lesbian or bisexual pupils, bullying on grounds of race—that underlines the evil, stresses the strategies available to deal with it, incentivises improved performance and offers arrays of carrots and sticks to deal properly with the matter.

Furthermore, in the course of the 2009 consideration and review of special educational needs provision in this country, to which the Government are already committed, it might be a good idea for Ofsted to look at the phenomena of exclusion and bullying to see how better to address the matter. That would be in the interests of the children concerned and of their families who very often lose work opportunities, have to take time off—sometimes unpaid—to cope with the consequences of having to pick up a child early or have to secure additional help or medical assistance for him or her. We cannot allow such matters to rest.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions Ofsted. We will be debating different aspects of children with autism and their learning. Research shows that aggressive measures to target barriers faced by autistic children, such as poor communication and language, can open up the curriculum, which means that they learn far better. The results are astounding. Should Ofsted not look at all the educational experiences of children with autism? In other words, should it not make that a theme for a study across the piece?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

It should be the subject of serious, and possibly quite lengthy and well-financed research, as the hon. Lady says. I hope that she will share that wisdom with the wider constituency of Erewash.

I want to move on to the critical subject of the identification of, and support for, children and young people, up to 16-plus, on the autistic spectrum. We should be ashamed that 45 per cent. of parents say that they have to wait a year, or more, from the moment when they flag up their concern about a potentially autistic child to the point at which they receive assistance. What is needed as a matter of urgency is support tailored to the particular needs and circumstances of the individual child. There is no absolute answer to such matters, and of course there is no known cause of autism and indeed no established cure.

Support is of the essence, be it through the use of stress alert cards in the school environment; the use of symbols, pictures or photos; the use of differentiated break times divided up into bite-size chunks, which an autistic child can more successfully manage; the use of designated quiet places where an autistic child can escape the noise, the bustle, the disturbance and anxiety caused to him or her by being surrounded by a large number of other people; the development of social skills programmes; the use of picture exchange communication systems, which have been peer reviewed and judged by the university of Southampton to be one of the most efficacious interventions yet devised; through early intensive behavioural intervention, which has been similarly well reviewed, although it is the subject of some academic and other controversy; or through support in the home. The last of those is critical, because we are seeking a seamless provision of care and effective help for the child. Often a child gets terrific support in the school setting, but then—we are told this by children and parents—when the child comes home, everything falls apart. That interaction and communication between the school and the parent and child is of the essence.

We require a continuum of support, not in any one hon. Member's constituency but across the country—a continuum of provision, of different types of tailored and specified suitable education. In some cases, that will involve mainstream schools with support; in others, it will involve resourced units or departments for children on the autistic spectrum with greater needs, and in others, particularly in the more acute or severe cases with intense and ongoing need, it will involve a special school.

My part of the country—Buckinghamshire—has six resourced units for autistic children at primary level, and two at secondary level, but it is very much a postcode lottery across the country. We know from the research evidence—and we should be concerned about and challenged by this—that 50 per cent. of parents of autistic children judge that their child is in the wrong setting and that autism cases account for 25 per cent. of all the cases that go to the special educational needs and disability tribunal. If right hon. and hon. Members think that the situation is not great at the primary level and tends to deteriorate further at secondary level, they have seen nothing unless they reflect on the phenomenon of the paucity of provision post-16. The Commission for Social Care Inspection said that transition services from secondary school to post-16 are "a nightmare".

I do not want—it would not be right—to allow this debate to degenerate merely into a relentless diet of negativity, and nor, in my judgment, is it principally a matter of partisan conflict between Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members. We should pay tribute to, champion and celebrate good work. Let me refer, therefore, to the National Autistic Society Barnet branch, working in conjunction with Aimhigher. It provides information, support and guidance to children and young people seeking to enter further or higher education. It has pioneered—it is a trailblazer—fantastic transition schools that assist in this important public policy objective. It runs a disabled students ambassador scheme, and the programme as a whole won the voluntary sector organisation of the year award at the London education partnership awards in 2007. That shows what can be achieved in the interests of the child or young person with application, creativity, vision and persistence.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

As an example of working in partnership, the National Autistic Society and Gloucestershire county council have funded an autism spectrum co-ordinator, whose job is to work with the council, the primary care trust and all the other providers of public services, to draw them together, to highlight need and to ensure that they deliver those services more seamlessly to the families and children who need them. Perhaps that good model could be rolled out more widely across the country.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I would go so far as to suggest that the fact that that model was rolled out was due in no small measure to his perseverance and effectiveness. His self-effacement prevents him from claiming the credit for that important work.

I said earlier, in response to an intervention, that the elephant in the room is the training of the work force. My hon. Friend Mr. Scott, has rightly highlighted the NUT survey, which found that 44 per cent. of teachers are not confident teaching children on the autistic spectrum. I can add another statistic: 76 per cent. of respondents said that the lack or complete absence of continuing professional development was the principal barrier to effective provision for this category of children. We cannot be satisfied or indifferent about that, and it requires public policy responses.

Again, I welcome some of what is being done. The Government are to be applauded on the online development of the inclusion development programme, and specifically on the segment of it that will cater to the needs of autistic children or young people from 2009. Similarly, it is right that all new special educational needs co-ordinators will have to be qualified teachers. I congratulate the Minister on the Government's funding of the Autism Education Trust to the tune, initially, of £135,000 and, in the second year, of £320,000, if my memory serves me correctly.

I know the Minister, and he knows me extremely well. I hope that he will not consider me carping or churlish if I say that he and I have different roles in this place. He is a very senior, distinguished, respected and popular member of the Executive, whose responsibility it is to fashion policy and sell it to the nation, aided and abetted by the people behind him, whom it would not be appropriate to name in this Chamber. My role is rather different. I am a humble Back Bencher—more accurately, I am a Back Bencher who ought to be humble, which is not quite the same thing. However, the responsibility of right hon. and hon. Members on the Back Benches—be they on the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Ulster Unionist, Welsh nationalist or Scottish nationalist Benches, supported by the plethora of effective campaigning and advocacy organisations in the sector—is not to rest content with modest though welcome achievements, but constantly to raise the bar and challenge the Government to do more on such important matters.

I say to the Minister that there is a difference between a permissive and a prescriptive approach to training. I know that the Government like things to be done at local level and want a degree of flexibility, and it is all very well to say that there are opportunities for, an availability of or potential access to training, but it is another matter to say that it will be provided. It is another matter to say that staff back-filling will take place, that courses will run and that people will attend them. Autism-specific training is necessary not only for teachers and SENCOs, but for all members of the children's work force. It should be a prerequisite of obtaining qualified teacher status that one has had the appropriate training. Half a day's training on special educational needs as part of initial teacher training is not only lamentably inadequate, but a rather wounding insult to that sector of children and young people for whom it is our responsibility to cater. Far more needs to be done, and all SENCOs, be they new or old, should have appropriate training.

I am conscious that other colleagues wish to contribute their pearls of wisdom to the debate, and I strongly appreciate and respect the fact that at this relatively early hour, with a busy parliamentary day ahead of us, so many colleagues have come along. That shows the level of interest in, passion for and commitment to this incredibly important cause.

In some respects, policy is much better. I know that I will get myself into trouble with the usual channels on my own Benches, but, as I think the Minister knows, I long ago gave up any interest in securing a good term card from the Opposition Chief Whip. That is a matter of total indifference to me; I believe in paying tribute where tribute is due. I have every regard for the Secretary of State, who has taken a greater interest in special educational needs than any Secretary of State in recent memory. That is marvellous, and provision is better in some cases. There are plans for more facilities to be rolled out and for greater research, increased investment, peer review and all the rest, but the reality is that too many children and young people have suffered too much, for too long and with too little being done to help them. The time has come when we should say that up with this we will not put. We need to broker a step change in performance and activity.

In common with many right hon. and hon. Members on not only the Conservative Benches but elsewhere, I am an absolutely unstinting admirer of the late and great Sir Winston Churchill, one of the finest figures in the history of our country. He said to the House of Commons, on another subject, but pithily and fittingly for today's debate:

"The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals"— one can almost hear him saying it—

"is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country."—[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. XIX, c. 1354.]

To that proposition, so eloquently enunciated by the late Winston Churchill, I readily sign up, but I put it to colleagues, and this is the challenge, that if that is true, it surely is true in triplicate of our attitude to and provision for people with disabilities. Let us be explicit, those who have more severe autism often suffer from what might be called a hidden or invisible disability, but they are every bit as disabled as someone who is blind or partially sighted, deaf, mute or deprived of one of their limbs.

We have a responsibility to do more for a number of reasons, first, because it is the right and decent thing for a civilised society to do, and, secondly, because it is in the authentic self-interest of this country that we do so, for otherwise we will waste a vast, untapped, precious resource of talent and potential that could enrich our country. In an age in which a job for life is a relic of the past, and given the premium placed upon knowledge, education and the ability to communicate, it is vital that we do more to assist this category of children. It is not really about changing people's minds, although in some cases it is a matter of refining and improving their attitudes; it is about, in the competitive marketplace of political ideas and potential policy decisions, catapulting provision for autistic children and young people from the back of the minds of Ministers, decision makers and policy framers, to the front. Having so catapulted the subject, it is about keeping it fairly and squarely there into the future. Our sense of common humanity and our commitment to progress demand nothing less. There is so much to do, and people are waiting. They expect us to perform, and we must not let them down.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

Order. Before I call the next speaker, it is only fair to inform Members that I have eight Back Benchers listed who want to speak. I have to call the Front Benchers to speak at 10.30 am, so the shorter the contributions, the more Members who will get in.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill 9:55 am, 8th October 2008

I take your point, Mr. Caton, and I will try to be brief.

The fact that right hon. and hon. Members always expect an excellent speech from John Bercow should not be an impediment to our saying that we have just heard an outstanding speech. In the 20 or so minutes in which he introduced this important debate, he has outlined the problems, challenges and achievements in this field. I want to deal with one of the last points that he made when he talked about potential. He told us, in that beautifully comprehensive address, that although we have made progress, although there have been achievements and although there are many dedicated people in this field, not least in teaching, this issue is all about society ensuring that the potential of every child is recognised, encouraged and achieved.

I should like to reflect not only on the excellent reception yesterday that was sponsored by Angela Browning, at which she focused on other aspects of this important issue, but on a gathering and art exhibition that I attended recently in Glasgow, at which impressive works of art were on display. We assembled there and speeches were made, and as happens at these occasions—the same was true yesterday—there was a little disturbance; we have come to expect such things. I think that we were all transfixed by an outstanding painting that transcended everything else in that first-class exhibition. However, it was not until four or five minutes into the speeches that we realised that the young woman who was making a little noise was the artist of that outstanding work and showed such potential.

The hon. Member for Buckingham pursued some excellent arguments about getting education right and ensuring that teacher training deals with this issue. That is important, and what the National Union of Teachers has said is significant. Beyond that, it is important that we as a society prepare children, in the same classes and schools as children who experience autism, regarding what they can do and how this is a part of society, not least because nobody can predict what their futures will bring and whether autism might enter their lives. They should be encouraged to take a positive approach to this issue.

I want to deal briefly with the important issue of transition, which emerged in a report by the all-party group on disabled children and their families, which I had the honour of chairing a couple of years ago. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that for many children who experience autistic spectrum disorder, that point of transition is absolutely crucial to them and the world in which they live, and it is crucial to their families and their future. I shall not draw the hon. Gentleman into the argument about resources, particularly in Scotland, but I have put it on the record. Apart from planning for the future, in the field of transition especially, more resources must be made available.

The whole debate is about people rejecting the view that out of sight is out of mind. It is about addressing the problems that exist, as the hon. Gentleman did, acknowledging what is being done, being angry about what is not being done and demanding change where it is necessary. Some of us who sponsored the ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton received a very interesting e-mail from a gentleman called Jamie Stewart. I have not met him, but he said that what he was about to tell us was not a scientific account of how people react, but an account of the National Audit Office focus group in which he took part. He said that four out of seven parents had experienced divorce, and two had become carers of a partner who had suffered a breakdown. We therefore owe it to parents of children who experience autism, and to the children themselves, to continue to focus on this crucial issue. This morning, the hon. Member for Buckingham has yet again shown how it can and should be done, but I do not expect him to say that this will be his final speech on the issue; he will have to make many more. In doing so, however, he can feel sure that he will have the warmth and support that we offer him today.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Shadow Minister, Work & Pensions 10:01 am, 8th October 2008

Living with autism is a real struggle for many families, and, for the vast majority of people, it is something that happens to somebody else's family. That is why today's debate is important, and I congratulate John Bercow on keeping it on the Government's agenda.

For the people who are directly affected when a diagnosis is made, there is often a lack of information immediately available—where to go, what to do, who to contact, what help is available to families, what they are entitled to and what battles they will have to fight in the years ahead. If one message has come through loud and clear from parents, it is that in most cases they have to fight a constant battle to get even a fraction of the help, support and the education that their child needs.

Yesterday, we heard a very eloquent speech by a 22-year-old with autism who was doing a great job as a trainer of people working with those affected by autism. Unfortunately, her early education consisted of being bullied, spat on, called a freak and leaving her school because it could not cope with her behaviour. Fortunately, she survived and made progress later in life, so we must ensure that what happened to her a decade or so ago is not what children in the education system, either today or in the future, have to experience.

The hon. Gentleman eloquently laid out the challenges before us, and as the findings of the Bercow review have done much to frame the issue and bring it to the attention of Parliament, I put on the record my appreciation of the work that he has done in the past, his speech today and the work that he will no doubt do in the future. I would say he never could be described as humble.

Many parents of autistic children, desperate for help and support, will be encouraged by today's debate, and we owe it to them to ensure that they are not let down. Although it is vital that we commit more resources to providing better education and more flexible support, that in itself will have a limited impact if parents are not aware of all the help to which they are entitled because, over recent years, much of the talk in education policy has emphasised the need for parental choice. However, owing to the complexity of the system and to a lack of information, it is often very difficult for parents of autistic children to make informed choices, and the Minister's comments on the best way to overcome that information vacuum would be most welcome. Indeed, just yesterday, I was reading about the amount of unclaimed pension credit: it is one thing to provide the help, it is another thing altogether to ensure that the right people receive it.

The importance of accurate information extends beyond the help that we provide to parents, experts and policy makers. Research by TreeHouse into the huge number of parliamentary questions about autism which never receive any answer rightly illustrates the huge gaps in our knowledge. Similarly, the information deficit extends to the lack of understanding among teachers, as we have heard, social workers and even medical experts.

The other point on which I should appreciate the Minister's comments is support for the transition from childhood to adulthood. The support that young people receive as they leave school is critical to their future success, and for many young people with autism, it is a particularly stressful time as they leave behind the support that they have had through school and move on to a new life. For youngsters with autism, even small changes to their routine can be very difficult, so professionals and services need to plan ahead effectively and consult young people and their families to ensure that the young person is able to move on successfully to opportunities that are appropriate to them. Far too often, it does not happen. Only 15 per cent. of adults with autism are in full-time employment, while more than 40 per cent. still live at home with their parents. Much good work is done during school years, but it can all too easily be undone if young people with autism are abandoned by the system when they reach adulthood.

In my constituency, there is a young man with autism called Calum Reavley, whom I recently visited. His parents, grandparents, family and friends, and many more people, often work day and night to give Calum the good start in life that he deserves. Life is a constant battle for education, for respite care and for everything else. Surely, we have the resources to provide the education, help and support that people such as Calum deserve. As his family watch billions of pounds being pumped in to save the financial sector today, they will be asking, "Why is it so hard, and why is there so little help available for us?" I look forward to the Minister's answer.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet 10:06 am, 8th October 2008

I, too, shall be brief, because of the number of Members who want to speak. I shall make just four suggestions, but first I thank John Bercow and congratulate him on bringing the issue to us today. I am not sure that he is the man whom I would choose to write a plain English guide, but he is certainly the right man to lead our debate today, and I enjoyed his speech and I agreed with everything that he said.

I became interested in the subject when I first became an MP and three constituents, all with autistic children, came to me. They wanted Lovaas technique to help their children, but their local council said that they could not have it, although it could provide an alternative that was just as good. My constituents decided that one of them would take a test case to a special educational needs tribunal. The council was represented by a barrister and won the case, but it then changed its mind, granted Lovaas technique to the two parents who had not gone to the tribunal and said that it was now ultra vires to provide Lovaas technique to the parent who had gone to the tribunal. That struck me as an entirely inappropriate way to deal with education and parents' requirements. As a follow up, the father who did not receive Lovaas technique provided it privately—at great expense to himself and his family. It put such pressure on the marriage that it broke up, but the child did so well that they were able to go back into mainstream schooling at the secondary stage. That is what can happen if one secures the right support for a child, but it could have been done without all the pressure that was put on that family. Far too many cases go to tribunal, and when one gets there one finds that the council is represented by a barrister, and that, as a parent, it is against the rules to get legal aid for one's representation. My first practical suggestion is therefore that every council should provide an independent and professional friend at its expense to help parents to prepare and present their case. They do not need to be a barrister; they just need to be somebody who knows what they are doing and can help to ensure that the parents' case is properly presented and the playing field levelled up.

Photo of Geoffrey Cox Geoffrey Cox Conservative, Torridge and West Devon

Has the hon. Gentleman considered that his suggestion should apply well before the parents ever get to a tribunal? We should give independent advocacy assistance to parents who suspect that they need a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder but do not know where to get it, how to gain access to it or how to argue for it.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, and that intervention feeds very nicely into my next point. When the Government made it a requirement that a parent could insist on a mainstream school place for a disabled child, they did not take away the right to insist on a special school place. One of the problems that we have is that there is the wrong balance in many areas between the number of special places available and the number of parents who want their child to go to those special schools.

My second suggestion is that we should undertake a professional and comprehensive needs survey. Let us work out exactly how many people there are with autism who might benefit from mainstream schooling, so that councils can get their provision right, because far too many councils are basing provision on cost rather than on need. May I make another suggestion? As I have already said and as we all know, the earlier that we intervene, recognise that someone has autism and get them the right support that they need, the better they will do. We have a huge opportunity coming up, because the Prime Minister has announced that we will provide a nursery school place for all two-year-olds whose parents want such a place. Why do we not say that everybody who is responsible for looking after a two or three-year-old in nursery education must have autism training, so that they can recognise the signs of a child who has autism and can ensure that that child is referred elsewhere in the education system to get the right sort of help?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the call that he has just made, for greater early identification and by implication greater early intervention, is strengthened by the fact that it comes not only from him and other hon. and right hon. Members but from a report that was published only about five days ago by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which exhorted the British Government to provide greater early identification? The Government should take a lead from that report.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

Absolutely. I would add that, if we can achieve greater awareness of autism in our nursery schools, we should also teach teachers and doctors to listen to mums, because it is usually mums who spot the signs of autism first but they are usually told, "Go away, you're just being a worrying mum." We should therefore improve the system so that we are actually listening to mums when they raise these concerns.

Finally, the Department for Education and Skills, the predecessor of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, published a best practice guide for autism a few years ago. In fact, two guides were produced; one for health and one for education. The one for education is particularly good and it is effectively a checklist to establish whether a local authority is really doing the things it ought to be doing to ensure that the right provision is available and that the right support is provided for parents. A local authority that has followed that best practice guide provides services at an acceptable level, so why do we not make it compulsory for Ofsted to go through that best practice guide at every inspection of a local authority and challenge it to make sure that it is living up to the guide? At the moment, it is effectively left to parents to use that guide to test their local authority, but it should be done by Ofsted, and the local authority should be forced to come up to the mark.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families) 10:12 am, 8th October 2008

I want to reiterate the thanks that all Members have given today to my hon. Friend John Bercow for securing this debate. I know that many residents in my constituency will be following it with some interest.

As Dr. Ladyman said, the pressure on families with children who have autism can be incredibly intense and it is a tragedy that so many of them suffer family breakdown as a result.

I would like to focus my remarks on the importance of specialist training for teaching autistic children. In my constituency of Basingstoke, I am fortunate to have a number of schools that specialise in dealing with autistic children and their particular needs. I would like to refer specifically to Dove House school, which offers secondary education for children in the north Hampshire area. It has been commended by Ofsted for its work in providing outstanding teaching for pupils with autism, thus enabling them to make great progress, by a number of means: the environment it creates for children; the tailored curriculum it creates for them; and the deep understanding that the teachers have of the needs of children with autism. Those factors have enabled the school to secure its high commendation from Ofsted for the outstanding progress that its pupils make. When I visit the school and talk to parents who have children there, I find it is those factors that they understand as really critical in providing an outstanding education for their children.

As hon. Members have already mentioned, 70 per cent. of children on the autistic spectrum are educated in mainstream schools. Some parents of autistic children choose for their children to be educated in mainstream schools; some do not, and the hon. Member for South Thanet is absolutely right to say that we need to understand more about the provision of education at local level for children with autism. For some children, it will be better to be in the mainstream sector. However, just because they are in the mainstream sector, it does not mean that the teaching, the sensitivity of the teaching and the school environment and the need to ensure that all those key factors are addressed is any less important.

As we know, TreeHouse does a great deal to campaign on behalf of children with autism and their parents. The report that it issued last month underlined the importance of tailoring education to the needs of the child. Quite worryingly, the report identified that there are still significant problems in delivering that tailored programme within the mainstream sector of education. The report identified that successful inclusion involves training staff about autism, so that the staff can then cater for a child's individual needs and ensure that the correct environment exists for that child. Thus we see themes emerging.

However, as hon. Members have said, the National Union of Teachers' own research shows that less than a third of teachers feel confident about teaching children who are on the autistic disorder spectrum, that two thirds of teachers want training and that three quarters of teachers have identified the lack of professional development as the main barrier to teaching children with autism.

I really welcome the Government's announcement, made during the recess, that additional resources will be made available; I believe that there will be about £10 million more made available for training teachers. Certainly the focus on training SENCOs is absolutely key. It is encouraging that the Government understand the importance of training teachers before they reach the classroom. However, the focus of the Government's announcement was those people undertaking undergraduate training. As the hon. Member for South Thanet will know very well, those people form the minority of teachers who are coming forward and going into our classrooms to teach children on a day-to-day basis.

I hope that the Minister will be able to flesh out a little some of the sketchy points that were made in the Government press release issued in the summer and perhaps give more details of the emphasis that will be given at undergraduate level to the training those students receive regarding special educational needs, particularly autism. Furthermore, can he tell us what will be done to ensure that people entering teaching through other routes, such as those taking the postgraduate certificate in education, will be given similar support? I am sure that he shares my concern about the continuing problem of retention in the teaching profession. If we are not ensuring that teachers who come into our classrooms have the tools of the trade to meet the needs of all the children in their classroom, we cannot hope to address the problem of retention.

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Secretary of State), Department for Communities and Local Government

Does the hon. Lady agree that this issue is not only about the ability to teach young people with particular special needs, whether it be autism or other conditions, but about the ability of teachers to identify those young people in their classrooms, which means giving teachers the tools and skills so that they can identify them? That is important so that we do not reach the situation that, sadly, one of my constituents finds himself in. He has reached the age of 15 and has only just been identified as being on the autistic spectrum.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

The hon. Gentleman makes a very pertinent point. However, I hope that we are planning to have far earlier identification. Therefore, although it is important that teachers at primary and secondary level can identify children on the autistic spectrum, more should be done to identify such children earlier. Furthermore, the point that was made about GPs and the importance of ensuring that they listen to parents is probably just as valid.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

My hon. Friend drew attention to the need for individual education for children—education tailored to their individual needs. That point highlights the need for the availability of continuing education, because a teacher who has a child in the class with particular needs may well need access to ongoing training, so that they can tailor their teaching specifically to that child. That is particularly important in small schools, where there may not be the other resources that may well be available in a larger school.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Given the incidence of special educational needs in general, the need to ensure that continuous professional development is available, to meet the needs of a particular child or a particular teacher in a school, is absolutely vital. I know that my own local authority in Hampshire has a very extensive range of programmes available for teachers to dip into, but across the country there is a great concern that schools can often find it difficult to release teachers for such training. We need to make sure that that is addressed.

The outcomes for children are deeply worrying. We hear that exclusions, underachievement and unemployment are the recipe in the current situation. Obviously, some of the moves that the Government have made are to be welcomed, but there is much more to do. All of us are here today because of our interest in and commitment to children and helping every child to reach their potential, and children with autism especially deserve our help.

Photo of Janet Dean Janet Dean Labour, Burton 10:20 am, 8th October 2008

I congratulate John Bercow not only on securing the debate and his passionate speech but on the work that he has done in raising awareness of the needs of children with speech and language difficulties.

I currently have the honour of chairing the all-party group on autism. I wish to thank the National Autistic Society and the other autism charities not only for their support of the group but for their support of people with autism.

In 2003, the all-party group published a manifesto that set out a 10-year vision for a society in which autism was fully understood and in which people on the autism spectrum and their families were respected and supported, and provided with the same rights and entitlements as other people. Education is central to the fulfilment of that vision. This debate provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made towards the manifesto's education objectives and the resulting outcomes for young people with autism. We are now five years into the 10-year period of the manifesto, and the all-party group is taking the opportunity at this halfway stage to review progress against the objectives. It will publish a report on it later this month.

We have come a long way over the past five years, and much progress has been made. For the first time, we have records of the number of pupils who have significant special educational needs as a result of autism. As others have said, there has been welcome progress recently on improving training for teachers, with the development of modules on special educational needs for initial teacher training, the development of the Autism Education Trust, which brings together autism organisations to improve support for pupils with autism, and the inclusion development programme, which will provide basic training in autism for practising teachers from next year. Again, as other Members have said, the appointment of special educational needs co-ordinators means that the members of staff who advise and lead on SEN in each school will now be required to have qualified teacher status and training in SEN.

Nevertheless, the all-party group supports what other Members have said this morning. It believes that the Government should go further and that there should be a mandatory requirement for all teachers to have training in autism to ensure that all children get the support that they need.

Despite the advances, children with autism and their families continue to face many difficulties and challenges as they go through the education system. Rates of exclusion and bullying are still far too high. In one terrible example, a child was excluded 77 times in just two years. Some young people with autism are unable to fulfil their potential in exams because the right support is not put in place. Because parents are blamed for their child's behaviour by professionals who fail to understand autism, relationships deteriorate and parents feel increasingly isolated.

In some cases, teaching professionals refuse to accept diagnoses given by health professionals. Many children are unable to attend schools that are nearby and have to travel more than 10 miles to get to a school.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

On the rejection of diagnoses, does the hon. Lady share my horror at the teacher who said to a parent, "I don't believe in Asperger's syndrome"? It is not a matter of belief but of fact and of tailoring educational provision accordingly.

Photo of Janet Dean Janet Dean Labour, Burton

I agree entirely. How we can have such comments in this day and age is difficult to understand.

I know that other Members want to participate. To conclude, there has been much progress on improving educational provision since the all-party group was founded in 2000, and the Government are to be congratulated on that. However, there is still a long way to go before we achieve the group's vision of a society in which autism is fully understood and in which people on the autism spectrum are respected and supported, and provided with the same rights and entitlements as other people. Services need to be better joined up, and young people need more effective support to achieve their potential at school and to prepare for the next stage of their life.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales) 10:25 am, 8th October 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. John Bercow described himself as a humble Back Bencher. I believe that many of us felt humbled listening to his introduction to the debate. I would like to reinforce what my hon. Friend John Barrett said about the young lady Robin, who spoke at the National Autistic Society's reception yesterday. She overcame many of the education hurdles that we have discussed to become a strong advocate for the rights of those who are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders.

Time is short. Without straying into devolved territory, I was going to talk about the great progress that has been made in Wales, which is pioneering an ASD strategic action plan. I believe that it is the first such plan anywhere in the world, let alone in this country. It takes a cradle-to-grave approach to work on autism. I would like to highlight the pioneering work that Autism Cymru, a charity based in my constituency, has undertaken in its inclusive schools project, which seeks to promote an autism ambassador in every primary, secondary and specialist school in Wales. It has instigated a huge amount of training for education professionals: 5,000 practitioners since 2002, including school and college staff and learning support assistants.

I shall deviate completely from my planned speech because time is short. I spent 12 years in the classroom. I want to share some of the frustrations that I experienced as a teacher—frustrations borne, of course, by parents and young people themselves—with the vagaries and inadequacies of teacher training. I endured a postgraduate certificate in education course at an august institution in the west of England—I shall not say more than that. The entire special needs provision in that college amounted to four hours one Tuesday morning, during which Asperger's was not even mentioned.

I then faced the challenge in an ordinary school in the west of England at that time and, latterly, in a school in Wales, of being summoned by the head teacher, told that a child with "communication difficulties" would be arriving at the school, and then very much left to fend for myself. That situation is one in which many teachers find themselves. That is why it is important that we acknowledge the evidence that we have heard from the National Union of Teachers, which recognises that there are serious shortfalls in the provision in schools.

Parents who come into my constituency surgeries are frustrated. A son has been provided with one-to-one support, a laptop and a sloping board, but he lacks the quiet room that he needs for him to achieve his education opportunities. Many parents have a perception that the educational statements that they fought long and hard for are not being adhered to, and there are concerns about transition, particularly from key stages 2 to 3, all of which were identified in the NAS's report "make school make sense". Above all else, many parents have a perception that professionals still lack a basic understanding of ASD. As we have just heard from Mrs. Dean, there is still no mandatory requirement for trainee or practising teachers to undertake specific training in autism, despite the requirement of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 to differentiate.

When I was writing my speech, I jotted down the word "problem", but it is completely inappropriate. Yes, there is a challenge but there is also a huge opportunity. We know that those who function with Asperger's syndrome are high achievers. There is huge untapped potential that we ignore at our peril and seen, and I am alarmed by that. I have been there myself and seen the child who is not paying attention, who has been distracted, who is sent out of the room. All those hidden exclusions that we heard about at the start of the debate are not being dealt with properly.

Education must involve a partnership between local education authorities, between LEAs and parents, and between children and teachers. That is central to this debate. The Government have made good progress. The teacher training modules and the advice that is being given are laudable, but they do not go far enough. Listening to earlier speeches, I felt like saying, "Been there, done that." The reality of doing the postgraduate certificate course is that I was there but I did not get the training or support that I needed to deliver the curriculum across the board to everybody in my class.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 10:30 am, 8th October 2008

I, too, congratulate John Bercow, who has been his usual analytical self. It was pleasing that he drew out strands of optimism, showing that we can, all working together, make progress.

Like other hon. Members, I shall focus on the importance of the individual child. We know that the condition of autism has many different manifestations. We really should not talk about "the autistic child" because there is not a typical condition relating to a particular child, although there are certain common characteristics. It never fails to amaze me, on walking into schools sometimes, to find that teachers do not appreciate that many children with autism do not like the hustle and bustle of the playground. That is so obvious, yet still that knowledge is lacking.

I shall make three main points. First, parents are not satisfied. We have heard the statistics this morning: 45 per cent. of parents tell us that it takes more than a year to receive support; 50 per cent. of parents feel that their child is not in the right setting; and one in five children with autism are excluded—67 per cent. of them more than once. These are alarming statistics and we have to translate the talk and guidance into real action.

I am greatly concerned, still, about the information available to parents. In theory, it should be there, but in practice it is not. A recent study by Centre Forum and the Policy Exchange revealed, through a survey of local authority websites, that those authorities were not providing the information that, legally, should be provided. It is very easy to check to ensure that it is there.

I am concerned that parents with children with special educational needs do not have choice. In many cases, their choice is restricted. I have recently come across a situation in which parents of a child without any special educational needs in a mainstream school can opt for a school outside the local authority area and pay the travel expenses, if there is a space available. However, I am told that, if parents of a child with special educational needs want a place in a school outside the local authority area and the authority judges that there is an appropriate space within the local authority area, there will be great resistance to that child going to the other school. There are lots of hidden ways in which choices are restricted.

The breakdown of inclusion and special schools is much more diverse these days. There are some amazing examples of schools that can partition and separate, providing quiet rooms and integrating all on the same site. There are some exciting models and some ways forward.

On exclusions, not only are there alarming stories about the unofficial exclusions on top of the enormously high official exclusion figure, but there is a question about where the children who have been excluded more than once actually end up. Often, pupil referral units have not been staffed or resourced adequately to deal with such a situation. I agree with other hon. Members that early identification, followed by appropriate therapies, is key.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the transition period, which has to be of great concern to us. Parents battle on, yet almost as the end of formal schooling is reached, when they perhaps feel that they are nearly there, even more hurdles and difficulties arise. I appreciate that the Government are putting money into this, but it is a huge challenge for all of us.

I thank the organisations, including TreeHouse and the National Autistic Society, for providing us with many briefings and studies. I also congratulate the all-party group on autism, which has made a big contribution. It is good to look back over a period of time and see real achievement.

Secondly, teachers are clearly not confident. That has come out in many of the speeches made this morning. Some 44 per cent. of teachers are not confident in dealing with autism and 77 per cent. state that a lack of continuous professional development is a real barrier. I am sure that the Minister will tell us about all the progress that is being made in extending teacher training to include more on special educational needs. It is telling that, although we had a mass movement towards inclusion way over 10 years ago, the first teachers concluding their initial teacher training with more modules on special educational needs will not come through until 2011. That is a real gap and a lot of pupils have suffered as a consequence of not matching the teaching with the expectations on teachers.

We have great expectations of teachers, as my hon. Friend Mark Williams said. A teacher may have 30 children in the classroom, including one child with special needs, but they do not have the expertise—[Interruption.] Or the support. It is quite a lot to ask of any individual in any work situation. I feel that there should be a teacher entitlement allowing them to be provided with a resource pack, as a minimum, if they have a child with particular needs—and autism would come into that category. We talk a lot about other entitlements, but there is a need to consider teacher entitlement.

I concur that more training across the board is needed, particularly with continuous professional development. It is not enough just to have the courses on offer at local authority level; supply cover has to be available for the teachers to be able to attend. Equally, many other teacher training courses, such as the school-centred initial teacher training, need to include training for autism and general special educational needs.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Does the hon. Lady agree that the cost of early identification and intervention is as nothing by comparison with the massively greater cost to the individual, the family and society in the event of its absence? In other words, let us abandon the short-termism beloved of Her Majesty's Treasury under successive Governments. It is a question of spending now in order, assuredly, to save later.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I absolutely concur. We cannot ever debate special educational needs without making that point, because it is crucial.

I welcome the fact that SENCOs are now to be fully qualified teachers. Another recommendation by the Education Select Committee, as it was then, was that the SENCO should be a member of the senior management team. If a SENCO is to be able to pass on and encourage good practices, it is vital that they have a certain status in the school and a position in the pecking order.

Thirdly, we talk about one in 100 children having autism, but let us look around and consider who is affected. The parents are affected, as are the grandparents, the wider family and the neighbours, so many people are touched by autism. That brings me to support for the family. The hon. Member for Buckingham made this point well when he asked what happens when a child gets home. That is vital. We talk about the costs of the lack of early intervention, but if we do not put in that support to prevent family breakdown, we have even more tragedies and great costs.

As my hon. Friend John Barrett said, we must also be aware of what happens after the school years. My caseload seems to be getting ever bigger in respect of elderly parents with adult offspring with learning disabilities who are finding it so difficult to get enough support. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion mentioned the cradle-to-grave approach, which sounds excellent, and the autism ambassador. It sounds as though we have a lot to learn.

Finally, we should be celebrating the good practice—there are some amazing examples around—but we must have ambitions for every child with autism. The 2009 review, which will be led by Ofsted, will be crucial. I hope that there will be a big input into the terms of reference, because the Government have delayed taking some actions because of that study. We have to get it right. We need the right people carrying it out and they need the right remit.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children) 10:40 am, 8th October 2008

This has been an excellent debate. It is reassuring to be brought down to earth from the ghastly things that are happening in financial markets throughout the world to talk about such an important subject that affects so many of our constituents, day in, day out, and their families and carers.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend John Bercow, who gave another bravura performance. Humility may not come naturally to him, but we were humbled by the expertise and mastery of his speech.

It is good to see such a good turnout, and especially the three former and existing chairmen of the all-party group on autism, of which I have been vice-chairman for some time. The original research commissioned by the all-party group on the experience of early intervention on autism in schools led to further work being done by the Government. The manifesto that we produced a few years ago is as relevant today as it was then, and we look forward to making a lot more progress towards the 2013 target date.

Dealing appropriately with special educational needs and autism is a real challenge and full of problems. The number of children designated with special educational needs in this country is high—more than 19 per cent. or 1.5 million children. That is far higher than the equivalent rate in the United States or France, for example, where it is typically between 5 and 7 per cent. The challenge is particularly great here. Many of those children are designated with autism, and many who are not so designated will have various versions of autism spectrum disorders.

We have heard the figures for the desperately higher incidence of bullying and exclusion, and the figure of 27 per cent. for exclusion is probably an underestimate, because many informal exclusions occur when teachers fail to distinguish between disobedience and disability, which is also problem with the public at large. Good early intervention at school will have lifelong consequence for the child, if we can get it right in the first place.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

Given what the hon. Gentleman has said about exclusion, does he believe that it is right to retain appeals for exclusions to protect those vulnerable children?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

That is also a big argument, and we have problems with appeals for disobedient children who are allowed back into class, completely undermining the head's authority. We must work with teachers and heads for children with special educational needs, but the Minister has raised a subject that merits a debate in itself.

The big problem that many hon. Members have identified is the lack of expertise of teachers in mainstream schools in dealing with the children—the elephant in the room. There is also the problem of loss of places in special schools—some 9,000 places have gone since 1997. It is not just a question of inclusion or exclusion, which is an old debate. It is a question of getting the most appropriate participation in education for those children.

We have not talked much about statements today. In many cases, local authorities try to avoid classifying too many children as autistic for special educational needs purposes. The number of new statements has fallen drastically from 36,200 in 1998 to 24,000 in 2008. Concomitantly, the number of appeals has risen by 55 per cent. The problem has not gone away; it is just more difficult for parents to get their children identified, and even more difficult to get through the horrendous minefield that is the tribunal system. We know that about a quarter of the tribunals are for children with autism, who are again disproportionately affected by the system. The whole statementing process is adversarial: it is costly for local authorities to fight; it is more costly for parents to fight if they get to that stage; and it is costly to administer.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

And it is time consuming.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

And it is time consuming. Part of the problem is that local authorities have three roles: they assess the child's needs; they are the paymasters for funding what needs to be supplied; and they are often the suppliers of special educational needs provision. The service is made to fit the cash available; it is not tailor-made to fit the child's needs. Parents must be articulate to navigate their way through the system, and it is often the most deprived who miss out. It can be a very lonely time for parents, which is why my party, through the Sir Robert Balchin commission, has come up with proposals, which we are considering, to replace statements with special needs profiles drawn up by profile assessors—educational psychologists—who are independent of local authorities and who concentrate on early intervention and regular review. We should have special needs profiles that allocate children not only to one designation, but perhaps to one of a dozen support categories, often because they have complex needs that require multiple application. There should be portable funding to mainstream schools, and the assessors should be independent of local authorities and should be peer reviewed. There should also be a special needs mediation service with tribunals as the last resort, which has also been mentioned today. We want some big changes in the way in which we assess special educational needs, so that the assessments are tailor-made to the children.

Many hon. Members have mentioned support groups such as the National Autistic Society and TreeHouse, which do fantastic work. TreeHouse's constructive campaigning parent support project provides vital help to parents, who often feel alienated and isolated. The experience of school is not just about learning in the classroom; it is about the social interaction of children with their peers, which is why it is so important to concentrate on communication skills from an early stage. It was interesting to hear the hon. Dr. Ladyman, who is so knowledgeable about the subject, speaking about the importance of listening to mums.

I have a lot of sympathy with the National Autistic Society's ongoing research and its report, "make school make sense", which rightly says that we need more research into the nature of exclusions. We need greater availability of expertise in mainstream and specialist schools. That takes up the point in the NUT survey that three quarters of teachers are ill equipped to look after children with autism.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) and for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) and Mark Williams, who has expertise in education, have mentioned, we must give greater seniority to SENCOs and provide them with more autism training, which must be ongoing, earlier. We must also look at halfway houses, so that we have some specialist units within mainstream schools. It is not a question of going to a specialist school or going to a mainstream school and hopefully receiving some support. There must be as much flexibility in the system as possible.

Many parents complain about delays in starting support and are left waiting, often at a crucial time, even when their child's special educational needs have been identified and a support package has supposedly been put in place. There is an impact on the classmates of a child with special educational needs. It is not a one-way-street; it is a learning process for other children and adults in society to discover how best to integrate and relate to people who happen to have a special educational need that is autism. That does not make them a different or lesser person. Support for parents and carers is as vital as special educational needs identification for a child, whatever the educational setting.

I was taken by the suggestion from the hon. Member for Ceredigion about the cradle-to-grave pilots in Wales, and the autism ambassadors, which is another way of raising the profile of the issue and its importance in schools. Many hon. Members mentioned the transition points—20 per cent. of children have special educational needs below the age of 16, but that drops to 7.3 per cent. at the age of 16, and worse at the age of 18. They are dropping out of the system, but their disabilities do not go away because they have dropped off the radar. We need better transitions, and we must boost the Government's transition support programme. Mr. Clarke, who has such expertise in this area, mentioned that.

It is complicated, but it is essential to intervene early, and to invest to save so much later. We spend around £2.7 billion on intervention for children with autism, but that rises to £25 billion for adults with autism. It is a no-brainer that we should front-load that investment rather more than we are at the moment to prevent so many more problems in the personal experience of those children as they reach adulthood.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 10:49 am, 8th October 2008

As Tim Loughton has said, we have had an excellent debate this morning. I congratulate John Bercow not only on securing the debate, but on showing that he is one of the most able communicators in the House. It is a tribute to him that those abilities inform the passion with which he views those who are lacking in communication skills and enables him to pursue their interests so assiduously in the House.

We have heard speeches from a number of right hon. and hon. Members, and I would love to be able to address all the points that have been made. However, I will try to canter through what I can in the time remaining. As Mrs. Miller has said, whatever views have been expressed, I know that we all start with the aim of giving every child the best possible start in life, the best quality of education and the brightest prospects for their future.

A good education should not be the privilege of a fortunate few; it is something that every child should have. However, some children and families need a bit of extra support to make that a reality. It is the state's responsibility, and one of the priorities of this Government, to create a system that can provide that. Such a system should enable children with autism and other special educational needs to be provided for within mainstream education, if that is what they and their parents want. Those children should be able to have lessons with their peers, make friends, and lead as normal a life as possible. However, such a system should also offer more targeted provision through special schools, if that is what is needed, and be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of children and their families on a case by case basis. A consistent standard across the national picture needs to be maintained, without prescribing a blanket formula from the top.

A growing number of children have been identified with autism over the past few years and local authorities, schools, charities and independent providers have made huge efforts to meet the growing need for specialist provision. More children with autism are receiving extra, tailored provision, and the number of children whose primary difficulty is autism and who have an special educational needs statement has increased by more than 10,000 in the past 4 years. The number of maintained special schools now approved to take children with autism has increased by 140 over the same period. A wealth of new provision has opened up in the non-maintained and independent sectors, and the majority increase in SEN-resourced provision or units in mainstream schools has been specifically for autistic children, or those with social, emotional, or behavioural difficulties. As we know from Ofsted's findings, that provision has led to better outcomes for children with SEN.

Those achievements are considerable and are indicative of a system that is responding to the challenges of an increasing number of children who have been identified with autism spectrum disorders. However, we need to move to a position in which high-quality, readily available services are the norm rather than the exception. As my hon. Friend Mrs. Dean has said, there is still some way to go to achieve that.

The first subject to which the hon. Member for Buckingham turned was exclusions, and, as he said, statistics on that show that children with autism are nine times more likely to be excluded from school than other children. That discrepancy is unacceptable. In "The Children's Plan" we committed to learning from those authorities that are leading the way in reducing exclusions among children with SEN. Our national strategies teams are leading that work and will develop best practice materials, so that we can move towards a more consistent national picture.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the problem of informal exclusion. He is right: the guidance makes it clear that informal or unofficial exclusions are unlawful and reminds schools of their duties under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Photo of Rob Flello Rob Flello PPS (Rt Hon Hazel Blears, Secretary of State), Department for Communities and Local Government

When my hon. Friend considers the authorities that are showing best practice in this area, will he also ask his officials to look at whether there is a correlation with the speed at which they produce statements? From my knowledge of my own local authority, I am aware that there can be long delays in getting statements through for a lot of young people.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am happy to consider what my hon. Friend has said. I take a consistent interest in matters relating to his city, and I will take his comments on board. In respect of exclusion, it would be remiss of me not to underscore the importance that I place on having an appeal system. For children who have been wrongly excluded because of the much mentioned problems with those in the teaching work force having the confidence to understand the disorders, it is crucial that that appeal right is maintained. I urge the Opposition to take note of that.

The hon. Member for Buckingham also discussed bullying. It is a sad and disturbing fact that young people with disabilities can become a target for bullies. Bullying of any kind and of anybody is unacceptable, particularly when it is directed at those who are most vulnerable. Improved communication skills for autistic children will lead to better social interaction with other young people. Of course, that is the case for every child and not just for those who live with a disability. For that reason, an increased emphasis has been put on social issues and skills in the curriculum. The social and emotional aspects of learning programme is helping all pupils relate to one another better, to understand people who are different from us, to manage conflict better and to treat one another with respect. That is becoming much more embedded in primary schools and has been extended to secondary schools. I regret that Mr. Gibb described it as ghastly, because it is a really important programme that runs in our schools, particularly because it tackles such bullying. We are grateful to the National Autistic Society for its help in producing our guidance on bullying involving children with SEN and disabilities. We will be working with the Anti-Bullying Alliance to ensure that its principles are embedded.

Photo of Jeff Ennis Jeff Ennis PPS (Rt Hon Edward Miliband, Minister of State (Cabinet)), Cabinet Office

The Minister is probably aware that the Robert Ogden school, which is run by the National Autistic Society, is in Thurnscoe in my constituency. It is the biggest autistic school in western Europe and is a beacon of excellence for autistic provision. Does the Minister agree that such schools have a vital role to play in spreading best practice among surrounding local education authorities and local primary care trusts?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I certainly do. There is some excellent expertise in the school system and in schools such as Robert Ogden, and I pay tribute to the work that they do. Across the public sector, we should all be learning from and tapping into that expertise. We should network that expertise into improvements generally and into how we treat and look after these individuals and support their parents.

I shall turn to what the hon. Member for Buckingham described as the elephant in the room—the teacher training and support issue. It is important that we increase understanding of autism and its effects beyond the family setting, so that parents do not feel isolated in dealing with it, or when trying to access the support that they need. Although teachers are not health professionals—indeed, because they are not—it is vital that they have the knowledge and understanding of autism to be able to recognise behavioural patterns, to support those children, and to point their families in the direction of any additional services that they might need.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

May I simply draw the Minister's attention to Prime Performance Solutions Limited? Julie Inglis and a former respected Member of the House, Kerry Pollard, are representatives of that organisation who came to see me on Monday afternoon. They provide courses for professionals, parents and the voluntary sector and already claim that they are not only helping to foster greater independence in adulthood, but saving £50,000 a year recurring to the public and private purse as a result of the excellent training that they provide. Often the best trainers are people who are autistic or Asperger's—on the spectrum themselves—or who have family members who are. We can learn from that.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I will ensure that my noble Friend Baroness Morgan, who has departmental responsibility for those matters, is referred to the work that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

We have heard about work on the inclusion development programme, which provides training materials for current school and early years staff. This year, our work to raise awareness among teachers through the programme has focused on dyslexia, and speech, language and communication needs. Next year, we will focus specifically on autism, and we will keep a careful eye on the effects of training materials to ensure that they really are making a difference. In June, the Training and Development Agency for Schools launched comprehensive training resources for initial teacher training at primary undergraduate level. That resource includes material on recognising and supporting children with autistic spectrum disorders and a placement scheme in special provision for trainees.

We are also developing a masters in teaching and learning, so in the early years of teaching we can embed more consistent continuous professional development. In particular, we wish to ensure that there is more consistent quality training in dealing with children with special educational needs. Through "The Children's Plan", we have been trying to extend early intervention and multi-agency working. We will also deepen the Children's Trust arrangements, on which we will be legislating in due course, so that we can ensure that the needs of these children are properly assessed and addressed.

There were a number of other points that I would love to have addressed. My hon. Friend Dr. Ladyman made some important points—as did all the speakers. On transitions and information, there are all sorts of things I could say, but I am running out of time.

To continue challenging our thinking, and moving forward on this issue, we have established an Autism Education Trust, which is being led by the National Autistic Society, TreeHouse, and the Council for Disabled Children. The trust will bring together specialists, spread good practice and be a representative voice of the autism community to central and local government. We will continue to work with professionals and autism specialists to ensure that the provision for some of our most vulnerable young people is world class. No child should be left behind. Those who need extra support to stay ahead are this Government's priority.