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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:12 am on 8th October 2008.

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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.