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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:25 am on 8th October 2008.

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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.