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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:30 am on 8th October 2008.

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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.