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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:49 am on 8th October 2008.

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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.