It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I thank Sir Vince Cable for securing this crucial debate. I very much echo what Vernon Coaker has said, particularly about trying to navigate through such complexity when it comes to special educational needs. I appreciate that time is short, so I shall simply echo many of the points raised by other hon. Members about the pressures on mainstream schools in terms of financing and classroom support, the time it takes to obtain education, health and care plans, and the tensions that can be created between schools and councils in meeting statutory obligations to SEND children.
Since my election I have made it a priority to visit each of the 42 schools in my constituency to get to know the school community and its needs. The pressures on special educational needs services have been one of the most consistent themes in my conversations with parents and teachers, and I have highlighted those concerns to the Education Secretary and to the borough’s lead for children’s services. In Havering we have had the fastest-growing number of children of any London borough for the past few years, and funding has simply not kept up with that changing demography. Redden Court School in Harold Wood, for instance, has three times the national average of students with special educational needs and disabilities. That is more than 50 children with an education, health and care plan. The schools in my constituency are doing a fantastic job at ensuring that SEND children can be educated in the mainstream, but we must take into account the pressure that that can place on classroom staff and resources.
I was pleased by the announcement, before Christmas, of an additional £250 million of high needs funding, of which my borough will get more than £600,000. It is also welcome that the Secretary of State has allocated a £100 million top-up fund for new high needs school places and improved facilities, as well as removing the cap on the number of bids for free schools with special and alternative provisions. However, we must also look at the strain on third sector organisations at pre-school level, which often rely on diminishing local authority funds. Pre-school can be a critical time for getting the right support, and the right diagnosis of any condition, for SEND children before primary education begins. First Step, in Hornchurch, provides many fantastic services to local families affected by autism and other special educational needs. The Prime Minister has indeed promoted that charity’s work on my behalf on her own Twitter account. However, pre-school support for autistic children can be patchy, and new difficulties can arise, within the school environment and beyond, as those children grow older. I should be most grateful if the Minister would advise on what she is doing at pre-school level to ensure that parents and schools are equipped with the right support to help children to make the transition into primary education.