Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Funding

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:55 pm on 12th February 2019.

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Photo of Vincent Cable Vincent Cable Leader of the Liberal Democrats 3:55 pm, 12th February 2019

I thank the 13 Members who have contributed to the debate, which was very rich in content. They all pointed in pretty much the same direction, regardless of region of the UK or political party. We heard plenty of examples of the extreme tensions that parents face because of the pressures of special needs, and how so many of them have been disappointed.

I was struck by the example that Ruth George cited of children being kept waiting and falling two years behind in their learning before they are even assessed. There are many similar cruelties and disadvantages of that kind. We also heard many examples of the pressures on schools. The Minister acknowledged the point raised by several hon. Members about the £6,000 hurdle—the perverse incentive—and although I did not hear in her speech whether she was going to change that, she at least acknowledged the problem and recognised that much of it is hidden by home schooling, which is growing rapidly.

Several Members from different parties mentioned how their councils—of different kinds—are being put into serious financial difficulties as a result of the problem. Worst of all, councils, schools and parents are reduced to fighting and blaming each other for what is actually a collective problem. The aim of the 2014 Act was to deal with all this in a consensual way, and to focus on the needs of pupils, but the issue has become a cockpit of conflict—manifested in the tribunals system—which is growing rapidly and becoming increasingly costly, both emotionally and financially.

To conclude, I wish to acknowledge some of the constructive thoughts in the debate. Huw Merriman talked about creating an intermediate triage system for picking needs up early before the formal assessment process is completed. The hon. Member for High Peak and others suggested that we could focus on getting more information to parents about their entitlements, to avoid their missing out or finding out too late in the day, and on changing Ofsted’s terms of reference, so that it incentivises rather than penalises inclusion, as is very often implicitly the case in its rating system. We also heard suggestions from my hon. Friend Sir Edward Davey and others about how the funding formula should be changed and how we could make more use of flexibility between health and education.

All that ultimately comes back to—I know that the Minster is painfully conscious of this—more money and the spending review. I know just how fraught that process is because I have been the head of a spending Department, but I can do no more than wish the Minister well and say on behalf of us all that we basically want a significant enhancement of special needs provision—alongside schools, not at their expense.

Finally, I will quote what I thought was one of the more memorable phrases. Vernon Coaker said that parents just want to stop fighting and get on with being parents. I thought that was a very good way of summarising what we are all trying to say.