Special Educational Needs and Disability Funding — [Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 11:18 am on 29 January 2020.

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[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 2:30, 29 January 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered special educational needs and disability funding.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am delighted to be leading my first debate in Westminster Hall as a new Member on this extremely important topic, which impacts some 1.3 million children up and down the country. They are often the most vulnerable and needy children in our education system.

My predecessor, Sir Vince Cable, led a debate in this Chamber on this very topic less than a year ago. The fact that I am leading a similar debate today underlines just how urgent and important an issue it continues to be, not least in Twickenham, despite funding announcements from the Government since the previous debate. Since the Children and Families Act became law in 2014, the number of children and young people with statements or education, health and care plans has increased across the country by almost 50%. The increase in my own borough of Richmond upon Thames is in fact more than 50%—the number of EHCPs there has risen from 941 in 2014 to almost 1,500 now.

That legislation was designed to put young people at the heart of the system but, as the Select Committee on Education recognised last October in a report, that ambition has yet to be realised and has been hampered by both poor administration and a challenging funding environment. We are here today to debate the latter challenge, but on the Committee’s other key point, regarding poor administration, I must acknowledge the local government and social care ombudsman’s report, published earlier this month, which strongly criticised Richmond Council’s children’s services provider, Achieving for Children, for not effectively supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities. I was horrified to read about the three cases highlighted in the report of young people missing out on support and education between 2016 and 2018 because of failures by the provider, for which of course Richmond Council is ultimately responsible.

I am pleased that the council has accepted the ombudsman’s recommendations in full—both to compensate the families impacted and to conduct a thorough audit in respect of all the children for whom Achieving for Children is responsible for providing SEND support. I will personally be keeping a close eye on the results of that audit, meeting with local SEND groups as well as senior councillors and council officers, to ensure that any issues arising are urgently addressed and that Achieving for Children is held properly accountable.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury), Acting Leader, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Social Justice)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I declare an interest as the father of a child with special needs and an EHCP being administered by Achieving for Children. Does my hon. Friend agree that not only does that company have to improve, but the accumulated debt on Kingston Council’s balance sheet, on Richmond’s balance sheet, and indeed on those of local authorities across the country, creates a huge crisis in funding not just for SEND but for schools and local authority services across the board? It is time that the Government got a grip of this, either by shifting that accumulated debt on to central Government balance sheets or by special funding relief, because this crisis could blow up in councils across the country if they do not act.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

Absolutely. My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I was going to touch on deficits later, because Richmond’s finances are in a parlous situation for that very reason.

To return to the main topic of SEND funding, many children are missing out on the support that they require and deserve, because of the enormous funding pressures on local councils and schools throughout the country. The SEND funding landscape is complicated by the fact that there are two separate funding pots. There is the high needs block for EHCPs, special schools and alternative provision; and children with moderate SEND, requiring in-school support, are funded out of core school budgets. Simultaneous demands on both have created the perfect storm. School cuts since 2015 mean that support staff have been the first to be cut. That in turn has led to increased demand on EHCPs, causing delays.

As a parent of two young children, I know that if either of them needed additional support, I and my husband would explore every single avenue open to us to apply maximum pressure on decision makers to ensure that those needs were met fully. However, many parents do not have the time, resources or confidence to navigate the complex system of appeals, ombudsmen and tribunals—even with the support of SEND advocacy groups such as the excellent Skylarks charity in my constituency. The result is that the most disadvantaged families often lose out.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Mental Health)

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing such an important issue to the House today. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does she agree that part of the funding issue is that there is now a lack of educational psychologists who are able to assess children at an early stage, particularly in relation to disability, learning disability and autism, and that means that a much greater burden is placed on teachers? That cannot go on, because we are failing the children we really need to be supporting.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

Absolutely. The hon. Lady makes an excellent point, which feeds into all the wider workforce debates that we are having in relation to both health and social care and the education sector.

With both schools and councils under serious financial strain, perverse incentives in our SEND funding system start to emerge. Councils expect schools to cough up £6,000 before they will consider a pupil for an EHCP, so headteachers are often more reluctant to send children for a diagnosis. When councils, schools and health services are all cash-strapped, is it any wonder that EHCPs might be bland and vague, failing to guarantee the support to which a child is entitled? That in turn may lead to further delay or indecision. And what is the result? Many children are missing out, and local authorities find themselves in dire financial straits.

One report estimates a national high needs spending deficit of between £1.2 billion and £1.6 billion by 2021. Many authorities are relying on reserves to make up the shortfall. In Richmond this year alone the SEND funding gap is £4.9 million in year. The cumulative figure will be a staggering £15.85 million by the end of this financial year. That is despite tight financial management across the wider schools’ budget to keep the high needs deficit down. Such a significant and growing deficit is unsustainable and could result in other, non-statutory council services being cut. That is merely robbing Peter to pay Paul, and we are all too aware that local authorities have absolutely no fat left to cut.

The recent Government announcement about putting £780 million into SEND funding was of course very welcome, but that does not even begin to scratch the surface. Not only was it a single-year announcement but money was not targeted at those authorities where the SEND need was greatest, because of the way the funding formula operates. That meant that some local authorities with no SEND deficits received significant additional funding, whereas others, such as Richmond, received the minimum, barely 50% of the current year shortfall, so we have half a sticking-plaster solution.

The Department has previously advised Richmond Council to ring-fence the dedicated schools grant deficit, but auditors, the Treasury and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government refuse to accept that approach. I hope that the Minister can provide further cross-departmental guidance on that point. Indeed, I would like to request that the Secretary of State for Education meets me, my hon. Friend Sarah Olney, and senior Richmond councillors and officers to find a solution to the incredibly challenging situation in which the borough finds itself.

I have spoken extensively about the impact on council finances, but we must not forget that at the centre of every tough and contested decision is a child in need of support in order to learn, develop and flourish to their full potential, and a family experiencing stress, anxiety and often financial hardship to ensure that their child has the appropriate support in place. Richmond SEND Crisis tells me that some families spend £30,000 on tribunals, sometimes remortgaging their homes to do so, and we know that many people cannot afford to do that.

Last year, four in 10 EHCPs were not finalised before the statutory 20-week deadline, according to freedom of information requests via the BBC. Many parents are resorting to home schooling because they have given up waiting for a placement in an education setting.

What are the solutions? As well as a significant cash injection, we need to remove the perverse incentives. For example, at the election the Liberal Democrats proposed reducing the £6,000 that schools are expected to pay for each child with SEND. We should not punish schools for doing the right thing. Councils need to get the basics rights on EHCPs, and they need adequate staff and resources to do so.

Finally, a national SEND strategy from the Government would encourage councils to share specialist SEND services where relevant, such as provision for deaf children. A national strategy should also set out steps to ensure that central Government, local government, schools and, critically, health and social services—which have not always stepped up to the plate on EHCPs—work together more effectively.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing her first Westminster Hall debate on this very important topic, and on her speech, in which she is making powerful points. We have all experienced the difficulties of dealing with parents and their children who have been tragically let down. On the strategy, does she recognise the need for better resourcing, and for greater understanding of all the conditions that people present with? For example, pathological demand avoidance, on the autistic spectrum, is recognised in some areas as a specific condition requiring resource and targeted support, but not in others. It would be helpful if the national strategy ensures that we are consistent across the country in identifying the range of needs and responding to them appropriately.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

Absolutely. A national strategy would address this point about variability and joining up all the services required.

To conclude, every child deserves the best possible start in life. The life chances of children with SEND depend upon appropriate and adequate support, and intervention at the right time. We must realise the ambition of the Children and Families Act 2014 to put young people at the heart of SEND provision. We cannot keep cutting corners and expecting hard-pressed local authorities to pick up the pieces. It is time for the Government to step up, and to provide the necessary funding and a joined-up strategy.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester 2:42, 29 January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank Munira Wilson for securing this important debate and continuing in the footsteps of her predecessor, who held a similar debate last year—he was very passionate about this topic.

Special educational needs and disability funding is close to my heart. I have seen at first hand the powerful impact that the right school and support can have. My nephew, Joseph Gibson, has Down’s syndrome, and he absolutely loves his school and his friends at St John’s RC School in Chingford. His progress has been remarkable, as he has blossomed into a confident, funny and bright teenager. As MPs, we will all have met families struggling to get the best education for their children. There is nothing any parent wants more than for their children to be happy, safe and confident at school, and for them to make friends.

The percentage of children with special needs in West Sussex is higher than average. The system is under increasing pressure, made more challenging by the complexity of needs, which grows as we get better at diagnosing development needs and doing something to help children develop their potential.

I recently visited Fordwater School, a special needs school in my constituency that does a fantastic job supporting the most vulnerable children and young adults in my community. Sadly, the school is under huge pressures driven by increased demand and insufficient funding. It currently spends 93% of its budget on staffing, which is necessary to ensure that the children in its care are kept safe. Consequently, budgets are super tight, and parts of the school are not fit for purpose. When I visited Fordwater, three classes were under enforced closure due to water leaks. Fortunately, the school secured extra funding to fix the roof, although not to address the underlying issue. More money is needed in the capital budget to maintain the buildings correctly. The school cares for and educates some of the most vulnerable in society, yet the facilities are simply inadequate. Their primary block is comprised of dated pre-fab buildings described as “condemnable” by the headteacher, Sophie Clarke.

This Friday, I will visit St Anthony’s School in Chichester, which is oversubscribed by two classes, putting extra pressure on resources. Despite that, it is receiving more and more admission requests. Fordwater School is in the same boat, with applications that could fill the school by half again. That overfilling is particularly challenging as many of the pupils need sensory spaces and quiet places to handle behavioural issues. Sometimes that becomes increasingly difficult as the numbers rise.

St Anthony’s School is rated outstanding by Ofsted, and has been for the past nine years, so it is increasingly popular. Headteacher Helen Ball told me:

“it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the provision we want with inadequate accommodation and funding.”

That is despite a recent increase in the top-up funding from £3,920 to £4,100 per pupil, as the costs that the school incurs far outweigh that increase.

My local authority, West Sussex County Council, is receiving £8.3 million more in its designated schools grant—an increase of 10.4%, which is very welcome—yet there is a spending gap of £2.4 million. The council has appealed to the Secretary of State to plug that gap, and I hope the Minister will support that. Our local need is growing, as I am sure it is in many areas. We have more and more children on education, health and care plans; the figure is up by 66% since 2015.

One example of rising costs is the home-to-school travel costs, paid by the council—they have increased by over 20% in the past two years. I have heard from several parents who are fighting hard to get an education, health and care plan assessment for their child. Many receive insufficient support through the application process, which is overly complex. We should simplify this process, to make assessment more straightforward.

To cope with the ever-increasing demand, Chichester needs capital investment to expand. We simply need more places and, in some cases, to make safe the special educational needs provision. We need to ensure that we are providing brilliant care, not just adequate care. We need more investment to do that. In the long term, that will save money. Many children travel significant distances to access the specialist support they need, due to overstretched services. One child about to start at Fordwater School will commute 40 minutes each day to attend the school’s autism centre for 16 to 19-year-olds.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. This issue is dear to my heart and I want to see change in my constituency of Upper Bann, and Northern Ireland. Does she agree that we need to create the best school environment? She mentioned the distance that people must travel. A colleague of mine in the Northern Ireland Assembly is bringing forward mandatory training on autism for teaching staff and classroom assistants. Does she agree we should implement that throughout the United Kingdom?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

I agree—that is a good point. For new Members who might not know, I should say that autism awareness training is available to all Members and our staff here. We have done it, and it is also useful for surgeries to ensure our staff are trained. The more that we can help, the better. Talking about autism and understanding how to make places more autism-friendly is vital.

Having to place children outside an area because no provision is available also drives up expenditure: on average, that costs £45,000 per child, compared to £19,000 to place them in a local special school. Last December, nearly 500 children were funded out of the county. That is a massive cost, so there is a pressing business case for strategic investment in the county, rather than endless reactionary spending.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

Does the hon. Lady share my concern not only about children being placed outside their area, but about the fact that many of those children are placed in unfit settings—not registered as official educational settings and, therefore, not inspected by Ofsted? Local authorities get over that through a code of conduct. Does she agree that all alternative provision settings should be registered and properly monitored, so that those children get the help they need and the education they deserve?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

Yes; that sounds like a sensible suggestion, although I have not come across that problem myself. Most of the facilities the children are sent to are amazing: we do not have equivalent facilities in West Sussex. Many of them are private, which is why they are so expensive.

Our local special needs schools are clearly stretched to the limit, and that also has implications for staff. Understandably, children with certain behavioural challenges often need extra support. I would be grateful if the Minister outlined in her response any steps being taken to ensure that mental health support is available for staff, who endure much more emotional stress in the workplace than staff in many other school settings.

Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West

Understandably, the hon. Member has focused on complex needs. However, does she accept that about 10% of all pupils have speech and language difficulties, and that speech and language—oral communication—is the basis of all learning, whether in mathematics, reading or any academic subject? Yet the money given per child varies from about £30 to £300; there is very much a postcode lottery.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on speech and language difficulties. Does the hon. Member agree that we should have a more consistent approach, focusing on the basic skills of speech and language—problems with those can manifest themselves in mental health and other issues—as well as on the more complex needs?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester

Yes, I absolutely agree. Such education is a life-changer. I go back to my nephew, who has Down’s syndrome: his speech is amazing now because of that type of support. As the hon. Gentleman said, frustration, behavioural issues and mental health issues can occur if someone cannot communicate to the best of their ability, so such education is absolutely vital. It is one of those things that is a business case all in itself, in enabling a young person to develop and to be the best that they can be, and in preventing other issues from developing. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that such education is vital.

I am focusing on complex needs, but I am sure that the whole range of different needs will be covered in the debate. As they grow up, children with special needs may need additional support, including with things that most of us do not think about, such as getting on a bus, cooking dinner or being safe on the street. They may need additional support with all those things. It also seems that there is less support available as children enter their late teens or early twenties.

Chichester College has paired up with a fantastic local charity, the Aldingbourne Trust. Together they run a purpose-built shared accommodation centre called York Road, which supports students with special needs. At Chichester College, these students are learning all the skills they need in life, including healthy living, employability, cooking, budgeting and e-safety; those lessons are then reinforced by the live-in staff at their home in York Road.

The programme is remarkably successful. On their arrival at the beginning of the year, none of the students could travel independently; they relied on their parents or the local authority. However, after just two months, all of them now ride the local bus back and forth, and they have gained independence and confidence. That is transforming their lives. Relationship-building is also valuable, as many of these young adults are at very high risk of social isolation. What is brilliant is that they have all developed strong friendships with their flatmates and the staff who support them.

This intensive method of rehearsal, reinforcement and reflection works. Furthermore, it is totally in line with the Department of Education’s preparing for adulthood agenda. I urge the Minister to examine the success of the programme and consider whether such partnerships could be replicated and expanded in all other areas, because parents worry about what will happen to children who have complex special needs as they get older.

The project is fantastic, but the next step into the working world is fraught with difficulty and I hope the Government will pay more attention to that issue. Young adults with special educational needs require additional support to get into the workplace, and I would welcome greater collaboration with learning providers and employers to bridge the transition from school to work, including providing incentives for businesses to offer employment opportunities that are also social opportunities, to support that transition.

Proper support for children and young people with special needs is crucial both for the children and young people themselves and their families, and it can totally transform their life experience; in addition, offering children positive and well-rounded support reduces dependency later on in life. I urge the Government to continue to invest in these young people. That will benefit everybody.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Order. There is much interest in this debate, so I reluctantly impose a time limit of six minutes. That might change to five minutes later on; we will have to wait and see. For the benefit of all Members, particularly new Members, I point out that every intervention will add one minute, up to a maximum of two interventions per speech. We want to encourage debate, but bear that in mind should you wish to speak as well as intervene.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Labour, Barnsley East 2:54, 29 January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, and to follow Gillian Keegan, who made a passionate speech.

I congratulate Munira Wilson on securing this really important debate. Special educational needs and disability funding is an issue of deep concern for many of my constituents. As a former teacher, I have seen at first hand the value of specialist support for children and young people who have special educational needs, and as an MP, I have heard countless stories of frustration and disappointment from parents who only want the best for their children.

Today, I will talk about how children with special educational needs and disabilities are being let down, excluded and denied educational opportunities because of a lack of funding. Right now, parents and pupils must navigate a fragmented and overstretched system to get the special educational needs provision that they deserve and desperately need.

Too many children are being left behind without support, due to delayed and out-of-date education, health and care plans. In Barnsley, some children have had to wait more than 33 weeks. Although that may not be the norm and the borough performs above average in that respect, far too many families face long and trying delays.

That obviously has a knock-on and life-changing effect. Recently, a parent told me that their child was denied a place at a specialist school due to their having an out-of-date plan, despite the fact that over a three-year period that parent had made multiple requests to have the plan updated. Another constituent’s 10-year-old child was excluded for bad behaviour at school while they were waiting for the EHC assessment that would identify them as requiring additional support.

In addition, those pupils who attend school can struggle to get through the day. I have heard distressing stories of children being left bruised and scratched after being forcibly restrained. Inappropriate use of restraint is never a solution.

There is also off-rolling, which is the disgraceful practice of removing students from the school roll, and not because of legitimate concerns about their behaviour. Instead, such students are removed from school because it is thought likely that they will perform poorly in exams, which would impact on school performance figures. I know of an academy that temporarily excluded nearly a quarter of its pupils in the 2017-18 academic year. The competitive system of schooling, including the Ofsted framework, has led to a culture whereby difficult pupils are being excluded rather than being managed.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of exclusions, which is particularly important when it comes to academies. In Luton, school exclusions have—shockingly—tripled in the last five years, and many of the excluded children are children with special educational needs, which risks some of the most vulnerable children in society being further exposed to isolation or criminal elements. Does she agree that exclusion should only ever be the last resort, and not a tool to manage overall performance of a school or the result of a lack of funding?

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Labour, Barnsley East

I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. She is absolutely right—it is completely clear that something needs to be done to keep children in supportive and safe learning environments.

It is also clear that the number of pupils being excluded is simply far too high; we have seen that in my local area. However, having met officials from Barnsley Council—I have an ongoing dialogue with the council—I can say that it seems very genuine in its attempts to deal with the situation, and I welcome the Barnsley Alliance for Schools and the education improvement strategy.

The efforts of local councils across the country, however, are limited by overstretched budgets and chronic underfunding. Many of the challenges in the SEN system cannot be met within the current allocation of high needs funding. Sadly, a significant proportion of councils’ high needs budgets is being spent on sending children and young people to out-of-borough referral units or schools. Vulnerable children are being forced to leave their school friends and travel further afield to access the support they need. Across the country, children are out of school for months, and sometimes years, because of the lack of local SEN provision and specialist school places. That is a direct consequence of councils not having the funds to provide SEN support locally.

The massive commitment of local authority resources has left SEN teams short-staffed, which in turn has left families waiting for months, if not years, to have their children’s needs assessed and a support plan agreed upon. It is an indictment of the whole system that vulnerable children are being neglected, excluded and left without the assistance they need to succeed in life.

With rising demand for SEN and disability support, councils across the country face a shortfall of more than £1 billion by 2021. In areas such as Barnsley, funding for SEN has simply not kept pace with the increase in demand and the increased expectations about provision. The current and proposed high needs funding allocations are simply not sufficient.

Schools and local authorities need resources to ensure that vulnerable children are given the best start in life. It is clear that everyone’s best interests would be served by increasing funding to support SEN provision locally, and by having a more accountable and less bureaucratic system. Right now, children with special educational needs and their parents are being left behind, without the funding or support they deserve. We urgently need action.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 2:59, 29 January 2020

I congratulate Munira Wilson on her powerful and forceful contribution on such an important issue. She has the thanks of the House for raising this issue.

I start by setting out the position in Cheltenham, where we are particularly well served, with Battledown Centre, which assesses children between the ages of two and six; Belmont School, which is for children with moderate learning difficulties; Bettridge School for children with severe learning difficulties; and the Ridge Academy for children with emotional and behavioural problems.

As the hon. Member for Twickenham said, it is hard to overstate the extent to which demand has rocketed; it is not just demand in terms of the numbers, but in terms of complexity as well. To put a little flesh on those bones, the 2019 National Audit Office report—recent data—indicated that the number of pupils attending special schools had risen between January 2014 and January 2018 by 20.2%. Furthermore, in terms of complexity, the proportion of pupils with the greatest needs had risen between 2014 and 2019 from 2.8% to 3.1%. That might not sound like a great deal, but given the extent to which they require significant resources, it is a telling point. I have picked up that point when speaking to teachers in my constituency. One told me that he had worked in a special school for something like 25 years. When he started in the 1990s, a normal pupil-teacher ratio was in the order of 16:1, but the idea of a 16:1 ratio now in a school with moderate learning difficulties is completely fanciful, because the level of complexity is much more significant.

In practice, what that means is that those schools that are supposed to be dealing with children with moderate learning difficulties are, in fact, dealing with children with severe learning difficulties, and those schools that are meant to be dealing with children with severe learning difficulties very often find it difficult to cope. What then happens? Those children end up in independent provision. Quite apart from whether that is the best place for them to be, it is incredibly expensive and ends up taking resources away from the pot.

We spend a lot of time praising public servants in this place—that is absolutely as it should be—but we should have a special regard and respect for those people who work in our special schools. They are dealing with an extraordinary surge in complexity with an extraordinary sense of professionalism, devotion and care. They have my sincere gratitude, and I dare say that of everyone here.

We have got to have a better understanding of why this surge is happening. The Government announced a review in September 2019, and that work has to include action on the specific health conditions that are driving the demand. As a society, we have to face up to an issue, which is positive, but which is sometimes uncomfortable for us to grapple with. The reality is that there are a lot of children surviving in childbirth who might never have survived before. Thank goodness that is happening, but it does mean that we as a society have to recognise that there may be knock-on consequences, which we have to resource properly.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I am pleased that the hon. Member is raising the work of the NAO. I helped to lead that inquiry for the Public Accounts Committee, and it is good work. We need to be very careful. Although there is potentially a correlation, it is anecdotal that there is a relationship between the two. It is not necessarily borne out in the data. I would be wary of making that link without the data.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to tread carefully. The central point is that we need the data. It is critical that we make these important public policy decisions on the basis of the strongest evidence. We have to go where the evidence takes us, even if it is not always comfortable to do so.

I pay tribute to the Government for the additional funding. Of course, we all want more, but it is important to recognise how significant that additional sum has been. It is something in the order of £700 million. Taken in isolation, such figures are meaningless. We have to look at the context of the overall high needs pot of around £6 billion. The Government investment is a significant sum of money set against that. In Gloucestershire, that means that the budget has gone from about £60 million up to £66 million. I take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Twickenham about ongoing needs and the fact that some local authorities have found themselves overspending and viring money from the mainstream block to fund the shortfall, but we should not lose sight of the fact that is none the less a significant sum of money.

Of course, although it is a critical factor, it is not all about money. I pay tribute to the headteachers in Cheltenham, and Gloucestershire more widely, who have addressed the point made by Stephanie Peacock about off-rolling. We did have a big problem with off-rolling in Gloucestershire, but the headteachers have worked closely together and they have reduced the number of exclusions by 19% in 2018 and 42% since September 2019. That is a fantastic piece of work because, at the risk of stating the obvious, if they do not do that schools decline to manage children with SEND in mainstream education, who might then go to schools with moderate learning difficulties; those schools cannot cope, and they then shunt people on to schools with severe learning difficulties, and as I indicated earlier, they often end up in independent provision. We have to break the cycle and break that domino effect. Headteachers working together are doing so, and I commend them on that.

I have a number of asks of the Government. Will the Government look again at the expectation that mainstream schools such as, for example, Pittville School or Balcarras School in my constituency should pay for the cost of SEN support up to £6,000? That places a financial burden on schools. Although they are living up to their obligations, we should recognise the strain that that places on them. Secondly, I have indicated that we need to progress work on identifying causes. Thirdly, we need to look again at the code of practice and, in particular, the threshold for education, health and care plans. We simply cannot duck that. Finally, is now the time that we ought to look at whether clinical commissioning groups should bear some of the burden, particularly where there is increasing medical intervention? As a society, we have to grapple with those issues. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham for raising the debate and I pay tribute to the teachers who deliver so much in Gloucestershire.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (North of England) (Northern Powerhouse), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Food and Rural Affairs) 3:07, 29 January 2020

It is a massive honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Munira Wilson, who made an outstanding speech. I am grateful to her for leading the debate.

In the run-up to the debate, I contacted all the headteachers in my constituency to ask what they wanted me to tell the Minister about special educational needs funding and provision. The collective message that came back is one of desperation. In rural communities such as ours in Cumbria, small local schools simply do not have the financial resilience to cope with the ludicrous cuts they have to face from the Government, but it is especially tough when it comes to SEN funding.

My constituency has eight secondary schools, two of which have fewer than 200 pupils; 35 primary schools, 10 of which have fewer than 30 pupils; and three primary schools smaller even than that. They are all fantastic schools. They are small because they serve sparsely populated areas that are significant distances away from one another, and small schools are the most vulnerable. One of our larger secondaries, Kendal’s Queen Katherine School, spoke for all the heads when it revealed the real financial pressure in being expected to fund the first 11 hours of education, health and care plans out of the school’s own budget. Because of the cuts that the Government have made to overall per-pupil funding, they have no reserves to provide that support.

The head of Storth Primary School sent me a copy of the letter that he had written to the county. He described the school’s reputation for being a caring and nurturing setting and how that has resulted in the school attracting more children with special educational needs. That should be celebrated, commended and rewarded. Instead, the lack of funding has made it a burden. In recent years the school has had children needing full-time 2:1 or 1:1 support, but no funding has been provided. They have been under a deficit recovery plan for five years. The head speaks of the pressure and anxiety that the staff are under and the frustration and pain of trying to provide the best possible care and education for all pupils on a budget that simply will not allow it.

A similar picture was painted by the special educational needs co-ordinator at Cartmel Primary School. The local authority recommends the school as suitable for children with an EHCP and 4.3% of its children have one, significantly above the national average. Although the school expresses its pride in its reputation, it is in danger of buckling under the funding pressure that falls on its shoulders alongside the usual strains that fall on small school budgets.

Cumbria is as vast as it is beautiful. Often in rural communities such as ours there simply is not the alternative provision available in reachable distances. The head of Langdale Primary School described how for many pupils the available special schools would require travelling extreme distances, and therefore they are effectively unavailable. She wrote with some distress that, despite the incredible hard work and enthusiasm of her excellent team, its ethos—to be wholeheartedly centred on individual children—was coming under increasing strain.

Heads in south Cumbria say that they are challenged by the lack of staffing, and in my experience that is the case. Cuts in support staff have left teachers isolated in supporting children’s needs in the classroom. St Martin & St Mary Church of England Primary School in Windermere described the extremely high criteria set to qualify for an EHCP, so only children with the most severe needs receive any funding at all. On top of that, many schools have to contend with long waiting lists for SEN referrals, followed by delayed assessments. Children are often then refused support, despite their evident need, and that leaves schools in Cumbria also having to find the resources to support the significant number of children who are in limbo, waiting for an assessment. They have needs but do not have an EHCP, and indeed they may never get one.

Photo of Daisy Cooper Daisy Cooper Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is completely unacceptable that families have to wait for far too long? He mentions the delays and assessment refusals, and how people have to wait a long time once assessments are granted. The statutory timescale is 20 weeks: four and a half months to wait to get an assessment. Even in my area of Hertfordshire County Council, one in five of the families do not get their assessment within the statutory period, so does he agree that the timescale should be shortened?

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (North of England) (Northern Powerhouse), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Food and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The situation is the same in Cumbria. The point was made earlier by Dr Cameron, who is no longer in her place, regarding the lack of educational psychologists. The Government are not funding the support needed to get people to have their EHCP in the first place, and therefore schools are picking up the tab for assessments that have not been made. Nevertheless, the needs are absolutely still there.

The head of Dallam School in Milnthorpe expressed concern on another matter: the lack of resources available to access quality training and training providers to equip staff to support pupils’ mental health needs. Many of the other heads shared the concern that it damaged their schools’ ability to do the job that they are so desperate to do. The Government can talk a good game on mental health, but they are utterly failing to invest in preventive mental health with the staff and training necessary in schools to keep our children mentally well. Indeed, across the whole of Cumbria only 75p is spent per child per year on preventive mental health work, which is an outrage.

The Government are demoralising our teachers and letting down our children, because schools have to fund those first hours of provision for children with EHCPs. We therefore have a system that punishes schools that have a deserved reputation for being nurturing and for caring for their children’s needs. The Government are systematically penalising the schools that do the right thing, and that must change. I challenge the Minister today to ensure that all funding to support children with EHCPs is delivered centrally and does not come from the school’s own budget.

I am grateful to all the headteachers who contacted me—many more than I have had time to refer to here. They are all hard-working, enthusiastic and caring, and so are their staff. I am incredibly proud of all of them, but they are desperate because Government funding has put them in an impossible position. They are outstanding professionals who love their jobs, love their schools, and are driven to make a difference in the lives of the children of Cumbria, whom they serve. Imagine how unbearable it is for them to know that they cannot do what they know they should; cannot meet the needs that they know they should; cannot support the children in the way that they know they should. It is as heartbreaking as it is outrageous. Let us have no more excuses. The Government must act.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 3:14, 29 January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I hope that Members will forgive me if I speak for slightly less than the allotted time, but that is because Members before me have said a great deal of what I believe, and I understand the passion and feeling about the issue. I thank Munira Wilson for securing the debate. She has set the bar very high for the new intake of MPs. I suspect that my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and I will all pay great attention to her career, and to how we can match her skills.

My hon. Friends the Members for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) and for East Devon (Simon Jupp) have asked me to say some words on this topic. Given that across Devon we have 6,500 young children in EHCPs, 794 of whom are looked after, with 94,000 pupils and 369 schools, the issue is hugely impactful and it is necessary that we address it. I welcome the Government’s actions over the past few years, including the recent £780 million; the 2014 reforms to extend eligibility for support for 16 to 25-year-olds; delivering a further 50,000 teaching assistants; and, as has been mentioned, the further commitment to £31.6 million to train more than 600 educational psychologists. That is welcome news and should be applauded.

However, I am not here to be a mouthpiece for the Government. Although I recognise their successes, there is more work to be done. For all the positive action that has been taken over the past few years, there have also been some serious negative impacts. Within my constituency of Totnes there is undoubtedly a considerable challenge for the local authorities that have to subsidise the dedicated schools grant high needs block. The continued demand for EHCPs, as my hon. Friend Alex Chalk mentioned, obviously takes up a huge amount of time, and it is difficult to get through them. That difficulty is also reflected in school transport and how that can be taken on by local authorities.

In my efforts to be brief, I shall put a few questions to the Minister. What action will the Government take to ensure that schools receive further funding for SEND children in future? Will they recognise the requirement of mixed provision and the benefit of it? Do they understand that mainstream settings can often be as beneficial as those in special schools? Lastly, does the Minister agree that providing long-term support allows for improved school budgeting and consideration for how to effectively provide for SEND children?

I have one last point about the families of those who travel abroad in the service of a Government Department and who then return and have to reapply through the EHCP programme, which is incredibly difficult. Will the Government look at how those who serve this country abroad with their families can go forward in that process when they return?

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Order. We need to move on to the Front-Bench speakers at 3.30. Five people are trying to catch my eye. We will have to go to a time limit of three minutes for four speakers, and unfortunately somebody might be disappointed.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment and Climate Change), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy) 3:17, 29 January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Munira Wilson on securing this excellent debate. As a former secondary school teacher, I know that not providing properly for children with special educational needs impacts on the whole school environment. All our children deserve a good education, and at the core of that is how we deal with and provide for those who need support. It impacts on all children if we do not support those with special educational needs.

I want to draw attention quickly to the situation in Bath and North East Somerset. Like the rest of the country, we deal with a growing number of children who require SEND provision, with less funding to do so. More than 1,350 children now need support via an EHCP, compared with just over 800 in 2013. That is partly due to the widening age range of zero to 25—previously it was five to 18. However, it is also because of the expectations that SEND reforms have created, and rising levels of need in BANES. It is most likely linked to autism, and to social, emotional and mental health difficulties.

My main concern is the lack of general direction around SEND. The performance regime that schools must follow means that there is now a low incentive for inclusion in mainstream schools for children with SEND. For BANES Council, there are three things that the Government can do to improve the situation. First, they must provide the local authority with the finance it needs in the high needs budget and provide appropriate funding for the delivery of local authority services. Secondly, they can be clearer and more specific about the role of schools in supporting children with SEND, and link that to school performance and inspection regimes.

Finally, the Government should seek to reward schools that are successful in being inclusive of children needing SEND provision. There are, as has been said, perverse disincentives for doing so—particularly, for example, when children move from junior to senior school. Because it takes so long to secure the funding, often children do not get that at the end of their time in junior school, because the school itself will not benefit from the extra funding. I therefore urge the Government also to look at children’s transition from one school to the next.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 3:19, 29 January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate Munira Wilson, who personally invited me, across the Chamber, to come and speak in the debate. While I absolutely agree on the need for sustainable funding for SEND services, I want to touch on the way local authorities run them.

Unfortunately for children in my constituency, the local council is not providing the leadership required. The Liberal Democrat-run council was slammed by Ofsted for its lack of leadership. In fact, the report explicitly stated that money was not the issue in that case, because Sutton Council is one of the best funded authorities, if not the best funded. I am not entirely sure where it lies on the league table now, but at the time of the report it was certainly not having much trouble with its funding.

The failure of political leadership in Sutton has meant that parents have had to band together to form the Sutton EHCP crisis group, because they do not have access to the support that their children are entitled to. That includes the failure of Sutton Council to comply with the Children and Families Act 2014. I commend the work of the group, and particularly the work of its founder Hayley Harding, who has just been nominated for an autism professionals award, in the best volunteer category. No one could be more deserving. Thanks to the group’s tireless campaigning, and the fact that they have held the council to account, there has been some—I stress it is only some—progress. Some of the findings of an investigation into the council’s failure have included an admission that past systems have not worked, and that the system is still not as good as it should have been.

Problems remain, particularly with respect to the accountability and transparency of Cognus, the arm’s length company that the council uses to process the plans. There is still substantial evidence of non-compliance with the 2014 Act. However, the big problem that we have is a failure of any political will on the part of the council to hold itself to account or deal with the problem. Frankly, I find it scandalous that no councillor has felt the need to resign over the poor standard to which Sutton’s SEND service has been allowed to fall. Time and again we hear repeated bleats that the system is not as bad as it is, and that parents are on the council’s side. At the same time, parents in the public gallery at council meetings say the exact opposite.

The council needs to take responsibility. I hope that the Minister will agree that, although we need to provide sustainable funding, we cannot allow the situation to continue in which councils fail to provide the leadership required for services. I hope that we will get the changes necessary in Sutton, and ensure that the most vulnerable children in Carshalton and Wallington get access to the support that they are entitled to.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:22, 29 January 2020

I thank Munira Wilson for bringing the issue to the fore. It is replicated across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. There will not be any region where it is not an issue. Regions including my own fail on this, and improvement is absolutely necessary.

Children are simply falling through the cracks as budgets are stretched beyond belief. Special needs services clearly do not have the resourcing needed to make the difference. In the previous Parliament, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee made it its business to carry out a study on education and health. The education study mirrored all the issues that have been referred to. One of the main findings was that Northern Ireland has faced the highest school spending cuts per pupil in the UK over the past decade—11% in real terms, compared with 8% in England, 6% in Wales and 2% in Scotland. The money set aside per pupil in Northern Ireland, at £5,500, is less than in Wales, where it is £5,800; England, where it is £6,000; and Scotland, where it is £6,600.

Today I had the opportunity to meet some people from Disability Action. They were people at secondary school or in further education. The issues for them are clear. Transport to school is important, as well as the assessment that other Members have referred to, which can take four to six weeks. In Northern Ireland it can take from four to six months, so we are worse off. Even then, there is no guarantee of getting the cash that is needed.

We have had a failure in the Assembly for the past three years. It is important now to move on. There is a Minister in place in the Assembly, who happens to be my colleague. We need sustained, enhanced funding UK-wide, for all schools, and particularly for children with special needs. I know that the Minister is here to respond on her portfolio and not on Northern Ireland, but we want to have some input on Northern Ireland in this process, and to discuss where we are.

I pay tribute to every teacher who gives up even more of their home life to consider the child who is not statemented but needs extra help, and to every classroom assistant who makes the difference for that child. I also pay tribute to every volunteer who takes training in Campaigners or the Girls Brigade and Boys Brigade, to learn how better to connect and deal with the special needs child who needs to know, as we do in those organisations, the Bible story that Jesus loves them and they have a place within every youth organisation. It is important that there is funding so that the people we charge with the education of our vulnerable and needy children can have the tools that they desperately need to enable them to achieve what they know they can, given the chance, which is that children can fulfil their potential.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich 3:25, 29 January 2020

I thank Munira Wilson for securing the debate. I do not think that there is a more important issue in our society than making sure that every child, regardless of any disabilities they are born with, has every opportunity to achieve their full potential. Often their full potential is not just being average, but being a high achiever—I say that as someone who has dyspraxia. I was born with dyspraxia and dyslexia. When I was 12 I had the reading and writing age of an eight-year-old. I said I was going to leave school because I did not really care about it at that time—I just cared about football and that was about it—but I was able to turn things around.

I will share some insights about what I think is key. A lot of the issue in relation to people with special educational needs is to do with structure and the approach to education, but much of that is of course linked to funding. What made a difference to me was having fantastic learning support assistants who, at key moments in my life, made key interventions at the right moment. I was so lucky that that was the case. It was also crucial that I was at a school that had the freedom and flexibility to make certain decisions. Recently I spoke to a parent whose daughter has dyspraxia. For me, being taken out of French lessons was crucial. As important as it is to learn a foreign language, I was four years behind with writing and reading in English, so French was not the greatest priority. It was the same for the parent I spoke to.

It is also important to have, at the heart of teacher training, the development of a full understanding of the range of special educational needs, whether it is autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia—you name it. Of course, early intervention is crucial. Sarah Owen made a point about Ofsted inspections, and that issue is behind many of the problems in the education system. The right incentives need to be put before schools and teachers so that they can focus on the right areas. No school should be rated good if it does not cater for everyone. No child should be left behind in our education system.

It has been an honour to speak in the debate. I only knew it was happening a couple of hours ago. My time management is not the best—perhaps it is linked to my dyspraxia—and I was only planning to speak for three minutes anyway, so I have not been negatively impacted.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education) 3:27, 29 January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate my hon. Friend Munira Wilson on securing this incredibly important debate.

In the short time we have, I join colleagues in heartfelt thanks and admiration for those on the frontline who are dealing on a day-to-day basis with children with special educational needs. “Dealing” is not quite the right word. I used to be a teacher and know that, as has been said, those students are often the most creative and giving, intellectually, in the class. Once that potential has been unlocked, they can fly.

I often go to special schools in my constituency, and we speak about how students can feel excluded from the system. Children are pulled out of classes when they want to be included. I would love us one day to have an education system that is fully inclusive and is allowed to make accommodations on a case-by-case basis for every single child. Most teachers know what those accommodations need to be. We have heard already about the funding crisis. There is a notional SEND budget that comes out of the main schools grant. It is £6,000 from every school and it creates a perverse incentive. That has to go, which is why in the last election the Liberal Democrats suggested that it should be cut to £3,000 for each child, but the fact is we need to make sure that any child, anywhere, gets the full accommodations that they need.

In the short time I have remaining I will highlight the “h” part of EHCPs. We often talk about autism and dyslexia, but it is also meant to cover children with disabilities. The other part of the NHS that feeds into the issue is child and adolescent mental health services. I have constituents in my area of Oxfordshire who have waited nearly two years for their EHCPs. That is a direct result of underfunding in CAMHS, which the local CCG and the local authority commission together. What work is the Minister doing with other Departments to ensure that they are meeting their requirements for EHCPs?

I will quickly highlight unregistered alternative provision. What happens to students who are excluded from school? Very often those schools do not want to do that, but for the sake of other children in school, or because they simply cannot provide the resourcing needed, they move the students on, often asking for them to be home-schooled or otherwise. Why do we have a system that allows any child essentially to be pushed out of the system altogether? I can understand that the child might go somewhere else, but that provision needs to be fully registered and fully inspected. If the child is to be home-schooled, that needs to be up to a standard. My final question to the Minister is about what happened to the consultation on children not in school. We were meant to have a response by the end of the year. That is an important part and we have not seen it.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Order. It is now time to call the first of the Front Benchers.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 3:31, 29 January 2020

I thank Munira Wilson for securing this debate. Clearly there is an appetite to discuss this important issue. I stand to speak for the third party as a former English teacher of 23 years and as a Member of Parliament from Scotland. Before I begin, it is worth pointing out that in Scotland some 27% of our school registered pupils have special or additional support needs. In England, the figure is 15%. The debate is of particular importance to Scotland, as a higher percentage of our children are affected and require extra support.

We can all agree that our children and young people must receive the support they need—we have heard much about that today from all parts of the House—and must be helped in school to reach their full potential. It is important that our systems focus on overcoming barriers to learning so that every child can enjoy a positive and fulfilling school experience. Part of that must be ensuring that children are in an environment that best suits their needs. For some children, that will be mainstream education, but for others it will require a specialist setting. Today we have heard of some of the challenges for pupils in accessing the kind, level and nature of support they need. We must remember that we are dealing with a spectrum and range of different needs when we talk about special or additional needs. That could be a learning difficulty or another kind of disability where special provision is required.

Having special educational needs can impact on a child in a range of ways, including their ability to make friends, their ability to understand things, their concentration, their physical ability, their ability to read and write and even their behaviour. The challenges faced by children with special educational needs are often lifelong. School must be a place where they feel supported and included and find fulfilment, because their lives will not get any easier when they leave school. There is no doubt that a school must have the appropriate and correct level of staffing and support to ensure that those needs are being met appropriately, as Tom Hunt pointed out when referring to his personal experience. I think his was probably the most powerful contribution to the debate, because there is nothing more important than hearing from somebody who had been through the system and seen things from that side. Even though many of the Members in the debate are former teachers, we do not necessarily see the issue through the child’s eyes.

Like the rest of the UK, Scotland faces challenges in delivering the kind of education that we all agree children with special or additional support needs deserve. I would like to take a few moments to set out some of the action being taken in Scotland to try to address the issues. Nothing I say should in any way indicate that it is job done—far from it. The challenge will continue to present itself and re-present itself with every new generation going to school.

In 2018, 14,457 staff had a role in supporting pupils with additional needs in Scotland. That was an increase of more than 1,000 on the previous year, representing a 7.7% rise. Teacher numbers also increased for the fourth year in a row. Scotland has more teachers than at any time since 2009, and the pupil-teacher ratio is at its lowest since 2013. In Scotland, there is a review of the implementation of additional support for learning, including where children learn, and its findings must be used to inform the work being taken forward to enhance the implementation of additional support for learning. The review will report in spring 2020, and it will inform and, I hope, dictate what more can be done to support children with additional needs.

While more needs to be done—I do not think anyone would deny that, and we have heard much today about the challenges—there is also, as I am sure Members would agree, some excellent practice going on in our schools. It is important to remember that, and I echo the tributes that have been paid to teachers on the frontline working hard to deliver the best support they can to children with special and additional needs. That is often in extremely challenging and difficult circumstances, as Tim Farron and others have pointed out. In my constituency, I have seen some inspiring and inspired examples of the kind of support that can be given, such as nurture bases, including the one in Auchenharvie Academy in Stevenston in my constituency. The nurture base does what it says on the tin. It supports pupils who have special or additional needs. It helps them access and navigate the curriculum in their own particular way, it increases their confidence in doing so, and it helps them socialise into the school environment itself.

Such success stories as those we have heard about today do not happen overnight. The key is the staff working day in, day out to support pupils in the way they need to be supported. Achievement for pupils with special educational needs in mainstream secondary education and in specialist settings continues to rise in Scotland. The percentage of children with an additional support need having a positive follow-up destination has increased by 5.9% to 87.9%. The percentage of children with additional support needs leaving school with one or more qualifications has increased by 5.4% to 91%. Alongside that, exclusions in Scotland are at their lowest level since 2002-03. We have more young people in school and learning constructively, but more still needs to be done.

We have to ensure that every single young person has the positive educational experience they need and deserve, and the Scottish Government continue to work with local authorities to improve the consistency of support across Scotland through, for example, improved guidance, building further capacity to deliver effective support and improving career pathways and professional development and training for school staff on inclusive practices.

One of the issues identified following research is that almost all parents of children with special or additional support needs and almost all of the pupils felt that their needs were being met at school. Many parents felt it had simply taken too long to get their child into the right environment, and we have heard much about that today from a number of Members. This is clearly an area that needs to improve right across the United Kingdom. With a £15 million investment to further enhance capacity in education authorities and schools to support more effective responses to the individual needs of children and young people, I hope this area will become less of an issue in Scotland and before too long across the United Kingdom.

We can all agree that what we have heard today shows that not every child is being supported in the way they need to be supported to reach their potential. There are challenges across Scotland and the UK, and I have tried to set out some of the measures that the Scottish Government are taking to try to address the challenges. I hope the Minister will set out how she feels the challenges can be addressed, given some of the concerns expressed by Members across the United Kingdom.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 3:39, 29 January 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. As many others have done, I congratulate Munira Wilson on securing this important debate. She has big shoes to fill, following her illustrious predecessor, but has certainly made an impressive start this afternoon.

Children with special educational needs and disabilities are some of the most vulnerable children in our country. They need help and support when they are young to help them to cope with the rest of their lives, which can be very challenging. I join the many Members who have congratulated the incredible professionals who dedicate their time and their lives to supporting those children.

There can surely be no MP who has not encountered heart-rending cases of children who have been refused the support that they so urgently need. In my constituency of Croydon North, I have been dealing with the case of a young boy with dyslexia whose family have to spend four hours a day travelling to take him to an appropriate school. Another child, aged just seven, had to be educated at home for more than a year because none of the three special schools that were close enough for him to attend had a place to offer him.

The cause of those problems, and many like them, is the severe underfunding of such services by the Government. The Conservative-led Local Government Association says that, even after the additional funding that I suspect the Minister will shortly trumpet, high needs services face a shortfall of £109 million over the coming year. They cannot plan for what comes after that because the Government have still not announced the funding. Councils, which are responsible for those services say that high needs funding is one of the most serious financial headaches that they face. The money simply is not there to provide an adequate service for every child who needs it.

Things have got so bad that the LGA says that councils will no longer be able to meet their statutory duties to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. That is simply shocking and unacceptable. It means that children in desperate need—children with severe disabilities—will be turned away because the Government refuse to pay for the care that they so urgently need, and that every single one of them deserves.

Ofsted, which inspects such services on behalf of the Government, tells us a very similar story. According to Ofsted, last January almost 3,500 children who needed special support were still not receiving any. Of those, 2,700 were not in school or receiving an education of any kind because of the lack of support. That is not only short-sighted but cruel. It is cruel to the children whose futures are being curtailed, and cruel to their parents, who are left struggling, angry and frustrated that their child is being denied that most basic of human rights: the right to an education.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. Does he share my concern that very often these children end up in the prison service, and is he aware of the statistic that children in custody are, on average, twice as likely to have SEND problems as those in the general population? If we intervene early and ensure that they do not go to prison, that will save the state money.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Many of the outcomes for these children in later life are negative when they could have been positive.

The failure to fund high needs services adequately means that lower-level support suffers as a result. The Children’s Commissioner says that speech and language services and mental health services have all suffered. Leaving children with such disabilities unable to cope means that their chance to function well as adults is taken away from them. It is fair neither on the children, who deserve much better, nor on society as a whole, which will be left to pick up the much higher costs of supporting them as adults.

We cannot just abandon these children, so I would be grateful if the Minister responded to a few specific points. Councils need the powers and funding to open new special schools where they are needed. Will she confirm that that will be part of the Government’s review? By the end of August last year, half of the 100 areas that had been inspected by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission were found to have significant weaknesses in their SEND services. They were all required to submit written proposals for improving their services. That is a shockingly high level of failure. Why has it not triggered a co-ordinated action plan across Government to bring those services up to the level required?

The inspections identified a long catalogue of failings. Here are just some of them, according to the reports: joint commissioning and service planning is weak; education, health and care plan assessment is not working well enough; too many care plans are not finalised within the 20-week timescale; designated medical officers are under-resourced; oversight of care plans is inadequate; transitions into adult health services are inadequate; families do not know where to get the help and support that their children need; more than half of parents or carers have had to give up work to care for their disabled child; more than half of parents and carers have been treated for depression, including suicidal thoughts; and too many parents and carers say that their views and experiences are neither heard nor valued.

That all comes from Ofsted and the CQC, the Government’s official inspectors for such services. Is the Minister really content to preside over services failing to that extent, because she should not be? I hope that she will not just dismiss that evidence, as previous Ministers have, or resort to platitudes about inadequate funding increases. Special needs services are in crisis. Too many vulnerable children with disabilities are living in crisis, and they deserve an urgent response from the Government to put things right.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:46, 29 January 2020

I congratulate Munira Wilson on securing today’s really important debate. I know that she has been working particularly hard to highlight the concerns of some of her constituents regarding SEND provision and funding. I put on the record the fact that I share her concerns, and stress that the Government are taking action and will continue to do so. Our ambition is for every child, no matter what challenges they face, to have access to a world-class education that sets them up for life, enabling them to reach their full potential. We need to ensure that that is happening across the entire UK.

Funding has been raised by several Members, and is extremely important. It is part of our commitment to level up across the country, but I also stress that the issue is about so much more than just funding, as my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn mentioned. We should accept that there are large amounts of money in the SEN system, but it is important that that money is spent efficiently and effectively to really raise outcomes for these children, and to ensure that the system is child focused. We also recognise the value of the role that mainstream education plays in providing a wonderful education for children with specific challenges, as my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall referenced.

We are undertaking a cross-Government review of our SEND provision, and we must ensure that every penny that we spend helps to achieve better outcomes, so that parents and teachers have confidence in the system to deliver for these children. The review will look at how the SEND system has evolved since major reforms were introduced in 2014, and will consider how the system can be made to work better for all families, ensuring that the quality of provision and the support available to children and young people is sustainable in future.

The review will also look at the supply and delivery of support at the moment. The hon. Members for Croydon North (Steve Reed) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) touched on supply, which is a particular concern of mine, and of the Government. We want to ensure that support in different local areas is consistent and joined up across health, care and education services, and that high-quality health and education support is available across the country. We must ensure that all funds are spent efficiently and effectively, so that children’s needs are adequately catered for. My hon. Friend Gillian Keegan mentioned that the EHCP process is too burdensome and long, and that people can struggle throughout it. That will also form part of the review.

[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

The SEND review will look at how the future system for supporting children and young people should operate, and later this year we are planning to begin a review of the formula that calculates funding allocations for individual local authorities. The hon. Member for Twickenham called for a strategy, but it is really important that we hear what the review has to say before we make our long-term plans, because they must be evidence-based, and focused on delivering for these children and young people. I recognise this is not a sufficient answer for those areas that are struggling now to provide the support that parents expect and their children need.

We are, however, consulting on changes that would reduce the adverse impacts of carrying forward cumulative deficits, which the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned, and will be responding to that consultation very shortly. We recognise the urgency of doing so, and have been developing a response in conjunction with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and with the Treasury. I can assure the hon. Lady that we will publish that response shortly, and I am more than happy to meet her in the forthcoming days.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

One delicate and important issue is that of children with complex health needs, who do not have just one single health need but maybe three or four, which then impact on their education. Is the Minister prepared to set some funding and resources aside to deal with those children with complex health needs related to education, as well?

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The review is encompassing the EHCPs, and is going to look at exactly those challenges in the system, including the point that was raised by my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, who said that we should look at the threshold. That is something that we will look at, and it will address whether we are giving enough support to those children who have complex and compounded problems. We will also examine the £6,000 contribution that mainstream schools have to put in; that issue was raised by a number of Members, and I know from my own constituency that it can be a challenge for school provision.

The SEND review is looking at how future systems for supporting children and young people should operate, but it is important to recognise that it is not a sufficient answer for those areas that are struggling now, as I have pointed out. I am more than happy to meet any hon. Member who has a challenge locally and go through this with them.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Labour, Barnsley East

I represent Barnsley, which is projected to have a high needs spending deficit of nearly £6 million in the 2020-21 financial year, taking into account the extra money that the Government have given. Does the Minister accept that there is simply not enough money in the system? It is all very well to talk about all the other issues, which are important, but the money is absolutely critical.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We are looking at the deficit issue, as I have just said, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady about her particular local issue.

It is important to spell out the action that we have already taken on funding. We have given the largest cash boost in a decade to increase school funding by £2.6 billion in 2020-21, followed by increases of £4.8 billion and £7.1 billion in 2021-22 and 2022-23 respectively. Next year’s increase includes £780 million of additional funding for those with the most complex SEND, representing an increase of 12% compared with this year. Although the challenges are still stark and there are a number of problems in the system, it would be unfair to say that this Government have not invested in this area, or in education. In fact, every local authority will receive an increase in high needs funding of at least 8% per head, which is a remarkable figure. This is not just a question of funding; as I said before, it is also about where that money is going, and ensuring the money is best placed to make sure that these children have the very best outcomes that they possibly can.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I will not keep the Minister for very long. I just want to make sure that as we conduct this review and the additional funding is going in, we are not going to let local authorities off the hook of fulfilling their statutory obligations. As the example I gave from the London Borough of Sutton shows, there are occasions on which the council just is not putting in the leadership that is required. I hope that the Minister can give me that assurance.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Every local authority does indeed have statutory obligations, and as it says on the tin, it should be meeting them. As was raised by a number of Members, these children are some of the most vulnerable in our society, and their needs should be paramount and at the top of our agenda when we are setting policy and ensuring that it is delivered on the ground.

It is not the case that this is a problem up and down the country, or that the system is failing everywhere, because it certainly is not. There are a multitude of examples of excellent service for children with SEND, some of which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester in relation to her local college; I would be delighted to visit that college in order to see the work that it is doing. As a number of Members have done, I praise the excellent staff up and down the country and the professionals who work tirelessly in this field. By focusing on the negatives, we can sometimes detract from the tremendous work that those people do.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education)

I absolutely share that sentiment. Before we move away from what the Minister was saying about the new consultation that she will be carrying out on this issue, I wonder whether she might answer my question about where the consultation is on children not in school. Clearly, we should be seeing the results of that before we launch a new consultation that might be linked to it.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Indeed, but one review—the SEND review—will be published in the first quarter of this year, so we will then be able to make a strategy and move forward with an evidence base. The other consultation that the hon. Lady is on about is not the same as this consultation, which is completely targeted at SEND and the children who we are talking about today, and will inform our policy as we move forward.

The hon. Member for Croydon North mentioned the importance of working across Government, an issue that has been raised by a number of other colleagues. I want to reassure everybody that this area does not just fit within the Department for Education. I have regular meetings with my counterparts, and in addition, the cross-Government review takes that very fact into account.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

The Minister has talked about the importance of valuing staff, and all the positive and excellent professional work they do in supporting children. I think everybody in the Chamber would agree with that, but could I draw her attention to the fact that one aspect of how we value public sector workers is how they are paid? In Scotland, a teacher’s starting salary is £32,034, but in England, a teacher has a starting salary of £24,373. I wonder whether the Minister thinks that valuing staff might be reflected by giving a better pay rise to teachers in England.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady will note that that was a key part of the Conservative party manifesto, which allowed us to gain our majority Government.

In conclusion, I am enormously grateful for the contributions that have been made today, and am more than happy to answer separately any questions about particular local issues. Regarding the hon. Member for Croydon North’s comment about the supply, I want to reassure him that we are taking that very seriously as part of the review. I am also grateful for the support that the hon. Member for Twickenham has given to the important topic that is on today’s agenda, raising its profile and showing the level of interest in it across the whole country. The review of SEND is crucial for making sure that we deliver the outcomes that these children deserve, and demonstrates how seriously this issue is being taken across the Government, not just in the Department for Education. I want to reassure all hon. Members that, despite the claims made today, no children shall be abandoned on this Government’s watch.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 3:58, 29 January 2020

Thank you, Ms McDonagh; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, now that Mr Pritchard has left.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed so well today. We have heard a lot of common themes from all sides, including delays in children getting the EHCPs they need; the horrendous deficit that councils are carrying, and the financial strain they are under; the strain that families are put under; and the schools that are penalised for doing the right thing. Some powerful contributions were made about exclusions and off-rolling; I was not able to cover those very valid points at the start of the debate, but they should be taken into account. The consultation that my hon. Friend Layla Moran referred to, which still has not been addressed, needs to be included in the Government review of SEND that the Minister discussed.

I thank the Minister, first of all for agreeing to meet my council colleagues and me, and secondly for the fact that the Government are looking at what can be done to ring-fence the deficits, so that other council services are not put at risk. I reiterate, however, that the funding that was announced was a one-year one-off, and therefore is not going to help bring down those enormous deficits—which, again, will be a cumulative £15.85 million by the end of this financial year. For a council such as Richmond, that is unsustainable, so I ask again for that provision to be examined. We have had so many reviews, including by the NAO, the Select Committee, the LGA and the London Assembly, and now there is this cross-Government review. We absolutely need action to follow those reviews—action for children, their families and local authorities—if we are going to meet these needs properly and appropriately.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered special educational needs and disability funding.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—