Ms Ghani, it is obviously a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship—sorry, I think “chairship” is the right word in this PC age we live in. It is always a pleasure to follow many other hon. Members. Some of the speeches so far have been incredible, and we thank the Members for them. It is a pleasure to follow Olivia Blake. We seem to spar with each other here. In our first debate, we were of the same mind. In the second debate, we had different opinions. And now we are back together again to support the same thing on this issue. Christian Matheson always brings to the Chamber, with compassion and understanding, points that certainly I and, I think, many Members can subscribe to and are very pleased to be part of.
During lockdown, I experienced teachers and parents alike expressing grave concern for the children who need this specialised additional help, who thrive in specially designed schemes and education, and whose parents could see the adverse effect of their not being able to follow their routines and get the external help and support that they needed. Particularly for disabled children and children with educational challenges, it is so important to have a routine in place. From my constituency, I can easily call to mind two cases of children with special needs who required emergency day placement at their school during the initial lockdown period in order to give them some of their routine back. I want to express my thanks to Longstone and Tor Bank, which filled the breach; those are two of the special schools back home in Northern Ireland.
Children with special needs saw an impact on their entire routines, starting from the change in their at-home morning routine of getting up and getting ready for school. Then they were not collected as usual by their school bus. They did not have the presence of their teacher, assistant and peers in their daily lives. And they were restricted in their daily movements by not being able to go out and about. One child was unable to be taken as usual to the local playground to get the sensory stimulation that he needed, as it was locked for an extended period.
This was not the fault of any Department or person, but the fact is that the ramifications of the lockdown and subsequent extension of holidays and so on are still being felt even now by some of the most vulnerable in our society. As schools have closed and additional support has been halted, respite and rehabilitation services have been withdrawn. These are all the complications that we see.
In particular, parents of children with autism were on their own each day in their homes with no specialist assistance, and they reported that dealing with their child’s needs impacted on the family. Some reported that they felt at breaking point because of having little or no support while their children’s special needs schools were closed. I deal with parents of autistic children nearly every week in my office—my staff do as well—and I know the particular issues for those with autism. Support workers were unable to enter the family home, and tutors who provided one-to-one tuition to statemented children were unable to visit them, so their education was interrupted. If an autistic child’s routine is changed, that makes life extremely difficult for the child and for the family as well.
The pandemic has seen an attainment gap result from the isolation of the children from their teachers and peers. Continued schooling for children with a statement of special needs, which typically represents those with severe needs, was provided in some cases, but that was not universal by any means and did not cover all the additional support. I understand that the Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland, but I want to tell the story, because I think it is replicated across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Dr Cameron, whose speech will follow mine, will probably confirm that. The gap in schooling can also be expected to make the full return to school and subsequent social interaction more challenging, especially for children with anxiety problems.
The economic impacts of the pandemic have been felt directly by those who had special educational needs in childhood. We see that in the use of food banks. Between March and September of this year, we had 180 families who were experiencing financial, social and emotional pressures, but the food bank in Thriving Life Church in Newtownards was able to help.
Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 70% of the youth who study or combine study with work have been adversely affected by the closing of schools, universities and training centres. Programmes such as STRIDE—support and training to realise individual development and employment—aimed at training and integrating vulnerable youth into the workplace, were halted because they are based in specific cafés and factories and those were closed during the pandemic. Right away, those people, who needed the daily routine of work, were not getting it, so things were quite difficult. Those programmes impart important social and educational skills and, where the young people make progress through routine and socialisation with members of the public and peers, their progress was impacted by the closure of the services.
I will conclude with this point. The most vulnerable have felt this pandemic more than anyone else. Now is the time to rebuild and restore their wee lives and the support for the families who have been left so alone. We in this place can make a difference with innovative programming and considered funding, and now is the time to take steps to make that difference.