Special Educational Needs — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Covid-19 and Health Inequalities: West Yorkshire – in Westminster Hall at 11:30 am on 21st April 2021.

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[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough 2:30 pm, 21st April 2021

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Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:31 pm, 21st April 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered support for children with SEND.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful to have secured this important debate, and welcome the opportunity to discuss support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. I am pleased that we are addressing this important issue today, and want to use my contribution to amplify the voices of children with special educational needs and disabilities, and their families.

I know that Members who have come to speak in the debate, from across the House, will have heard from constituents about the difficulties that they have faced in getting access to services, support systems and schooling. They will have been approached by parents who are not sure where else to turn, as they navigate a global pandemic with a child with a disability. I hope that we can all use today as a collective opportunity to raise the concerns of those young people and their families, and push for change and further support.

Ultimately, every child deserves access to the support to which they are entitled, but currently they do not have it. The words

“forgotten, left behind and overlooked” were used to describe the experiences of children with SEND and their families throughout the covid-19 pandemic, according to the recent report by the all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities. It collated responses from parents and young people on the issue. Prior to the pandemic, resources for local authorities and supporting services were already stretched by a decade of needless Tory austerity, and the upheaval of the past year has only exacerbated the problem.

One of the most pressing issues that I have come across is the continued delays to treatment, diagnosis and plans for support. In my constituency I have been approached by constituents who have been waiting for up to two years for a diagnosis for their child. That is simply unacceptable. If children are unable to get a diagnosis, they are unable to get early intervention, which we know improves their outcomes later in life. Yet that window is being missed for many young people simply because of lack of funding and resources.

As the chair of the NHS East Berkshire clinical commissioning group, Dr Jim O’Donnell, highlighted to me, identifying those with SEND is just as important as ensuring that they get the support they need. In Slough, only 0.34% of our registered population are coded as having a learning disability. That is less than one-seventh of the estimated national prevalence.

The national target achievement for health checks in relation to learning disabilities is 67%. In Slough we currently reach only 61.5% of those who are coded; but since we are not yet successfully coding most of the people who, it is estimated, would have learning disabilities, health checks are in fact being delivered only to 0.21% of the population. That is, by the way, a far better figure than many of our neighbours have reached. It just goes to show how far we need to improve as a country to be in a position to ensure that people with learning disabilities receive the recognition, support and health and care services that they need and deserve.

Delays in the sector also aggravate the existing difficulties faced. In some cases this can lead to mental health difficulties for both the child and the parent awaiting confirmation of their child’s diagnosis and therefore support. At this point such delays can mean the additional issues caused are not taken into account in their education, health and care plan. It is a vicious cycle where everyone loses.

To address the backlog and delays in the initial stages of setting up support for children and parents, urgent funding and attention is needed. Delays have been seen across sectors, but for children with SEND these could have lifelong consequences. Even those who have been able to secure support and EHCPs have felt that the process has only worsened under the pandemic. The process must have compassion and the child’s needs at its heart, yet constituents who have contacted me often feel frustrated, fighting to get their views considered as the child’s primary carer, and even having to push to get specific support written into the plans.

One local family noted that their support was not quantified or specified, leaving them disappointed at the level of support as one treatment would have fulfilled their support requirements. This is a pattern. In fact, two in three parents reported that their child was not receiving the support set out by law in their plan. If parents have to fight at every single stage just to get the very basic level of support for them and their child, I am afraid the system is broken, and coronavirus has further diminished this already inadequate support. As with other vital local services, many have been stopped or reduced since March 2020.

Ambitious About Autism reported that 80% of autistic young people and their parents who responded to its survey said that support that they had been accessing before the pandemic either stopped or was reduced. 1Voice found that 58% of respondents to its survey had no care support at all between March and July. All this is in the context of a system already in crisis.

The recent Women and Equalities Select Committee report cited evidence that it received:

“the pandemic had ‘brought into focus and exacerbated widely acknowledged pre-existing systemic issues in the wider SEND system’, which was far from operating as the 2014 Children and Families Act reforms had intended”.

Although school closures have undoubtedly impacted every child in this country, it seems that for disabled children, sadly, that impact has been disproportionate. Despite many settings remaining open throughout successive lockdowns, 83% did not have access to school between March and July. As we know, attending school is for so much more than just an education. For children with SEND in particular, it is an opportunity to receive treatment and access specialised equipment, and it can be hugely beneficial for their all-round development. Yet parents were left with difficult decisions about the best outcome for their children.

Parents, local authorities, support services and schools have had to strike a very careful balance in protecting the child’s health and the health of children with SEND from the threat of coronavirus and the impact of continued isolation. Even when children have been able to return to schooling, the lack of treatment during successive lockdowns has meant that many have fallen behind on their speech, communication and motor skills. Unable to access formal therapies, assistive technologies, respite care or regular treatment, many parents have noted a decline in disabled children’s physical and mental wellbeing. As the Disabled Children’s Partnership notes,

“If young people are in pain, they will not be ready to learn.”

Devastatingly, it is not just formal support that has declined. Social isolation of disabled children and their families has also had an impact; reports indicate that they are more socially isolated than most. The removal of routine, socialisation and normality has left 90% of parents with some level of anxiety as a result. The clear disproportionate impact of covid-19 on these families surely deserves a dedicated plan to support them. Without a complete plan from Government on how to address the backlog, already stretched services will struggle for resources as we emerge from lockdown. Through no fault of their own, disabled children and their families have been left behind. They need the SEND report to address the deep problems in the system, they need to be a feature of all future pandemic planning, and they need specific funding to address the huge delays and backlogs.

I know that local authorities and charities across the country have been doing what they can to support those who need it most. In Slough, our council has been working hard to ensure better outcomes for children with SEND—in fact, the south-east’s all-age autism strategy is being launched today. It sets out the region’s ambition to ensure that autistic people and their families get the best care and support, and to reduce the health inequalities that autistic people face.

Having served as a member of the Royal Mencap Society, I am very much aware of the incredible work of the voluntary sector. Invaluable work has been done by charities and organisations such as the Disabled Children’s Partnership, which includes Mencap, WellChild, Together for Short Lives, the Children’s Trust, Scope, Sense, the National Autistic Society, Family Fund, the Council for Disabled Children, Ambitious About Autism, Contact and Action for Children, as well as by IPSEA—the Independent Provider of Special Educational Advice—and many others, but funding and support for SEND have long needed attention from the Government.

Sadly, it has taken a pandemic to reveal the true extent of the problems in the system. Can the Minister confirm that these deep-rooted problems will be addressed? Can she guarantee that the Government will not downgrade their legal duties to children with SEND as a result of the current widespread failure to fulfil them?

One parent cited in the APPG report noted that for children with SEND,

“Their worlds were already very confusing before coronavirus and are even more so now.”

We must do all we can to support them.

Photo of Sally-Ann Hart Sally-Ann Hart Conservative, Hastings and Rye 2:42 pm, 21st April 2021

I welcome this important debate secured by Mr Dhesi. As vice-chair of the APPG on special educational needs and disabilities, I highlight our recent report, “Forgotten. Left behind. Overlooked. The experiences of young people with SEND and their educational transitions during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020”. Members of the APPG were keen to focus our inquiry on how the transitions that young people with SEND face had been affected by the significant changes in education provision since March 2020 due to the pandemic.

It is widely accepted that moving between education settings, either for a change of phase or for enhanced or different provision, is difficult for all children, but it is clear from the experiences we heard about that the pandemic had the most negative impact on some of our most vulnerable children, young people and their families. In 2014, the Government introduced significant reforms to the way in which children and young people with SEND are identified and supported, requiring local authorities to have greater regard to the needs of children with SEND and their parents. It is concerning and often heart-rending to hear of the difficulties that some families face in securing enough support and appropriate placements for pupils with SEND.

What is apparent is how many families have to fight for the right support for their child. That is not right. The process of applying and assessing for educational healthcare plans must be made simpler and more compassionate. It is also clear that there are regional variations in the experiences of young people with SEND. That is very concerning. For example, the National Deaf Children’s Society noted that online learning materials, transition support, early intervention support and recovery plans were available, but “not consistently across England”. Sense also spoke of a lack of consistency.

It is welcome that the Government have acknowledged that despite the important reforms introduced to improve support for young people with SEND, the system is not working for every pupil. I look forward to the cross-Government SEND review being published in the coming weeks, as one of the issues it is looking at is how to ensure that SEND provision is consistent all over the country, of high quality and integrated across education, health and care.

I am grateful to the Minister for the work she has done regarding the review and for her comments at the recent annual general meeting of the APPG for SEND in March. I welcome the recent capital funding boost of £280 million for children and young people with SEND, and investment to provide more specialist places and improve provision for SEND pupils across the country.

It is also very good news that the high-needs funding has been boosted by nearly a quarter to £8 billion in 2021-22, with an extra £780 million for local authorities this year, and a further £730 million in the next financial year. The Government are supporting local authorities and their partners to improve SEND services for every young person with an education, health and care plan. That includes the programme of inspections and interim visits by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission to check the quality of provision, as well as direct support and challenge to individual areas.

I ask the Minister to look more closely at how central Government pass on funding to local authorities for pupils with high needs. Currently, a large proportion of funding allocated through the high-needs funding formula is based on historical spending patterns, meaning that if needs go up or down from year to year, that is not fully reflected in the local budgets. It also means that local authorities that have been responsible with spending, such as East Sussex County Council, are left short of vital funding. That may mean that a pupil in one local authority could attract significantly more or less funding than a pupil in another authority, despite having similar needs.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight that in Hastings we will see a new SEND free school, the Flagship School, open its doors in September. I am grateful to the Department for Education for its vital support in this much-needed initiative. Lastly, I respectfully ask the Minister to give detailed consideration to the recommendations in the APPG’s report.

Photo of Clive Lewis Clive Lewis Labour, Norwich South 2:47 pm, 21st April 2021

I thank you, Sir Edward, for chairing, and my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi for leading this important debate. One does not have to be a parent to want to live in the kind of society where every adult and child is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their background, ability or race.

As a parent, of course, I worry about my young daughter, but not just her. I worry about the world she will grow up in, the country she will call her own and the community she will be a part of. That means I want a society for her where every person—every child and every adult—is treated with dignity and respect. That is what I see as our responsibility as lawmakers: to create the conditions where every child and adult can thrive.

Yet I am all too aware that that is currently not the case, particularly in the experience of children with special educational needs and disabilities, and their families. The parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities in Norwich South tell me about the unending barriers they face when trying to get support. Many are part of the fantastic organisation, SENsational Families.

To start, the length of time it takes to get a diagnosis for many children means that their needs are not being met from the beginning. In Norfolk, it takes roughly two years for children to get a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder. That is two years of anxiety, waiting to get a child the support they need. Even once they have the diagnosis, families find more delays in getting an education, health and care plan in place. Norfolk is one the 10 lowest-performing authorities in the country. Only 20% of EHC plans are completed within the Government’s 20-week timescale. It is appalling that 80% of EHC plans are, by the Government’s own metrics, not being completed on time.

When it comes to finding a school place for their child, there is more agony, anxiety and frustration. There is a severe shortage of specialist places available in Norfolk, which leaves many children struggling in mainstream schools or being excluded. Parents tell me they have to fight at every juncture for the rights of their children. If they do not continually fight, the children end up out of education. They also explain how it seems that parents who shout the loudest get the support. In addition, parents can speed up getting a diagnosis by paying privately, at a cost of around £1,500, meaning that we have a two-tier system where more wealth and money gets people access to better services faster. Is that really the kind of society that we want to live in? Should children be deprived of essential and life-enhancing services because their families cannot afford to fast-track their diagnoses?

The work done by the all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities, which is chaired by my hon. Friend Olivia Blake, chimes with much of what I am hearing in my constituency: young people with special educational needs and disabilities, and their families, feel forgotten, left behind and overlooked. It should not have to be this hard, and it certainly does not have to be this way.

The struggle faced by the parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities is not just about access to education or services. The lack of specialist places and delays in diagnosis are symptoms of much deeper problems caused by the failure of successive Conservative Governments to invest in creating strong social infrastructure. Those children and their parents need not only the right educational support, but safe and affordable housing, universal healthcare, a universal basic income and financial support that lessens the burdens on carers—strong social infrastructure that ensures that every person in our society can lead a dignified and fulfilling life.

I support the calls from the Disabled Children’s Partnership for an ambitious, funded covid-19 recovery plan to help children catch up on a lost year. Beyond that, we must also invest in the social infrastructure of this country, so that we have a fair and green recovery from the pandemic, which leaves no one behind. Children with special educational needs and disabilities and their parents are being failed by the system at every turn. We can do better; we must do better.

Photo of Mohammad Yasin Mohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford 2:51 pm, 21st April 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi for introducing this much-needed debate.

For a number of years, the Bedford Inclusive Learning and Training Trust, or BILTT, has raised concerns about insufficient funding for its three special educational needs schools in Kempston: St John’s School, Grange Academy and Greys Education Centre. They are the most dedicated team of people, and they want the best for their pupils, but the current funding model means that their kids do not even get what is fair.

As hon. Members will be aware, the Education Committee’s report, “A 10-year plan for school and college funding” found SEND funding provision to be totally inadequate. Back in 2013, the Government announced funding for SEND pupils of £10,000 per place, with local authorities topping that up depending on pupils’ needs, typically via grants. Schools, like all parts of the public sector, have been affected by Government-imposed austerity over the past decade, but since 2013, mainstream schools have received funding increases from central Government. SEND pupils in Bedford, however, received no increases in either core funding or top-up funding between 2013-14 and 2019-20.

The DFE is deflecting its responsibilities for SEND pupils on to local government by suggesting that the increased funding has gone to local authorities, to be passed on to relevant schools—that has not happened. The local authority has only increased the top-up element in Bedford by 8.3%, which is the average for mainstream increases during the same period. That can be rectified only if central Government increase the core funding appropriately, so it is at least brought in line with the actual costs. As budgets have been frozen for seven years, and all costs—including staffing costs—have risen, it is impossible to balance future budgets.

As a trust, BILTT has cut back expenditure and staffing, but it cannot safely make any further savings. For the last two years the trust has set a deficit in annual budgets, but as a result of stringent financial management it has until now been able to deliver surpluses. In the Government’s extra funding offer for schools during the covid pandemic, schools with an in-year surplus were precluded from applying to cover the extra costs of the pandemic, which is completely short-sighted and patently unfair to the very children most at risk of covid complications. Reaching a surplus does not mean that the money saved is unaccounted for or not needed for planned future spending. Why are children in SEND schools being discriminated against in that way?

As the chair of BILTT told me,

“the funding situation continues to be wholly unsatisfactory, flawed and is continuously systemically discriminatory to pupils in Special Schools and Alternative Provision. These are the most vulnerable pupils in society, that are, increasingly, being underfunded by the current system.”

At a time when the Government are undertaking the long-overdue review of the special educational needs and disability system, the existing funding model for children with special educational needs is not fit for purpose. It is fundamentally unfair and needs urgent reform.

Photo of Ian Byrne Ian Byrne Labour, Liverpool, West Derby 2:56 pm, 21st April 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi for securing this hugely important debate.

The covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated many issues that already existed in the Government’s system of support for children and young people with SEND—issues that families, campaigners and workers have been raising repeatedly with Ministers for many years. Covid has shone a stark light on the inequalities in society. For those children, young people and their families the inequality already faced was amplified.

Along with the injustice of inequality, another theme that is hardwired into the issues raised during the pandemic is the indifference to the seriousness of the situation shown by the Department for Education. Support during the pandemic from the Government and from the Department for Education, as the APPG for SEND summarised in its recent report, did not do enough to support children and young people with SEND. Our most vulnerable children were failed, and schools and families left to pick up the pieces.

Issues have been raised with me by Autism in Motion, a fantastic, committed, parent-led organisation in my constituency of West Derby, that provides support, advice and guidance for families in our community. I do not have time to do justice to their range of concerns in this debate, but I would welcome a meeting with the Minister to go through them in more detail.

Issues include a lack of funding and support from the Government for schools and services for children who have fallen through the gaps, such as children with SEND in mainstream schools who need that extra funding and support to thrive and maximise their educational attainment; a lack of funding for the comprehensive training needed for all teachers and school staff nationally; and the lengthy wait for vital services during covid-19, made worse by the hollowing out of NHS and local authority services through austerity and spending cuts over the past decade. We have seen how austerity measures have decimated our public services when we have needed them most during the pandemic.

I am lucky to have six SEND schools in Liverpool West Derby, which have been remarkable during the pandemic. I pay tribute to the staff. I have met with the heads throughout the period, and the following finding in the APPG’s report captures perfectly what I was told:

“The government guidance for special schools and alternative provision was frequently published later than guidance for mainstream schools. This led settings and young people with SEND to be seen as, and feel like, an ‘afterthought’.”

On behalf of my constituents and many families in Liverpool West Derby, I hope the Minister will today be able to answer these questions. What can be put in place for parents of children and young people who do not have an EHC plan and may have slipped through the net in terms of the support that is needed? Many children and young people cannot be catered for remotely and families have struggled during the last year. How will increased needs resulting from that be addressed and what support will the Minister’s Department provide? Furthermore, what plans will be put in place to assess the needs that will emerge as a result of the disruption to SEND children’s education, mental health and wellbeing caused by the lockdown?

Finally, do the Government have any plans to ensure that the views of children and young people with SEND and their families are heard at this stage in the pandemic? And if they do, what mechanisms will be employed locally, regionally and nationally to capture those views?

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Labour, Luton North 3:00 pm, 21st April 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi on securing this debate on an incredibly important issue, which touches the lives of around 1.4 million children across the country and, as we have heard from those who have spoken, many of us in our constituencies as well.

Today I will raise the slightly more specific issues that parents of autistic children in Luton North have raised with me. How would we feel if we were left waiting for four years to access the support or care that we needed? We all get frustrated when we are left waiting for anything; the next train might be along in 30 minutes, and if someone waited 90 minutes for a meal in a restaurant, they would probably complain. On top of that, how do we feel if we need to access a service or advice, but keep being passed from pillar to post?

So how frustrating must it be for those parents who are left waiting for up to four years for a diagnosis, while their family members are passed around agency after agency and institution after institution, and their child struggles to make friends, is not confident about communicating, is potentially non-verbal, and likes a particular routine and order in the things that they do every day? I have spoken to parents of autistic children in my constituency who are waiting for up to four years for the support that they need. I have heard from them that they feel like they are fighting against the very system that should be helping them, because at present the different agencies do not communicate with each other in the way that they should.

We know that the issues affecting how these parents and their children access care are great in number. We also know that the National Autistic Society and the all-party parliamentary group on autism—a group chaired with great diligence and commitment by the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan), who we sadly lost very recently and who was a very vocal campaigner for autistic children and their parents—found that 70% of parents of children with autism say that support for their child was not put in place quickly enough. We know all this, yet we do not see the improvements and funding that are needed.

Fewer than half of teachers say they are confident about supporting a child on the autism spectrum. The worst aspects of this situation lead to kids being put on the supposedly “too difficult” pile and left in isolation, or excluded or off-rolled by schools, whose staff do not have the training to identify pupils with autism and offer them the support that they need.

The parents that I spoke to in Luton North over Easter are brilliant and they would do absolutely anything they could to get their child the support they need. So, on behalf of those parents, I ask the Minister, does she think that waiting four years for an autism diagnosis is acceptable for children? If her answer is no, will she commit today to introducing a wait time standard for autism diagnosis and support? Will she commit to making life easier for the people that I have talked about today, by streamlining all the agencies and organisations that parents need to engage with? Finally, in the Health and Social Care Committee we have heard about the need for local autism hubs. Will any of those hubs be coming soon? I would welcome a meeting with the Minister to discuss these and other issues.

This important matter is discussed fairly frequently in this place and many MPs have constituency cases similar to those that I have outlined. However, parents and their children are still waiting for the support that they need.

I want to end on something positive. Councillor Javed Hussain, from Saints ward in Luton, has worked with the community. Despite the austerity and the cuts handed down from central Government, our councillors in Luton, such as Javed Hussain, have secured an accessible sensory play-park upgrade at Blundell Park, which is good for every child but especially good for children with autism and children who use wheelchairs. New developments such as that will make the world of difference to families and I commend the work that has been done on the park. We all know the difference that proper support for children with SEND could make to so many of our constituents. It is time that the Government turned their words into action.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 3:04 pm, 21st April 2021

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Edward, and I thank my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi for securing this important debate.

It is a pleasure to speak here today. I have a particular interest in this debate, both as a member of the Women and Equalities Committee and as the mother of a SEND child. As colleagues rightly pointed out, the support system for SEND children was already at crisis point before the start of the pandemic, but like all other existing inequalities, the pandemic has shone a light on the failures within the system that deny young people their right to an education and has shown the urgent need for increased support for young people with SEND, their families and their educational providers.

There are many issues. The long wait in obtaining a child and adolescent mental health services appointment, and the ability to access that appointment, particularly through the pandemic. The process to obtain an EHCP with little or no help or support during the process, and also the lack of support for those who do not qualify for a plan but who clearly need additional support. Schools that are struggling through lack of funding, and parents who are told, “Sorry; there is no money available to support your child further,” while all the time the child continues to struggle both at home and at school, quite often with a big impact on their mental and physical health.

The Government recently announced funding premiums to help schools and students catch up, with additional weighting for mainstream schools that have pupils with SEND. However, in the light of experience earlier this year, it is unacceptable that the catch-up premium does not include ring-fenced funding for mainstream schools, which means that there is no guarantee that school leadership teams will direct that money to SEND children, given the already tight constraints on their budgets. Just a week ago, the Women and Equalities Committee published its “Unequal impact? Coronavirus, disability and access to services” report into the impact of coronavirus on disabled people, which widely acknowledged the problems created by a lack of ring-fenced funding for children with SEND in mainstream schools and showed evidence that such pupils consistently make less progress than other pupils with the same starting point. It is disappointing that the Government rejected the Select Committee’s recommendation that funding be increased to allow mainstream schools to receive £240 per pupil with SEND, ring-fenced for catch-up support in this academic year.

Last week, in a Westminster Hall debate, I asked the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work whether he could give me a further explanation as to why the Government rejected the report’s recommendation to commit to ring-fenced funding for pupils with SEND in mainstream schools. I did not get a clear answer from the Minister, other than an acknowledgment that the forthcoming SEND review remains a key priority for this Government. I hope that the Minister here today will be able to give her thoughts on this issue, and on whether she agrees that SEND children who go to mainstream school should have the same amount of money ring-fenced as children who go to a special school. The Government have said that it costs more to teach children in special schools. I hope the Minister agrees that it should not matter what school a child goes to, and that a lack of funding for cash-strapped local authorities results in their not being able to give their schools and pupils the additional support that they so desperately need.

This should not be a race to the bottom between mainstream and special schools. It is just a fact that local authorities continue to report the pressures on the high-needs funding block as one of the most serious financial challenges they face. Giving evidence to the all-party parliamentary group for SEND, the Local Government Association said that local authorities will be unable to meet their statutory duties to support children with SEND without additional funding being made available.

I urge the Minister to look deeper into how high-needs funding is undertaken. It is essential to the recovery from the pandemic that these long-standing issues over SEND funding are fixed. Finally, I ask the Minister when the SEND review will be published, and I ask her for a more detailed response than was given to me previously, and that was given in the report in the spring.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 3:09 pm, 21st April 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi, my Berkshire colleague, for securing the debate. He made a very interesting contribution. His comments were thoughtful and powerful, and I found the whole tone of the debate interesting and, in many ways, quite humbling. I agree with what has been said by many Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Luton North (Sarah Owen) and for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), who both made excellent points.

Reading, like many other places, suffers from quite significant underfunding in this important area, as I am sure the Minister is aware, and I will talk about that in some detail later. Our borough council is ranked 132nd out of the 150 English local authorities in terms of the funding that it receives for SEND. Obviously, in an area of considerable need there is a great shortfall for many local families, who are hugely affected by that. I would like to address one particular set of challenges later.

I want to talk about the overall pressure on families at this time and, in particular, to reflect on the very difficult year that so many families have been through. I hope that the Minister will consider, in particular, what this year has meant for those families who have a child with SEND, and the intense additional pressures that those children and families have been through. I would like her to meet some of the families with me and to explore this issue further, because the very difficult issue of SEND and supporting families adequately in the system in a proper way has been exacerbated by the dreadful pandemic. I hope we can discuss that further.

I will move on to the specifics, as I realise that time is pressing. The delays in the raising and diagnosing of particular problems are significant. That has been an issue in this country for many years. We obviously need a much better supply of trained staff and support in schools and other settings. Ultimately, that means more Government spending, because the staff are highly trained graduates who work as part of a team. They need the support of their colleagues in a school or other setting. I have often heard from headteachers and others about the need for that team approach to the proper resourcing of our public sector.

I wonder whether the Minister might meet me to discuss an important issue in my constituency. I do want to go into enormous details because it is sub judice—there is a court case coming up. I would like to discuss with her in person and with a local family the transition of children with SEND from primary to secondary school. I see the Minister is nodding; I appreciate her support. There are some particular issues that our local schools and families may be able to help her to explore further. We would like some support on this issue, but I do not want to go into too much detail because of the court case.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North, who spoke eloquently, said that some amazing work has been done in our communities. Like her, I want to thank some local groups. There are too many to mention all of them, but it was a pleasure to help the families and staff at Redlands Primary School in Reading a few days ago with work on their sensory garden. Unfortunately, due to lack of funding, it has been provided by donations. It is a wonderful resource that the families themselves and the school have come up with, to help calm and support children in a Victorian school environment with very limited green space, through careful use of planting and attractive artwork. They are offering therapy for children in their play time, which is very valuable, and I commend them for that work.

Finally, I hope the Minister will look at the wider issue of education funding, particularly support for SEND for the lifetime of the child as they move into adulthood.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care) 3:13 pm, 21st April 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate Mr Dhesi on securing this important debate.

Let me start by putting on the record my thanks to the Minister and her officials at the Department for Education for working closely with officers and councillors at the London Borough of Richmond to agree a settlement for the enormous historic funding gap in special educational needs and disability support. The local high-needs budget deficit hit a staggering £18 million and risked putting general education funding, and indeed wider council services, at risk.

When I was elected in 2019, I pledged to make adequate funding for SEND provision in Twickenham a priority, and I am very grateful for the engagement that the Minister has had with me and the council over the past year to address this important issue. I know that Richmond Council is looking forward to continuing to work with the Department to increase local provision for special needs and ensuring that our most vulnerable children receive the support that they need and deserve, through the promised annual 8% increase in funding. More broadly, I urge the Minister to ensure that the review of SEND that her Department is currently undertaking looks holistically at how the system is funded, so that the best interests and the needs of every child are at the heart of the system.

Too often, children are caught between the competing priorities of school and council budgets. Just recently, the chairs of governing bodies of local schools told me how stretched they are financially because of covid. Many costs are not being reimbursed, and they are losing thousands of pounds because income from lettings and fundraising has dried up. Those mainstream schools that are particularly well placed to provide SEND support for children are very conscious of the £6,000 that they have to find from their core budgets in order to offer this invaluable support, unless the family are able to apply successfully for an education, health and care plan, which will bring its own funding. The decision-making process on the level of support provided should not be driven by funding streams or disincentives to do the right thing, but entirely by the needs of the child.

The Minister is aware that I take a keen interest in children’s mental health and have repeatedly raised my concerns about the impact of the pandemic on children and young people’s mental health, and the critical importance of supporting social, emotional and developmental catch-up, not just academic catch-up. I know from talking to carers in my constituency that that applies even more to disabled children, who have been disproportionately affected, as we have already heard from other hon. Members, through both social isolation and lack of access to therapies. According to the Disabled Children’s Partnership, 91% of the parents it surveyed said that their child was socially isolated through the pandemic. Six in 10 parents reported observing symptoms associated with anxiety, and almost three quarters of parents report that their child is often unhappy, downhearted or tearful. There is a knock-on impact on the mental health and wellbeing of parents and siblings.

As other hon. Members have said, we need a bespoke covid recovery plan for disabled children. That must include, as well as social and developmental catch-up, additional support for the mental health and wellbeing of children and families and access to activities to overcome the social isolation that many have suffered during lockdowns. The Government recently announced a £79 million package of mental health support, but none of it was specifically allocated for disabled children and their families. Every single child deserves the best possible start in life, and that includes every child with a special need or disability.

Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) 3:18 pm, 21st April 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I start by thanking my hon. Friend Mr Dhesi for initiating this important debate. He was completely right to say that children with SEND have been forgotten, left behind and overlooked, and that their parents have had to fight at every single stage of the process to get their needs met. It is shocking that some children in Slough have had to wait up to two years for a diagnosis. My hon. Friend Clive Lewis made similar points about his area and about how the system has completely failed parents, with appalling social services infrastructure and, in effect, a two-tier system for those who can afford it.

I want to take the opportunity offered by this debate to pay tribute to the fantastic staff at Swiss Cottage School and Manor School in Brent. Both are specialist schools in my constituency and have done phenomenal work in supporting children with SEND. The shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Kate Green, and I had the privilege of speaking to the headteachers of those schools and other special schools across the country in a virtual roundtable earlier this year. Many of the headteachers pointed out to me that much of the digital support that schools have been given, such as laptops, is not even appropriately tailored for the needs of children with SEND.

My hon. Friend Ian Byrne also explained how he had heard many concerns about resources when he met headteachers in his region. My hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin made powerful arguments about the devastating impact of coronavirus on the funding situation for special schools. My hon. Friend Matt Rodda also made a powerful speech about the impact of the pandemic on these services. I hope that the Minister, who has always had an open door with me, will respond positively to his request for a meeting.

As a mother of two young children, I know just how tough this pandemic and school closures have been on young people and their parents, but I simply cannot imagine how much harder it has been for those who have had their specialist support withdrawn. At the height of the third lockdown, just 16% of children with EHCPs were getting all the support set out in their plan, according to research by the Disabled Children’s Partnership. Some 21% of parents said that their children were not getting any support set out in their EHCP. Remember that this is support to which the children are legally entitled, and which all too often represents a compromise that is below the level of support they actually need.

That is just children who have already secured EHCPs. Getting an appropriate EHCP in good time has unfortunately become a postcode lottery, after a decade of cuts to local government that have been felt unevenly across the country, not to mention the impact of the relaxations on timescales misguidedly introduced last April for assessing EHCPs. My hon. Friend Kate Osborne spoke movingly about the huge problem in getting EHCPs, drawing on her own experience of looking after a child with SEND. I appreciate her taking the time to contribute to this important debate.

As horrifying as some of the statistics are, the results are scarier. Half of the children with SEND have seen their conditions worsen this past year. I will focus specifically on the impact of loss of access to such therapies as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and physiotherapy, which a shocking 70% have been unable to do in recent months. Dan told us about his daughter Elisa, who has cerebral palsy. Elisa relies on regular physiotherapy from her education, health and care plan to manage her condition. Sadly, she missed out on that support for a year during the pandemic and her condition has worsened. My constituent Elisa has dystonia, a very uncomfortable condition where muscles contract uncontrollably. She can no longer use her wheelchair due to the worsening dystonia.

Then there is Suziie, my constituent who cares for her nephew, aged 11, who has a complex series of physical and neurological disabilities. During the pandemic, her nephew has been isolated from other children and has lost access to vital series and therapies that he needs to manage his condition. Awfully, he is now regressing and has lost vital abilities in communication and other essential life skills. He needs sensory rooms and hydrotherapy in his covid-19 recovery plan, and Suziie needs additional respite care.

Those heartbreaking cases tell a story about what has happened during the pandemic: a loss of support and declining health and social outcomes for children with SEND. As has been mentioned in the debate, the Women and Equalities Committee concludes that the Government’s catch-up package will not be enough to tackle the disproportionate impacts on children with SEND. It is all very well issuing guidance saying that they will be a priority, but unless that is followed up with targeted funding there is no guarantee that they will get the support that they desperately need.

I have previously criticised Ministers for treating children as an afterthought in the pandemic, but I believe that those with SEND have been completely left behind. That is certainly how parents feel when I speak to them. However, not all politicians have forgotten about these children. My hon. Friend Sarah Owen highlighted the important work that Councillor Javed Hussain and other Luton councillors are doing on local autism hubs and park upgrades, bringing benefits for those who use wheelchairs. We should be learning from them.

Although lessons must be learned from the failures that my colleagues have outlined, I want to look to the future. We need proper support for EHCP provision to be restored in full. We need a plan from Ministers to clear the backlog of assessments and health appointments. There must be a proper co-ordinated catch-up plan that goes beyond the Government’s narrow ideas about educational catch-up. We have to have targeted support for children with SEND to make up for months of lost development in communication, social skills and wellbeing.

Rather than downgrading the legal duties to children with SEND, as the Government did at the start of the pandemic, the SEND review should be an opportunity to upgrade the resources that local authorities have to deliver support, and to listen directly to families about how services can be reshaped so that they operate in the best interests of our young people.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:24 pm, 21st April 2021

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I start by joining others in congratulating Mr Dhesi on securing this important debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important topic of how we care for our children with special educational needs and disabilities. The Government are absolutely dedicated to supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities, and their families. Our ambition for them is the same as it is for every child and young person, which is to ensure that they have access to a world-class education that sets them up for life.

The covid-19 pandemic has been extremely challenging for many families of children and young people with SEND. That is why throughout this very difficult pandemic, including during periods of national restrictions, we asked schools and colleges to remain open for those with education, health and care plans, because we know that those pupils, students and their families can be disproportionately impacted by being out of education.

I am extremely proud that we have kept our schools and colleges open for those most vulnerable children. We were one of the very few countries in the world to do so during the first lockdown. I recognise that in that first lockdown, attendance in many cases was quite low, because people were concerned about those vulnerable children, who often have other underlying health conditions. We did not know very much at that time about the impact of the virus on children.

By the end of the most recent lockdown, 99% of special schools were open and about 46%—that is about half—of children with EHCPs were attending towards the end. In fact, 58% or nearly two out of three children with EHCPs in mainstream primary schools were attending.

Throughout the pandemic, I have had very many meetings with stakeholders and have listened carefully to feedback from organisations such as the Council for Disabled Children and home care organisations, from young people themselves and from their families. I have sent many open letters to families and those who support them to answer their questions and to give them guidance and updates.

I also made many virtual visits to special schools and colleges. Those have been invaluable, especially the visits I made last autumn term to many special schools in areas with high covid rates. People might remember that schools were expected to be open, but in some areas covid was high. Our special schools across the country are absolutely committed to ensuring that children and families continue to receive high-quality education and support. I am extremely grateful for all that they are doing and I am deeply inspired by their work.

Support has to go beyond education, however, and I am acutely aware of the pressures on families. That is why we prioritise respite care. Alongside that, we provided £40.8 million for the family fund last year, which supported more than 90,000 families on low incomes who were raising children with disabilities or serious illnesses. That included £13.5 million to respond to needs arising from the outbreak. It provided items such as specialist toys, IT and other elements of equipment.

When children are not able to attend face to face, they should still receive remote education. To support that, we invested nearly £5 million in the Oak National Academy, which included funding to provide the specialist content for pupils with SEND. We also founded the National Star College to provide specialist training for teachers, leaders and SENCOs—special educational needs co-ordinators—on providing remote education for pupils with SEND.

We have been clear that where children and young people with an EHC plan need health provision, educational settings should work collaboratively with local authorities and health providers to agree the appropriate support. We made it clear that therapists and other professionals may continue to visit schools and colleges to provide that. Indeed, yesterday I met the Royal College of Occupational Therapists and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists to underlie how important it is that children get those therapies.

Despite all our efforts, many children and young people with SEND will be negatively impacted by the pandemic, and our focus has to be on supporting them in our recovery. Sir Kevan Collins, who has great experience in the SEND sector, as well as in many other areas of education, has been appointed as the education recovery commissioner, and he is considering how we can effectively target resources and support for those in the greatest need.

Sir Kevan is also looking at transitions, which Matt Rodda mentioned. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that issue, but we may need to wait until after the court case. It is an issue that I shall be looking at closely. One clever thing that we did during the pandemic was to put in a special transition fund for year 11 students in alternative provision. Many young people in alternative provision have special educational needs, and that helped to support them on their journey into further education colleges last year. It was a great success. Transition is an issue that I am always interested in.

Vulnerable children are at the heart of our work in the Department for Education. The £650 million catch-up premium that we announced last June was weighted to give extra support to those in special schools. There is three times more support per pupil in special schools than in mainstream schools. That was supplemented by the additional £320 million recovery premium that we announced in March, which is helping schools to make up for lost teaching time. Head teachers decide how that premium is spent. They can prioritise particular pupils, including children with SEND.

Similarly, the recently expanded national tutoring programme provides access to high-quality tuition for disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people, and 26 of the 33 providers that we have approved to provide the tutoring can provide tutoring for SEND. That includes the 16 to 19 tuition fund, for the support of students. Furthermore, the early language and literacy catch-up programme will benefit all children, including those with SEND. More than 40% of the primary schools in the country have signed up to the language and literacy programme.

The long summer break can bring extra pressures on families, and to address that we have expanded the holiday activities and food programme, which has provided healthy food and enriching activities to disadvantaged children since 2018. This year it will cover the Easter, summer and Christmas school holidays at a cost of up to £220 million and will be available to children across England. We are working to ensure that the programme is fully inclusive and accessible. The £200 million summer school funding will be available to all secondary schools, including specialist settings, to deliver face-to-face summer schools. Schools will be able to target what they provide based on pupils’ needs, enabling them to tailor support for those with SEND.

Kate Osborne mentioned mental health, as did some other Members. It is important, because children and young people will succeed only if their physical and mental wellbeing is prioritised, so we recently announced another £79 million boost to children’s and young people’s mental health support, including through further roll-out of mental health support teams. Our wellbeing for education return programme has provided training and resources to help school staff across England to respond to the wellbeing and mental health needs of pupils at this time. On top of that, we remain committed to our joint Green Paper delivery programme on mental health.

Many Members have spoken about funding, and we recognise that support for SEND has to be underpinned by the necessary funding. In addition to the recovery funding, we are investing significantly in special needs education. An additional £730 million is going into high-needs funding in this financial year. That comes on top of the extra £780 million that we provided last year, which means that in two years the high-needs budget will have grown by more than £1.5 billion and increased by nearly a quarter. We are also investing another £300 million of capital funding this year in new places for children and young people with SEND, or those who need alternative provision.

It might be worth telling hon. Members how those funding numbers affect their constituencies. In Slough, the funding for high needs has increased to £28 million—a 16% increase over last year and this. There are also 16% increases in Bedford, Reading, Richmond and Camden. Funding in East Suffolk and Norfolk is increasing by about 22%, in Luton by 23% and in South Tyneside by about 26%. In Liverpool, funding was increased by 17% last year and will be increased by a further 12% this year.

As Munira Wilson mentioned, we have been working closely with Richmond Council on safety valve funding, and I will pass her thanks on to the team at the Department for Education, who always work closely with councils that are struggling in this area. Luton also received almost another three quarters of a million pounds to improve children’s social care.

We know that practical support for local SEND services is really important. This year we are putting £42 million into projects to support children and young people with SEND, ensuring that organisations across the country continue their work to strengthen local area performance, and supporting families and providing practical support to schools and colleges. Crucially, that funding will help to strengthen the participation of parents and young people, ensuring that they have a voice in designing SEND policies and services as well as access to high-quality information and support.

Ian Byrne mentioned autism. My Department is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a refreshed cross-Government autism strategy. Progress has been made on autism over the years, but there are challenges and priorities for reducing inequalities, enabling autistic people of all ages to have the same opportunities as everyone else to lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives. The refreshed autism strategy will, subject to the pressures of the pandemic, be published this spring—that is our aim.

The hon. Member for Slough mentioned local issues that he had seen. Slough Borough Council is Labour-run, and sadly it has a long history of failing children. Its children’s services were rated as inadequate by Ofsted back in 2013, and we in the Department for Education took children’s services into a trust. We have invested millions of pounds in that trust and, since 2019, the trust is no longer considered inadequate, though it still requires improvement and remains in intervention.

I was therefore very disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman’s stories about the services that Slough Borough Council provides for disabled children. Disabled children’s services are the responsibility of the council; they do not sit within the children’s trust. We have, however, provided support through a SEND adviser and increased the high-needs budget, as I mentioned. We know that the council’s SEND services have not been inspected by the joint inspections that Ofsted does with the CQC. However, SEND inspections will recommence in 2021, so I am hopeful that we will see some more inspections and get more feedback.

I appreciate that Slough Borough Council has a significant dedicated schools grant deficit. I am pleased that it is keen to work with us to improve it, but I must point out to Members that it is possible to manage a high-needs budget and SEND services effectively. We can all learn from authorities that have had good inspection outcomes. Slough might like to look at what has been achieved in Portsmouth or indeed in Lambeth.

I turn to the SEND review. We do recognise that the current system is not delivering for some children and young people—it is not helping them to achieve the outcomes that they deserve. My hon. Friend Sally-Ann Hart is right that we need a consistent approach across the whole country to ensure that children get the services and support that they need. Our cross-Government SEND review is looking at ways to improve that.

We know that these issues are long-standing and complex, but we are absolutely determined to deliver a real and lasting positive change. Our ambition is to publish proposals for wider public consultation before the summer. The review’s work is broad: it covers children and young people from birth to the age of 25 and looks at improving lifelong outcomes. We want to build on the best of the current system and put families at its heart, which means ensuring that we identify and meet needs as soon as possible, including by having strong support systems within mainstream settings as well as excellence in special school settings.

I trust that this extensive programme of work makes it clear that supporting children and families, especially our most vulnerable children and children with special needs and disabilities, is right at the heart of all that this Government do, especially in this very, very challenging time.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:41 pm, 21st April 2021

I thank the Minister for her response, and I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions to what I believe has been a very engaging and informative debate. I hope that parents and children with special educational needs and disabilities have appreciated just how seriously this important issue is being looked at by hon. Members across the political spectrum.

Sally-Ann Hart eloquently explained the work undertaken by the all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities, by its chair, my hon. Friend Olivia Blake, and by its other members. My hon. Friend Clive Lewis spoke powerfully about the barriers that children and their families in Norfolk face, and about the inherent unfairness of a two-tiered system. My hon. Friend Mohammad Yasin spoke cogently about his concerns about the funding model and the devastation of that system in Bedford by austerity over the past decade. My hon. Friend Ian Byrne powerfully high -lighted the issues that, as he put it, have been highlighted again and again over so many years—the pandemic has only exacerbated them, and yet we still have no solution.

My hon. Friend Sarah Owen described the incredible work of the late right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, whose incredible input into work on autism I had the pleasure of learning about when I attended a training session on understanding autism at which she spoke so movingly. My hon. Friend has highlighted the exasperating delays; I felt that the delays in Slough were bad enough, but for her constituents to have to wait for up to four years is simply unacceptable. She also delineated at length the lack of joint working.

My hon. Friend Kate Osborne spoke so movingly from her own experiences. As the mother of a child with special educational needs and disabilities, she knows all too well the pressures that families feel. She explained about the inability to access appointments, the gaps in the system and the lack of ring-fenced funding, which are issues that I hope the Minister will mend.

My Berkshire colleague and hon. Friend Matt Rodda highlighted the pressures on families in Reading. He spoke about the inadequate funding; he also spoke with a great deal of experience, having seen it in his constituency, about the need to work on the transition from primary to secondary. I am grateful that the Minister has accepted his request to meet her in due course to alleviate some of those concerns about Reading.

Munira Wilson spoke about the pressures in Richmond Borough Council and how important it is to make children’s needs, rather than funding, central. She also spoke about the isolation and huge mental health problems that children and their families face.

My hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, the shadow Minister, spoke about the effect of issues in her constituency and about the national situation. She talked about her discussions with head teachers, who are not happy with the loss of support during the pandemic, and who say that the Government package will not be enough.

I am grateful to the Minister for her response. She accepted that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted families and children with special educational needs and disabilities. She described the situation in Slough, but the Slough trust solution imposed by the Government has not worked well; indeed, as Slough Borough Council and others have highlighted during discussions, the funding has been wholly inadequate. I hope the Minister will discuss that with her colleagues in the Department for Education to ensure that funding is available in the new settlement.

The Minister explained about the family fund, the catch-up and recovery premiums and the summer school funding. Although various numbers are bandied around whenever we have discussions with Government or approach them in the Chamber, as the Minister herself stated, the need has increased significantly but the funding has not kept pace. That is a central point.

As I said in my introductory speech, funding issues and delays are the key things on which we need action, as we all acknowledge. The Minister herself acknowledged that the current system is not working. I hope that the SEND review, which will be published this summer, will alleviate some of our concerns about funding and delays.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered support for children with SEND.

Sitting suspended.