SEND: Carshalton and Wallington

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 21st June 2022.

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Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 11:00 am, 21st June 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered SEND services in Carshalton and Wallington.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. In addition, I will speak about the special educational needs provision at the London Borough of Sutton and its arm’s length company Cognus.

Every child deserves access to good education and the support that they are entitled to, for the best start in life. But for too many children and their families in Carshalton and Wallington, getting that access is a daily fight because of a Lib Dem-run council that does not seem to care about the most vulnerable children in our borough. Every single week at my surgery, a parent, carer or family member raises complaints about getting their child access to the support that they are entitled to when fighting for an education. They have shown me the countless emails, meetings, phone calls back and forth with Cognus and even with councillors responsible for running the service, but I hear the same story week on week. Messages are going ignored, support gets refused and parents are having to escalate cases up to the tribunal and/or the ombudsman in order to get support.

The problems with SEN provision in Sutton have been well documented. In 2018, concerns were raised by the Care Quality Commission about Sutton’s SEND department, and by Ofsted, which delivered a damning inspection report. The report found that there had been insufficient progress made on implementing the 2014 reforms, poor communication and over-optimistic self-evaluation, among other issues. It was estimated that approximately 700 children had been unlawfully rejected for education, health and care plan—EHCP—assessments since 2015. In any other council, at the very least, the lead member would have resigned, but all have remained in post and the same councillor remains in charge of the service today. What was the Lib Dems’ response to the Ofsted report? No humility, no shame and no remorse for the pain that they had caused children and their families. Instead, they called for Ofsted to be abolished.

Since 2018, the council has claimed that it has improved its service, that Cognus is working well and that it has the backing of the majority of parents in the borough, but that is not reflected in reality for parents in Carshalton and Wallington. It was around that time that a local mum Hayley Harding set up the Sutton EHCP Crisis group. She has amassed the backing of hundreds of local parents and families who have been through similar situations as she has. I pay tribute to Hayley—I know that my hon. Friend Paul Scully, who is Hayley’s MP, does too—and to the hundreds of campaigners who have been battling for their children to receive access to the support to which they are entitled.

The struggle to get EHCPs has continued for many parents since 2018, despite what the council might claim. Sutton Council and Cognus have been the subject of many local and national media scandals since 2018, most notably when Sutton shamefully appeared on a BBC “Panorama” exposé in 2020. Did that spark a change in attitudes at the council and Cognus? I am afraid it did not, and the parents’ fight has continued.

Last year, a shocking set of Cognus board minutes were leaked. The unredacted copies reveal a shocking truth. Not only was Cognus in a dire financial situation, with a loss of £717,000 a year, despite Sutton consistently appearing as one of—if not the—highest-funded boroughs for SEND, the council is aiming to save money by cancelling around 200 children’s EHCPs by the end of the year. Did that revelation start the winds of change for parents? No. The unredacted minutes were there for the world to see, yet the council and Cognus denied their contents. Let me just emphasise this point: printed official minutes were obtained, and the response from the council and Cognus was to deny that what was printed in them was true. That is absolutely shocking.

In 2022, four years on from the Ofsted report, it appears that no lessons have been learned. Just a few months ago, the Department for Education’s own figures showed that Sutton, once again, was found to be the highest rejector of families applying for EHCP assessments in the country. Almost half of all children were rejected. To put that into perspective, the national average is 23%. That comes back to what the 2018 Ofsted report initially found, when it took particular aim at the leadership of the service—in other words, the Lib Dem councillors in charge of running it.

Since 2018, I have seen countless examples of the council setting itself against parents and families of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Not only do parents struggle to get an EHCP in the first place, but the plans that are issued are often completely inadequate. For example, parents have shown me obviously copied and pasted EHCP plans. Many of them had not even bothered to change the child’s name from the plan it was copied from, meaning not only is the wrong child named on the plan, but it has the wrong support in it.

That leaves parents and families spending months, even years, fighting with the council and Cognus all the way to a tribunal and/or the ombudsman to get what they deserve. This is not a group of parents deliberately trying to make trouble for the council. The figures show that around 90% of cases are found in the parents’ favour. While the council is wasting taxpayers’ money, taking families through expensive proceedings such as this, rather than providing the support they are entitled to, the children are left in the middle, not getting access to the support that they need. This is a real mark of shame on Sutton and cannot be allowed to continue. If councils such as Sutton’s continue to turn against families of children with special educational needs and disability, the frameworks must be in place to support the families.

I know the Government recognise that, which is why they conducted a review into SEND. I have a few questions for the Minister about how the SEND review will support families of children with SEND in places such as Carshalton and Wallington. I want to know how the SEND review will make it easier for families to raise disputes and have them resolved more quickly; what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that councils comply with their statutory obligations; and how, overall, the SEND review aims to change the negative experience that many families have of fighting for their children’s education. Children deserve the best possible start in life. I look forward to hearing how the Government can help achieve that.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 11:07 am, 21st June 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for securing this important debate on special educational needs in his constituency of Carshalton and Wallington, and the London Borough of Sutton more generally.

I will start by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend when he says that every child deserves access to a good education—in fact, I would go further and say a world-class education. It concerns me greatly to hear how many parents in his constituency are having to fight the system just to get their child or young person the support they deserve. That is not right, and I will say more about how we plan to change the system, in particular the adversarial nature of it, which he pointed out.

My hon. Friend raised the poor implementation of the 2014 reforms in Sutton. He is right to do so, though it is sadly not an issue that is exclusive to Sutton. I will come on to that in a moment. He also referred to the work of local mum Hayley Harding, who is inspirational. I have had the pleasure of meeting her, and join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to her for the important work she does in supporting other parents and campaigning for change in this area. I can assure my hon. Friend that I have listened. I hope that the SEND Green Paper, which I will come to in a few moments, reflects that listening exercise.

My hon. Friend talked of the struggle to get education, health and care plans. He is right to raise that point, and I will say more in a moment about our proposed changes as part of the review. He concluded with a number of important questions about the SEND review and the Green Paper, which I will now address. Before I do that, though not wanting to embarrass my hon. Friend, I will say this. It is important that his constituents know how hard, and how passionately, he has campaigned on this issue. To be frank, I cannot walk down a corridor in Westminster and pass my hon. Friend without him raising either a local SEND case or this issue more generally. I appreciate that I am biased on the issue, but in my view a council’s greatest responsibility is to its children, particularly the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, which is why his testimony about Sutton depresses me greatly. We need to change the system.

I know how hard my hon. Friend works to ensure that every child in his constituency—as well as children across Sutton more generally, when he works with other MPs—has access to the world-class education they deserve. I commit myself to continuing to work with him to hold Sutton Council to account and to ensure that it treats the education of vulnerable and disadvantaged children as seriously as he does, and indeed I do.

Let me turn to the specific points and questions that my hon. Friend raised. First, I will cover funding. Although my hon. Friend, and indeed parents, will want to hear more about our ambitious plans for reform of SEND and alternative provision more generally in the Green Paper, I am conscious of the fact that they will also be concerned about the here and now, especially if they have children with SEND who are in the education system. Importantly, we are increasing the high-needs budget for children and young people with the most complex needs by £1 billion this year, 2022-23. That brings it to a total investment of £9.1 billion. That unprecedented increase comes on top of a £1.5 billion increase over the past two years.

Let me turn specifically to the London Borough of Sutton, which will attract an increase of 12.5% per head of its two-to-18 population this year, compared with the previous financial year’s allocation. That brings its total high-needs funding allocation for 2022-23 to £52.6 million. Alongside that is our capital investment programme. We very much recognise the need for more special school places, so we have secured £2.6 billion to build or create around 33,000 additional SEND places. We are pump-priming that by investing early, so £1.4 billion of that allocation will be spent this year. Although we do not have exact figures for Sutton, I am conscious of the fact that there is a need for special places across London. I will be able to update my hon. Friend at a later date as to those plans.

Let me turn to the SEND review and the Green Paper. I will briefly touch on why those reforms are so desperately needed. My hon. Friend has set out many of the reasons for them, but they are first about outcomes, which are just not acceptable at present. It is not acceptable that we have so many children and young people with SEND who are falling behind their peers.

When I meet with parents and carers, and with children and young people with SEND, they tell me that, too often, they feel unsupported by the system, locally and nationally and, as my hon. Friend mentioned, too many parents feel that they have to fight, fight and fight just to get their child or children the education and support they deserve. They tell me that the system is too adversarial, and that that is not helped by the culture in local authorities, which my hon. Friend mentioned in relation to Sutton, especially when it comes to tribunals, as he pointed out.

I am told of a lack of SEND support in mainstream settings, of needs not being identified and met early enough, of a postcode lottery and, as we know, of significant local authority deficits. There is a lack of join-up between local health systems and the education system, as well as insufficient clarity about what parents and children should be entitled to. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there are poor accountability and redress mechanisms in the system, which means that parents feel powerless.

All the above and more are why the Government committed themselves to the SEND review in September 2019. Despite a delay largely caused by the pandemic, the Green Paper was published in the first quarter of this year. The consultation is now live, and we have extended the deadline for submissions to 22 July. I would encourage everyone to take part. Although we have set out a clear plan, and aspiration and ambition, we need those with lived experience and experience of SEND up and down our country to take part and ensure that we get it right.

Given the negative experiences of his constituents and the issues that he, and indeed I, set out, my hon. Friend rightly asked how the Green Paper and the review will bring about the change we all desperately want to see. My aim is to create a more inclusive education system, with excellent local mainstream provision, that will improve the experience and outcome for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities and, importantly, those who need alternative provision.

How do we intend to achieve this? At its heart, it is about ensuring every child gets the right support, in the right place, at the right time, tailored to their individual needs. We will establish a single national SEND and alternative provision system, setting out clear standards that will be underpinned by the introduction of a national framework. We will provide targeted support for children and young people, where required. Using that £2.6 billion, we will make available excellent specialist provision and alternative provision support for those children who have more complex needs.

We will set out clear roles, responsibilities and accountability measures. We will standardise and digitise EHCPs, making them more accessible to parents and those who advocate for and support them. We will strengthen mediation arrangements so that individuals can work through disagreements with their local authorities at an earlier stage, trying to take the adversarial nature out of the system.

We will establish new SEND partnerships at a local level that will require local areas to co-produce an inclusion plan with parents locally. We will introduce new local and national inclusion dashboards that will strengthen accountability and transparency.

Importantly, we will improve initial teacher training, as every teacher teaches children or young people with SEND, but many tell me that they do not feel confident in that role. If we are to identify early and get children and young people the support they need as early as possible, that starts with highly skilled teachers who have the confidence to teach those with SEND. To help us with that, we will introduce a new SEND national professional qualification.

As I mentioned, these plans are backed up by our £2.6 billion capital investment programme and by learning from the lessons of the 2014 reforms. The ambition and aspiration of the 2014 reforms were right, but sadly the implementation was poor, as evidenced by my hon. Friend. We know that the implementation in Sutton was nowhere near as good as it should have been. Sadly, we see that replicated in other local authorities up and down the country. That is why we are determined to get implementation right as part of these reforms, and we are investing an additional £70 million specifically for implementation. It is important to repeat that the consultation is now open and live until 22 July. I encourage as many people as possible to take part, and it is available on gov.uk.

Finally, my hon. Friend rightly focused on accountability, especially by local authorities. With the support of the Department of Health and Social Care, we have commissioned the Care Quality Commission and Ofsted to develop a new area SEND inspection framework, which will be launched in early 2023. Its overarching aim is to give a greater role to the views and experiences of children and young people with SEND, their parents and carers. The public consultation for that is also currently live and can be found online or through Ofsted.

In closing, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington for his support for this incredibly important agenda. He has raised important concerns, and I hope he knows that I and the Government are not just dedicated but determined to continue to listen to children and young people with SEND, their parents, their carers and all those who advocate for them in the system. I hope my hon. Friend feels assured that the work is under way and that he feels confident that we are committed to delivering changes within the SEND system, both locally and nationally, so that every child and young person across our country, regardless of the challenges they face, is able to achieve their full potential.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.