Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on educational outcomes for children with autism

6th February 2018

Nadhim Zahawi replies to a debate on autism and education and welcomes the report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Autism “Autism and education in England 2017” which will help the Government prepare its strategy to make sure that support for children and young people with autism and SEND is effectively targeted.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) on securing this debate and I congratulate her and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) on the excellent work they have done in this report. The debate is timely, following the recent all-party group inquiry on autism and education, where she co-chaired the work. I welcome the report and its recommendations. As we have heard, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State attended its launch last week, and I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes is right to highlight the fact that a diagnosis of autism can take a long time. I recognise how frustrating that can be for families and cannot stress enough that people do not need to wait for a formal diagnosis in order to secure support for their child—that is the message I want to send out from the Dispatch Box. The majority of children and young people with special educational needs or a disability will have their needs met within local mainstream early years settings, schools or colleges. As soon as it becomes apparent that a child may require extra help, the child’s school should begin to provide support in line with the SEND—special educational needs and disability—code of practice.

The code of practice is clear that, if a local authority considers that it may be necessary for special educational provision to be made for a pupil through an EHC—education, health and care—plan, it must conduct an EHC needs assessment. An assessment can be requested by the school, by the child or young person’s parents, or by the young person themselves, if they are over school leaving age.

Can the Minister tell us how long it takes between a school identifying that a child has an issue and that child receiving the intervention and support that they require? In too many areas throughout the country, it is taking far too long.

The hon. Lady raises an important point. It is taking far too long. I have been in the job only three weeks, but I have already heard that message from many parents who have made exactly that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes talked about the importance of training school staff effectively to support those with autism. With more than 108,000 children and young people in schools having been identified as having autism, I agree that it is vital that they are well supported in their education so that they have the best possible chance of achieving their aspirations, living independently and finding sustainable employment. Having teachers who are confident and competent to support them is fundamental for children to thrive in school.

Autism presents particular challenges for teachers. It is not always easy to understand how the world appears for a child with autism and what might be driving particular behaviours, especially if someone has not come across autism before. For the child, that lack of understanding can lead to frustration, a failure to enjoy and engage with learning, and challenging behaviour, which can in some cases end in temporary or even permanent exclusion. That is why we are keen to ensure that education staff are well placed to support children and young people with autism.

Our approach to initial teacher training ensures that newly qualified teachers are equipped to support children with special educational needs, including those with autism. To be awarded qualified teacher status, trainees must satisfy the teachers’ standards, which include a requirement that they have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with SEN, and are able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them. We have also launched a consultation to explore how we can support teachers at the early stages of their careers by strengthening the qualified teacher status.

I am pleased to say that we are currently in discussions to extend the Autism Education Trust contract to deliver autism training to existing education staff in early years settings, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes mentioned, as well as in schools and colleges. The Department has funded that training since 2012 and it has so far reached more than 150,000 people—not only teachers and teaching assistants but support staff such as receptionists, dining-hall staff and caretakers, thereby encouraging a whole-school approach to supporting pupils with autism.

It is important that teaching staff can access resources to help them to support children on a day-to-day basis in the classroom. We recently published a new resource, developed by ASK Research and Coventry University, which sets out evidence on effective approaches to supporting children and young people with special educational needs, including those with autism. We have also funded a school improvement programme to further support the embedding of good SEND practice in schools, including by working with local areas where the Ofsted and Care Quality Commission local-area inspection reports include significant concerns about school provision.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and am heartened to hear his positive response to my colleagues’ report. Does he agree that it is important that Ofsted inspectors are trained to understand autism and the requirements of children with autism? They cannot fully report on and inspect educational establishments unless they themselves are trained, so will he ensure that all Ofsted inspectors receive training on autism?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point and I shall try to address some of what she has said in the rest of my speech. It is important to think about who inspects the inspectors. Who is satisfied that they know and can identify autism?

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes also raised the issue of the need to reduce bullying. It is an issue that affects far too many autistic children and young people. The Government have always been clear that bullying of any kind is absolutely unacceptable and should never be tolerated. It is important for schools to respond promptly to support the bullied child and ensure that the bullying does not happen again. Last year, we published revised guidance for schools on how to prevent and tackle bullying in all its forms, and to help them create a safe and disciplined environment where pupils are able to learn and fulfil their potential.

The report also highlights the disproportionate exclusion from school of autistic children. It is really important that schools have an inclusive ethos, and they have a duty under the SEND code of practice to ensure that pupils with SEN are able to engage in the school’s activities alongside pupils who do not have SEN. I know that exclusion, especially illegal “informal” exclusion, is a particular concern for the parents of autistic children. Under the contract with the Autism Education Trust, we are continuing to fund the excellent work of the National Autistic Society in providing advice and information on exclusions to parents and education professionals. Feedback shows that parents, in particular, value this service, helping them to understand their rights in situations where their child is at risk of exclusion, or has already been excluded.

None the less, we want to understand more about exclusions and their impact. That is why, in October 2017, the Prime Minister announced the launch of a review of exclusions practice and the implications for pupil groups that are disproportionately represented in the national statistics. The review will look at how schools use exclusion and how this impacts on all pupils, but in particular it will look at why the practice of exclusions is so varied and why some groups of children, including those with SEND such as autism, are more likely to be excluded than others. It will also be an opportunity to share best practice.

The 2014 SEND reforms were the biggest change to the system in a generation and placed a firm focus on involving young people and their families directly in planning their own support—

The Minister is being very generous this evening; I do thank him. I just want to take him back to the Prime Minister’s review. When will that piece of work be published and when will we be able to look at the results of that review?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. In my speech, I will go on to address some of the issues—not just the Prime Minister’s review, but the Lenehan review and the Bercow work as well. We are looking very seriously at this matter, and the impetus from the Prime Minister and No.10 is only helping us to focus even more resources on making sure that we get this review right.

As I said, the 2014 SEND reforms were the biggest change to the system in a generation and placed a firm focus on involving young people and their families directly in planning their own support, which is particularly relevant for children and young people on the autistic spectrum, where one size definitely does not fit all.

The Children and Families Act 2014 and the 0-25 SEND code of practice 2015 are built on best practice developed over many years. They are improving the support available to children and young people with SEND by joining up services for 0 to 25-year-olds across education, health and social care, and by focusing on positive outcomes in terms of education, employment, housing, health and community participation. This increased focus on the transition to adulthood, employment and independent living is especially important for those with autism who often need additional support to manage transitions and enable them to achieve their aspirations.

I was pleased to see that the report on autism and education of the all-party group on autism found that the principles behind these reforms remain the right ones, and I agree that the challenge is now ensuring effective implementation of the legislation. The transition to education, health and care plans is being phased in over three and a half years and will be complete in March 2018, by which time all statements of SEN should be converted. I understand the pressures on local authorities and recognise that this is a challenging task. I am grateful for the hard work and commitment of all those involved. It is important that all local authorities meet this deadline, and achieve it in a way that ensures that good quality assessments are undertaken and that high-quality plans are in place. We know that there is more to do to ensure that the spirit of the reforms is fully realised, as they require a big change in culture, but we are seeing examples of good practice and are receiving positive feedback from parents of children with SEND. In 2016, the Department carried out a survey of more than 13,000 parents and young people who received an education, health and care plan in 2015; 62% agreed that the help and support described in their plan will achieve outcomes agreed for the child or young person, and 66% were satisfied with the process overall.

The report rightly highlights the importance of a clear accountability framework for these landmark reforms. I agree that it is important that the SEND reforms are implemented as intended. It may be helpful to the House if I set out some ways in which we are supporting this.

We have introduced a new series of joint inspections by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission to see how well all local areas are fulfilling their responsibilities for children and young people with SEND, including those with autism. These new inspections are a key part of our accountability framework for the reforms, and are driving change on the ground, particularly by improving joint leadership across education and health.

The Government have provided over £300 million to support local areas to implement the changes made to the SEND system. This includes £15,000 of grants for parent-carer forums in each local authority area, and funding for 1,200 independent supporters to help families to navigate the education, health and care needs and planning process, and to help local areas to improve practice in engaging children and young people. I recently confirmed the individual allocations to local authorities for further implementation funding for 2018-19, recognising the work that is still to be done to ensure a successful transition to the new system.

The Department has funded a SEND leadership programme, and recently completed legal training to all councils and their health partners to ensure they are clear on their statutory responsibilities and to support better collaborative working. We have committed £23 million of additional funding to support strategic planning of high-needs provision. This will support local authorities in predicting local needs for education, health and care services for children and young people with SEN or disabilities, through the use of prevalence data and other sources of information. We are also working with NHS England to improve joint working at a local and national level through peer review, monitoring and challenge. For example, the 2017-18 NHS provider contract includes a requirement to report on meeting the six-week deadline for health input into education, health and care plans.

It is important that future support for all children and young people with autism and SEND more generally is targeted where it will be most effective. The recommendations of the report by the all-party parliamentary group on autism, alongside those of other recent reports—such as the Lenehan review of residential schools and colleges and the upcoming Bercow review, “Bercow: Ten Years On”, which is expected later this year—will inform our current consideration of our strategy for achieving this in 2018-19 and beyond.

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