6 March 2019
Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on special educational needs and disability in Wiltshire

Nadhim Zahawi speaks on behalf of the Government in a debate on special educational needs and disability in Wiltshire and responds to concerns raised by local MPs.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) on securing this important debate. He has spoken eloquently and passionately about Larkrise School and about special educational needs and disability—SEND—provision in Wiltshire. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who is unable to speak on behalf of St Nicholas School in her constituency because she is a member of the Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire will know, SEND is a key part of my ministerial portfolio and an area where this Government have made significant reforms in recent years. I am sure that he would agree that all children, whether or not they have special educational needs and disabilities, should have a good start in life. We want them to achieve well in school and in later education. As adults, it is important that they find employment and lead happy and fulfilled lives. The reforms that this Government introduced in 2014 were put in place so that those ambitions could be achieved.

We have done much to help to implement these reforms. We have invested £391 million in local areas to support implementation since 2014, and £252 million has been provided direct to local authorities. We have also invested in supporting families. For example, in November 2017 we confirmed two further years of funding for parent-carer forums—£15,000 per forum per year, or £4.6 million in total. Those forums started modestly nationally with about 500 individuals, and over 90,000 are now involved. Between June 2018 and March 2020, we are providing £20 million to improve the quality of local information, advice and support services and to provide a national helpline and online support services for families who have children and young people with SEND.

Local authorities such as Wiltshire County Council are critical in ensuring that the SEND reforms succeed. In this respect, as my hon. Friend said, Wiltshire is a council that has done much of which it can be proud, and there is significant evidence for this. In early 2018, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission conducted a local area inspection of Wiltshire’s SEND provision. The report of that inspection, published in March that year, stated that the senior leaders were working together

“constructively to deliver and improve services”

and demonstrated

“ambition to deliver high-quality outcomes”.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) for reminding us of the great work that Wiltshire has done. Other strengths identified in the report included effective joint commissioning arrangements, children achieving well in early years, the local area’s website for the local offer providing a wealth of information and guidance, and safeguarding being a priority for the council, where concerns are swiftly acted upon.

The latest figures from January 2018 show that 3% of pupils attending schools in Wiltshire had an education, health and care plan or a statement of special educational needs, which is just above the national average of 2.9%. In the latest figures available, from 2017, Wiltshire’s performance on issuing education, health and care plans by the statutory deadline of 20 weeks was 91.8%, which is well above the national average of 64.9%. In 2017, the number of appeals to the SEND tribunal was 0.8% of appealable decisions, which is much lower than the national average of 1.5%.

Wiltshire is doing excellent work on engaging with local parents in strategic decision making in relation to special educational needs and disabilities. Working with families in that way is a central theme of the SEND reforms that we introduced. By the end of its 10th year, in March 2018, the Wiltshire Parent Carer Council reported that it had grown its membership to 2,448 parents. Sixteen parent carer representatives sit on strategic boards and are involved in tasks groups across health, social care and education. Both the local authority and the local health authority provide funding to support the WPCC, on top of the £15,000 per year that the Government provide.

I had the pleasure of meeting representatives from Wiltshire Council and the Wiltshire Parent Carer Council in October last year. They demonstrated a number of things that they were doing in co-production to improve SEND arrangements in the local area. For example, they told me that a new short breaks scheme designed by parents led to increased take-up from families of this important service. Fewer than 100 families were accessing short breaks schemes in Wiltshire before 2008, and that has risen to more than 1,500 families over the years. Importantly, over 98% of those families said that they were happy with the short breaks they accessed.

All this is evidence of a council that is embracing the SEND reforms and making a success of them. Like many other councils, Wiltshire faces significant challenges, but it is clearly making considerable efforts to overcome them. This strong track record is very much to Wiltshire’s credit, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, and I am sure it is appreciated by local families.

Local authorities have a duty to ensure that there is sufficient provision in their area to meet the needs of children and young people with SEND. I am aware of the council’s proposals published for consultation in November 2018 to close two schools for children with complex needs and disabilities and create a single so-called super-special school. That proposal has been challenged locally, and I understand that the grounds of challenge include failure to properly consult before publishing a notice of closure, breach of public sector equality duties, breach of statutory provisions for the welfare of children and appearance of predetermination. I note the concern that if the change proposed by the local authority is implemented, it could have implications for some children who may need to travel further to school. That point has been made forcefully to me by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire tonight and by my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham, on behalf of children in her constituency. I must, however, be clear tonight that I cannot intervene in or comment on this decision; this must be left up to the courts and the local authority.

We recognise that local authorities, including Wiltshire County Council, are facing high needs cost pressures. In response to these pressures, we have allocated an additional £250 million of funding for high needs over this year and next year—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire for commending us for this further funding—and this is of course on top of the increases we had already promised. Wiltshire will receive £2.3 million of this additional funding.

Of course, our response to these pressures cannot simply be additional funding. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote in December to local authority chief executives and directors of children’s services to set out our plans. These plans include reviewing current special educational needs content in initial teacher training provision and ensuring a sufficient supply of educational psychologists trained and working within the system.

We will shortly be issuing a call for evidence on the financial incentives within the current arrangements, in particular on the operation and use of mainstream schools’ notional special educational needs budgets up to £6,000. We of course want to continue to engage with local authorities, along with schools, colleges, parents and health professionals, to ensure that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities get the support they need and deserve.

I am enormously grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire for raising this important issue. I am particularly grateful to be able to offer praise to a local area through the work not only of the local council and other statutory authorities, but of local families and the voluntary and community sector organisations that make such an important and positive difference to the lives of children and young people with SEND and to their families and friends. The collective efforts they are making to implement these important reforms will have a lasting and positive impact on families locally.

I am pleased to see that, while there is clearly still much to be done, many other areas across the country are also making strong positive efforts, and they are to be applauded. The Government will continue to play our part in supporting all local areas to succeed. I hope that my hon. Friend is content that the Government understand the issues he has raised in this debate.