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8 Oct 2008 : Column 81WH—continued

9.55 am

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I take your point, Mr. Caton, and I will try to be brief.

The fact that right hon. and hon. Members always expect an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) should not be an impediment to our saying that we have just heard an outstanding speech. In the 20 or so minutes in which he introduced this important debate, he has outlined the problems, challenges and achievements in this field. I want to deal with one of the last points that he made when he talked about potential. He told us, in that beautifully comprehensive address, that although we have made progress, although there have been achievements and although there are many dedicated people in this field, not least in teaching, this issue is all about society ensuring that the potential of every child is recognised, encouraged and achieved.

I should like to reflect not only on the excellent reception yesterday that was sponsored by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning), at which she focused on other aspects of this important issue, but on a gathering and art exhibition that I attended recently in Glasgow, at which impressive works of art were on display. We assembled there and speeches were made, and as happens at these occasions—the same was true yesterday—there was a little disturbance; we have come to expect such things. I think that we were all transfixed by an outstanding painting that transcended everything else in that first-class exhibition. However, it was not until four or five minutes into the speeches that we realised that the young woman who was making a little noise was the artist of that outstanding work and showed such potential.

The hon. Member for Buckingham pursued some excellent arguments about getting education right and ensuring that teacher training deals with this issue. That is important, and what the National Union of Teachers has said is significant. Beyond that, it is important that we as a society prepare children, in the same classes and
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schools as children who experience autism, regarding what they can do and how this is a part of society, not least because nobody can predict what their futures will bring and whether autism might enter their lives. They should be encouraged to take a positive approach to this issue.

I want to deal briefly with the important issue of transition, which emerged in a report by the all-party group on disabled children and their families, which I had the honour of chairing a couple of years ago. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that for many children who experience autistic spectrum disorder, that point of transition is absolutely crucial to them and the world in which they live, and it is crucial to their families and their future. I shall not draw the hon. Gentleman into the argument about resources, particularly in Scotland, but I have put it on the record. Apart from planning for the future, in the field of transition especially, more resources must be made available.

The whole debate is about people rejecting the view that out of sight is out of mind. It is about addressing the problems that exist, as the hon. Gentleman did, acknowledging what is being done, being angry about what is not being done and demanding change where it is necessary. Some of us who sponsored the ten-minute Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton received a very interesting e-mail from a gentleman called Jamie Stewart. I have not met him, but he said that what he was about to tell us was not a scientific account of how people react, but an account of the National Audit Office focus group in which he took part. He said that four out of seven parents had experienced divorce, and two had become carers of a partner who had suffered a breakdown. We therefore owe it to parents of children who experience autism, and to the children themselves, to continue to focus on this crucial issue. This morning, the hon. Member for Buckingham has yet again shown how it can and should be done, but I do not expect him to say that this will be his final speech on the issue; he will have to make many more. In doing so, however, he can feel sure that he will have the warmth and support that we offer him today.

10.1 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Living with autism is a real struggle for many families, and, for the vast majority of people, it is something that happens to somebody else’s family. That is why today’s debate is important, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) on keeping it on the Government’s agenda.

For the people who are directly affected when a diagnosis is made, there is often a lack of information immediately available—where to go, what to do, who to contact, what help is available to families, what they are entitled to and what battles they will have to fight in the years ahead. If one message has come through loud and clear from parents, it is that in most cases they have to fight a constant battle to get even a fraction of the help, support and the education that their child needs.

Yesterday, we heard a very eloquent speech by a 22-year-old with autism who was doing a great job as a trainer of people working with those affected by autism. Unfortunately, her early education consisted of being bullied, spat on, called a freak and leaving her school
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because it could not cope with her behaviour. Fortunately, she survived and made progress later in life, so we must ensure that what happened to her a decade or so ago is not what children in the education system, either today or in the future, have to experience.

The hon. Gentleman eloquently laid out the challenges before us, and as the findings of the Bercow review have done much to frame the issue and bring it to the attention of Parliament, I put on the record my appreciation of the work that he has done in the past, his speech today and the work that he will no doubt do in the future. I would say he never could be described as humble.

Many parents of autistic children, desperate for help and support, will be encouraged by today’s debate, and we owe it to them to ensure that they are not let down. Although it is vital that we commit more resources to providing better education and more flexible support, that in itself will have a limited impact if parents are not aware of all the help to which they are entitled because, over recent years, much of the talk in education policy has emphasised the need for parental choice. However, owing to the complexity of the system and to a lack of information, it is often very difficult for parents of autistic children to make informed choices, and the Minister’s comments on the best way to overcome that information vacuum would be most welcome. Indeed, just yesterday, I was reading about the amount of unclaimed pension credit: it is one thing to provide the help, it is another thing altogether to ensure that the right people receive it.

The importance of accurate information extends beyond the help that we provide to parents, experts and policy makers. Research by TreeHouse into the huge number of parliamentary questions about autism which never receive any answer rightly illustrates the huge gaps in our knowledge. Similarly, the information deficit extends to the lack of understanding among teachers, as we have heard, social workers and even medical experts.

The other point on which I should appreciate the Minister’s comments is support for the transition from childhood to adulthood. The support that young people receive as they leave school is critical to their future success, and for many young people with autism, it is a particularly stressful time as they leave behind the support that they have had through school and move on to a new life. For youngsters with autism, even small changes to their routine can be very difficult, so professionals and services need to plan ahead effectively and consult young people and their families to ensure that the young person is able to move on successfully to opportunities that are appropriate to them. Far too often, it does not happen. Only 15 per cent. of adults with autism are in full-time employment, while more than 40 per cent. still live at home with their parents. Much good work is done during school years, but it can all too easily be undone if young people with autism are abandoned by the system when they reach adulthood.

In my constituency, there is a young man with autism called Calum Reavley, whom I recently visited. His parents, grandparents, family and friends, and many more people, often work day and night to give Calum the good start in life that he deserves. Life is a constant battle for education, for respite care and for everything else. Surely, we have the resources to provide the education, help and support that people such as Calum deserve. As
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his family watch billions of pounds being pumped in to save the financial sector today, they will be asking, “Why is it so hard, and why is there so little help available for us?” I look forward to the Minister’s answer.

10.6 am

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): I, too, shall be brief, because of the number of Members who want to speak. I shall make just four suggestions, but first I thank the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) and congratulate him on bringing the issue to us today. I am not sure that he is the man whom I would choose to write a plain English guide, but he is certainly the right man to lead our debate today, and I enjoyed his speech and I agreed with everything that he said.

I became interested in the subject when I first became an MP and three constituents, all with autistic children, came to me. They wanted Lovaas technique to help their children, but their local council said that they could not have it, although it could provide an alternative that was just as good. My constituents decided that one of them would take a test case to a special educational needs tribunal. The council was represented by a barrister and won the case, but it then changed its mind, granted Lovaas technique to the two parents who had not gone to the tribunal and said that it was now ultra vires to provide Lovaas technique to the parent who had gone to the tribunal. That struck me as an entirely inappropriate way to deal with education and parents’ requirements. As a follow up, the father who did not receive Lovaas technique provided it privately—at great expense to himself and his family. It put such pressure on the marriage that it broke up, but the child did so well that they were able to go back into mainstream schooling at the secondary stage. That is what can happen if one secures the right support for a child, but it could have been done without all the pressure that was put on that family. Far too many cases go to tribunal, and when one gets there one finds that the council is represented by a barrister, and that, as a parent, it is against the rules to get legal aid for one’s representation. My first practical suggestion is therefore that every council should provide an independent and professional friend at its expense to help parents to prepare and present their case. They do not need to be a barrister; they just need to be somebody who knows what they are doing and can help to ensure that the parents’ case is properly presented and the playing field levelled up.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman considered that his suggestion should apply well before the parents ever get to a tribunal? We should give independent advocacy assistance to parents who suspect that they need a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder but do not know where to get it, how to gain access to it or how to argue for it.

Dr. Ladyman: I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman, and that intervention feeds very nicely into my next point. When the Government made it a requirement that a parent could insist on a mainstream school place for a disabled child, they did not take away the right to insist on a special school place. One of the problems that we have is that there is the wrong balance in many areas between the number of special places available and the number of parents who want their child to go to those special schools.

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My second suggestion is that we should undertake a professional and comprehensive needs survey. Let us work out exactly how many people there are with autism who might benefit from mainstream schooling, so that councils can get their provision right, because far too many councils are basing provision on cost rather than on need. May I make another suggestion? As I have already said and as we all know, the earlier that we intervene, recognise that someone has autism and get them the right support that they need, the better they will do. We have a huge opportunity coming up, because the Prime Minister has announced that we will provide a nursery school place for all two-year-olds whose parents want such a place. Why do we not say that everybody who is responsible for looking after a two or three-year-old in nursery education must have autism training, so that they can recognise the signs of a child who has autism and can ensure that that child is referred elsewhere in the education system to get the right sort of help?

John Bercow: Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the call that he has just made, for greater early identification and by implication greater early intervention, is strengthened by the fact that it comes not only from him and other hon. and right hon. Members but from a report that was published only about five days ago by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which exhorted the British Government to provide greater early identification? The Government should take a lead from that report.

Dr. Ladyman: Absolutely. I would add that, if we can achieve greater awareness of autism in our nursery schools, we should also teach teachers and doctors to listen to mums, because it is usually mums who spot the signs of autism first but they are usually told, “Go away, you’re just being a worrying mum.” We should therefore improve the system so that we are actually listening to mums when they raise these concerns.

Finally, the Department for Education and Skills, the predecessor of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, published a best practice guide for autism a few years ago. In fact, two guides were produced; one for health and one for education. The one for education is particularly good and it is effectively a checklist to establish whether a local authority is really doing the things it ought to be doing to ensure that the right provision is available and that the right support is provided for parents. A local authority that has followed that best practice guide provides services at an acceptable level, so why do we not make it compulsory for Ofsted to go through that best practice guide at every inspection of a local authority and challenge it to make sure that it is living up to the guide? At the moment, it is effectively left to parents to use that guide to test their local authority, but it should be done by Ofsted, and the local authority should be forced to come up to the mark.

10.12 am

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I want to reiterate the thanks that all Members have given today to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) for securing this debate. I know that many residents in my constituency will be following it with some interest.

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As the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) said, the pressure on families with children who have autism can be incredibly intense and it is a tragedy that so many of them suffer family breakdown as a result.

I would like to focus my remarks on the importance of specialist training for teaching autistic children. In my constituency of Basingstoke, I am fortunate to have a number of schools that specialise in dealing with autistic children and their particular needs. I would like to refer specifically to Dove House school, which offers secondary education for children in the north Hampshire area. It has been commended by Ofsted for its work in providing outstanding teaching for pupils with autism, thus enabling them to make great progress, by a number of means: the environment it creates for children; the tailored curriculum it creates for them; and the deep understanding that the teachers have of the needs of children with autism. Those factors have enabled the school to secure its high commendation from Ofsted for the outstanding progress that its pupils make. When I visit the school and talk to parents who have children there, I find it is those factors that they understand as really critical in providing an outstanding education for their children.

As hon. Members have already mentioned, 70 per cent. of children on the autistic spectrum are educated in mainstream schools. Some parents of autistic children choose for their children to be educated in mainstream schools; some do not, and the hon. Member for South Thanet is absolutely right to say that we need to understand more about the provision of education at local level for children with autism. For some children, it will be better to be in the mainstream sector. However, just because they are in the mainstream sector, it does not mean that the teaching, the sensitivity of the teaching and the school environment and the need to ensure that all those key factors are addressed is any less important.

As we know, TreeHouse does a great deal to campaign on behalf of children with autism and their parents. The report that it issued last month underlined the importance of tailoring education to the needs of the child. Quite worryingly, the report identified that there are still significant problems in delivering that tailored programme within the mainstream sector of education. The report identified that successful inclusion involves training staff about autism, so that the staff can then cater for a child’s individual needs and ensure that the correct environment exists for that child. Thus we see themes emerging.

However, as hon. Members have said, the National Union of Teachers’ own research shows that less than a third of teachers feel confident about teaching children who are on the autistic disorder spectrum, that two thirds of teachers want training and that three quarters of teachers have identified the lack of professional development as the main barrier to teaching children with autism.

I really welcome the Government’s announcement, made during the recess, that additional resources will be made available; I believe that there will be about £10 million more made available for training teachers. Certainly the focus on training SENCOs is absolutely key. It is encouraging that the Government understand the importance of training teachers before they reach the classroom. However, the focus of the Government’s announcement was those people undertaking
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undergraduate training. As the hon. Member for South Thanet will know very well, those people form the minority of teachers who are coming forward and going into our classrooms to teach children on a day-to-day basis.

I hope that the Minister will be able to flesh out a little some of the sketchy points that were made in the Government press release issued in the summer and perhaps give more details of the emphasis that will be given at undergraduate level to the training those students receive regarding special educational needs, particularly autism. Furthermore, can he tell us what will be done to ensure that people entering teaching through other routes, such as those taking the postgraduate certificate in education, will be given similar support? I am sure that he shares my concern about the continuing problem of retention in the teaching profession. If we are not ensuring that teachers who come into our classrooms have the tools of the trade to meet the needs of all the children in their classroom, we cannot hope to address the problem of retention.

Mr. Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab): Does the hon. Lady agree that this issue is not only about the ability to teach young people with particular special needs, whether it be autism or other conditions, but about the ability of teachers to identify those young people in their classrooms, which means giving teachers the tools and skills so that they can identify them? That is important so that we do not reach the situation that, sadly, one of my constituents finds himself in. He has reached the age of 15 and has only just been identified as being on the autistic spectrum.

Mrs. Miller: The hon. Gentleman makes a very pertinent point. However, I hope that we are planning to have far earlier identification. Therefore, although it is important that teachers at primary and secondary level can identify children on the autistic spectrum, more should be done to identify such children earlier. Furthermore, the point that was made about GPs and the importance of ensuring that they listen to parents is probably just as valid.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend drew attention to the need for individual education for children—education tailored to their individual needs. That point highlights the need for the availability of continuing education, because a teacher who has a child in the class with particular needs may well need access to ongoing training, so that they can tailor their teaching specifically to that child. That is particularly important in small schools, where there may not be the other resources that may well be available in a larger school.

Mrs. Miller: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Given the incidence of special educational needs in general, the need to ensure that continuous professional development is available, to meet the needs of a particular child or a particular teacher in a school, is absolutely vital. I know that my own local authority in Hampshire has a very extensive range of programmes available for teachers to dip into, but across the country there is a great concern that schools can often find it difficult to release teachers for such training. We need to make sure that that is addressed.

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