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The outcomes for children are deeply worrying. We hear that exclusions, underachievement and unemployment are the recipe in the current situation. Obviously, some of the moves that the Government have made are to be welcomed, but there is much more to do. All of us are here today because of our interest in and commitment to children and helping every child to reach their potential, and children with autism especially deserve our help.

10.20 am

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) not only on securing the debate and his passionate speech but on the work that he has done in raising awareness of the needs of children with speech and language difficulties.

I currently have the honour of chairing the all-party group on autism. I wish to thank the National Autistic Society and the other autism charities not only for their support of the group but for their support of people with autism.

In 2003, the all-party group published a manifesto that set out a 10-year vision for a society in which autism was fully understood and in which people on the autism spectrum and their families were respected and supported, and provided with the same rights and entitlements as other people. Education is central to the fulfilment of that vision. This debate provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made towards the manifesto’s education objectives and the resulting outcomes for young people with autism. We are now five years into the 10-year period of the manifesto, and the all-party group is taking the opportunity at this halfway stage to review progress against the objectives. It will publish a report on it later this month.

We have come a long way over the past five years, and much progress has been made. For the first time, we have records of the number of pupils who have significant special educational needs as a result of autism. As others have said, there has been welcome progress recently on improving training for teachers, with the development of modules on special educational needs for initial teacher training, the development of the Autism Education Trust, which brings together autism organisations to improve support for pupils with autism, and the inclusion development programme, which will provide basic training in autism for practising teachers from next year. Again, as other Members have said, the appointment of special educational needs co-ordinators means that the members of staff who advise and lead on SEN in each school will now be required to have qualified teacher status and training in SEN.

Nevertheless, the all-party group supports what other Members have said this morning. It believes that the Government should go further and that there should be a mandatory requirement for all teachers to have training in autism to ensure that all children get the support that they need.

Despite the advances, children with autism and their families continue to face many difficulties and challenges as they go through the education system. Rates of exclusion and bullying are still far too high. In one terrible example, a child was excluded 77 times in just two years. Some young people with autism are unable to fulfil their potential in exams because the right support is not put in place. Because parents are blamed
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for their child’s behaviour by professionals who fail to understand autism, relationships deteriorate and parents feel increasingly isolated.

In some cases, teaching professionals refuse to accept diagnoses given by health professionals. Many children are unable to attend schools that are nearby and have to travel more than 10 miles to get to a school.

John Bercow: On the rejection of diagnoses, does the hon. Lady share my horror at the teacher who said to a parent, “I don’t believe in Asperger’s syndrome”? It is not a matter of belief but of fact and of tailoring educational provision accordingly.

Mrs. Dean: I agree entirely. How we can have such comments in this day and age is difficult to understand.

I know that other Members want to participate. To conclude, there has been much progress on improving educational provision since the all-party group was founded in 2000, and the Government are to be congratulated on that. However, there is still a long way to go before we achieve the group’s vision of a society in which autism is fully understood and in which people on the autism spectrum are respected and supported, and provided with the same rights and entitlements as other people. Services need to be better joined up, and young people need more effective support to achieve their potential at school and to prepare for the next stage of their life.

10.25 am

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) described himself as a humble Back Bencher. I believe that many of us felt humbled listening to his introduction to the debate. I would like to reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said about the young lady Robin, who spoke at the National Autistic Society’s reception yesterday. She overcame many of the education hurdles that we have discussed to become a strong advocate for the rights of those who are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders.

Time is short. Without straying into devolved territory, I was going to talk about the great progress that has been made in Wales, which is pioneering an ASD strategic action plan. I believe that it is the first such plan anywhere in the world, let alone in this country. It takes a cradle-to-grave approach to work on autism. I would like to highlight the pioneering work that Autism Cymru, a charity based in my constituency, has undertaken in its inclusive schools project, which seeks to promote an autism ambassador in every primary, secondary and specialist school in Wales. It has instigated a huge amount of training for education professionals: 5,000 practitioners since 2002, including school and college staff and learning support assistants.

I shall deviate completely from my planned speech because time is short. I spent 12 years in the classroom. I want to share some of the frustrations that I experienced as a teacher—frustrations borne, of course, by parents and young people themselves—with the vagaries and
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inadequacies of teacher training. I endured a postgraduate certificate in education course at an august institution in the west of England—I shall not say more than that. The entire special needs provision in that college amounted to four hours one Tuesday morning, during which Asperger’s was not even mentioned.

I then faced the challenge in an ordinary school in the west of England at that time and, latterly, in a school in Wales, of being summoned by the head teacher, told that a child with “communication difficulties” would be arriving at the school, and then very much left to fend for myself. That situation is one in which many teachers find themselves. That is why it is important that we acknowledge the evidence that we have heard from the National Union of Teachers, which recognises that there are serious shortfalls in the provision in schools.

Parents who come into my constituency surgeries are frustrated. A son has been provided with one-to-one support, a laptop and a sloping board, but he lacks the quiet room that he needs for him to achieve his education opportunities. Many parents have a perception that the educational statements that they fought long and hard for are not being adhered to, and there are concerns about transition, particularly from key stages 2 to 3, all of which were identified in the NAS’s report “make school make sense”. Above all else, many parents have a perception that professionals still lack a basic understanding of ASD. As we have just heard from the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), there is still no mandatory requirement for trainee or practising teachers to undertake specific training in autism, despite the requirement of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001 to differentiate.

When I was writing my speech, I jotted down the word “problem”, but it is completely inappropriate. Yes, there is a challenge but there is also a huge opportunity. We know that those who function with Asperger’s syndrome are high achievers. There is huge untapped potential that we ignore at our peril and seen, and I am alarmed by that. I have been there myself and seen the child who is not paying attention, who has been distracted, who is sent out of the room. All those hidden exclusions that we heard about at the start of the debate are not being dealt with properly.

Education must involve a partnership between local education authorities, between LEAs and parents, and between children and teachers. That is central to this debate. The Government have made good progress. The teacher training modules and the advice that is being given are laudable, but they do not go far enough. Listening to earlier speeches, I felt like saying, “Been there, done that.” The reality of doing the postgraduate certificate course is that I was there but I did not get the training or support that I needed to deliver the curriculum across the board to everybody in my class.

10.30 am

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who has been his usual analytical self. It was pleasing that he drew out strands of optimism, showing that we can, all working together, make progress.

Like other hon. Members, I shall focus on the importance of the individual child. We know that the condition of
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autism has many different manifestations. We really should not talk about “the autistic child” because there is not a typical condition relating to a particular child, although there are certain common characteristics. It never fails to amaze me, on walking into schools sometimes, to find that teachers do not appreciate that many children with autism do not like the hustle and bustle of the playground. That is so obvious, yet still that knowledge is lacking.

I shall make three main points. First, parents are not satisfied. We have heard the statistics this morning: 45 per cent. of parents tell us that it takes more than a year to receive support; 50 per cent. of parents feel that their child is not in the right setting; and one in five children with autism are excluded—67 per cent. of them more than once. These are alarming statistics and we have to translate the talk and guidance into real action.

I am greatly concerned, still, about the information available to parents. In theory, it should be there, but in practice it is not. A recent study by Centre Forum and the Policy Exchange revealed, through a survey of local authority websites, that those authorities were not providing the information that, legally, should be provided. It is very easy to check to ensure that it is there.

I am concerned that parents with children with special educational needs do not have choice. In many cases, their choice is restricted. I have recently come across a situation in which parents of a child without any special educational needs in a mainstream school can opt for a school outside the local authority area and pay the travel expenses, if there is a space available. However, I am told that, if parents of a child with special educational needs want a place in a school outside the local authority area and the authority judges that there is an appropriate space within the local authority area, there will be great resistance to that child going to the other school. There are lots of hidden ways in which choices are restricted.

The breakdown of inclusion and special schools is much more diverse these days. There are some amazing examples of schools that can partition and separate, providing quiet rooms and integrating all on the same site. There are some exciting models and some ways forward.

On exclusions, not only are there alarming stories about the unofficial exclusions on top of the enormously high official exclusion figure, but there is a question about where the children who have been excluded more than once actually end up. Often, pupil referral units have not been staffed or resourced adequately to deal with such a situation. I agree with other hon. Members that early identification, followed by appropriate therapies, is key.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the transition period, which has to be of great concern to us. Parents battle on, yet almost as the end of formal schooling is reached, when they perhaps feel that they are nearly there, even more hurdles and difficulties arise. I appreciate that the Government are putting money into this, but it is a huge challenge for all of us.

I thank the organisations, including TreeHouse and the National Autistic Society, for providing us with many briefings and studies. I also congratulate the all-party group on autism, which has made a big contribution. It is good to look back over a period of time and see real achievement.

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Secondly, teachers are clearly not confident. That has come out in many of the speeches made this morning. Some 44 per cent. of teachers are not confident in dealing with autism and 77 per cent. state that a lack of continuous professional development is a real barrier. I am sure that the Minister will tell us about all the progress that is being made in extending teacher training to include more on special educational needs. It is telling that, although we had a mass movement towards inclusion way over 10 years ago, the first teachers concluding their initial teacher training with more modules on special educational needs will not come through until 2011. That is a real gap and a lot of pupils have suffered as a consequence of not matching the teaching with the expectations on teachers.

We have great expectations of teachers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) said. A teacher may have 30 children in the classroom, including one child with special needs, but they do not have the expertise—[Interruption.] Or the support. It is quite a lot to ask of any individual in any work situation. I feel that there should be a teacher entitlement allowing them to be provided with a resource pack, as a minimum, if they have a child with particular needs—and autism would come into that category. We talk a lot about other entitlements, but there is a need to consider teacher entitlement.

I concur that more training across the board is needed, particularly with continuous professional development. It is not enough just to have the courses on offer at local authority level; supply cover has to be available for the teachers to be able to attend. Equally, many other teacher training courses, such as the school-centred initial teacher training, need to include training for autism and general special educational needs.

John Bercow: Does the hon. Lady agree that the cost of early identification and intervention is as nothing by comparison with the massively greater cost to the individual, the family and society in the event of its absence? In other words, let us abandon the short-termism beloved of Her Majesty’s Treasury under successive Governments. It is a question of spending now in order, assuredly, to save later.

Annette Brooke: I absolutely concur. We cannot ever debate special educational needs without making that point, because it is crucial.

I welcome the fact that SENCOs are now to be fully qualified teachers. Another recommendation by the Education Select Committee, as it was then, was that the SENCO should be a member of the senior management team. If a SENCO is to be able to pass on and encourage good practices, it is vital that they have a certain status in the school and a position in the pecking order.

Thirdly, we talk about one in 100 children having autism, but let us look around and consider who is affected. The parents are affected, as are the grandparents, the wider family and the neighbours, so many people are touched by autism. That brings me to support for the family. The hon. Member for Buckingham made
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this point well when he asked what happens when a child gets home. That is vital. We talk about the costs of the lack of early intervention, but if we do not put in that support to prevent family breakdown, we have even more tragedies and great costs.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) said, we must also be aware of what happens after the school years. My caseload seems to be getting ever bigger in respect of elderly parents with adult offspring with learning disabilities who are finding it so difficult to get enough support. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion mentioned the cradle-to-grave approach, which sounds excellent, and the autism ambassador. It sounds as though we have a lot to learn.

Finally, we should be celebrating the good practice—there are some amazing examples around—but we must have ambitions for every child with autism. The 2009 review, which will be led by Ofsted, will be crucial. I hope that there will be a big input into the terms of reference, because the Government have delayed taking some actions because of that study. We have to get it right. We need the right people carrying it out and they need the right remit.

10.40 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): This has been an excellent debate. It is reassuring to be brought down to earth from the ghastly things that are happening in financial markets throughout the world to talk about such an important subject that affects so many of our constituents, day in, day out, and their families and carers.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who gave another bravura performance. Humility may not come naturally to him, but we were humbled by the expertise and mastery of his speech.

It is good to see such a good turnout, and especially the three former and existing chairmen of the all-party group on autism, of which I have been vice-chairman for some time. The original research commissioned by the all-party group on the experience of early intervention on autism in schools led to further work being done by the Government. The manifesto that we produced a few years ago is as relevant today as it was then, and we look forward to making a lot more progress towards the 2013 target date.

Dealing appropriately with special educational needs and autism is a real challenge and full of problems. The number of children designated with special educational needs in this country is high—more than 19 per cent. or 1.5 million children. That is far higher than the equivalent rate in the United States or France, for example, where it is typically between 5 and 7 per cent. The challenge is particularly great here. Many of those children are designated with autism, and many who are not so designated will have various versions of autism spectrum disorders.

We have heard the figures for the desperately higher incidence of bullying and exclusion, and the figure of 27 per cent. for exclusion is probably an underestimate, because many informal exclusions occur when teachers fail to distinguish between disobedience and disability,
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which is also problem with the public at large. Good early intervention at school will have lifelong consequence for the child, if we can get it right in the first place.

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Given what the hon. Gentleman has said about exclusion, does he believe that it is right to retain appeals for exclusions to protect those vulnerable children?

Tim Loughton: That is also a big argument, and we have problems with appeals for disobedient children who are allowed back into class, completely undermining the head’s authority. We must work with teachers and heads for children with special educational needs, but the Minister has raised a subject that merits a debate in itself.

The big problem that many hon. Members have identified is the lack of expertise of teachers in mainstream schools in dealing with the children—the elephant in the room. There is also the problem of loss of places in special schools—some 9,000 places have gone since 1997. It is not just a question of inclusion or exclusion, which is an old debate. It is a question of getting the most appropriate participation in education for those children.

We have not talked much about statements today. In many cases, local authorities try to avoid classifying too many children as autistic for special educational needs purposes. The number of new statements has fallen drastically from 36,200 in 1998 to 24,000 in 2008. Concomitantly, the number of appeals has risen by 55 per cent. The problem has not gone away; it is just more difficult for parents to get their children identified, and even more difficult to get through the horrendous minefield that is the tribunal system. We know that about a quarter of the tribunals are for children with autism, who are again disproportionately affected by the system. The whole statementing process is adversarial: it is costly for local authorities to fight; it is more costly for parents to fight if they get to that stage; and it is costly to administer.

John Bercow: And it is time consuming.

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