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My final point is on dyslexia. Statistics from the Dyslexia Association suggest that many children with the condition are not diagnosed. In a two-form entry school, it is likely that there are at least two children with dyslexia in each year. The challenge that schools should be given is not to reduce the number of statements, but to identify those children with dyslexia as soon as possible. The experts say that there is a golden window for learning to read between the ages of five and three quarters and six and a half. If that opportunity is lost, and the child does not acquire the ability to read, they instantly start to fall behind. I pay tribute to what the Government have achieved through the Every Child a Reader, Every Child a Speaker and Every Child a Counter programmes, but dyslexia probably accounts for a significant percentage of underperformance. If we want to improve our GCSE results ever further—I want 100 per cent. of children to get five A-C grades, not 48 or 50 per cent. as at present—addressing the problem of dyslexia could lead to a step change in results and attainment. It is possibly the single most common
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undiagnosed or late-diagnosed learning disability, and it can have catastrophic consequences for children’s educational careers. If we believe that every child matters, we have to ensure that the children with the greatest difficulties are put first.

John Bercow: We come back to the issue of early identification and intervention—the elephant in the room—which underlines the centrality of the child health strategy and the child health promotion programme, and the importance of multidisciplinary teams kicking in at an early stage to identify difficulties. May I take this opportunity to suggest that attempts to establish the incidence of need will be assisted by the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008, steered through the House by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson)?

Mary Creagh: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw our attention to my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), who has been passionate in her pursuit of this cause.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the Bill. Will the Minister consider SEN as part of the scorecard system for schools inspection? That is an absolutely key part of the identification of children with SEN. Often, SEN provision for the kids at the so-called best and highest-performing schools is weakest, and the needs of those children can be forgotten in the rush to the key stage 2 100 per cent. golden target. Will the Minister consider incorporating SEN diagnosis and catch-up into Ofsted’s scorecard approach? I commend the hon. Gentleman on his initiative.

11.21 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): May I first, in this era of heightened precaution, declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests and my interest as a vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on autism, a subject which features large in the debate?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) said, the attendance today is perhaps unfortunate. I hope that it represents the fact that many of our honourable colleagues are out on the stump for the impending elections, if not attending to media interviews on their financial affairs. However, the attendance does not belie any lack of interest in this very important subject, which is relevant to every hon. Member.

The contributions thus far have been extremely heavyweight. We have all been intoxicated, as we have been asked to say, by the contribution of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh)—and we mean that in a way that is, I believe, permissible in parliamentary language. She made a very wide-ranging speech, with great detail, which extended from foetal alcohol syndrome, in which I have a particular interest, to the Lupset centre in her constituency, the art of Italian gesticulations, the stigma of deafness and dyslexia, and an awful lot besides.

It is refreshing to return to a very important, weighty subject following some of the distractions of the past week—it is the kind of subject that our constituents send us to this place to deal with. As my hon. Friend said, at least one in five children—the official figure—is
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classified as having a special educational need at school. He did not, however, say that that number has actually doubled in the past 20 years, and that at least 1.65 million children in this country are affected. An awful lot of our constituents give much more of a flying flamingo for this subject than for others, as does my hon. Friend. He has enormous form in this area, for which the House will be duly grateful.

We welcome the Bill because it contains some important measures to address what most of us will acknowledge is the woefully inadequate SEN provision across the United Kingdom. We would support the Bill’s progress to Committee for proper scrutiny. One would hope that the Government could adopt part of the legislation, or at least incorporate it into regulations and guidance, certainly given the height of reasonableness of the Bill to which my hon. Friend referred. We cannot justify continuing to sweep such problems under the carpet and to attribute them to bad behaviour or other social ills. The matter needs to be tackled head on once and for all.

As well as my hon. Friend’s good work, not least the review that the Secretary of State commissioned of him, and the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008, which was promoted by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson), we have the Autism Bill, courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), which is in Committee. Special educational needs are topical at the moment—and not before time.

As several hon. Members have said, someone needs to take responsibility. Too often in SEN, the buck does not seem to stop with someone who is in a position to do something about it. I have referred to that as a vicious triangle. All hon. Members have had anxious parents come to see us about their battle to get a statement of SEN or special support for their children at school. We have then been told by the school or education department, “It’s not to do with us, it’s to do with health or the primary care trust,” which is often the case when it comes to speech and language therapists. We then go to health bodies only to be told, “Oh no, it’s not us, you need social services/children’s services.” That vicious triangle does not address the problem—the problem does not go away simply because of such frantic buck-passing.

My very first case following my election 12 years ago was that of a young teenage boy who had had a quite late diagnosis of Asperger’s. The problem was being pushed from pillar to post in trying to get support for that child. In the end, it was almost literally a case of banging the heads together of the representatives of social services, and health and education services, to get them round a table. After a lot of stress, hassle and hard work, we got them jointly to fund a pot of money to provide a package of support for the child. What an ordeal that was, not only for those like me who came to it late, but for the child’s parents over too many years. How much better it would have been if the problem had been picked up earlier and if support had been offered earlier, rather than the great treasure hunt of parents having to try to find support with a minimum of help and information.

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Many problems affect SEN, and I want to touch on a few of them. On assessment—this goes for SEN and particularly speech and language needs—too many parents tell us that they have encountered substantial difficulties with school-related assessments and provision. They mention two important problems. First, when a pre-school child has been identified as needing help, adequate SALT—speech and language therapy—assistance is often not available. When no identification has been possible pre-school, assessment and help is often difficult to obtain and slow in coming, if it comes at all.

Secondly, in special schools where children have serious language disorders or where language problems are part of a child’s wider spectrum of special needs, parents too often find that the statementing process is too adversarial and drawn out. In too many cases, after considerable expenditure of time and money, it can result in little or no help for their children. The Conservatives believe that the system needs to be streamlined, easier for parents to navigate and less adversarial.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is as ever making a compelling case. In the light of what he has just said, would he take the opportunity to reiterate that, given the in-built conflict of interest in local education authorities, there is much to be said for the argument that we have been making for some time for a clean separation of the assessment of need from the funding of provision?

Tim Loughton: I entirely agree, and I shall outline in a little more detail some proposals that we would like to put more teeth into provision—to go much further than my hon. Friend’s reasonable Bill.

We all face the problem of joined-up action. Responsibilities for various aspects of SEN are vested in schools, children’s centres, primary care trusts and local authority departments, but parents and teachers report that too often children’s needs are not met because of inadequate liaison among those bodies. The teaching staff in too many schools have little or no expertise in recognising that speech and language intervention, for example, is needed. Too often, after a child has been assessed as requiring help by a speech and language therapist, usually employed by a primary care trust, the local authority can take months to reassess the case for funding purposes. Even then, it will not always make resources available via a statement or through additional School Action Plus funding.

I have just had an appalling case of a child who was clearly in need of a specialist statement of support. The articulate, middle-class parents clearly knew what their child required and worked closely with the school, which had clearly acknowledged the problem, but they could not get a proper statement. It was delayed again and again. The local authority prevaricated and tried to make out that the need was substantially less than the experts said it was. The parents had to commission their own assessment, at no little expense. They then commissioned and paid for their own speech and language therapy specialist to work in the school, with the acquiescence of the school.

At long last, after the intervention of myself and others, we have finally got an admission that the parents and the school had been right all along. We have now achieved the publication of a statement showing the extremity of that child’s problems and what needs to be
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done about them. Actually, to give it its due, the local authority has now agreed to refund the money that the parents had to spend on employing their own therapist in the school. How much better would it have been if that could all have been agreed at the outset, and if the parents had not had to go through that constant battle, that war of attrition. Many parents are unable to see such battles through to the end, simply because they do not have the resources, the nous or the strength of character to pursue them on behalf of their children.

Mary Creagh: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting case. He has demonstrated that some children are less equal than others and, even within the subset of the less equal children, there are inequalities. Rich parents can afford private psychologists’ statements, but paying £1,000 for such a statement is certainly out of the reach of the majority of my constituents. Does he agree that we need to ensure that we do not end up with a two-tier system in special educational needs, in which the better off and the middle classes can obtain the services, while the rest get left behind?

Tim Loughton: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. These cases can be an enormous financial and emotional drain on the parents, whether they are slightly better-off middle-class people or not.

What I resent more than anything is the culture of brinkmanship in certain local authority education departments. They wait and see just how far they can push it before the parents drop their quest. I have had cases in which the local authority has dropped a case the day before it was to go before a tribunal, at which the cards were clearly going to be stacked in favour of the parents. That demonstrates the weakness of the local authority’s case all along.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is right; that culture of brinkmanship is widespread. Does he acknowledge that, when such an approach is adopted, a lot of money is wasted? That money is wasted either directly, by the authority making payments, or simply through the waste of the expensive time of its own professional in-house staff, who could have been better deployed concentrating on the appropriate priorities rather than fighting hopeless battles.

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must consider not only the cost of the in-house staff but the even greater cost of the external legal specialists who are employed by the local authority to fight the cases against these poor, unsuspecting parents. A enormous amount of money is wasted: witness the huge number of appeals—not just one or two—that are upheld in favour of the parents. That shows that the parents have a very strong case in an awful lot of those situations.

I also want to talk about inclusion, to which I shall return, and about teacher training. We believe that, because speech and language development is the foundation of all education, all initial teacher training should include the teaching of some basic skills in identifying problems in this area. At the moment, such modules are all but unobtainable. In-service teacher training for speech and language special needs should also be more widely available, and schools should be encouraged to have at least one member of staff trained in that way. That goes to the heart of the first clause of the Bill.

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There is also evidence that, although an adequate number of speech and language therapists are being trained, there are not enough posts available for them. They therefore seek other employment and can often be lost to the profession. That is an obvious waste of resources, but this dysfunction could be remedied if recommendations that we have made on assessment and funding were to be accepted. I shall come back to that shortly.

My hon. Friend referred to the “dark abyss of nothingness” in relation to secondary-level provision. There is certainly evidence that many secondary school pupils, as well as those in further education, find it difficult, if not impossible, to access appropriate speech and language therapy. Best practice really needs to include better transition arrangements when a child with a special educational need moves up to secondary school and then on to further education. At the moment, such arrangements simply do not exist.

A further problem exists with information transparency and accountability. Evidence suggests that many parents of children with special educational needs often feel that they have been left without much understanding of their child’s needs and of how they can assist. Best practice should ensure that proper feedback and assistance are given to parents. That aim was also part of the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West last year.

Best practice should also include better support for carers from the relevant agencies. We support moves to encourage schools to publish more transparent information about their record, and about their facilities for SEN pupils, which could form part of the Ofsted inspection process. That relates to the second clause of my hon. Friend’s Bill. It is particularly relevant to the problems with joined-up thinking that have already been highlighted.

My hon. Friend has given the House many worrying statistics. He said that 40 per cent. of children with autism were bullied at school. In surveys of staff at schools, many readily admit that they are ill prepared to give proper support to children with special educational needs. Teachers acknowledge that they are struggling. My hon. Friend has alluded to the poor educational achievement by too many children with special educational needs, but I do not think that he mentioned that 75 per cent. of children in pupil referral units had special educational needs. That is another moot point.

It is absolutely right that we take this problem seriously. It is a false economy not to do so. Further figures show that disabled adults are half as likely to be in employment as people without a disability. Only 15 per cent. of adults with autism are likely to be in full-time paid employment. It is essential—and, of course, absolutely right—that we get early detection, early intervention and early provision absolutely right, as the Bill seeks to do.

As hon. Members have said, we are not just talking about learning disabilities. The word “disability” appears in the title of the Bill, and it covers not only physical disabilities but mental illnesses, whose treatment is very much a Cinderella service. The hon. Member for Wakefield mentioned children and adolescent mental health services—CAMHS—in this context.

The hon. Lady and my hon. Friend touched on the subject of deaf children. The National Deaf Children’s Society has said that deaf children are 41 per cent. less
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likely to achieve five GCSEs, and that 28 per cent. fail to achieve level 3 at key stage 2 English, compared with just 6 per cent. of all children. More than 80 per cent. of deaf children attend mainstream schools, but an NDCS survey for the “Must Do Better” report on the educational underachievement of deaf children found that one in four parents felt that the deaf awareness of their child’s teacher was not good. This is all about proper communication with staff and between schools and teachers.

The crazy thing is that none of that is new; this has been going on for far too long. We had more reports this year. The report back in February from Sir Alan Steer on behaviour in schools urged action to tackle the disproportionate exclusion of children with special educational needs. We need to think a lot more smartly about how we exclude children from school and, more importantly, about what they go on to outside the school if they are excluded.

My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham also mentioned the excellent preliminary findings in the inquiry by Brian Lamb, who made a number of recommendations, including


and that

Brian Lamb also highlighted the fact that too much bureaucracy is associated with SEN and recommended the scrapping of the obligation on schools to produce so many policies relating to SEN provision.

We are in danger of not being able to see the wood for the trees. A lot has gone on, but the quality of the outcomes leaves a lot to be desired.

John Bercow: There is a lot going on, and we need to be clear that it is all co-ordinated and inclined to be self-reinforcing. If it ends up going in different directions, that will be very damaging. Does my hon. Friend recall that I called for a strengthening of the guidance on exclusions? It has been changed a couple of times over the past couple of years, so there is no reason why it should not be tweaked a third time. Does he agree that the attendance and behaviour partnerships on which the Government intend to issue guidance later this year are of the essence? That guidance must be consistent with the other guidance and perhaps it would be helpful if the consultation on it could extend to interested right hon. and hon. Members.

Tim Loughton: That is a very fair point; I absolutely endorse it.

More legislation and regulation are not always the answer. We require the right legislation and regulation, and for them to be appropriate and effective. I fear that a lot of what this Government have done over recent years has been about piling regulation on regulation, which has completely queered the pitch in this case. The benchmark of whether it is right or not must be the
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quality of the outcomes for the children whom it is meant to help and support, and whom it too often does not.

The other point from Brian Lamb, which endorses clause 2, is about inspections, which

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