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15 May 2009 : Column 1154

John Bercow: Archibald?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: His name is Archie.

To come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), I should say that we recognise the needs of children across the autistic spectrum disorder condition. We have been working with the National Autistic Society on developing the materials that we need for training. I will come to that later in my speech.

As I said, the concerns raised today are shared by many; that is why I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. I also thank the National Autistic Society for raising many of the issues. Meeting the needs of children with autism is an important priority for the Government. I am pleased that we have been able to debate the issues of children with autism during the passage of the Autism Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). The hon. Member for Buckingham takes a keen interest in autism, and I am sure that all Members are now aware that on Wednesday the hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill concluded its Committee stage in the Commons.

The Autism Bill now focuses on adults with autism and the Department of Health’s adult autism strategy. It has the support of both sides of the House and will bring significant benefits to adults with the condition. The National Autistic Society is happy with the Autism Bill’s new focus on adults, as it recognises what we are already doing to improve provision for children with autism. That includes the in-service, online and DVD training materials on autism for early-years providers and teachers, which we published last month as part of our inclusion development programme.

Planning is an important element in improving services for children with autism. During discussions on the Autism Bill, I committed to including in draft guidance for children’s trust boards, in relation to children’s and young person’s plans, specific wording on autism within the wording that encompasses all children with special educational needs and disabilities.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South has had to leave; he has a surgery with his constituents this afternoon. He raised a point about the classification of autistic spectrum disorder. I wanted to assure him that we have taken that on board and will consult with the National Autistic Society on the phrasing in the guidance, to make sure that we do not miss out anybody within that spectrum disorder. Following Royal Assent, we will consult on the guidance for the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, with the aim of formal publication of the guidance in March 2010. As I said, I gave a commitment to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham that we will consult the National Autistic Society on the wording of that guidance.

On transition, I should say that, in a letter ahead of the Second Reading debate on the Autism Bill, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope) and I reaffirmed to all Members that we would devote £200,000 of the £19 million transition support programme to research on the transitions to adulthood of young people with autism. That brings me to the point about joint working
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between DCSF and the Department of Health, which has been raised by several Members. Since being in post, my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for disabled people and I have pledged to work together to bridge that transition gap. We also announced in the letter that we would increase the funding that DCSF gives to the Autism Education Trust from £320,000 in the last financial year to £500,000 this year to help it, in collaboration with the DCSF-DH commissioning support programme, to work with local authorities and primary care trusts to improve the commissioning of services for children with autistic spectrum disorders. Work on that will kick off this month. I am pleased to announce today that in recognition of the scope and importance of this work I am increasing the funding that we give to the trust to £580,000 this financial year to ensure that it can do its work properly.

John Bercow: Increasing it from what?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: From £500,000, so it is an additional £80,000.

It is obvious from all this that we want this country to be a place where everyone gets the same rights to an excellent education. Just because someone has a special educational need or a disability should not mean that their experience of education is any different. That is exactly what the hon. Gentleman’s Bill sets out to secure. I agree that these are important areas, and I share his commitment to ensuring that action is taken to ensure improved outcomes for children with SEN and disabilities. Let me say at the outset that I am not convinced that the proposals as framed in the Bill are necessarily the best way of securing progress, but I hope that during the course of my remarks I can set out how we can achieve the outcomes that we all want.

Taking the Bill clause by clause, let me start with the provisions relating to training. The Bill proposes a duty on local authorities in England to ensure that all staff employed in schools have sufficient training and expertise to provide an appropriate education for children with special educational needs and disabled children. Maintained schools and local authorities already have duties to meet children’s special educational needs under the Education Act 1996. Maintained schools must use their best endeavours to make the special educational provision for which a child’s learning difficulties call. Local authorities have a duty to keep the SEN arrangements in their area under review. Maintained schools also have to publish information about any arrangements relating to SEN in-service training for staff.

The Bill proposes that the Secretary of State may make regulations in furtherance of the duty on training. It says that regulations must, in particular, specify that


We recognise that the role of the SENCO is key to ensuring the best provision for children with SEN and disabilities. In response to concerns registered in 2006 by the then Select Committee on Education and Skills, we are taking steps to strengthen and raise the profile of SENCOs. As has been pointed out, from 1 September this year regulations require them to be qualified teachers.
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That is to ensure that they have the necessary authority to negotiate with qualified colleagues differentiated teaching provision geared to individual pupil needs.

The hon. Member for Rochdale and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South questioned the need for SENCOs always to be qualified teachers, but I firmly believe that in order to carry out that role effectively the SENCO needs to be a qualified teacher. There is a two-year transition period for SENCOs who are not currently qualified teachers but have been in post for at least six months on 31 August 2009 to gain qualified teacher status by September 2011. That arrangement should allow sufficient time and opportunity for those who wish to gain a teaching qualification to do so. I know that there are teaching assistants who are currently performing the SENCO role, but we still maintain that the lead person who is designated by the school governing body as the SENCO will need to be a qualified teacher.

However, we do not expect that the designated teacher will necessarily carry out each and every aspect of the role. Teaching assistants play an important part in supporting the learning of pupils with SEN and disabilities. In some larger schools, there is often a SENCO team comprising teachers and non-teaching staff. Teaching assistants will, of course, be able to continue to make an important contribution, including by supporting the work of the SENCOs, but I state again that the lead person responsible for the overall co-ordination of provision must be a qualified teacher.

We agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham that appropriate training is key to SENCOs carrying out their role effectively. Some have received very good training, and I commend the efforts of schools and local authorities in that regard, but we know that others have not necessarily received as much preparation. I agree that we must address that patchiness in provision, but I am not convinced that we need a new duty to do that.

Section 317 of the Education Act 1996, as amended by section 173 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, already gives the Secretary of State the power to institute requirements in relation to the qualification of SENCOs. We are currently consulting on draft regulations that will establish a mandatory training requirement for all those coming new to the SENCO role. We propose that the training include knowledge and understanding of the four areas of need in the SEN code of practice and the high-incidence disabilities, and that will encompass autism.

The new training requirement will apply from 1 September. The courses should normally take one year to complete on a part-time basis, assuming that no credit is given for prior qualifications or experience. Our draft regulations propose a three-year period of latitude to obtain the award, so as to make full allowance for the individual circumstances of post holders and schools. Those responding to our consultation have warmly welcomed that.

The training requirement will cover all those coming new to the SENCO role in maintained schools. For those SENCOs in post on 1 September 2009, we propose to define “new to the role” as within one year of first being appointed. We believe that that is a reasonable cut-off point. Although we recognise that there may well be SENCOs who have been in post for some time who would benefit from the training, we will be making
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funding available for an initial period to support the training of newly appointed SENCOs. However, it would certainly be possible for those who had been in post for a period longer than a year to attend the courses if that were desirable.

Our funding priority will be those coming new to the SENCO role, but as numbers become clearer we will examine the scope within the assigned resources for supporting SENCOs who have been in post longer. We will also examine ways of ensuring that those who have been in post for some time draw the benefit from the new training resources developed under our inclusion development programme, and consider how we can promote those materials and encourage SENCOs to take advantage of them. I therefore reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are already taking steps to establish a mandatory training requirement for staff who deal with children with SEN.

The Bill proposes that any regulations made under the duty must in particular specify that every local authority must develop and publish a strategy to ensure that every school has access to a range of educational support to meet the needs of pupils with special educational needs. Under the Special Educational Needs (Provision of Information by Local Education Authorities) (England) Regulations 2001, local authorities are already required to publish information about arrangements made in support of children with SEN and disabilities. That expressly includes support for schools and arrangements for securing training, advice and support for staff working in their area with children with SEN.

Simply setting a requirement to have a strategy would not, of course, ensure that arrangements were adequate or improved. Several hon. Members have made that point, including the hon. Member for Rochdale. The Department for Children, Schools and Families has already given a clear lead by publishing in 2008 quality standards for SEN support and outreach services. The standards have been well received, and Ofsted has said that it will have regard to them when inspecting local authority SEN provision. Although we do not consider it appropriate to make those standards mandatory, we will look for appropriate opportunities to promote and support them actively. We will cover strategic planning of specialist support services in guidance on children and young people’s plans. I shall come to those plans later, making reference to the standards.

We have also taken steps to meet particular concerns, notably demographic concerns, about specialist teachers of children with sensory impairment, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield referred to in her eloquent speech, during which she recited her personal experiences. Mandatory qualification courses for such teachers, running from September, will offer additional funded places to meet an expected bulge in retirements. We have also invested in enhancing course facilities in readiness for the additional numbers. Those steps have also been warmly welcomed.

My hon. Friend also made an inquiry about SEN children and school closures, when the children have formed close relationships with existing SENCOs, support assistants and teachers. Local authorities have to carry out the SEN improvement test, justifying what is proposed in terms of expected benefits, and think through the
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consequences for children who are covered by the provision, but I am happy to write to her on the specific constituency issue that she raised.

We have given funding support to newly established trusts to raise the profile of communication, dyslexia and autism. Their work includes promoting specialist training and access to specialist services for those who need them. Sir Jim Rose is developing recommendations on the identification and teaching of children and young people with dyslexia, and his report will be published later this summer.

On the wider, service-commissioning front, we are promoting better joint working between children’s services and the national health service, and I point to the provisions in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill to place children’s trusts boards on a statutory footing; to pathfinder activity that has been commissioned as part of the speech, language and communication needs action plan, which will be of particular interest to the hon. Member for Buckingham; to recommendations arising from the review of child and adolescent mental health services; to the children’s communication aids equipment project, which was set out in the child health strategy that was published jointly with the Department of Health; and to the £20 million commissioning support programme, which is also operated jointly with the Department of Health. I hope that I have been able to persuade hon. Members that the measures that we have in hand are sufficient to deliver timely improvements to the skills of the schools’ work force in relation to children with SEN and disabilities, including autism.

The Bill before us further proposes that no person shall become a qualified teacher unless they have demonstrated a satisfactory understanding and awareness of special educational needs and disabilities, including autism. All providers of initial teacher training are already required to ensure that their courses enable trainees to meet the professional standards for qualified teacher status. That means that they must demonstrate an understanding of SEN issues and an ability to differentiate their teaching to meet the individual needs of children, including those with SEN and disabilities. We will continue to work actively to improve coverage of SEN and disability issues within initial teacher training courses.

Under the children’s plan, we are committed to spending £18 million over three years to improve provision for SEN and disability. The lion’s share of that, some £12 million, will go towards supporting work by the Training and Development Agency for Schools to enhance and improve coverage of SEN and disability issues in initial teacher training through the creation of new study units for initial teacher training courses and other practical steps. That substantial investment demonstrates the importance that we attach to improving work force skills.

The Bill makes a particular reference to training in autism. We agree that it is important that teachers understand autism, and we are taking action on that front. I mentioned that we had recently developed, through the TDA, new SEN and disability study units for primary undergraduate ITT courses. Those include a unit specifically entitled, “The particular needs of pupils with an autism spectrum condition”. The units were launched last June, with £500,000 to aid their
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take-up by training providers. Similar units for secondary and PGCE courses are nearing completion and will be released later this year.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving way, because I am looking through my checklist of concerns and I am encouraged to find that she is allaying them as she goes along. She just referred to ITT primary undergraduate units and the £500,000 that has been committed to their dissemination. Given that I think the secondary school ITT units are due to come on stream a year after the primary units, will the Minister tell me and the House the sum that is earmarked for them? Will the money also be channelled as widely as possible, and the units be actively promoted in the same way as the primary units?

Sarah McCarthy-Fry: We are certainly as committed to the secondary area as we are to the primary area. I do not have the figure to hand, but I shall be more than happy to write to the hon. Gentleman.

The programmes that we are supporting through the TDA also provide additional opportunities for student teachers to gain first-hand experience of working with pupils with SEN by means of extended placements in special schools.

In addition, we are looking at ways of further strengthening induction arrangements, through new materials and other support, as well as through further support for tutors.

To bolster the confidence of teachers already in post, which the hon. Member for Rochdale and others mentioned, we have launched the inclusion development programme, through the national strategies. The IDP provides specially commissioned professional development resources in areas of SEN that we know teachers find difficult. The IDP resources for 2009, launched in March, are designed to help teachers support pupils on the autism spectrum. We will continue to work actively to promote the dissemination of those resources through national strategies, SEN regional hubs and other means. We gratefully acknowledge the National Autistic Society’s contribution to those materials.

An independent study being carried out by the university of Warwick will ascertain whether those initiatives are having the desired effect in terms of improved teacher confidence and assess whether further action is needed. Subject to royal approval of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, we will require every area to have a children’s trust board, with a legal responsibility for producing, publishing, reviewing and annually revising the children and young people’s plan. The CYPP is the single statutory, strategic and overarching plan for all services that directly affect children and young people in an area, showing how the local authority and all relevant partners will integrate provision to improve well-being across all five outcomes in Every Child Matters and focus on specific challenges and priorities.

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