Thursday 14th March 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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[Relevant documents: First Report of the Education Committee, Ofsted’s work with schools, HC 117, and Ofsted’s response, HC 624; Seventh Report of the Education Committee of Session 2022-23, Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils, HC 970, and the Government response, Session 2023-24, HC 368; Oral evidence taken before the Education Committee on 28 March and 23 May 2023, on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), Session 2022-23, HC 1248; Written evidence to the Education Committee, on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), reported to the House on 23 May and 5 September 2023, Session 2022-23, HC 1248; Correspondence between the Education Committee and the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, on Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), reported to the House on 19 September and 19 October 2023, Session 2022-23.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31 March 2024, for expenditure by the Department for Education:
(1) further resources, not exceeding £20,997,648,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 500,
(2) the resources authorised for capital purposes be reduced by £304,572,000 as so set out, and
(3) the sum authorised for issue out of the Consolidated Fund be reduced by £912,367,000.—(Mark Fletcher.)
Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I call Mr Robin Walker to lead the debate.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to colleagues on the Liaison Committee and the Backbench Business Committee for supporting my application for the debate and giving it the prominent position that it has today. I thank all those who supported the application. I note that it is an unusual subject that brings together the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis), and the hon. Members for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Not all of them can be here today, but I know that each has passionately supported the case for more and better targeted investment to support children with special needs. I warmly welcome the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen) to the Chamber. It is greatly to her credit that she has chosen to make her maiden speech on this subject; I look forward to hearing it.

There have been many debates on the importance of special educational needs and disabilities in the House over the past few years, so this is not new ground, and I make no apology for that. There have been Green Papers, a Command Paper, and the excellent Backbench Business debate under the auspices of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, which was so well subscribed. It is no surprise to me that today’s debate is similarly well supported across the Chamber. I do not intend to repeat all the arguments from the previous debate, in which 30 Members spoke. I hope that the Minister will take them all as read in his response.

In my casework as MP for Worcester, and in the evidence that I have seen as Chair of the Education Committee, there is a consistent trend of schools at every phase and of every variety struggling to meet the rising level of SEND, of families struggling to get the needs of their children properly met and supported, and of children with SEN too often being home educated, not as a result of genuine elective home education but as a result of their parents feeling that there is no other way in which their needs can be supported. We have heard this at the Education Committee described as “non-elective home education”.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
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The hon. Member has secured a really important debate. One big problem that comes across strongly in Derbyshire is the lack of capacity within the local authority to do the assessment. Many schools are supporting parents and their special needs children, but are unable to get assessment for months or even years. How big an issue does he think that local authority resources are in all this?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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The hon. Gentleman is right: that is definitely part of the challenge. I will try to come back to that later in my speech. The briefing that the Local Government Association has provided for the debate is very helpful in drawing attention to that. In the previous Backbench Business debate, Members from both sides of the House highlighted the need for earlier identification of need, and all the different organisations across local authorities, health and education that need resource and support to deliver that.

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock (West Suffolk) (Ind)
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The need for early identification is incredibly strong. There has been some progress towards it, and I congratulate the Minister for the strides that he has been able to make, but we cannot have a genuinely universal education system unless we have universal early identification of special needs, so will my hon. Friend welcome the fact that I have secured the opportunity to reintroduce my Dyslexia Screening and Teacher Training Bill, as a ten-minute rule Bill, on 23 April?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing that opportunity, and for all the progress that he has made in drawing attention to the needs of dyslexic children and identifying those needs early. He is right that we need to look at how we better support universal identification of need at an earlier stage. He will recognise that some conditions only show themselves over time, so it is important that there are the right interventions at every level to identify those needs and ensure they are properly met.

When we debate children missing school, as we often have in recent years, we often find it difficult to tell which are doing so because of unmet need. The work of the Children’s Commissioner, among many others, has highlighted that that is a major cause. When we debate rising levels of home education without the benefit of a much-needed statutory register, which the Government have now pledged to support, we find it impossible to tell how many of the rising number of cases are genuinely elective. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) is sponsor of a Bill that seeks to address the issue, and I hope the whole House will support its Second Reading tomorrow. I welcome the fact that Opposition Front Benchers have already done so and I believe that the Government have as well.

Both those factors, as highlighted in the Education Committee’s report on persistent absence, point to the need for urgent action on SEND. The Government’s own Command Paper is also clear on that point. In fact, in preparing for this debate, I was struck by recent comments made by the Secretary of State at the Association of School and College Leaders conference:

“The massive demand, of more and more children diagnosed or even not diagnosed but have special educational needs, that’s something that I don’t think we’ve got the right system in place. If you look at special education needs, we haven’t built enough special educational needs places or schools. We have councils under pressure because families can’t get the right support that they need”—

a succinct summary of the nature of the challenge, which colleagues across the House will recognise all too well.

In that context, we need to consider the departmental estimates of the Department for Education, the £57.8 billion rising to £58.5 billion for the core schools budget, and the £82 billion rising to more than £100 billion overall in the supplementary estimate, as well as the £6.3 billion capital budget. Although it would be easy for a Government Member to point to those big numbers and trumpet what are without doubt record sums in cash terms for revenue funding, they do not tell the whole story.

The excellent House of Commons Library briefing prepared for this debate confirms both cash and real-terms growth in spending on high needs since 2015, as well as a faster trajectory of increasing need as identified by education, health and care plans. Within those numbers, it is to the credit of Ministers in this Government that the amount spent on high-needs funding has doubled in the past 10 years and has increased by more than 60% since 2019. That shows some recognition of the importance of investing in this space.

But it is also clear, as we debated on the F40—Campaign for Fairer Funding in Education—motion a few weeks ago, that revenue funding has not been sufficient to meet demand. Over the same period, the growth of EHCPs alone has more than doubled. The level of need demonstrated not only by the number rising from 240,000 nine years ago to more than 500,000 today, but by the complexity of conditions and the demand for specialist places to support highly complex pupils, has grown even faster. I am told that 180 children per day are being identified as having special educational needs.

For every child with an EHCP, as the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) pointed out, many more are awaiting assessment or have their needs already met in public or independent schools without the need for an EHCP. Nevertheless, those children also need support. I do not intend to rehearse all the arguments for the early identification of support need, but that is a vital part of the argument.

Also to the credit of Ministers is the greater recognition in recent years of the need for more capital investment in SEND places. Even in the most recent Budget, the main capital commitment for school-age education was a further £105 million for 15 SEN free schools, delivering up to 2,000 specialist places across the country. I welcome that, but I observe that the calculation that just over £100 million can deliver 15 whole new special schools seems a challenging one. That gives a cost of £52,000 per place, compared with more than £86,666 per place in the calculations that the Government made only three years ago—before the impact of three years of high inflation for building costs.

Rehman Chishti Portrait Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for all he does on the Education Committee. In my constituency surgeries, I, like many Members of Parliament, see parents in real pain. They want the best for their child, and they are waiting for one to two years to get a plan so that their healthcare and education needs can be met. My hon. Friend asked about the allocation of the £105 million in the Budget. Can he clarify his understanding of how the Government will allocate that across the country? I need an allocation for my constituents in Gillingham and Rainham, who urgently need it. All Members want to know whether that will be done on a fair basis.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I congratulate my hon. Friend for making the case for his constituents. The question he asks is one for those on the Front Bench, and I hope the Minister can further clarify the process of allocating those resources.

At the last spending review in 2021, the Department secured £2.6 billion over the review period for a mixture of new specialist settings, expansions of existing ones and delivery of bases in mainstream schools. In total, that was designed to deliver 30,000 new school places. Will the Minister, in his reply, update the House on progress on spending that substantial capital investment? Can he update the House, too, on the total number of specialist places already delivered? Will he explain how deliverable the Government have found this programme, at a cost of about £86,666 per place, and the rationale for the Budget announcement being so much cheaper?

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for his exceptional work in this area. He shares my passion for the new Malvern-based autism free school, which will benefit children across Worcestershire and more widely. Can he update the House on how he sees progress on delivering the new free school?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her intervention and for her campaigning to secure those vitally needed places in south Worcestershire, which I hope will benefit my constituents as well as hers. I want to more places delivered for autistic students in Worcestershire as swiftly as possible. That is being done through a combination of the provision that she has rightly championed and campaigned for, a new base in my constituency in a mainstream school—which the county council is commissioning—and the provision recently created for an AP, or alternate provision, school in the north of the county. There is some welcome progress there, but as I will touch on later, I do not feel that it is quite enough to meet need.

Back on that £2.6 billion, I have some concerns about the progress of that much needed capital investment. Careful examination of the supplementary estimates for the Department reveals a £300 million transfer from the capital to the revenue budget. I ask for reassurance that none of that has come out of the £2.6 billion originally targeted for investment in SEND. If any has, will the Minister tell us how much? Can he provide figures for how many places have been commissioned in each of the three categories set out in the 2021 spending review and how many more are in the pipeline?

From long experience and from my work on the Select Committee, I know that the DFE has routinely underspent its allocated capital, but at a time when the need for SEND placements is so high and we have the urgent challenge of RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—affecting many mainstream and specialist schools, I hope that the Department is protecting the precious investment that Ministers, including me and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), fought so hard to secure.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)
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I am grateful for my hon. Friend securing this debate and for his work on the subject. In Cheadle, we are welcoming a new £70 million SEND provision being opened at the end of this year, in September; 133 places will be provided there. Teachers and headteachers I have talked to are telling me that in their establishments and schools, they want more resource-based provision, which might involve capital investment. Going along with that as well, we have the problems mentioned earlier in securing the education, health and care plan. Does my hon. Friend agree that all those issues need to be addressed if we are to get the right future for our children?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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Yes, is the short answer. My hon. Friend sums up some of the challenges neatly.

I come to some of the recommendations of the Select Committee before touching in a little more detail on the local picture in my part of the world. During my time as Chair and under my predecessor, now the Minister for Skills, the Education Committee has held a number of sessions on SEND and the implementation of the 2014 reforms. In 2019, before my time, the Committee concluded that the reforms of 2014 “were the right ones” in principle, but that implementation had “been badly hampered”, notably by administration and funding, which at that time it called “wholly inadequate”.

The Committee also called for a more rigorous framework for local authorities; a direct line of appeal for parents and schools to the Department for Education; powers for the local government and social care ombudsman to investigate school complaints; and development of more employment and training opportunities post 16 for people with SEND. The Government pointed to their Green Paper and towards the Command Paper that was finally published two years later in response, but only the first and last of those recommendations have been fully addressed.

More recently, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend who is now the Minister for Skills, and his predecessor, the Committee held sessions and published correspondence in which SEND funding, and delays in processing it, have repeatedly been raised. I am grateful for correspondence in which Ministers have unequivocally confirmed that there is no push from the Government to ration or limit EHCP numbers, but I note that in his letter of October last year, the Minister on the Front Bench stated that

“in-year funding delays occur due to insufficient planning from local authorities”.

Will he update the House on what steps he is taking to address that and to ensure that every local authority has the resource and support it needs to plan properly in this space?

The vast majority of local authorities have high-needs deficits, which have been growing rather than shrinking in recent years. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will talk about the valuable work that the Department supports through the safety valve and “Delivering Better Value” programmes, but the fact that those programmes are constantly growing, as is the cumulative deficit of local authorities, surely makes the case for more funding. At some stage, we have to acknowledge that producing ever more help to manage the level of deficits is not a sustainable solution, and that investment is required to clear or remove them. The high needs deficits are now compounded by the fact that the same local authorities have rapidly growing deficits in children’s social care and transport, limiting their potential to cross-subsidise.

The Government promised to introduce in their SEND and AP improvement plan a new national framework of banding and price tariffs for high needs funding, and more details were to follow later in 2023. I am not aware that that has been published, but my local specialist schools tell me that, although the total level of high needs funding has seen much-needed increases, and underlying per pupil funding has risen in real terms, the banding for specific conditions has not had an inflationary increase for over a decade. Given the rising costs of employing teaching assistants to support complex needs, surely that needs to be reviewed.

At every level of education, my Committee has made recommendations about SEND and encouraged the Department to do more to support SEND children and our families. In our childcare report, we recommended that the Government amend the early years foundation stage framework to ensure that more staff involved in a child’s care receive mandatory training in identifying and manging types of SEND. The Government rejected that proposal but stated that newly revised criteria for level 3 early years educator qualifications, alongside level 2 criteria, now include standalone criteria on SEND identification and practice. They also made welcome announcements about support for early years special educational needs co-ordinators, and partially accepted our recommendation to expand family hubs—although, to be clear, I believe that they can and should go further.

Absence rates are significantly higher for pupils with SEND. In our report on persistent absence, the Committee recommended that the Government prioritise resources for early identification of need, inclusion and assessment in mainstream schools to ensure that they can adequately support pupils with SEND. We recommended making attendance in specialist schools a key metric of success, recognising both the support that having children in such settings provides families and the developmental benefits to the child. The Committee also recommended that the Government ensure that pupils with SEND are placed in alternative provision only for a limited time and as a way of addressing issues affecting their attendance in mainstream schools. The DFE should discourage its use as a way of managing behaviour.

The Department for Education said in its response that it is working with 32 local authorities and testing approaches in schools to improving early identification of SEND-related conditions. Additionally, it is piloting early language support for every child, jointly funded by NHS England, to have speech and language professionals based in early years primary schools to spot early delays in development and take swift appropriate action. Pilots are great, but we need that support everywhere in the country.

For our recent report on Ofsted’s work with schools, we heard that lack of expertise among inspectors was seen by specialist schools as a particular problem. The report recommended that Ofsted ensure that the lead inspector always has expertise relevant to the type of school, and that a majority of members of larger teams have the relevant expertise. We recommended that factors, such as the number of students from disadvantaged groups and those with SEND, should be clearly described and visible in the final Ofsted report. We hope that that will be reiterated both to the new chief inspector, through his “Big Listen” consultation, which was launched last week, and to the Government.

Evidence to our careers inquiry suggested that pupils with SEND were not receiving adequate careers advice and guidance, and highlighted that they face additional barriers and need extra support to access the same level of careers education and opportunities as their peers. The Committee recommended that the Department set out the steps that it intends to take to ensure that all SENCOs are fully trained and working with career leaders or with a school or college.

The Committee has welcomed the increased focus on supported internships and apprenticeships targeted at SEND pupils, but as we highlighted in our post-16 qualifications report, too many SEND pupils are being held back by the focus on GCSE grade 4 for English and maths as a gateway to progression. We have also agreed in principle to look into the Government’s changes to disabled students’ allowance to ensure that the consolidation of that system does not lead to a reduction in opportunities for SEND students to progress into and sustain higher education. That matters because we know that pupils with special educational needs are a rising proportion of the school population. Their life chances matter just as much a everyone else’s, and their parents’ ability to work, support them and live a full life depends on their receiving the right support through childhood, in school and into early adulthood.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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This is not just the morally right and good thing to do for the individuals in question and their families, but it is massively good for wider society because it unlocks the potential of neurodivergent individuals, who are among the most creative and gifted people in the country. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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My hon. Friend puts it perfectly, and I wholeheartedly agree with him.

The logic behind the Government’s welcome increase in investment in childcare, which I have strongly supported, applies just as much, if not more, when it comes to supporting children with SEND. If we get this right, there are benefits for the life chances of the individual and of the family who support them.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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I will not give way because I need to make progress.

I have lost count of the number of highly educated parents who have felt that they needed to give up work to support their children. An increase in the departmental estimate to support SEND children would repay itself in the future earnings of their parents and would help the Government to meet their worthy aspiration of halving the disability employment gap and ensuring that work pays for future generations.

I should acknowledge some welcome local progress. In Worcestershire, two new specialist settings for children with autism have opened in the past few years: the one mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), and one in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier). The county council is in the process of commissioning a new secondary school with a specialist autism base in Worcester. We have seen expansions in the number of pupils supported at both Regency High School and Fort Royal Community Primary School in Worcester, and we have seen improvements in the opening of new settings in alternative provision. An exciting partnership between Heart of Worcestershire College and the National Star college in Cheltenham promises better local progression opportunities for further education students with SEND. Our university prides itself on being one of the most inclusive in the country.

The demand on all our settings is rising insatiably. Fort Royal in particular has seen a huge increase in severity among the population of pupils it serves. That has led the school to seek agreement with the county council to reduce its intake so that it can ensure that pupils with highly complex needs are properly and safely supported. The principal of the school has recently written to local politicians to highlight that and the risk of local needs not being met by 2030. Will the Minister look at that correspondence and consider carefully the need for small specialist provision in Worcestershire, particularly at primary level? I have over many years made the case to move Fort Royal Community Primary School—a brilliant school on a highly constrained site—to a location where it could grow and expand.

I also want to raise the concerns of respite settings such as New Hope Worcester, which provides vital support to SEND families during the holiday. New Hope has seen a reduction in the number of places that it is commissioned to provide. Parents from that setting have raised with me their concern that more support is urgently needed for respite care, which helps to ensure that their children can engage in specialist education and avoids the far greater cost of children being taken into homes. Although that support comes from the budget of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities rather than the DFE, we need to acknowledge the importance of cross-departmental working to better support need.

The Local Government Association’s helpful briefing for this debate, which I have touched on already, majors on that issue and makes a number of constructive recommendations. It calls for a cross-Government strategy for children and young people, arguing that DLUHC should co-ordinate capacity issues impacting on children’s social care, SEND and the early years. The LGA wants councils to have the powers to lead local SEND systems, and hold health and education partners to account for their work supporting SEND children and young people.

The LGA calls on the Government to use the SEND improvement plan to recognise the vital interconnection between SEN and mental health. Children and young people with learning difficulties are over four times more likely than average to develop a mental health problem. That means that one in seven of all children and young people with mental health difficulties in the UK will also have a learning disability. The report points out that good-quality early years provision can generate sustained and significant improvements in children’s outcomes, reducing disparities in later life, but neither councils nor early years providers feel that they have sufficient funding, resources and tools to properly support children with SEND and their families.

This morning, I attended the excellent briefing by the Children’s Services Development Group on the launch of its “Hopeful Horizons” report. Among the key recommendations of that report are urgent clarity on the banding and tariffs arising from the new national standards, and speeding up the building and registration of new services. The group pointed out that independent specialist advisers have a wealth of knowledge and want to work closely with the Government to make the process a success.

It is good to see the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) in her place. I look forward to hearing her proposals for ensuring that any future Labour Government address SEND funding and provision better than they have in the past. I expect her to point to her party’s flagship policy of imposing VAT on independent schools as part of the solution for providing the resource to meet needs. However, having heard many of the uses to which Labour wants to put that theoretical money, I am at a loss to see how any of it would provide the revenue or capital needed to better support SEND children.

In fact, in our last debate on this issue, in which no Labour Back Benchers spoke, we heard from the hon. Lady’s colleague that Labour does not plan to exempt specialist settings from its tax grab—only pupils in independent settings with an EHCP. I profoundly believe that that is a policy mistake that Labour would come to regret if it ever carried it out. Many pupils with SEND are supported either by their families or by local authorities in independent provision, including many highly specialised schools, and a small proportion of those pupils currently have EHCPs.

The decision to make that, and solely that, the gateway for avoiding a 20% increase in costs would create enormous and immediate demand for EHCPs, which local authorities and health structures are already struggling to provide in a timely manner. It could result in many pupils with SEND leaving, or being taken out of, settings that are currently meeting their needs and then seeking EHCPs in order to access settings that might. I do not believe that Labour has thought this policy through, or that it has factored into its calculations that £86,000 per place for public provision.

The DFE estimates show rising spend on public education and schools and, within that, a rising level of investment in high needs. All of that is welcome, but not sufficient. In 2014, this House legislated to better support the needs of SEND children, and as the Government themselves have acknowledged, the potential of that legislation has not yet been realised. I hope Front Benchers of whatever colour will reflect on the need for future estimates to better support this vital and worthy cause.

In conclusion, I will support the departmental estimates, because they provide record levels of funding for education in general and SEND in particular, but I believe there is a strong case for increasing both capital and revenue investment in the latter.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Gen Kitchen to make her maiden speech.

Gen Kitchen Portrait Gen Kitchen (Wellingborough) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech on this vital topic, which came up a lot during the campaign.

It is a great honour to stand here as the new Labour MP for Wellingborough. I was two years old when the last Labour MP for Wellingborough made their maiden speech in 1997, but since then, we have had a highly visible Member of the Chamber. Although Peter Bone and I disagree on many things, he was an experienced campaigner and a lead voice in the Grassroots Out campaign.

Wellingborough is not just a constituency, but a tapestry of diverse voices, experiences and aspirations. From the streets of our market towns to the tranquil countryside that surrounds them, each corner of the constituency tells a story of resilience, ingenuity and community spirit. I pledge to honour, protect and champion this rich tapestry with every ounce of my being. Many on this side of the House will have visited the beautiful constituency of Wellingborough during the campaign, but for those who did not make it on to the campaign trail, the constituency consists of the towns of Wellingborough, Rushden, Higham Ferrers and Finedon, and the picturesque villages that surround them. We are 50 minutes from London by train, and close to the M1 and the A14, so there is no reason for Members not to visit for a cheeky weekend away to help boost our local economy and high streets.

As Wellingborough is a bellwether seat, the people of Orlingbury, Wollaston and Irchester often know the problems that the Government of the day will face before they do. The result of the campaign saw the largest swing this century, and the cleanliness of high streets, highways, policing, access to education for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and access to healthcare were crucial issues when knocking on doors from Bozeat to Wilby and the Harrowdens. It was striking how the communities of Chelveston, Newton Bromswold and Grendon had all stepped up where the public sector had been cut.

One village in particular, Great Doddington, holds a special place in my family history. The quaint village is where my great-grandfather, the Reverend Henry Hacking, served from 1935 to 1938 as the parish vicar of St Nicholas after serving as an Army chaplain in the first world war. As many will know, both sides of my family have served in the armed forces for three generations, and their commitment to public service and duty to our country was instilled in me from a young age. I endeavour to make them proud, and have dedicated my professional career to the charity sector, fundraising for projects to help those in need.

On that point, I would like to highlight a couple of charities that have done incredible work to help the community and the constituency. The “Off the Streets” knife crime campaign has trained the public on how to use bleed kits, and has designed knife amnesty bins that have been installed in Queensway. I urge Members to look at the work of that charity and encourage similar charities in their constituencies. The Victoria Centre and Daylight Centre provide housing, food banks and a sense of community to Wellingborough town centre. SERVE in Rushden has stepped in to ensure that the elderly and disabled can get to doctors’ and hospital appointments now that the bus service is lacking and urgent care is challenging. Coming from the charity sector, I am honoured to be in a position to further their causes in this House.

As part of my commitment and economic pledge to the constituents of Wellingborough, Mr Speaker, in the coming months you can expect me to bang the drum for our town centres and high streets, and encourage more tourists and Members to visit the area. For a great Saturday, you could visit Irvin’s speciality tea shop, whose tea I serve in my office, or have wine from the Wine Chateau, which is the only bricks and mortar specialist shop that sells Moldovan wine—again, in my office. You could visit Rushden & Diamonds football club to support community football; it is a great Saturday out—me and my dad have watched them score in the 97th minute. You could end your night at the award-winning Ember restaurant in Wellingborough or the new restaurant in Rushden, La Estrella.

If history is more your thing, the constituency is steeped in it, with buildings from the Jacobean, Elizabethan and Caroline eras. In fact, the Hind Hotel was the resting point for Oliver Cromwell and his army before the battle of Naseby in 1645. Higham Ferrers’ town charter is from 1251, and the town has a charming farmers’ market on Saturday and Sunday in the historic town square, opposite the English Heritage site of Chichele College. The natural landscape of the constituency is breathtaking. Based within the Nene valley—pronounced differently if you’re from from Cambridgeshire—the constituency hosts the internationally renowned Waendel Walk, which Members can participate in this May; I hope to see many of you with walking boots on. As a bonus attraction, my pugs will do a small section of it too.

Thank you again, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to make my maiden speech in a debate on this vital topic, and basically to launch the “Visit Wellingborough” campaign. I am honoured by the opportunity, and will now give way to the estimates debate.

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock (West Suffolk) (Ind)
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I begin by congratulating the new hon. Member for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen) on an eloquent speech and on her “Visit Wellingborough” campaign. That campaign is just embryonic right now; I know that she was encouraging some in the House to join it a couple of months ago, but sadly, I could not do so. No doubt it will continue.

I note that before entering the House, the hon. Lady was an ardent fundraiser for many charities, including Sarcoma UK, a children’s hospice, a children’s health charity and the Salvation Army. I am delighted that she is taking such an early interest in special educational needs, a subject that is very close to my heart. I have just launched a charity, the Accessible Learning Foundation, to champion early identification of neurodivergent conditions. Maybe in the short time we will overlap in this House, she can teach me something about charity fundraising. I say “short time”, of course, because I am leaving, not just because—[Laughter.] I will leave that hanging. It was an excellent maiden speech: it was powerful, strong and clear, and did not go on nearly as long as the speech by the Chair of the Select Committee. By acting in that way, she will win many friends right across the House, and I congratulate her.

This is an important debate, because it is vital that we have stronger provision for special educational needs. I acknowledge and appreciate the work that the Minister has done on this issue and the progress that the Government have made. The Chair of the Select Committee was right to say that some of the promise of the 2014 Act that is the cornerstone of the legislative framework has been delivered on, but certainly not all of it. My particular focus is on the need for early identification. The argument is this: if we can identify special educational needs and neurodiverse conditions early, we can get the support in early, which is better value for the taxpayer as well as self-evidently better for the individuals concerned.

In particular, I want to take on and defeat the argument that identifying conditions leads to labelling, which some say makes the problem worse for an individual. That is not true—it is an antediluvian attitude that needs to be abolished from our policy approach. Having more information and data about each child is better for those children and their teachers. For instance, early identification of dyslexia by assessing the gap between a child’s phonic ability—already assessed in the early year 1 phonics test—and their oral linguistic ability is now easily doable using technology and artificial intelligence, which can automatically assess oral capability in a way that simply was not possible even a couple of years ago. Knowing about that gap can help a teacher support a dyslexic child in a way that can mitigate the challenges that dyslexia brings and give them the skills to deal with those challenges, so that they can benefit from all the rest of their education. That is not just in English—in reading and writing—but in all other subjects, which are of course built on reading and writing, especially those such as history that require significant amounts of language.

The argument that these conditions are somehow not scientifically valid and we should not identify them early has been put to me by officials in the Department, and most recently in The Times newspaper by the otherwise absolutely brilliant Matthew Parris, whom I love. He argued that he did not think attention deficit hyperactivity disorder existed, for instance. Those arguments are simply wrong, and should be destined for the dustbin of history. I urge the Minister to set out the further progress that has been made on early identification. The pilots are good and some schools are doing great work, but what we need in a universal education service is universal early identification of neurodivergent conditions, and the support that comes with that.

I welcome the fact that the Minister recently said that there is no rationing of education, health and care plans. That is important because some people worry that, because EHCPs are expensive to deliver, there is somehow an attempt to limit who gets them. The challenge, however, is that they are not fairly and evenly available. Because some parents can afford to pay for a formal diagnostics test for dyslexia, there is a social inequality in who gets access. Hence we need universal screening—not necessarily universal formal diagnosis, which is a more expensive process, but universal screening—so that we know who is more likely to be neurodivergent, and then the plans can be more properly and more fairly targeted. There are now proven, cost-effective early years interventions that we know work. They do not take up much time, and the time they do take up is more than well spent in being able to target better support. They are available online, and this needs to become a universal standard across primary schools in England.

One of the reasons why this subject is so important is what happens when things go wrong. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) that we need to support neurodivergent children because of their ability to succeed. We know, for instance, that about half of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. We know that there are skills that dyslexic people tend to have in more abundance than straight-line thinkers, such as creativity, and we can understand why, because if someone has had to spend their whole childhood working out how to get around the fact that they are dyslexic, that will develop those parts of the brain that enhance creativity.

However, we should not just be Panglossian; there is a darker side to this. In our society, neurodivergent individuals have for far too long been let down, and we have a school-to-prison pipeline, much of which is due to the lack of early identification. For instance, statistics for 2016-17—I would be interested to know if the Minister has an update—show that children identified with special educational needs accounted for 46.7% of all permanent exclusions, despite making up under 15% of the school population, so almost half of those who are excluded from school are identified as having special educational needs.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about school exclusions. I should not have been shocked because the statistics are all out there for us to see, but last year when I visited Feltham young offender institution, just down the road from my constituency, I was told that the vast majority of young men in that institution have special educational needs and had been excluded from school. He is powerfully making the point that, if we do not invest early, we are storing up huge social and economic costs for ourselves.

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock
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That is absolutely right, and this issue unites colleagues from across the House. The Bill I will bring forward next month has cross-party support, and I urge the hon. Member to add her name to it. It has support from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) all the way through to the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and it is not often that they sign the same piece of paper. If she will add her name to it, that would create a triangle of support across this House, which I would really welcome.

As the hon. Member said—in fact, she anticipated my very next point—the Ministry of Justice reports that 42% of incarcerated individuals had experienced exclusion from school, and we know that just over half of those in the male prison population have a primary school reading age. Addressing neurodiversity, identifying it early, ensuring there is the right support, and therefore reducing illiteracy and getting in support for the behavioural consequences of neurodivergent conditions will lead to fewer people in prison. It will also make sure that those who end up in prison, having been missed by the education system, get this support, and that will help to reduce reoffending. I am glad to say that the Lord Chancellor is on this and is making progress, and the Health Secretary made a huge amount of progress when she was prisons Minister, but there is much more to do.

Here is one concrete example of a new policy that I would propose, which I put to the Minister. The Ministry of Justice is currently rolling out digital profiles of prisoners, outlining their screening data and educational enrolments that are assessed on entry to prison, and ensuring that that data follows prisoners as they move from prison to prison. It is a very good initiative that was started under the previous Lord Chancellor and is being rolled out now. However, in the school system there is no automated data flow from primary to secondary school. Often, there are assessments early in secondary school, and that is good, but if there is screening data or an assessment of individual child need, there is no automated way for such data, with the richness of the data that can now be available, to be passed through to secondary school. Essentially, each child starts from a blank canvas, and it all has to be reassessed.

We need an accurate assessment of where a child is up to at the start of secondary school, but understanding their history as well would be valuable, so I ask the Minister to look at what the MOJ has done on data transfer—in its case, normally from initial prison to the longer-stay prison—for use in the transition from primary to secondary school.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker
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It strikes me that my right hon. Friend’s suggestion about passporting information from primary has much wider applications. Something I have often observed in my work on the Education Committee is that there are problems when, for instance, primary schools build up a pupil’s ability in one language and then the pupil transfers to a secondary school that teaches a completely different one. Some form of passporting of data from primary to secondary through a pupil passport, not only for special educational needs but for learning, would be extremely useful in managing such transitions.

Matt Hancock Portrait Matt Hancock
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Yes, I am absolutely certain that this approach to data is more widely applicable. My focus is on this specific area, but there is now a richness of data on individual children that simply was not available 10 years ago or even five years ago, and I think that such passporting of data would be invaluable.

I agree with everything the Chair of the Select Committee said on the question of funding, so I will not repeat it. He has been the leader of the f40 campaign for many years. Suffolk is underfunded, as is Worcestershire, so I put in my plug, but I do not need to add any more details. The Minister knows them for sure.

I will close by saying that I appreciate the engagement the Minister has shown on this subject, and I look forward to meeting him in private in the next couple of weeks to continue this discussion. However, I would urge him to support early identification not just as a matter of social justice, not just as a matter of progress for each individual child and not just to ensure that each child can reach their potential, but, since this is an estimates day debate, because we will then spend taxpayers’ money on education more wisely and we will get better educational outcomes as a result.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I would like to publicly congratulate Gen Kitchen on her fine maiden speech. Well done.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock). I agreed with an awful lot of what he said, particularly his point about early diagnosis and not being afraid to attach a label to things, because that equips parents and teachers to support a child appropriately. Even if that does not necessarily mean additional funding is needed, it is about making sure that we all have the right tools in our armoury to support a child.

I congratulate the new hon. Member for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen) on her maiden speech, and I look forward to seeing her around—I hope for many more months and years to come.

I also congratulate the Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), on securing this important debate. I was very happy to sponsor his application for it, given the desperation and exasperation felt by so many parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities up and down the country. As he said, we heard from Members from both sides of the House in January in a well-attended debate secured by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis). They told harrowing stories that they learned of from their constituency casework, and in some cases from personal family experiences. Sadly, his plea for more immediate support in the Budget fell on deaf ears, although the longer-term commitment to build a few more special schools was welcome, and I will say a little more about that later. The insufficient funding for SEND has a visceral impact on vulnerable children and their families, but it is also one of the most pressing financial issues facing local authorities around the country, many of which are on the brink of bankruptcy. I shall focus my remarks on that issue, rather than repeating points that I made in the debate in January.

Since March 2021, the Department for Education has made safety-valve agreements with the 34 local authorities with the highest dedicated schools grant deficits, and a further five are in the pipeline. The Department is working with an additional 55 local authorities through its “delivering better value in SEND” programme, so we are not far off having 100 local authorities already engaged with the DFE because they are struggling with funding for SEND. That number will continue to rise because, as has repeatedly been said in the House, the available SEND funding simply does not match the need. Ultimately, many of these programmes are sticking-plaster solutions that will not address the longer-term underlying challenge, because local authorities are already predicting and modelling significant deficits in years to come, beyond the lifespan of some of these agreements.

It is worrying that so many local authorities are already involved in these mechanisms, but more worrying still is the number of local authorities using the statutory override. Introduced in 2020, the override allows local authorities to exclude any deficits in their dedicated schools grant spending from their main revenue budgets. In effect, it allows local authority to proceed with an imbalanced budget without requiring a section 114 notice. That provision had been due to expire in March 2023 but has been extended for a further three years and will end in March 2026, yet there seems little prospect of local authorities being able to manage these deficits down in such a short space of time without a great deal more Government support.

Are we just waiting for a deluge of section 114 notices when the statutory override expires? The Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities certainly seems to think so. In its recent “Financial distress in local authorities” report, it concluded:

“The Government’s use of the statutory override and one-off ‘safety valve’ funding are temporary measures and do not address the underlying mismatch between demand, costs, and annual Dedicated Schools Grant funding”.

It added:

“the sector faces a cliff-edge of section 114 notices.”

There is no information on what will happen when the statutory override concludes. A cynic might suggest that this Conservative Government, who are clearly on their last legs, are happy to kick this thorny issue into the long grass for the next Administration to grapple with. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s answer to this problem, which is already keeping many council leaders awake at night, even if he hopes that this will be somebody else’s problem.

As for those local authorities that are in safety-valve agreements, are the Government keeping their side of the bargain? I have spoken before about the lack of SEND school places and the costs that can lead to; for example, children may be placed in private equity-backed schools that charge exorbitant fees and rip off taxpayers, and there is also the additional cost of transporting SEND children outside the local area. It behoves the Government to set up new SEND schools and create new places, and although the Government have promised 15 special schools in their Budget, as we have heard, their track record on delivery is poor. As the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Worcester, pointed out, it is an open question whether the funding announced will allow the promise to be met.

We are told that we can expect these schools to open in three to four years. Frankly, I will believe it when I see it, because just last week it was reported that building work on 33 new special schools that will particularly help children with autism was seriously delayed, despite the expectation that they would be up and running by 2026. The response from the Department for Education was that it never set that target date. Councils are trying to take matters into their own hands, but the Government approved fewer than half of the 85 applications from councils to open SEND free schools in 2022.

Local authorities trying to meet the requirements of their safety-valve agreements will be significantly hindered if the new SEND places promised by the Government are not forthcoming. The day-to-day impact that the delays will have on mainstream schools must not be underestimated. I hold a termly call with all the chairs of school governing bodies in my constituency. My discussions with those governors and with local headteachers regularly feature SEND, as I am sure the Minister can imagine, and in particular the massive impact on staff, other pupils and school budgets of ensuring that children with high needs who are waiting for an EHCP or desperately searching for a special school place are adequately supported. One local school told me of teaching assistants being bitten, and quitting as a result. When that happens, it exacerbates the workforce challenges that many of our schools face. The school was concerned about how to keep other pupils safe, and was spending a large amount of money trying to support a child who clearly should not have been in a mainstream school. The mainstream school cannot claw that money back once the child finally gets an EHCP and a special school place.

These delays are exacerbated by a desperate shortage of educational psychologists and speech and language therapists. I agree with the comments about making sure that we have those people in place to support the early identification that has been talked about; these professionals are integral to the system. We must address the chronic shortage of speech and language therapists and educational psychologists if we are to provide any sort of timely assessment. Scandalously, one school in my constituency said that it had the budget that it wanted to spend on speech and language therapy, but it had to hand the money back because it could not find anyone to deliver the support, and it was a “use it or lose it at the end of the financial year” budget.

I come to the final issue that I want to raise. I heard about this just last week from a Shropshire councillor, and it strikes me as a real anomaly, and waste in the system that Ministers could easily address without spending more money. I was told that a statement of special need issued in one nation of the UK cannot be passported to another. If a child with an EHCP in England moves across the border to Wales, that EHCP is not recognised, and vice versa, and the parents have to join a waiting list and start the process again from scratch. The situation is the same in Scotland. That will also have an impact on children coming into England. They are being reassessed for EHCPs, as the statements they received in Scotland or Wales are not recognised. At a time when resources are being stretched to breaking point, this lack of passporting is surely nonsense. The help and support that a child requires in one nation of the UK is surely the same in the next. I hope the Minister will take this issue away and seek to resolve it. As always seems to be the case with SEND, it is the children and their families who suffer the most. They wait forever to get the help and support that they need, and families often have to fight hard for their child’s rights.

I am afraid that the Government are letting down children with special educational needs and disability. I hope that even if Ministers choose to ignore those on the Opposition Benches, they will listen to Back Benchers from their party, given that so many Conservative Members chose to sign a letter to the Chancellor asking for more SEND funding. We all know the statistics, and know that there has been a huge increase in the number of children with special educational needs. I recognise that presents enormous challenges for national and local government, but although those statistics are important, we must never forget that behind every statistic is a child who is directly affected—a child who, like every other, deserves the very best start in life, because every child, no matter their background or needs, can achieve great things.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate. First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen). It is always good to make a maiden speech about special educational needs; I did so as well, and SEND is a critically important issue. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who gave an incredibly long speech, but it was not unenjoyable. I am dyspraxic and dyslexic, and my attention is not great, so I often get bored easily, but the content was really good. He covered virtually everything there is to say in an incredibly comprehensive way. In fact, the Chairman of the Education Committee covered points that I was looking to make that I thought would be innovative, because he is so on the ball. I was on the Committee for a couple of years, and it is a shame that I never served under him. I left before he became Chairman, and I supported him in becoming Chairman. I learned a lot today about the work he has been doing. It makes me happy to see him giving so much priority to special educational needs, which he has such knowledge of and is so well versed in. That is good news and great to hear.

I have supported my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) in his work on early diagnosis. I have told this story so many times, and I am sorry if I am a bit like a broken record, but when I was 12, I had the reading and writing age of an eight-year-old. I could not do my shoelaces until I was 14. Frankly, it was only when I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia that things started to change in a positive way for me, so diagnosis makes a huge difference. Some people say that sometimes it can go a bit far, or that sometimes there is a bit of an obsession with people feeling like they need to be labelled. That might be an issue, perhaps in a minority of cases, but in the vast majority of cases, people need and deserve to know what they have got if they are neurodivergent, because then other people can better understand them, and they can better understand themselves. Things that may have been real challenges can, over time, in the course of their life, become assets.

Certainly if somebody turned up today and said, “Tom, I can wave this magic wand and you will no longer have dyspraxia and dyslexia,” I would say, “Don’t wave it, because I want to have dyslexia and dyspraxia.” It presents me with a number of challenges. Some people try to say that I use it as an excuse when I should be a bit more on top of things. Two weeks ago, I left my phone in the back of a cab and lost it. Last night, I left my rucksack in the back of somebody’s car. I have only just got it back; that is why there has been lots of activity here, and messages being passed. I will not blame my forgetfulness on my dyspraxia, but it might have something to do with it.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Sir David Davis)—I think that is right; I have not had a phone to check his constituency online. I had to get advice from colleagues about the name of his constituency. [Interruption.] He is here! You have just missed my excuse for not knowing it. [Interruption.] I will speak through the Chair from now on, sorry. I was pleased to sign his letter, because I know there are significant funding issues. I sat and watched the Budget, and I welcome the additional funding, but do I honestly feel that it was the game-changing moment we need on SEND funding? The answer is no.

Pretty much everyone sees special educational needs as being a very important issue, but it is not that. It is a critical issue. It is one of the most important issues, and it links in with so many other things. We need to see the big picture of how getting SEND right relates to tackling crime, how it links to entrepreneurialism, and how it helps us to deal with providing mental health services. These connections and links must be seen if we are to truly understand how important SEND is. It cannot be seen in isolation.

My right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk knows that in Suffolk, we sadly have had a failing SEND system. I have got to a stage, particularly over the past year, where 50% to 60% of my surgery appointments are with parents fighting to get the support that their children need. More than 50% of my surgery appointments are about SEND, and probably about 20% are about mental health. For some of those individuals, or individuals whose loved ones are struggling, often crippled by mental health problems, that is not disconnected from the fact that they have not got the support they need, because they are neurodivergent.

Earlier this week, I met the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, whose mental health services have been in special measures for a long time. We heard some tragic stories from campaigners whose loved ones are no longer with us because they were failed. I remember hearing from one lady in particular. She was not a constituent, but she explained to me how her son, who is no longer with us, had dyspraxia, dyslexia and autism, and the profound impact of not getting the support. When you are not understood, or you feel like you are not understood—sometimes not even understanding yourself fully, or the world around you—that can breed deep upset and anguish. The two things are linked.

Since 2019, we have had two new special schools in Ipswich: the Sir Bobby Robson School and the Woodbridge Road Academy. Each provides up to around 50 places. I remember speaking to the head teacher of the Sir Bobby Robson School, and already it has taken a few more pupils than it planned. There just are not enough places, even with those two new special schools. It is great for those who get in—it has been transformative and turned some of their lives around—but for every young person who gets a place, there are a number who cannot.

Part of SEND needs to be about the mainstream. EHCPs are not appropriate for everyone, so we have to get that support in the mainstream, too. We need more SEND specialists, but we also need to have general teachers having a much higher knowledge of all different types of neurodiversity. That is one thing I want to probe with the Minister at some point, because the SEND review made a commitment to a higher amount of initial teacher training. When I visit schools in my constituency, I make a point of trying to find newly qualified teachers, and I always ask them, “How much of your teacher training was about SEND?”, and the consensus is that hardly any of it is. I need to see evidence that since that commitment from the Government, things are changing in practice. For existing teachers—those who have perhaps been teachers for many decades—we must put in place resources to ensure they get the knowledge they need, because there is not a teacher I have met who is not passionate about wanting to do more to support SEND; they just need the knowledge and support to get to that place.

When I was on the Education Committee, one link we discussed was 40% or 50% of those in prison being neurodivergent to some extent. They feel like the system has failed them. They feel alienated from the system, and then they turn against it, and to a certain extent that is understandable. One good thing that was done was by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) when he was a Justice Minister—he is now an Education Minister—and he committed to putting a neurodiversity manager in each prison. Before then, there were only enough neurodiversity managers to cover four prisons. That was a good change.

Ultimately, we have got to get to that game-changing moment on funding. There are many things that Suffolk County Council could and should have done better on SEND, but I have sympathy that in Suffolk we are particularly badly funded. We have met the Minister about that, and we understand that that gap is apparently narrowing, but how is it defensible for me to have to explain to parents in my constituency why their children who are neurodivergent are worth less than children who are neurodivergent not just in London—we have become used to that kind of disparity—but in Norfolk and Essex? It is extraordinary, and I cannot defend that. I do not want people in those areas who are neurodivergent to get any less investment—I want them to get all the investment in the world—but I want young people in Ipswich and Suffolk who are neurodivergent to get that support as well.

Why does this matter? I raised this in an intervention earlier. Because this is a debate about the Budget, I will not just make the argument about why investing in SEND is morally the right thing to do. Even taking the bean-counter’s approach—the Treasury view—that game-changing moment in funding for SEND is good for the taxpayer, because it unleashes the talent and ability of so many people who think differently. I am in the process of setting up the all-party parliamentary group for neurodiversity in defence and national security because the soldier-first principle is difficult for many neurodiverse people who think differently, but we really need them when it comes to cyber.

This might surprise people, but I briefly flirted with joining the Royal Navy as an officer. I went to the open day where six of us got together and it was like, “Here’s a barrel. You’ve got to tie loads of knots and get it over these imaginary shark-infested waters to the island.” At that time—I think I was probably 25—I felt like I was 11 or 12 again. I felt thick again. I felt that people were looking at me like I was stupid.

We have got to do this. I served on the Education Committee with the Minister, who I know is in this place because of his passion for education, and I know that he gets SEND. I want to help him to make the case for why investing in SEND is of monumental importance and game-changing.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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It is an enormous pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and his typically powerful and forthright speech. I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) for securing the debate and, of course, the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen) for her maiden speech. A massive “Well done” to her— it is not an easy thing to do.

I have been a pretty robust champion for SEND for some time and have spoken on it at length in the House, so I do not want to detain hon. Members for too long, but there are some important points that I wish to raise, particularly with the Minister. The backdrop for SEND across the UK is getting ever better. In March last year, the Government published their SEND and alternative provision improvement plan. Why was that important? Because it commits to a huge increase in funding for education across the UK, and for SEND in particular, with investment increasing by more than 60% from 2019-20 to more than £10.5 billion a year by 2024-25. That is a huge increase in money, and we know beyond doubt that this is the highest funding ever for education in the UK.

I was also pleased that, as part of that plan, there is a new leadership-level SENCO NVQ, which is an important professional qualification. We have also got expanded training for staff ranging from up to 5,000 early years educational needs co-ordinators to 400 educational psychologists. Excitingly, in Bracknell Forest, a proposal is being mooted in conjunction with Bracknell and Wokingham College for a pilot to be run for recruiting and training additional teaching assistants, and particularly those who may be focused on special educational needs.

As the Minister knows, last year’s review identified three key challenges. First, navigating the SEND system and alternative provision is not a positive experience for families. Indeed, the EHCP process is too long, too convoluted and too difficult—it requires a degree to fill it out and submit it. Secondly, outcomes for children and young people with SEND are consistently worse than their peers’ across every measure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich just mentioned. Thirdly, despite the continuing and unprecedented investment, the system is not financially sustainable and insufficient places are available for those needing specialist provision.

What do we need to do? Given that I try to focus nationally as well as locally, I think that first we need to better operationalise the process. We know that the money is available and the policy is in place, but it is not being translated right now to improvements locally. I am working locally with Bracknell Forest Council to do that. Additional staff are being recruited and response times are improving for those who contact the Department, but these improvements need to happen much more broadly across the DFE’s area.

While the details remain confidential—that is a safety valve—I am supporting Bracknell Forest Council in its endeavours and am meeting here in Westminster with Ministers to ensure the best possible deal for councillors and officials at the council. I am grateful to the Government for their ongoing co-operation and investment, which is pivotal. However, to better operationalise the provision, we need the right settings for all our children, and sufficient places. Even with the increased funding, we need to build additional schools—and that is now, not in five years’ time.

Last year, I was pleased to play my part in securing funding for the new SEND school in Crowthorne in my constituency, which was one of the 60 new schools announced last year. Bracknell Forest Council assures me that it is ready right now to scope and build the school, so can we please have the money right now, not in five years?

Why stop there? We need to be ambitious nationally and locally. We could also invest locally in a third school. An obvious site in Bracknell is the Warfield site, which I have raised with the council before. I encourage the council in Bracknell to be more ambitious and go for it. Let us not just go for a second SEND school; let us go for a third as well. We need to do the same thing across the UK: identify settings where schools can be built and make the money available now, because these settings are non-discretionary.

Before I finish, I will raise two points. First, I have a particular issue with Labour’s policy on VAT for private schools. Aside from the huge impact on parents who choose—it is about choice—to educate their kids privately for good reason, that policy would have an adverse effect on service families and those with children with special needs. We must be careful what we wish for. Lastly, while I absolutely welcome the huge progress being made on SEND right across the UK, it does need operationalising both locally and nationally. It is about results and outcomes, not policy and money. I urge the Minister please to wave his magic wand on this one.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I thank the Chair of the Education Committee, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), for securing this important debate and commend him for the work he does as the Select Committee’s Chair. I also pay tribute to those who work with and support children with special educational needs and disabilities. Across the country, teachers, teaching assistants, support staff, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, mental health professionals and many more work tirelessly every day to ensure that children with SEND have the best possible education.

I am grateful to hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, but I must pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen). It really is to her credit that she has chosen this debate to make her maiden speech and to be that powerful voice for some of the most vulnerable children and most challenged families in her community. She is clearly a powerful advocate for her communities. If they vote her back in at the general election, they will also hopefully have a Labour Government with whom she can work to truly deliver on her “visit Wellingborough” campaign.

Since the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014, the number of requests for EHC plans has risen year on year, doubling between 2016 and 2022. There was a further 7% rise in 2022 when 66,706 new plans were issued. Almost 400,000 school pupils are now supported through an EHC plan, while a further 1.2 million children are receiving support without a plan. However, it is clear from today’s debate that the support system for children with SEND is failing too many children and their families. Parents and carers are being forced into expensive and lengthy battles to access the support they need throughout their children’s time in school. In 2022, more than half of EHC plans were issued after the 20-week target.

Increasingly, families are turning to the tribunal process—with a 24% increase in cases last year—to secure a plan or appeal the detail of their child’s plan. An overwhelming 98% of cases were won by parents and carers last year. That process is not only draining for families but expensive for the taxpayer. Research by the Disabled Children’s Partnership found that lost cases cost councils and courts £60 million in 2021-22. We must not forget the families who do not even make it to the tribunal, and whose children’s needs are left unmet. These unacceptable delays are heartbreaking for families, who face years of stress and anxiety while their child is unable to access the education to which they are entitled.

More than a third of children with SEND were persistently absent from school in the autumn and spring terms last year. Although some of that absence is related to the need for medical appointments, much is due to the lack of tailored provision for a child’s needs. Children with SEND have one of the largest attainment gaps compared with their peers. A child with an EHCP is on average 28 months behind their peers at the end of primary school. The gap only grows throughout school, to a staggering 3.5 years—40 months—by the time they leave. We only get one childhood, and delayed support will embed lifelong inequalities and create barriers to the opportunities that children can pursue later in life.

The crisis in SEND support is having a devastating impact on local authority finances, as hon. Members have touched on. Increasing numbers of councils are issuing section 114 notices, effectively declaring bankruptcy, with many citing the impact of increasing SEND and home-to-school transport costs as reasons. No council takes this lightly, and councillors and officers across the country working really hard to balance the books. I am sure that the Minister may want to blame specific councils for the issues, but the sheer number of local authorities on the brink—with administrations of all political parties—cannot be dismissed. Reforming the SEND system is vital not only for children and families but to ensure that the wider local government services across the country are sustainable. Issuing a section 114 notice has grave implications for the delivery of all local government services, and it is often children who suffer most from the resulting cuts.

The Government’s SEND and alternative provision review should have been the opportunity to set out an ambitious plan for reform to ensure the best outcomes for children with SEND, better relationships with families, and a sustainable system for schools and local authorities. Yet after a four-year wait, the plan was met with widespread disappointment with its limited scope. Many measures will not come into effect until 2025—six years after the review was announced. In that time, 300,000 children with SEND will have left school.

The funding for 15 new special schools in last week’s Budget is welcome, but the schools will provide additional places for just 2,000 children and there is no clear timeline for when they will open to students. I hope that the Minister will update the House on the other 33 new special schools announced alongside the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan. More than a year on from the publication of the plan, the Department has yet to publish the details of approved academy trusts, and that is delaying the start of construction. When does the Minister expect those schools to open for students?

It is also disappointing that the Budget had little to say more widely on support for children with SEND, the majority of whom will continue to be educated in the mainstream sector. The Opposition are committed to breaking down the barriers faced by children with SEND. We believe in high and rising standards for every child. We know that there are children with additional needs in every classroom in every school but, as has been highlighted by Members on the Government Benches, the Government do not equip every teacher with the knowledge and skills they need to teach them.

Labour would look at every aspect of teacher training—undergraduate curriculum, early career framework and career change routes—and we will introduce an entitlement to annual continuing professional development, which we would expect to be used in many instances to boost SEND expertise. As part of Labour’s planned reforms to Ofsted inspection, moving away from the use of single-word judgments will ensure that schools are inspected on their inclusivity and that parents of children with SEND have access to clear information about their child’s school.

Children increasingly start school without the foundational language and communication skills that they need to take part in their education. We are committed to improving speech and language support, and will equip every school with funding to deliver evidence-based early language interventions, such as Nuffield early language intervention. More than 280,000 children received SEND support last year for their social, emotional and mental health, while many children with mental ill health were out of school entirely. The need for mental health support has soared in recent years. Alongside urgent action to address the unacceptably high waiting times for CAMHS support, we will embed professional mental health support in every school and deliver open access youth mental health hubs in every community.

We will build a modern early education and childcare system that works for the families of disabled children. The early identification of needs is vital to provide the intervention in the most important years of a child’s development. Last year, Coram found that just 18% of local authorities had sufficient places for disabled children. Will the Minister confirm that there will be sufficient places for disabled children ahead of the expansion of entitlements in April?

Children and families deserve much better than Government sticking plaster solutions. We will work with parents, carers, schools and local authorities to rebuild the support that children with SEND rely on, and deliver the change needed to ensure that every child can thrive in school. For 14 years, the Government have failed children and families. As we have always done in government, Labour will put children first again.

David Johnston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (David Johnston)
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) for opening this important debate. I know how important it is to him that our investment in education gives children and young people the very best start in life, and his work on these issues both as Chair of the Education Committee and as an excellent former Schools Minister is well recognised across the House. I, too, pay tribute to all the staff and parents doing all they can to support children with special educational needs.

Before I turn to the substance of the debate, may I say what an excellent maiden speech the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen) gave? It is nice to see someone else from the charity sector join the House. Her speech was a great advert for visiting Wellingborough, and specifically her office, where she seems to keep all of its best products. She said that she would like to make her family proud, but I have no doubt that she has already done that and will continue to do so a great deal more in the coming years.

This Government are making record investment in education, with total schools revenue funding reaching over £60.7 billion this coming year. That is the highest level in real terms per pupil in history. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) said—a great champion for children with special educational needs—within the total funding amount, high needs funding is increasing to more than £10.5 billion in the coming financial year, which is an increase of over 60% compared with 2019-20.

The Department is also making a transformational investment in capital funding. We have published over £1.5 billion of high needs provision capital allocations for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 financial years to support local authorities to deliver new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND or who require alternative provision.

James Wild Portrait James Wild (North West Norfolk) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. I am grateful that there will be two special schools in Norfolk, including one in west Norfolk, but at the moment Norfolk County Council spends £40 million a year moving children with special needs to special schools rather than on their education itself. Will he look at the urgent funding need for counties like Norfolk that face those very high costs?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The amount being spent on transport rather than provision is too high. The solution is both to create more provision and to meet children’s needs in mainstream schools at an early enough stage wherever possible, though that is not always possible.

The investment is on top of our ongoing delivery of new special and alternative provision for free schools. Currently, 108 special free schools are open, with a further 77 approved to open in future. Last week, we announced funding for an additional wave of 15 special free schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester asked some questions about that investment. I can confirm that it is intended to provide 30,000 additional specialist places and that we remain on course to deliver that. I can also confirm that we will still be spending £2.6 billion in this area.

Despite our investment in education funding, it is right to acknowledge that the SEND and alternative provision system continues to face challenges. The SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, which we published in March 2023, seeks to move us to a national system where every child gets the right support in the right place at the right time. We have already begun the process of testing our reforms. In September last year, we launched the SEND and AP change programme, which is delivering some of the things we talked about in the plan, including standardising and digitising the EHCP process, testing advisory tailored lists, and strengthening mediation.

On financial pressures, as has been touched on, the Department for Education has two main programmes—the safety valve programme and the delivering better value programme—to support and stabilise local authority expenditure. The programmes are designed to improve SEND services by helping local authorities to make the very best use of their resources. The local authorities with the highest percentage deficits are invited to join the safety valve programme, and there are now 34 local authorities with safety valve agreements. By March 2025, the Department will have allocated nearly £900 million through the programme to help local authorities to eliminate their historic deficits while continuing to deliver high-quality provision.

Local authorities with substantial but less severe deficits have been invited to join the delivering better value programme—an £85 million programme launched in 2022 that helps selected authorities to structure and deliver their SEND services so young people get the support they need at the right time. The authorities work out the causes of their challenges and develop action plans. They are given £1 million to support the implementation of the plan. We have published some of the learnings and insights from the programme so far, and will continue to find and share examples of good practice in local areas. That is, in part, to address the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, the Chair of the Education Committee, about helping local authorities to plan appropriately.

Turning to other areas of funding to support children with special educational needs, we are investing £21 million to train 400 more educational psychologists by September 2024. We are investing £18 million between 2022 and 2025 to double the capacity of our supported internships programme. We have a new programme called PINS— partnerships for inclusion of neurodiversity—which is a £13 million investment that will deploy specialists from both health and education workforces to train more than 1,600 mainstream primary schools to better meet the needs of children with autism and other neurodiverse needs. There is plenty more I can say, but I want to address some of the questions raised.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) said, we know that effective early intervention can reduce the impact that a special educational need or disability may have. I commend him on his continued campaigning in that area. On childcare, we are working with every local authority to ensure they have the places available for all children, as part of our childcare roll-out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester asked me to review the correspondence relating to the location of Fort Royal. I give him that commitment. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk asked me to look at what the Ministry of Justice has done on passporting information; I will do that. On exclusions, we do not recognise the figures he quoted, but the proportion of children with special educational needs within the exclusion figures has been falling—although it is still too high.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) asked about EHCP passporting between home nations. We would expect English local authorities to accept the evidence they have been given, but I will discuss that further with the team. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) has been a consistent champion for children with special educational needs since we arrived here and served together on the Education Committee. We recently reviewed the frameworks for teacher training and there is now significantly more content on supporting children with special educational needs, but I am very happy to have a further discussion with him separately.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt
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I am pleased to hear that. I would be interested to sit down with the Minister and the Chair of the Select Committee to interrogate and understand that in more detail.

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friends on that point.

There is then the question of what the Labour party would do differently. I did not hear anything that the Labour party would do differently. The only thing we know that it would do differently is to charge families with a child at a special school having their special needs met an additional 20% on the cost of that place. It can often be a huge struggle for families to meet the cost of a place in the first place, yet Labour will add 20% to that on the spurious grounds that otherwise—and I quote—“any school could claim it’s a special school.” That seems to me a particularly poor way of making education policy, not that there is much of it from the Labour party. I wonder how many Labour MPs, when they sit with constituents in their surgeries, tell those parents that they will hike their fees by 20%. I suspect not many, but every parent in the country deserves to know that.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland
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Does the Minister agree that this is ultimately about choice? It should be about parents having a choice about where they send their children to school, without being fiscally penalised for doing so. Does he also agree that imposing VAT on school fees will massively overload the state school system, because of the number of parents who may not be able to afford to send their kids to private school and who will therefore send them to state school? Does he agree that that policy is complete nonsense?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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My hon. Friend makes some important points. The honest truth is that I just do not think the Labour party thought it through. I think they thought it was ideology that would please a particular wing of the party, but they did not think through the fact that it would hammer families with a child in a special school, trying to get their needs met, with an additional 20%. We will see what those families think about that policy.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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I thank the Minister for giving way, because I actually support quite a lot of what he is saying on this issue. Just in the last couple of weeks, I have come across two or three families that have children with lower levels of additional needs that do not warrant an EHCP who have gone into state mainstream schools and really struggled. Those families told me that they scrimped and saved to get their child better support in a mainstream, but smaller and more nurturing, private school. In one case, a mother had inherited a little bit of money from a parent that she was then able to invest. She said to me that so many children will not have that opportunity. We should not penalise parents who want to make that choice to support their children with special needs. That is why the Liberal Democrats will also oppose putting VAT on private school fees.

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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It is not often I say this, but I entirely agree with the hon. Lady, and I hope we can work together. The Labour party believes in the myth that everyone who puts their children into these schools is wealthy and can afford the 20% increase, but, as the hon. Lady says, often people are just trying to get the right support for their children. Whether they can secure an EHCP is not within their control—all sorts of factors are involved—and it is completely unacceptable to hammer those families with another 20% on the cost of trying to meet their children’s needs.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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At the risk of focusing on an issue that is a distraction, let me emphasise that we need to invest in special educational needs provision in mainstream schools, for all the reasons that have been advanced today, including in the necessary teacher training. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has concluded that this policy would bring in £1.3 billion to provide the 93% of children in the state sector who are currently being failed by the Government with the support that they need.

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I agree that it is a distraction. This policy is a distraction from Labour’s having no plan for any area of education—schools, apprenticeships, universities or childcare. It is a distraction, and Labour has not thought through the consequences of it.

Our investment in special educational needs is a key part of the Government’s mission to set all children and young people up for success. I am proud that the Government are providing record levels of investment, and I look forward to continuing to work with Members as we strive to make the special educational needs system the very best that it can be. I commend this estimate to the House.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker
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We have had an excellent debate. We have heard from Members in all parts of the House about the importance of continuing to increase investment in special educational needs across both capital and revenue.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Gen Kitchen) on a fantastic maiden speech. I was very impressed to hear about her ancestor who was a chaplain in the great war. We had a famous one in Worcester, Woodbine Willie, who went on to become a great Christian socialist. I am sure that the hon. Lady will make a big contribution on education issues, and I invite her to join us on the Education Committee, where I hope she will be able to contribute further.

We have heard brilliant speeches from Members on both sides of the House, and although I do not have enough time to talk about all of them, I congratulate them on the case that they have made for their constituents. I recognise that the Minister has done some very important work and that and he takes the issue seriously. I say to him, “Keep it up, and help us to help you make the case to the Treasury to ensure that these estimates continue to increase.”

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54).