Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab)
My Lords, I declare my interests as a member of Middlesex Learning Trust and a trustee of Artis Foundation. When I spoke in the debate on the humble Address last week, I focused on things the Bill does not address. I am not going to go back to them, but I have not forgotten them, and I am very pleased that quite a lot of them have been addressed by others.
Today I want to concentrate on one aspect the Bill does address, which has already been touched on—I think—by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, who is no longer in her place, but I missed a tiny bit of her speech, and certainly implicitly if not directly by the noble Lord, Lord Altrincham. These are the new provisions dealing with school attendance. In doing so, I acknowledge an excellent briefing from Ambitious about Autism.
I am assuming I do not have to explain in this very well-informed company what autism is. On current evidence, one in 57 children are affected. The briefing from Ambitious about Autism reveals that 31% of autistic children and young people—that is, over 43,000 students—were persistent absentees in 2021. Autism is a spectrum disorder, so different people present in different ways. I want to try to describe what it is like for one family with a charming, funny, articulate and highly intelligent autistic adolescent for whom school is a nightmare—not schoolwork, but school itself, the environment and the social demands. This is an ordinary middle-class family with two parents with high-pressured senior jobs, one of them in education. It is my family.
As most of us know, living with adolescents can be pretty gruelling at the best of times. An adolescent with an autism diagnosis and significant mental health problems, especially one who is highly articulate and intelligent, presents a whole different level of challenge. There are good times and bad times, of course. At good times, life goes along in a reasonably normal way; at bad times, it is very different. There is extreme volatility and unpredictable behaviour; there is acute distress leading to extended meltdowns and self-harm; there is frequent disruption to family and professional life, including mine, caused by the struggle to get the young person to school and keep them there, which is sometimes impossible. There is the limited availability of help and support, both in school and from other agencies such as CAMHS, which has already been alluded to. This is not from want of good will, but from want of resources.
Then, there is the stress, guilt and corrosive anxiety of trying to keep daily life more or less stable, which wear away at the mental and physical health of the parents, and there is the impact of constant disruption on other children in the family. It is relentless, exhausting and heart-breaking to see. What possible value could there be in adding to the pressure by threatening these parents and others in the same situation with fines and penalties?
Six in 10 young people say the main thing that would make school better for them would be to have a teacher who understood autism. I have heard a version of this many times over the years, but only half of teachers—53%—feel they have been adequately trained to support autistic children in the classroom. I know only too well what a difficult job teachers and school leaders have coping with everything that is asked of them. Most of them are doing their absolute best, but young people like my family member need special attention, which they often do not get.
Ambitious about Autism says:
“Compelling these young people to be at a school … without the support they need to attend, will not help them learn.”
We hear from parents and teachers that, when autistic young people are forced into a classroom where they cannot access the learning, they may go into shutdown, completely detaching from what is happening around them, or have meltdowns that affect other children and teachers and are very distressing for the young person themselves. It is just so.
What evidence does the Minister have that the provisions in the Bill will reduce absences in SEND groups, specifically among students with autism? Ambitious about Autism says punishing families of autistic pupils with fines for poor attendance will not make a positive difference;
“it will just further penalise families who already struggle to get support for their children.”
I am sure the Minister does not want this to happen. I hope she will accept the necessity to amend the Bill to ensure such potential—I hope unintended—consequences are avoided. I beg her to do so. My family and others like it do not deserve to have further pressure put on them. Their lives are difficult enough already.