James Sunderland calls on the Government to invest in SEN children as never before, to speed up diagnosis and open more dedicated SEN schools so that every local authority can provide focused intervention in a specialist and dedicated setting allowing children to fulfil their potential in the right environment, rather simply be excluded.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. As we know, the Timpson review was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education in March 2018 and published in May 2019. There is no need today to go into the detail of that excellent document, which is on public record, but I will highlight some key factors.
From 1998 to 2013, there was a downward trend of school exclusions. They dropped to a rate of 0.06% for the 2012-13 school year. However, that level has increased in recent years. For example, in 2017-18, there were almost 8,000 permanent exclusions in state-funded schools across all levels, a rate of 0.1%. The reasons are multifarious, including persistent disruptive behaviour and physical assaults against pupils and adults. Most intriguingly, the exclusion rates for children with special educational needs are much higher than average. With overall permanent exclusion set at 0.1% in 2016-17, it was 0.35% over the same period—three and half times the problem. So, indeed, Houston, we have a problem.
We are not here today to admire our challenges, but to solve them, so what do we need to do? The SEND review is expected imminently, but it is a matter for DFE and DHSC. First, we need to invest in our SEN children as never before. Yes, many are disruptive, hard to handle and come with a range of issues, but what about their energy, skills and strengths? If we can harness them to best effect, just think of the rewards.
Why might that work? By getting to the root cause of the issues, providing focused intervention and allowing children to fulfil their potential in the right environment, rather simply be excluded because it is all too difficult, we can get the best out of them. By providing the right care in the right settings, we can give them the focus they need to be productive, employable, law-abiding and responsible citizens, because we have addressed the root causes.
Our prisons are sadly full of people who have made the wrong decisions or acted impulsively, because they were not diagnosed at an early age, so let’s invest in all our kids to give them the best possible chance.
I want every single local authority in the UK to comprehensively review their SEN provision, so that it becomes available in every area. In other words, every authority should provide specialist in-house provision. Specialist and dedicated settings are the way forward, and I want more dedicated schools established for SEN. Why? It is because it is not fair on the 95% of children in a class if 5% are disruptive, nor is it fair on the 5% to be constantly out on a limb, feeling the odd one out or being excluded. Let us separate the children, where we need to, but also be free to adopt hybrid models where access to the mainstream will still be beneficial. It is about a needs-must basis—individually streamlined to each child.
Why is it necessary for local authorities to do that? It is because it is the right thing to do. Our children are closer to home and enjoy the normality that they crave. It would also save on the exorbitant cost of providing taxi fares to schools a long distance away and perhaps even save the huge school fees of private education, when this should be provided in the state sector.
We must also give our teachers better training in identifying special needs and processing the education, health and care plans. I know of many families who are simply swept under the carpet, waiting for years for someone to take them seriously and for the EHCP to be authorised. This cannot be a golden ticket for the lucky few, but a rightful passport for every child to get what they need. Please, let’s speed up the EHCP process and hold headteachers and councils to account. And please don’t get me started on local councils that fail to acknowledge hidden disabilities or autism in applications for blue badges—a whole different issue.
Lastly, our child and adolescent mental health services across the UK need 20,000 volts put straight through them. For families to be waiting up to two and a half years for a consultation, it is not only immoral, it is also, frankly, inept. The irony will not have escaped anybody that a GP cannot prescribe medication for autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Asperger’s or any other mental health condition without a diagnosis from CAMHS. Therein lies a vicious circle: children desperate to escape their symptoms, parents and teachers desperate for solace, GPs unable to prescribe without a diagnosis and CAMHS unable to see these children, in some cases, for up to two and a half years. It is a national disgrace, but we can now solve it.
To conclude, I commend the Timpson review. Let’s get diagnosing, treating and spending and give all our children the future that they deserve in specialist educational settings that give them the chance.