Children and Young People with Autism debate

John Bercow leads the debate in which he examines education provision for children on the autistic spectrum and their experiences of exclusion, bullying and support.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Good morning, Mr. Caton. I welcome you to the Chair, and this rich galaxy of parliamentary talent to our debate. I begin by declaring an interest as the father of a four-year-old boy, Oliver, who has been diagnosed as exhibiting the characteristics of high-functioning autism. In addition, I thank the National Autistic Society, TreeHouse, Research Autism and Buckinghamshire county council for their invaluable briefings for this debate.

Autism is a complex, lifelong neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to communicate with and relate to other people. It is estimated that approximately one in every 100 school-aged children is on the autism spectrum. The vast majority, approximately 70 per cent., are in mainstream schools. They are, I am sorry to say, three times more likely to experience mental health problems than their non-autistic peers. Equally, it is estimated that only about 12 per cent. of them end up in employment. The cost annually of that sector of the child population is thought to be about £2.8 billion.

I emphasise that we are talking about a spectrum condition, which implies that there are many variants on the theme. The nature and intensity of the difficulty and the resulting need can and do vary substantially, but to encapsulate the concept I would say that all autistic people have one characteristic in common. They all suffer from the triad of impairments: that is to say, they suffer from problems of social communication, social imagination and social interaction.

In the course of this debate and in my opening remarks, I shall focus on three principal issues. In order to learn and be educated, a child or young person must be safely in a setting in which he or she can do so. It should therefore be a legitimate matter of ongoing and serious concern to right hon. and hon. Members that people on the autism spectrum are disproportionately more likely—to be pedantic and precise, approximately nine times more likely—to be excluded from school than their non-autistic peers. That is a salutary and disturbing thought. Typically, 27 per cent. of children on the autistic spectrum are excluded, compared with 3 or 4 per cent. of their non-autistic counterparts.

Significantly, however, there is an additional and more disturbing phenomenon—not merely exclusion of an official kind but unofficial, informal, sometimes internal and frequently if not invariably unrecorded exclusions of children and young people. I refer in this context to the TreeHouse constructive campaigning parent support project survey report following research conducted between January and July 2007, the results of which, in summary or detailed form, have recently winged their way to the Minister of State. That report found, alarmingly, that 43 per cent. of respondent parents said that their child had been excluded from school at least once, and possibly more than once, in the previous 12 months.

Members, wise and savvy as they are, will know that guidance exists on exclusions, of course. I do not know whether the Minister thinks it is necessary to send the guidance—all 80 pages of it—to schools again to remind them of their responsibilities to cater effectively within the school for the needs of the child. If he is reluctant to do so, which I can understand, I hope he will accept at the very least that memories should be stirred and schools should be reminded of page 15 of the latest guidance—I think it is paragraph 27, but I stand to be corrected if I am wrong—which underlines that unofficial exclusions, even with the parents’ consent, are illegal. They are not just undesirable, ill-advised and a failure to cater to the needs of the child but illegal.

Let me give an example of unofficial exclusion, culled from the annals of briefings from the National Autistic Society: a teacher says simply to the parent of a child, “It would be better if he went home.” Very often, disability and disobedience are mistakenly and ignorantly conflated. It is incredibly important to get a grip on the distinction between the two.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one problem is that, as a recent survey by the National Union of Teachers found, 44 per cent. of teachers are not confident teaching children who are on the autistic spectrum? That pressure could lead to some of those exclusions.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is true that work force training—not merely of teachers but of the entire children’s work force—is the elephant in the room in this debate. My loyal friend, with his helpful prompt, will not be surprised to know that I shall return to it in due course.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman is saying, but before he leaves the subject of exclusions, may I ask whether he is aware that some teachers, knowing it is illegal to exclude in such a way, will say to parents, “It would be better if you withdrew your child from this school and found another school; then we wouldn’t have to exclude”, without telling the parent that it would be illegal for them to exclude?

John Bercow: That is both true and outrageous. In addition, it is not uncommon for it to be decided that an awkward, administratively inconvenient, potentially distracting or expensive pupil should be relegated to the veritable dumping ground of a pupil referral unit—75 per cent. of whose occupants have special educational needs—when many of them are profoundly unsuited to that substandard educational provision, which I know the Government are seeking to improve. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

On bullying, some 40 per cent. of parents of children on the autistic spectrum say that their child has been bullied by other children. Sometimes bullies are excluded from school—temporarily or, in extremis, permanently—but I am sorry to say that sometimes it is not the bully who is excluded but the bullied, again due to the bureaucratic mindset that “it would be better if he didn’t distract”. Often, children are excluded at key and predictable times, such as just before Christmas, to coincide with a school inspection, visit, play or something of that kind. That is intolerable.

Let us be clear what bullying means. It might be physical or verbal, or through discrimination; it might be abuse, theft or neglect. I think of a parent who told TreeHouse, “My son has been bullied to the point of wanting to end his own life, and he has self-harmed.” The Government have published guidance on bullying, as recently as September 2008 and running to 55 pages, on which I congratulate the Minister, but there is a difference between publishing guidance and ensuring compliance with it. We need data to be published. We need regular checks. We need comprehensive area assessments to kick in.

I politely suggest two things to the Minister. First, let us have a theme of anti-bullying, segmented during different parts of the year—bullying of the disabled, bullying of gay, lesbian or bisexual pupils, bullying on grounds of race—that underlines the evil, stresses the strategies available to deal with it, incentivises improved performance and offers arrays of carrots and sticks to deal properly with the matter.

Furthermore, in the course of the 2009 consideration and review of special educational needs provision in this country, to which the Government are already committed, it might be a good idea for Ofsted to look at the phenomena of exclusion and bullying to see how better to address the matter. That would be in the interests of the children concerned and of their families who very often lose work opportunities, have to take time off—sometimes unpaid—to cope with the consequences of having to pick up a child early or have to secure additional help or medical assistance for him or her. We cannot allow such matters to rest.

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman mentions Ofsted. We will be debating different aspects of children with autism and their learning. Research shows that aggressive measures to target barriers faced by autistic children, such as poor communication and language, can open up the curriculum, which means that they learn far better. The results are astounding. Should Ofsted not look at all the educational experiences of children with autism? In other words, should it not make that a theme for a study across the piece?

John Bercow: It should be the subject of serious, and possibly quite lengthy and well-financed research, as the hon. Lady says. I hope that she will share that wisdom with the wider constituency of Erewash.

I want to move on to the critical subject of the identification of, and support for, children and young people, up to 16-plus, on the autistic spectrum. We should be ashamed that 45 per cent. of parents say that they have to wait a year, or more, from the moment when they flag up their concern about a potentially autistic child to the point at which they receive assistance. What is needed as a matter of urgency is support tailored to the particular needs and circumstances of the individual child. There is no absolute answer to such matters, and of course there is no known cause of autism and indeed no established cure.

Support is of the essence, be it through the use of stress alert cards in the school environment; the use of symbols, pictures or photos; the use of differentiated break times divided up into bite-size chunks, which an autistic child can more successfully manage; the use of designated quiet places where an autistic child can escape the noise, the bustle, the disturbance and anxiety caused to him or her by being surrounded by a large number of other people; the development of social skills programmes; the use of picture exchange communication systems, which have been peer reviewed and judged by the university of Southampton to be one of the most efficacious interventions yet devised; through early intensive behavioural intervention, which has been similarly well reviewed, although it is the subject of some academic and other controversy; or through support in the home. The last of those is critical, because we are seeking a seamless provision of care and effective help for the child. Often a child gets terrific support in the school setting, but then—we are told this by children and parents—when the child comes home, everything falls apart. That interaction and communication between the school and the parent and child is of the essence.

We require a continuum of support, not in any one hon. Member’s constituency but across the country—a continuum of provision, of different types of tailored and specified suitable education. In some cases, that will involve mainstream schools with support; in others, it will involve resourced units or departments for children on the autistic spectrum with greater needs, and in others, particularly in the more acute or severe cases with intense and ongoing need, it will involve a special school.

My part of the country—Buckinghamshire—has six resourced units for autistic children at primary level, and two at secondary level, but it is very much a postcode lottery across the country. We know from the research evidence—and we should be concerned about and challenged by this—that 50 per cent. of parents of autistic children judge that their child is in the wrong setting and that autism cases account for 25 per cent. of all the cases that go to the special educational needs and disability tribunal. If right hon. and hon. Members think that the situation is not great at the primary level and tends to deteriorate further at secondary level, they have seen nothing unless they reflect on the phenomenon of the paucity of provision post-16. The Commission for Social Care Inspection said that transition services from secondary school to post-16 are “a nightmare”.

I do not want—it would not be right—to allow this debate to degenerate merely into a relentless diet of negativity, and nor, in my judgment, is it principally a matter of partisan conflict between Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members. We should pay tribute to, champion and celebrate good work. Let me refer, therefore, to the National Autistic Society Barnet branch, working in conjunction with Aimhigher. It provides information, support and guidance to children and young people seeking to enter further or higher education. It has pioneered—it is a trailblazer—fantastic transition schools that assist in this important public policy objective. It runs a disabled students ambassador scheme, and the programme as a whole won the voluntary sector organisation of the year award at the London education partnership awards in 2007. That shows what can be achieved in the interests of the child or young person with application, creativity, vision and persistence.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): As an example of working in partnership, the National Autistic Society and Gloucestershire county council have funded an autism spectrum co-ordinator, whose job is to work with the council, the primary care trust and all the other providers of public services, to draw them together, to highlight need and to ensure that they deliver those services more seamlessly to the families and children who need them. Perhaps that good model could be rolled out more widely across the country.

John Bercow: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I would go so far as to suggest that the fact that that model was rolled out was due in no small measure to his perseverance and effectiveness. His self-effacement prevents him from claiming the credit for that important work.

I said earlier, in response to an intervention, that the elephant in the room is the training of the work force. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), has rightly highlighted the NUT survey, which found that 44 per cent. of teachers are not confident teaching children on the autistic spectrum. I can add another statistic: 76 per cent. of respondents said that the lack or complete absence of continuing professional development was the principal barrier to effective provision for this category of children. We cannot be satisfied or indifferent about that, and it requires public policy responses.

Again, I welcome some of what is being done. The Government are to be applauded on the online development of the inclusion development programme, and specifically on the segment of it that will cater to the needs of autistic children or young people from 2009. Similarly, it is right that all new special educational needs co-ordinators will have to be qualified teachers. I congratulate the Minister on the Government’s funding of the Autism Education Trust to the tune, initially, of £135,000 and, in the second year, of £320,000, if my memory serves me correctly.

I know the Minister, and he knows me extremely well. I hope that he will not consider me carping or churlish if I say that he and I have different roles in this place. He is a very senior, distinguished, respected and popular member of the Executive, whose responsibility it is to fashion policy and sell it to the nation, aided and abetted by the people behind him, whom it would not be appropriate to name in this Chamber. My role is rather different. I am a humble Back Bencher—more accurately, I am a Back Bencher who ought to be humble, which is not quite the same thing. However, the responsibility of right hon. and hon. Members on the Back Benches—be they on the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Ulster Unionist, Welsh nationalist or Scottish nationalist Benches, supported by the plethora of effective campaigning and advocacy organisations in the sector—is not to rest content with modest though welcome achievements, but constantly to raise the bar and challenge the Government to do more on such important matters.

I say to the Minister that there is a difference between a permissive and a prescriptive approach to training. I know that the Government like things to be done at local level and want a degree of flexibility, and it is all very well to say that there are opportunities for, an availability of or potential access to training, but it is another matter to say that it will be provided. It is another matter to say that staff back-filling will take place, that courses will run and that people will attend them. Autism-specific training is necessary not only for teachers and SENCOs, but for all members of the children’s work force. It should be a prerequisite of obtaining qualified teacher status that one has had the appropriate training. Half a day’s training on special educational needs as part of initial teacher training is not only lamentably inadequate, but a rather wounding insult to that sector of children and young people for whom it is our responsibility to cater. Far more needs to be done, and all SENCOs, be they new or old, should have appropriate training.

I am conscious that other colleagues wish to contribute their pearls of wisdom to the debate, and I strongly appreciate and respect the fact that at this relatively early hour, with a busy parliamentary day ahead of us, so many colleagues have come along. That shows the level of interest in, passion for and commitment to this incredibly important cause.

In some respects, policy is much better. I know that I will get myself into trouble with the usual channels on my own Benches, but, as I think the Minister knows, I long ago gave up any interest in securing a good term card from the Opposition Chief Whip. That is a matter of total indifference to me; I believe in paying tribute where tribute is due. I have every regard for the Secretary of State, who has taken a greater interest in special educational needs than any Secretary of State in recent memory. That is marvellous, and provision is better in some cases. There are plans for more facilities to be rolled out and for greater research, increased investment, peer review and all the rest, but the reality is that too many children and young people have suffered too much, for too long and with too little being done to help them. The time has come when we should say that up with this we will not put. We need to broker a step change in performance and activity.

In common with many right hon. and hon. Members on not only the Conservative Benches but elsewhere, I am an absolutely unstinting admirer of the late and great Sir Winston Churchill, one of the finest figures in the history of our country. He said to the House of Commons, on another subject, but pithily and fittingly for today’s debate:

“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals”—

one can almost hear him saying it—

“is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.”—[Official Report, 20 July 1910; Vol. XIX, c. 1354.]

To that proposition, so eloquently enunciated by the late Winston Churchill, I readily sign up, but I put it to colleagues, and this is the challenge, that if that is true, it surely is true in triplicate of our attitude to and provision for people with disabilities. Let us be explicit, those who have more severe autism often suffer from what might be called a hidden or invisible disability, but they are every bit as disabled as someone who is blind or partially sighted, deaf, mute or deprived of one of their limbs.

We have a responsibility to do more for a number of reasons, first, because it is the right and decent thing for a civilised society to do, and, secondly, because it is in the authentic self-interest of this country that we do so, for otherwise we will waste a vast, untapped, precious resource of talent and potential that could enrich our country. In an age in which a job for life is a relic of the past, and given the premium placed upon knowledge, education and the ability to communicate, it is vital that we do more to assist this category of children. It is not really about changing people’s minds, although in some cases it is a matter of refining and improving their attitudes; it is about, in the competitive marketplace of political ideas and potential policy decisions, catapulting provision for autistic children and young people from the back of the minds of Ministers, decision makers and policy framers, to the front. Having so catapulted the subject, it is about keeping it fairly and squarely there into the future. Our sense of common humanity and our commitment to progress demand nothing less. There is so much to do, and people are waiting. They expect us to perform, and we must not let them down.

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