I recently took my eldest son, Jack, to enrol at Loreto College in Manchester for the next academic year. Although it’s unusual to be enrolling at this time of year, it’s part of a thoughtful approach from Loreto for people on the autism spectrum to be able to be inducted when it’s a bit quieter and easier to adjust to new surroundings.
Jack is now nineteen and fortunate enough to be able to be starting a course in September tailored around the specific needs of a young adult with learning difficulties like himself. He is also fortunate to have not one but two supportive families, from his Mum’s family and ours. Being an MP and a parent at the same time has given me a pretty clear picture of how the system works to support the needs of young people with special educational needs. There is a lot that needs to change.
Education and Health Care Plans, introduced under the coalition Government to replace the old statements of special educational need, are supposed to be provided within a 20 week period. Only half of all plans are provided in this time. Demand for these plans has risen enormously over the last five years, with no corresponding effort to increase capacity to meet this. The system is incredibly slow to process through the various stages of assessment. Where a Plan is provided but parents contest the findings, 95% of the cases which go to tribunal for resolution are decided in favour of the parents. These are clearly not signs of a healthy system.
The Government announced a review of the system in 2019. Further details were only published in March this year. Even allowing for the pandemic, that’s an underwhelming level of urgency. At the heart of any review is a straightforward question: does this country value all people sufficiently to increase the support for this essential provision? As a parent I hope the answer is yes. As a politician, unfortunately I’m not so sure. Part of the Government’s approach appears to be stopping so many cases going to the tribunals that tend to side with parents.
I have taken heart over the last decade by how much more aware society has become of the autism spectrum disorder. Events like autism-friendly theatre performances and cinema showings for families like ours are hugely appreciated. But the overall picture is still one of families having to fight to get the support they need, and sometimes not getting it at all. If this Government review is to be serious piece of work, this is what must change.