Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

Debate on Autism 19.11.12

Sharon responded as Shadow Minister for Children and Families to a backbench debate on Autism, led by Robert Buckland.


Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr. Speaker, given your keen interest and great work in this particular area of policy.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland). I congratulate him not just on securing this important debate but, more widely, on the work that he has done, and continues to do, in raising the parliamentary profile of autism spectrum disorders through his excellent chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on autism. His personal testimony today, when he spoke as a parent, was particularly powerful. As a parent of a child with social educational needs, I could certainly identify with it, as, I am sure, could other Members in the same position. He is, of course, ably assisted in his stewardship of that very active all-party group by a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), who also gave powerful personal testimony of his experiences as a parent.

 In my capacity as a shadow Minister, I was delighted to be asked to take part in the all-party group’s review of education for children and young people with autism. Sadly, my time slot for giving evidence was severely curtailed because the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather), substantially overran in making her contribution—as, I have to say, was her habit. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the Minister to his post, and I promise that I will not do that to him today.

 The all-party group’s review took place at about the same time as the Labour party’s review of SEN policy, which I led. The all-party group was assisted in its work by the National Autistic Society, and we on the Labour panel were ably assisted in our review by a young man called Andrew Rhodes, who was one of the NAS young ambassadors, and who I am sure is watching our debate today.

 I have read the all-party group’s report and there is clearly a lot of common ground between our reviews, particularly on the need to support young people on the autism spectrum or who have other special educational needs in their transition into adulthood and helping those who, given the right support and opportunities, are capable of working.

The main statistic on which the National Autistic Society hung its “undiscovered workforce” campaign was that fewer than a quarter of people with autism are in work, with just 15% working full time, but four out of five people with autism who are reliant on benefits want to work, and believe they can do so. I know from my constituency postbag that the Government are very keen on telling people they are fit to work when they clearly are not; my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) addressed that subject. There are also, however, young people who are desperate to get out there and work, yet who are often not given the right support to overcome the challenges they face. They may also face discrimination from employers, who see their disability rather than their abilities.

There are, of course, exceptions to that rule. I had the privilege of visiting an organisation in Sunderland called Autism Works, which provides job opportunities and career guidance as well as support for young autistic people in the local area. It provides a safe environment, where staff are confident about dealing with the changes in behaviour of some of the young people who work there. Chris Mitchell, who is on the spectrum himself, and the rest of the staff were keen to stress that, given the right attitudes and a degree of flexibility from colleagues and line managers, those young people can be a real asset to lots of organisations.

As the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) said in her customary well-informed speech, people on the spectrum are often particularly skilled in a number of areas, such as computers and science, which are highly valued in the modern work force, as well as repetitive tasks such as those the right hon. Lady highlighted. I am sure that many organisations are beginning to realise that—thanks in no small part to the work the NAS did as part of its “undiscovered workforce” campaign, as well as the excellent campaigns Members of this House have led over many years, including the first one I was involved in, as a signatory to the right hon. Lady’s private Member’s Bill, which has now become the Autism Act 2009. I am sure its provisions are making a real difference to the lives of young people and adults with autism.

I would like the Minister to say how the Government will support young autistic people into work, and how his Department, as well as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Cabinet Office, can encourage employers, including the public sector, to look beyond the outward manifestations of conditions such as autism, and not deny so many people the opportunity to prove that they can be a valued part of their organisation.

Other issues with the transition to adulthood were discussed in an excellent Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, to which the Minister responded. Concerns focused particularly on opportunities for further education and training, and on young people on the autism spectrum having the same opportunities as other young people, which other hon. Members have mentioned.

In the time available, I want to consider the experiences that arise earlier than that and to talk about the school journey, which is ultimately the main determinant of a young person’s options at 16, 18, or 25. Another recommendation in the all-party group’s report that chimed with what came out of my review of SEN policy more widely concerned the need for teachers to know about high incidence special educational needs and disabilities, including ASDs, and to be equipped with the skills to adapt their teaching to get through to young people and manage certain behaviours. The issue has come up time and again while I have held this brief, and not just while I was conducting the review. It was also raised in a number of speeches from Members on both sides of the House today.

One in five young people is identified as having an SEND, so in every class there is likely to be at least a handful of people who require extra support. That means that every single teacher is a teacher of SEND pupils, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) highlighted powerfully from his personal experience. Not every teacher is given the skills to allow them to be a good teacher of SEN pupils, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said in her thoughtful speech. If we expect our teachers to be good teachers for every child in their class, as we should and we do, we must give them the skills and knowledge they need to live up to that expectation.

We are therefore considering how we can ensure that every new teacher undertakes a minimum module on SEND as a mandatory part of their initial training—not an optional part, as it is at the moment. It will cover identifying and adapting teaching for high incidence conditions and managing sometimes challenging behaviour in the classroom. We are also considering saying to schools that they need to give due prominence to special educational needs such as autism in their continuous professional development strategies. One in-service training day a year could be given over to promoting good practice on inclusive teaching, sharing best practice and experience, and refreshing knowledge on SEND. One in five of the training days for the one in five pupils with SEND seems fair to me.

Our plans are not about creating specialists, although some might decide they want to go on and do that. We certainly need specialists at a local level to drive improvements across a council area. They are about giving every teacher the best possible chance of being able to teach the class in front of them.

I also want to consider how to raise the status of SENCOs, which we heard about today. We need to look to them to lead and improve practice in their schools. We want the best teachers to aspire to take on the role, but anecdotal evidence suggests that that is not always the case. By raising their status, for example by saying that SENCOs should be part of the senior management team within a school, I believe we can positively influence the choice of individual to perform the role, incentivise good teachers to work towards becoming a SENCO and increase the clout they have in schools to drive improvements. I think that the combination of these measures will vastly increase the quality of provision for children and young people in mainstream settings.

Of course, there will be children and young people on the extreme end of the spectrum for whom mainstream classrooms will not at the moment be the best place for them to be educated. In many such cases parents look to the specialist expertise and facilities in our non-maintained and independent special school sector, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde spoke about movingly from his own experience. A major concern is that although the draft clauses in the Bill provide for non-maintained schools to be named on an education, health and care plan, they do not extend the same provisions to independent special schools, in which about 8,000 children and young people are currently placed. I believe that is because of concerns in the Department about how to define an independent special school, but in a written answer to me the Minister responsible for education and child care, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), stated that no work had been undertaken to try to devise one. The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), had the opportunity to address these concerns at the Select Committee hearing a couple of weeks ago, but did not do so. I therefore give him the opportunity today to set people’s minds at rest. I urge him to devise a designation or approval system for independent special schools, so that they can continue to provide the excellent support that 8,000 families currently rely on.

One aspect that is not always discussed when we debate provision for children and young people with additional needs is the needs, and indeed the competencies, of the wider family. This was powerfully expressed by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his contribution. All hon. Members who have come along to this debate will probably know from personal experience, as we heard so movingly on a number of occasions today, or from constituency cases that having a child with a special educational need or disability, particularly where that manifests itself in challenging or aggressive behaviour, as in some cases of Asperger’s or severe autism, such as in the second case that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) shared with the House today, can be extremely stressful for parents, siblings and other family members, and cause a number of problems, such as mental and physical health issues, or the inability to stay in or perhaps to take up work.

Supporting a child’s family to understand how to cope with and cater for the child’s SEN or disability is often the most cost-effective intervention, and should be encouraged, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt) said eloquently in her speech. Early intervention in such cases saves money, whereas over-estimating a family’s ability to support a child can be detrimental to all concerned. It can aggravate certain problems, negate efforts and resources spent elsewhere, contribute towards family breakdown, and increase the likelihood of the care system being involved.

We brought in short breaks, which can help families immensely, as we heard, and I welcome the Government’s continued support for them. But as important and valued as they are, in the end they are just that—short breaks, in what can be and usually is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week caring role. When all the professionals who we are promised will come together to draw up the education, health and care plans, it would surely be an effective use of their time together in one room to consider the needs of the whole family, rather than just the child as an individual.

That would mean assessing the family’s resilience and ability to cope, which differs from family to family; providing or recommending support specifically for family members, where appropriate; and if there are siblings who are also in education, ensuring that their school gives them support to overcome the unique challenges that they may face at home, whether that is just the fact that they do not have a quiet place to do their homework, or the fact that they are fulfilling a caring role themselves and do not have the time or energy to do their homework.

I end my remarks by praising the hon. Member for South Swindon again for securing this important debate, which has been an excellent opportunity for hon. Members to emphasise the priority that we all place on improving outcomes for children and adults with autism. There will be many disagreements along the way, I am sure, but Labour will strive to work with the Government and all parties to ensure that the children and families Bill is the best Bill it can be, and that it will deliver real, positive change to provision for autistic young people and their families.

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