In a collapsing mental health support system, experts have urgently called for two actions: early intervention, and more services placed in schools.
Cathy Wassell, chief executive at Autistic Girls Network, said all pupils should undergo a “sensory audit” in reception to identify autism sooner.
Similar initiatives are already happening in some schools in the north west through a toolkit called WellComm, which screens speech and language needs, according to Fiona, a speech therapist in the region.
Early years support such as Sure Start centres also need to be reinstated, said Jon Goldin, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.
Another consultant psychiatrist, Anna Lund, said clinical psychologists and psychiatrists like herself should be involved with pupils sooner: “I should be much earlier in the system.”
Such early intervention is in the sights of the SEND review, according to Charlotte Ramsden, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, who sits on the SEND review steering group.
The DfE is placing “a lot of emphasis” on early identification of needs “which is what we all want”, she said.
The wording of laws setting out what support organisations like schools have to provide also need clarifying, said Tina Emery, also on the steering group. “It’s full of ‘shoulds’ and ‘mays’ but it’s not clear to some people what should happen and the expectations.”
One of the stipulations in the SEND Code of Practice is SENCOs must achieve a national qualification within three years of appointment.
‘Explore’ SENCO training
Darren Northcott, national official for education, teachers’ union NASUWT, said, “It’s worth exploring” whether SENCOs should get training before they start their roles – adding this would need “clear commitments from schools to support that”.
Meanwhile, more specialist school placements are needed, said Sarah Wild, at autism specialist school Limpsfield Grange. Attending special schools “needs to be de-stigmatised”, she said.
Training for staff in mainstream schools also needs to be “more practical, like how to set up a classroom” not just “theoretical SEND”, said Clare, a speech therapist in London.
The SEND review is “weeks rather than months” away from being published, according to a health minister speaking at a Westminster Hall debate on Wednesday.
Some government pledges are also promising. For example, in 2019 the NHS Long-Term Plan said children with “a learning disability or who are autistic with the most complex needs” will have a “designated keyworker” by 2023-24, to secure “the right support at the right time”.
But Sir Alan Wood, who undertook a review of multi-agency safeguarding arrangements last year, said the “dreadful referral-on culture” must end. A “complete rethink” is needed, he added.
“At the moment, we just seem to look at what provision is in place, and say ‘we need more of this’,” he said. “We should be placing more services in schools working alongside teachers and support staff.”