Making deaf children matter

Musings and blogs from a deaf campaigner

Posts Tagged ‘Baroness Wilkins’

Academies Bill becomes law and something about sausages

Posted by Ian Noon on July 29, 2010

I was reminded of the old saying this week that laws are like sausages; you really don’t want to know how they are made…

The Academies Bill is now law, meaning that lots of schools will soon be able to convert to academies, and be independent from local authority control. I personally don’t mind where deaf children are taught, providing they get the support they need. But in most areas, specialist support services are provided by the local authority. So there was always a real question mark over how academies would be able to support deaf children when they’re cut off from the local authority. There were also some big questions over where the money for this would come from, given that academies effectively disperse school funding far and wide.

In an ideal world, there would have been plenty of time to consider and reflect on these issues and come up with solutions that work. But the new Government was hell-bent on getting the Academies Bill into law as soon as possible to allow schools to convert from September. That didn’t stop the House of Lords from trying to slow things down. There were lots of lengthy debates on specialist support services and special educational needs. To the Government’s credit, some big concessions were made early on to help consistency in the legal framework on special educational needs. But they were reluctant to move on specialist support services. It was incredibly frustrating. The Government recognised there was a problem. But wouldn’t come forward with any solutions before the Bill became law. Their response could basically be characterised as “Meh…”

Enter the amazing Baroness Wilkins, a long standing NDCS supporter. With help from NDCS, she kept returning to this issue, put forward a draft amendment to the Academies Bill and eventually forced a vote on it in the House of Lords. The Government rarely loses votes in the Lords or the Commons. It lost this one. It was the 2nd defeat in the Lords for the new Government, and arguably the first major one.

And so the law was changed. It requires funding for support to remain with the local authority, to prevent it being dispersed far and wide. It also means the Government has the power and responsibility to ensure that any large scale conversions to academies do not disadvantage deaf children and other children with low incidence needs. To our surprise, the Government didn’t try to reverse the change to the law, though that was probably because its own deadlines didn’t allow for this. They have even made some fairly positive noises about it, despite trying to resist it in the Lords.

To me, perhaps the most disconcerting thing was that I drafted the change to the law on behalf of the Special Educational Consortium, despite not being an expert in such things and without access to an army of Government lawyers. On the one hand, I’m proud it wasn’t laughed out. On the other hand, I’m slightly alarmed that someone like me has effectively made the law. Is this how Judge Dredd felt?

It’s not the end of the road and the new law doesn’t revolve the issues and concerns fully. So NDCS and parents of deaf children will need to monitor what’s happening in academies going forward. But overall, despite a few weeks of frustrating to and fro, the end result is equivalent to a succullent sausage.

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How the acoustics campaign victory woz won

Posted by Ian Noon on October 30, 2009

VictoryWell, it’s been two weeks now since we won the campaign victory on acoustics and the Government announced a package of measures to improve acoustics in new schools. So how did it all happen? Having mused and reflected upon it, here are what I think were the five key ingredients behind the campaign success:

1) Getting good media coverage. We were fortunate that the Times Educational Supplement, which is read avidly by civil servants and Ministers at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, were keen to follow the campaign throughout the year and to keep highlighting the issue with stories popping up in January on the launch of the campaign, May about support from other disability charities and, more recently, in October about a new school with poor acoustics.

2) Getting the message out to MPs and peers. We invested lots of time and effort in making MPs aware of the campaign, encouraging them to sign a parliamentary petition and to write to the Department to demand action. We couldn’t have done this without our supporters taking action and writing to their MP to check they were on board. In total, nearly 600 emails or letters were sent to MPs and the Government on acoustics by our supporters. It helped that we had a simple message that was easy for MPs to understand and get on board, all of which ensured we had a cross-party army of supporters within Parliament…

3) Making sure deaf young people led the way. Of course, one of reasons why so many MPs were keen to support the campaign is that they had attended a parliamentary event we arranged in June and met with a group of deaf young people to hear about their own personal experiences of poor acoustics, and why action is needed. The same group also appeared on the telly on BBC2 programme See Hear to demand action. They made a powerful appeal for action which was difficult for MPs and the Government to ignore.

4) Making sure we developed a strong case for action. Whether it was doing our own survey of local authorities to confirm that too many new schools were being built with poor acoustics or commissioning research from a school in Essex to show the dramatic impact that improved acoustics can have, we were keen to make sure that our briefings to Government were backed up by a compelling set of facts, pointing to a problem that needs to be solved.

5) Negotiations over a possible law change. Having got lots of attention from MPs and peers, several were keen to try and get the law changed to improve acoustics. Baroness Wilkins, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness, tabled an amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. We were quite lucky in a way; the Government was already behind schedule on this Bill and were keen to reduce the amount of time spent on debates in the House of Lords. But a good campaign exploits any luck and opportunities that presents itself. And so we entered into a game of brinkmanship and a series of negotiations to agree to a deal whereby the Department agreed to acoustic testing in exchange for the amendment being withdrawn. We ended up getting a good package that surpassed our expectations of what we could realistically achieve.

All in all, a good result for deaf children and lots of lessons to take forward to the next big campaign! I can’t chose but any thoughts on which was the most important factor out of this five?

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Why we need you to contact the England Children’s Minister

Posted by Ian Noon on September 25, 2009

So, just to recap on NDCS’s Sounds good? campaign for better acoustics in schools in England, Baroness Wilkins has joined NDCS in calling for a change to the law on acoustics. NDCS has been calling for all new school buildings to be tested for their acoustics before they open, to ensure there are incentives in the system for everyone involved in building a new school to make sure the school doesn’t just look good, but sounds good too. After all, what is the point of spending millions on a school if it’s too noisy inside to learn? And so Baroness Wilkins has proposed a change to the law – or an “amendment” that does just that – makes acoustic testing a legal requirement.

The Government is resisting the amendment. They say the case for action is unproven, even though we’ve shown that currently lots of schools are not being tested and those that are, are failing the tests. Even though independent research shows acoustics benefit all children, not just deaf children and help teachers manage behaviour in the classroom. Even though the cost of an acoustics test is peanuts, compared to the cost of fixing rubbish acoustics. Even though over 15 diverse organisations agree that urgent action is needed. Even though after months of consideration, hardly any voices of objection have been raised by builders.

I feel like the only people who don’t want to take action is Government. It feels like things are stuck in a bureaucratic inertia by people who care more about processes than taking action that will make a real difference. We want to get the law changed now to stop the scandal of new schools being built with rubbish acoustics as I type. Not in some indeterminate future after “further investigation” and “careful consideration” where things fall into a governmental black hole and never reappear.

If you agree that urgent action is needed now, then contact the Children’s Minister for England, Baroness Morgan. She’ll be representing the Government when the amendment is debated in the House of Lords. It’s being debated on October 19th, so we need lots of people to get writing asap to show how much people want this change. We need your voices to be louder than those of the nay-sayers.

As always, our website makes it quick and easy for you to do this. Just fill in a few details about yourself and your email is off within around 3 minutes. 100 people have taken action already so you’re in good company.

If you’re still unconvinced, then watch the BBC 2 programme See Hear and listen to the deaf teenagers explain why good acoustics are so important to them. At the end of the day, it is deaf children who will benefit most from this.

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End of term report on acoustics campaign

Posted by Ian Noon on July 27, 2009

Parliament has now broken up for summer. As a campaigns officer, my initial response to this news is always “Praise be!”. As much as I love MPs, the summer months give us a time to reflect, strategise and do some blue sky thinking. Or some grey sky thinking if you’re enjoying the same weather as I am.

One thing we’ll be reflecting on is our Sounds good? campaign on acoustics. Looking back, I think we can point to some solid campaign ‘wins’, including:

* A recognition by the Government that there is a problem over poor acoustics, to which action is needed.
* A commitment to publishing guidance on how to achieve good acoustics.
* An unofficial clamp down on the use of alternative performance standards from those set out in government guidance, where there is weak justification.
* A recommendation of acoustic testing in new ‘minimum standards’ for new schools published by the Government.
* A reference to acoustic testing in new draft contracts for use by local authorities for new secondary schools.
* A promise to review the acoustics in new school buildings in future “post-occupancy evaluations”.

We’ve done this backed up my widespread support. Nearly 80 MPs have signed a parliamentary petition on this, 45 came to a parliamentary event, 16 organisations have endorsed the campaign and over 400 members of the public have contacted their MP to call for action on this issue.

All of this is pretty good. If we were to end the campaign tomorrow, I would do so with my head held reasonably high as I rush to buy some Pringles to celebrate.

But there is one very important thing missing that we think is needed: a hard mandatory requirement for new schools to be tested for their acoustics. Nothing has been put forward that would be a watertight requirement and which would apply to all new schools (and not just secondary schools). Without this, we don’t think there is any real incentive to make acoustics a top priority. It would fall off the radar as soon as we stopped our campaign.

Baroness Wilkins, a strong NDCS supporter, has been pressing to get the law changed to introduce this new requirement and her amendment will get debated after the summer. We had a meeting with civil servants last week to discuss this and we have a commitment that they will be seriously thinking about this.

In the meantime, we’ll be thinking about ways in which we can keep the campaign on the top of people’s minds when Parliament comes back from summer… Any ideas?

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