Out with the old: Apprenticeships Bill becomes law

Image courtesy of http://www.politics.co.uk

The parliamentary year ended earlier this month on the 12th. Squeaking its way into law on the same day was the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which aims to make a range of changes to post-16 education. After several days of long debates as the Government tried to get this Bill through Parliament, all hurdles were cleared and the Queen was kind enough to give the Bill the royal seal of approval, turning it into the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.

I’d been taking a fairly close interest in the Bill for several reasons. Firstly, NDCS had been using the Bill as a vehicle for pressing for action to support our Sounds good? campaign on acoustics. In the end, we successfully got a package of measures without having to push for a change to the law on acoustics. Result.

Secondly, we’d been working with a range of other charities to make sure that deaf and other disabled young people would not be disadvantaged by the proposals in the Bill. One key issue was over access to apprenticeships. The Government wanted to create a new entitlement to apprenticeships for suitably qualified young part as a part of a new government scheme. However, it was decided that if you wanted to take part in this scheme, you would need to hold GCSEs in English and Maths to access this scheme. Considering the legacy of under achievement by deaf children by a system that fails to meet their needs, and considering that GCSEs in English and Maths may not be a necessary requirement for all apprenticeships (do you need to know how to do pythagoras to do a hairdressing apprenticeship?), NDCS felt this was unfair and discriminatory.

So, after a lot of emails from us to the Department for Children, Schools and Families and lobbying of Ministers, largely via the Special Educational Consortium, we finally got the Government to agree to relax this requirement. Now, deaf and other disabled young people will be able to provide a ‘portfolio of evidence’ if they do not hold these specific qualifications as a means of entering the government apprenticeship scheme. Double result.

A good result to end off the parliamentary year. Wonder what the next parliamentary year will bring?


How the acoustics campaign victory woz won

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?

Will deaf people be able to access government scheme on apprenticeships?

I popped along to the Houses of Parliament yesterday – as you do – to a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Disability. This is a group of MPs and peers with a stated interest in disability issues who hold meetings once in a while. Yesterday’s meeting was on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, a hefty piece of legislation that is now making its way through the House of Lords.

Lots of Lords and Ladies came, including Lord Young, who is the Government’s spokesperson on apprenticeships in the Lords. He was challenged on the issue of entry requirements for apprenticeships. The Government is creating a new scheme whereby it will guarantee young people an apprentice if they meet certain requirements.

Unfortunately for deaf young people, these certain requirements include GCSEs in English and Maths. Putting to one side the issue of whether deaf children get the right support to be able to fulfill their potential and achieve these GCSEs, is a deaf person whose first language is British Sign Language necessarily going to get or want a GCSE in English?

And yet the scheme seemingly excludes them, ignoring the fact that deaf young people will be able to make use of interpreters, communication support, etc. in an apprenticeship, as in any other job.

I was hoping that Lord Young might stand up and cry out “now that’s what I call discrimination” but instead, he made some warm words about the need to support disabled young people. But he also taked about the need to “strike a balance” and ensure that apprenticeships are “useful” to employers. So it doesn’t seem likely that the Government will abandon the principle of entry requirements anytime soon.

But we don’t plan to shut up about it, and will be continuing to press for these entry requirements to be relaxed for people with disabilities. So watch this space.

MPs debate deaf children and the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

MPs have now gone through the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning (ASCL) Bill, line by line, and considered all of the amendments. Such was their determination to do it, they ended up staying up in Parliament until well past midnight. This left me with an image of MPs sitting in a room with their pyjamas, clutching hot water bottles and teddy bears, but anyhow…

NDCS concerns got raised a few times which we were pleased with. Anything that raises the needs of deaf children within Parliament is always good news. Here’s a very brief run down of what was said:

1) Teacher training. We want the Government to give teachers an explicit entitlement to training if a child with special educational needs enters the classroom. Currently, it’s proposed that all employers will have the right to request training. We think teachers need to be proactively encouraged and enabled to take up training to work with children with special educational needs – and given a clear entitlement to this.

The Government made some positive noises about ongoing efforts to improve teacher training so that teachers know how to work with children with SEN. But no new rights. So we’ll continue to lobby on this.

2) Ofsted. We wanted an amendment that would make sure that a school couldn’t be given a ranking of good or outstanding unless provision for children with special educational needs is also good or outstanding. The Minister said it would be “highly unlikely” if this happened. This in itself was helpful and gives us something to hold the Government to account to. But then again, we were left wondering that if it will be highly unlikely, why not make it completely impossible? So again, we’ll be continuing to lobby the Government on this.

3) Acoustics. We again made our call for pre-completion acoustic testing to be required in all schools. Here, we were disappointed by the Government’s response which pretty much said that a review was ongoing. It didn’t really respond to any of the concerns raised and didn’t take us any further forward. You can guess what we’ll be doing next.

There was also a bit of debate over apprenticeships and disabled people which I’ll come back to another time as we’ve had some interesting correspondence with Government officials on this.

So when will we get to do some more lobbying? The Bill will soon have its third reading in the House of Commons where MPs basically tie up loose ends. Then it will be the turn of the House of Lords to look at the Bill. The plan is to engage with and brief peers on our concerns on the Bill in the aim of making improvements to benefit deaf children.

Trying to change the law on Ofsted

I mentioned that we’re trying to get the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill amended so that Ofsted can’t relax the inspection process for “good/outstanding” schools unless the inspector knows their stuff about deafness, and unless provision for children with special educational needs is also good/outstanding.

Well, we’ve taken the first step by drafting and suggesting an amendment. We’ve given it to a MP, Annette Brooke who has been a big supporter in the past and happily, she has agreed to put forward the amendment. It will get debated later this month by a committee of MPs who are scrutinising the Bill in more detail. Hopefully they will agree it’s a good idea.

Our amendment will change clause 210. And the committee has yet to get to clause 40 and they meet twice a week – so I suspect it will be a while before get to debate it though. So in the meantime, I’ve been drafting a briefing that tries to sell the case for this amendment and will be sending it out to MPs this week.

Will keep updating on the progress on this one – so watch this space.

Deaf children and Ofsted: inspecting the inspectors

Have been spending a lot of time recently on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill – which I call the ASCL Bill for short, mainly because I can never hit the ‘c’ bit in Apprenticeships without falling over my words, and sometimes literally just falling over.

It’s the first time as a campaigns officer I’ve got my teeth into looking at detail through a Bill and exploring possible changes and amendments to it – so I’m on an exciting learning curve. One change we’re leading on is the proposal around the education inspection agency Ofsted which touches on one of our objectives for our Close the Gap campaign.

The Bill proposes that schools get a ‘health check’ rather than a full blown inspection if they are ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. So we have tabled an amendment to the draft law that would have the effect of making school health checks conditional on whether the school has been inspected by someone who has good awareness of the needs of children with special educational needs. This is because NDCS we’ve come across several examples in the past of units for deaf children being inspected by people who clearly knew nothing about deafness and did not even know how to communicate with deaf children. Any conclusions they make are clearly not going to be particularly helpful.

Being realistic, and me being cynical, I think it’s unlikely the amendment will be accepted by the Government. But at the very least, there will be a helpful debate on this in Parliament and it will be a powerful means of getting our point on this across to decision makers.

I’ve also attended a few meetings on the ASCL Bill with a range of other charities to see how we can link up. One issue that I hadn’t spotted before – but now have thanks to these meetings – is that the Bill would require you to have a good GCSE in English to do an advanced apprenticeship. There is apparently no exception for children whose disability makes it much less likely for them to get a good GCSE in English. For deaf children whose first language is British Sign Language, it’s a clear, discriminatory barrier to doing an apprenticeship. So it’s likely we’ll be making noises about this too.

The ASCL Bill is making its way through Parliament now – so watch this space.