Working to influence the Children and Families Act

This blog first appeared in the National Deaf Children’s Society campaigns blog

Last Thursday was a big day – Her Majesty decided to give her “royal assent” to the Children and Families Bill, thus turning it into the ‘Children’s and Families Act’.

This Act sets out a whole new range of laws on special educational needs. A National Deaf Children’s Society FAQ for parents has more information but it’s been described as the biggest shake up of the special educational needs (SEN) system in 30 years and will have big implications for how deaf children are supported. So no pressure on us here at the National Deaf Children’s Society…

We’ve been working to influence these reforms right from the very start. It’s been a long hard slog. There have been many meetings, countless consultations and plenty of parliamentary debates – all to make sure that the needs of deaf children were considered.

Before all of that though, we needed to find out what parents of deaf children thought. We ran a series of focus groups and surveys and then wrote up what parents thought of the proposals. Politicians and civil servants were then reminded repeatedly about what our members want. It really helped bring our arguments to life. 

So what’s been achieved along the way? Some key achievements include:

1)    A review is now taking place into whether Ofsted should have a greater role in inspecting local SEN provision.

2)    It will be harder for local authorities to end support to a young person just because they’ve turned 19. Now local authorities must consider if they’ve achieved the outcomes set for them and not just “have regard to age”.

3)    At one point, parents would be required to undergo mediation with the local authority if they wanted to take any issues to a Tribunal. Now they must consider mediation, but now have the option to say no.

4)    Not every disabled child has ‘SEN’ but many will still need support. This created a risk that some children would fall through the net. The Special Educational Consortium (SEC) and Every Disabled Child Matters (EDCM) pushed hard for more strategic support from local authorities for both disabled and SEN children.

5)    Recognition of the essential role of Teachers of the Deaf has been kept – for example, the Act requires that Teachers of the Deaf be involved in any statutory assessments of deaf children.

Key to our success has been the way the sector has worked together. The National Deaf Children’s Society has worked closely with our counterparts at RNIB and Sense to raise common issues in relation to children with sensory impairment, as well as with EDCM and SEC.

Not everything has gone our way. Some of the above changes have been hard fought right to the end. Other times, it’s felt like we’ve been banging our heads against brick walls…

And there’s still plenty of work to be done. Whilst the Act provides the overall framework, a lot of the practical requirements will be set out in guidance, called the SEN Code of Practice. We’re expecting this to be published this spring and Westminster will again get the chance to debate this. Also, it’s great that Ofsted are reviewing the SEN inspection framework but we will need to monitor it closely to make sure they take action after this review.

And, of course, all of these changes have to be implemented. Our biggest concern remains that these changes are going to be made in a context of massive spending cuts, as we know from the Stolen Futures campaign. There is the potential for massive upheaval for services for deaf children. The National Deaf Children’s Society’s team of Regional Directors will now be working to influence implementation in each of the 152 local authorities in England and to challenge any cuts where they arise.

Overall, the Bill becoming an Act is a big milestone. It feels like a good moment to pause and reflect on how far we’ve come… and then start to get ready for the next phase of this big SEN shake up. 


Top of the blogs countdown: a retrospective

The other day, I realised that I’ve now written over 300 posts for this blog. Clearly, my ability to waffle knows no limit. So in a fit of nostalgia, I decided to have a look back and rummage through the back end of wordpress to see which of my posts have had the most views.

10) What an ill chicken tells us about access to university. This is a relatively new one and clocked up 1,000 hits. The ill chicken is now infamous. For those that have been on Mars, a deaf student in a documentary on deaf teens found herself without communication support because her notetaker’s chicken was “ill”. The blog looked at why the incident touched a nerve. Incidentally, the ill chicken has now also inspired a brilliant brand new blog called The Limping Chicken.

9) BBC online video content: where are the subtitles? The BBC were the first to have 100% subtitles on all its main programmes. Their online news videos are still largely inaccessible though. And nothing infuriates me more than when one of the online videos features a deaf person. This problem still keeps happening and is as unacceptable now as it was then.

8) Government to discourage teaching of sign language in primary schools? The previous Government effectively told NDCS that sign language had a lower status than other languages and put in place a policy that would discourage primary schools from teaching it if they wanted to. Happily, the policy never came into effect. Encouragingly, work is now in train to allow students to study a GCSE in sign language and government officials have indicated that students would be allowed to study this as a language on par with other languages.

7) Shameless: new deaf character on the telly. Ahh, Shameless! Louis Kissaun, a deaf young actor, popped up on Shameless for a few episodes a few years back. I went round telling everyone that his character was a great deaf role model before discovering that his character ends up bludgeoning his Dad to death. Nice. Louis went on to lend his support to NDCS at party conferences and was fantastic at lobbying as he was at acting.

6) David Cameron challenged on special educational needs and inclusion. A parent of a disabled child briefly lit up the general election campaign in 2010 by having a go at David. It made for entertaining viewing but also highlighted the Conservative party’s policies on inclusion in education and whether there is, as the Conservative party says, a bias towards inclusion.

5) Am I deaf or what? A brief and personal blog thinking aloud about how deaf people refer to themselves. Judging by the number of views, it resonated with a lot of people.

4) Bling but dodgy new Naida hearing aids. I love my Naida hearing aids. Unfortunately, I had a few teething problems. And I wasn’t alone. Happily, now all largely sorted for me and hopefully for everyone else.

3) Government turns back on deaf children. As soon as I published this blog – around 2 months ago – my hits went through the roof. I was pretty angry (and still am) about the current Government’s Welfare Reform Bill which will reduce benefits in the future for deaf and other disabled children. The Bill is now law. A related blog encouraged people to hold their MP to account if they voted to cut the benefit. I was really gratified to get emails from parents who had done just that.

2) No equality for disabled people in exams. This was a pretty technical issue. But in a nutshell, the previous Government passed legislation that would make it harder for deaf young people to have reasonable adjustments provided for them in exams and effectively loaded the system against them.

1) Deaf young people reach for the stars. One of the major perks of my job at NDCS is the opportunity to meet deaf young people and see what they have to say. A long long time ago, NDCS brought together a group of deaf young people to learn about media and campaigning. It was called “Reach for the Stars”. The young people were an inspiring bunch of guys keen to change the world. And a certain BBC Newsround presenter, with hearing loss himself, Ricky Boleto came along to offer some tips. Ricky is now running the London Marathon for NDCS and the young people are, I hope, changing the world, in their own little ways.

So what have we learnt from the past few years of blogging, apart from the fact that I can’t spot a typo staring me in the face? Well, a lot of you are angry about the various injustices faced by deaf children and keen to do something about it. You’re also keen to see positive deaf role models and examples of deaf people getting on with life and showing what they can achieve.

When I started doing the blog, there were hardly any other blogs around looking at issues facing deaf children. So it’s great to see lots of new blogs in this area since then; such as from Ni Gallant and Kids Audiologist.

As for me, I’ve now moved to a different role in NDCS, working on policy and research so my ability to waffle endlessly is more constrained than it used to be and, sadly, there won’t be as many blogs from me as they used to be. But my blogging days are far from over and I also contribute from time to the great new The Limping Chicken super blog. I also do a fair bit of tweeting where I can get away with it.

Nostalgia-fest over! I hope you’ve enjoyed all the blogs. Thanks for reading and for all your comments over the years.

Learning to talk to media

I had media training last week. I was done over by a proper hardcore TV journalist at the end of the day and then forced to listen to myself on tape afterwards.

My first thought was that whilst I sound like a sophisticated metro kinda guy in my head, on tape, I’m very deep and fast. A bit like a miner who’s drank way too many cappucinos. I pited the palantypists.

My second thought is that I probably pause too long when I get a question I’m not expecting. And that’s there is no graceful way of saying “Err…” for 30 seconds.

Aside from that, I surprised myself in not being too bad at it. The journalist flattered me by saying I have a “nice turn of phrase”. How my cheeks blushed, like a scarlet leaf on the promise of an autumn day, like a… etc. Truth be told, my mock interviews were about cuts to help for deaf children and I simply allowed my outrage to show. It was a good thing the training was in a monastery or I might have let some naughty words slip through.

On a more serious note, I learnt it’s not as easy as it looks. There’s no point speaking to journalists unless you’ve got something to say and can say it clearly and with oomph. And it’s very easy to stray off-message and talk about something that isn’t really going to help the campaign. And it’s really not cool to say “Err…” for 30 seconds.

Should we all be making more of the need to get media right in order to get campaigns right?

So you think emailing your MP is a waste of time?

Well, I think the 38 Degrees grassroots campaigning organisation have convincingly proved otherwise. After a barrage of emails and letters from angry constituents to MPs on the Government’s plans to sell off the forests, the Government decided to think again. MPs listened and they forced the Government to listen too. You could say that they finally saw the wood for the trees.

A nice little display of people power. And I must admit, I’m a big fan of 38 Degrees and always thinking of things and campaign ideas to steal from them for NDCS’s campaign work to force the Government to listen to concerns on cuts to help for deaf children. Can a little people power be exercised on this? And how can an organisation like NDCS help nudge this along besides the standard template emails for people to send to their local decision-makers?

A good day for trees.

2011 predictions on campaigning for deaf children

What will 2011 bring for my work as a campaigns officer for deaf children? Last year, the general election meant that it was impossible to predict anything with any certainty. This year, I’m tempted to have a shot. Here are three predictions from me.

1) Acoustics in schools is going to come back on the agenda. At the end of 2009, the National Deaf Children’s Society won a big campaign victory on acoustics. However, this year we are expecting the Department for Education to come up with a new strategy for how it builds new schools, whilst the Department for Communities and Local Government is revamping Building Regulations. Both could potentially result weaken, rather than strengthen, standards on acoustics. If they do, the Sounds good? campaign may be making a return.

2) The cuts are coming. Last year, the Government announced the cuts it would be making to overall budgets. This year, the impact will start to be felt and we are likely to see some heavy cuts in many parts of the UK. Much of my time this year is going to be spent working with parents to fight the cuts to help for deaf children.

3) The special educational needs debate goes out of the box. The Department for Education is publishing its policy ideas on special educational needs. This year. Probably. It’s already been postponed twice. Assuming they do see the light of day, we can expect to see some quite radical proposals. Personal budgets for children with special educational needs is rumoured to be one of the proposals coming out. Some MPs think that the Government might go further and ditch the whole statementing system. It will certainly be interesting at the very least.

Do you have any other predictions for the year ahead in campaigning for deaf children? Leave a comment below to share them.

Campaigning for deaf children at the Lib Dem party conference: day 2

On my 2nd and last day at the Liberal Democrat party conference, I managed not to get swept away by the Nick Clegg crowd. But I did make the mistake of going to a fringe meeting of the British Youth Council, where suited and booted amongst a group of Lib Dem young people, I felt around twenty years older than I actually am. Oh dear.

But yesterday was mostly spent meeting more MPs, Lords and Ladies to tell them about the National Deaf Children’s Society Hands up for help! campaign. Happily, everyone was keen to support. For each MP we met, we also provided detailed briefing notes about what NDCS’s survey of local authorities revealed about help for deaf children in their own area, which went down well. I picked up a keen desire to understand more about how the funding arrangements for help for deaf children work, and the implications of deafness being a relatively less common disability. We received lots of offers to write to local authorities and government ministers, and to raise questions within Parliament.

Sadly, I hadn’t managed to track down two of our key targets by the time I left, though my boss was still stalking them on the conference’s last evening. Very disappointing.

What has been interesting about this conference has been finding out how becoming a government coalition partner has changed the way many Lib Dem MPs work. When in opposition, there would be a group of three or four people acting as “shadow” ministers. But now instead, we have some Liberal Democrats who are Ministers and others who are acting as “spokespeople” within the party, providing a conduit from which specific backbenchers can express their views or concerns on specific issues. It rather changes the dynamics of how I might lobby various people.

Overall, it’s a been a full-on but enjoyable few days in Liverpool. Now the travelling circus moves on to Manchester for the Labour party conference weekend where my colleagues will be picking up the baton of campaigning for deaf children. Look forward to finding out how they got on.

Campaigning for deaf children at Lib Dem party conference: day 1

I knew this Liberal Democrat conference was going to be different when, within 30 minutes of arrival, I was threatened by a collosal tidal wave of humanity moving towards me, threatening to snuff me out as I ambled through the conference centre. I urgently dodged out of the way into a corner and saw that the cause of this tidal wave of people was made up of a huge bunch of journalists, photographers and lobbyers following the man of the moment and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.

This is my first Liberal Democrat conference with the party in power and the number of people attending is apparently up by around 40%. But in the National Deaf Children’s Society defence, we’ve been coming here every year, asking MPs and other key decision-makers to support NDCS’s campaigns.

My first day up in Liverpool featured some very positive meetings with leading Liberal Democrat figures on education, Dan Rogerson MP and Baroness Walmsley. Both very interested in the Hands up for help! campaign and keen to offer advice and support. Dan, who is MP in North Cornwall, is particularly keen to hear more from Cornish families with deaf children and to work to improve services in Cornwall.

Today was also spent going to fringe meetings trying to track down our top ‘targets’ – Sarah Teather MP, now Education Minister with responsibility for special educational needs, and Paul Burstow MP, Health Minister with responsibility for audiology services. Both are proving hard to track down so tomorrow, I will be refining my stalking skills.

Today was also spent stealing chocolate freebies. Some Credit Crunch Chocolate anyone?