Campaigning for deaf children at the Conservative party conference: day 2

The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) has been busy playing political bingo today on our last day at the Conservative party conference, trying to track down our top targets. And I don’t think we’re doing too badly. The team has now spoken to the entire Conservative front bench team on education and two of the top targets on health, as well as a few other key MPs. Very happy indeed.

It’s not been easy though finding them all though. But our young ambassador, Megan (who has her own blog), has come up with a bright suggestion to make it easier to spot out top targets in the future. Basically, all MPs should be required to wear hats. The more important the MP, the bigger the hat they should have to wear. And the Prime Minister should have a hat that can be seen from miles away. Simple.

Megan meets Chris Skidmore MP

Megan has been a powerhouse and has done an amazing job in explaining to MPs the challenges the deaf young people face. It’s also been good for MPs to meet someone who has a mild/moderate hearing loss. I think sometimes there is a perception that children with mild/moderate deafness have lesser needs than those with severe/profound deafness. I think there’s also a tendency to equate deafness = sign language users. Megan has done a great job of showing that a) deaf young people with a mild/moderate hearing loss are still “deaf ” and still need help and b) if this is help is given, deaf young people can do absolutely anything.

But enough of me, what did Megan think of today? Here’s her report from the day.

How have the meetings gone today? How did you feel when speaking to the MPs?
The meetings were interesting, and although some were more serious, others had a light-hearted air about them. I quite enjoy speaking to MPs; I would liken it to dialogue with any other person – except, perhaps, that there is more emphasis on conveying a particular idea – and I did not feel any particular unease throughout.

What did you speak to the MPs about?
I discussed my own experiences with the education system, primarily focusing on special educational needs and Teachers of the Deaf.

And what did the MPs say to you? Did they seem interested to learn about your experiences? Ask any questions?
The MPs had a variety of responses, ranging from “mhmm, yes, yes” accompanied by a series of nods, to actively discussing issues they were aware of in their own constituencies. One MP even used me as an example in one of his fringe meetings!

What else have you been up to today?
I attended some nice fringe meetings, one of which was about the coalition government and another on education. I also was stood, coincidently, in the path of the Camerons, so I was asked to stand to the side and had a brilliant view of them as they walked by.

You said yesterday conference was a bit like a school playground? Have your views changed? Do you have any views on how the conference could be different?
I believe the conference is still very much like a school playground; everyone speaking to each other before moving onto the next person and people networking left right and centre. I believe the conference, despite being somewhat hectic, is quite efficient. Although, I still say everyone should wear identification hats.

What’s been the best thing about being here at conference?
I think the best aspect of the conference is the learning environment it provides, people gather together to discuss issues, promote their own interests and in the process may become more knowledgeable on others’ issues.

And the worse?
The breakfast-in-a-bag, is certainly the least… enthusing part of the conference.

What advice do you have for any deaf young person coming to party conference in the future?
I would advise that you should be firm in your experiences, and enthusiastic. For one to enjoy the conference to it’s uppermost. It may be useful to have some interest in politics, or at least a vague general knowledge, to benefit from the diverse topics discussed within the conference.

Finally, any plans to work in politics or campaigns in the future?!
I find politics incredibly interesting and hope to embark on such a career in my future. I also enjoy campaigns, however I think I shall read law first.

A big relief to hear that we haven’t put Megan off from working in campaigns and politics. If she can handle two days with the Conservatives, then I can well imagine that in around ten years time I’ll be coming to conference to lobby Megan the newly-elected MP.

And that’s about it from Birmingham and the party conferences. Back to civilisation when full analysis to follow. Once everyone has had a proper night’s sleep for the first time in three weeks!


Campaigning for deaf children at the Conservative party conference: day 1

The party conference travelling circus has now dropped us off in Birmingham where we’re now busy stalking Conservative MPs, campaigning for deaf children. And we’ve now been joined by Megan, a deaf 15 year old, who has popped along to tell MPs about her own experiences of education and explain why she’s supporting the National Deaf Children’s Society Hands up for help! campaign.

And our first day has gone pretty well. We’ve managed to hit two of our top Tory targets. Firstly, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education (and the one with a deaf sister), who got a quick briefing about some of our concerns on academies and acoustics. He was receptive, positive and promised to nag his officials for answers to our questions. And secondly, Graham Stuart MP, who is chair of the influential Education Committee which holds the Department of Education and Ofsted to account. His words of advice to the Government was that they should “just chill and get it right”. Pretty good advice, I would say.

At the end of the day, I caught up with Megan to find out how she was surviving the conference. Here’s what she had to say:

For those that don’t know, where are you and why are you here?
I’m at the Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham as a guest for NDCS, discussing my experiences with MPs with the aim of reducing cuts which would directly impact the education of deaf individuals.

Planning the day ahead at the Conservative party conference

How did the day start?
The day started at 7am, when I got up and dressed. Shortly after this, I retrieved my breakfast-in-a-bag from outside my door. We then gathered downstairs and ate, before Jess and I headed off to a discussion about climate change I particularly wanted to attend.

What did you do throughout the day?
Over the course of the day, I attended a few more discussions mostly about education. These were very intriguing and I now have a better idea of the Conservative stance on education, as well as the opinions of some of the other speakers.

How did the meetings with the MPs go? What did they learn from you?
In my opinion, the meetings with MPs were successful. I found the individuals to be diverse, some being more humorous than others. I would like to believe that the MPs left the meetings with a greater understanding and that deaf children would be taken into greater consideration when they do decide where cuts should be made.

What do you think so far of the Conservative party conference?
I think the conference is certainly interesting, different. In some ways it reminds me of a school playground, with everyone milling around in a hectic manner. I think the issues which are raised will now have a greater chance of being considered and I believe the conference reminds attendees of the many problems with the world.

How are you feeling now?
Somewhat tired, but I certainly found the experience, thus far, to be great. I doubt it’ll be one I forget any time soon.

What’s happening tomorrow? Are you looking forward to it?
Tomorrow, I have some more meetings, and yes, I am looking forward to it; hopefully, I learn something new.

Very excited to see what Megan gets up to tomorrow. Will be back again then for another update on the last day of conference campaigning for deaf children.

PS If you can’t wait until then, don’t forget you can follow us on Twitter at @NDCS_UK.

Urgent! Time running out to contact your election candidates

Image courtsesy of NDCS

Well, in a week’s time, the UK will be going to the polls to decide who will form the next Government. It means that time is running out for you to help make deaf children matter during the election by asking your own local candidates to sign the National Deaf Children’s Society election pledge for deaf children.

And if you’ve already done it, now is good to remind them to sign it if they haven’t already. The NDCS pledge check page has a list of everyone who’s signed it thus far.

How to contact your local candidates? Click here, tell us where you live, click a few more times and bingo. NDCS works out who your candidates are and brings up a template message. Much easier to do than remembering to take off your microphone when having a private conversation about someone you’ve just met.

An update so far? Well, when I was first working on the pledge for NDCS, I thought maybe around 300 would sign it. 500 at a push. Well, so far, a whopping 839 have signed it. I’m amazed. The total includes 22 Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet Ministers, including the leads on education for each party. Over 120 Conservative candidates have signed it, even though the party traditionally tends not to sign election pledges. I’m doubly amazed.

Whilst this is fantastic, not all of these people will get elected to become MPs. Which is why it would be great to get the number up even higher in the next week to increase the chances of getting a good large bunch of MPs who know about deafness and are willing to take action to support deaf children. Given that deafness is a “invisible” disability and given the likelihood of big cuts to public spending, NDCS needs as much support as possible from MPs over the next five years.

So contact your local candidates now while they’re still running around the country desperate to get your vote.


David Cameron challenged on special educational needs and inclusion

Lord loves a troublemaker. Yesterday, special educational needs and disability made its first major appearance on the election campaign trail when a father of a disabled son heckled David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, in front of the TV cameras.

His main point of objection? That the Conservative manifesto states that the party will “end the bias” towards mainstream schools for children with special educational needs and disability. And also stop the closure of special schools. The father argued that there was actually a bias against inclusion in mainstream schools, evidenced by his struggle to get his son into his local mainstream school.

What makes this quite interesting is that David Cameron previously had a disabled son, whilst the Conservative lead on education, Michael Gove, has a deaf sister who attended a special school for the deaf. You’d be hard pressed to come across two senior politicians with such a personal and direct experience of disability.

The Conservatives argue that they’re not in favour of “reversing” the bias or moving towards segregation for disabled children in schools – simply, that they want more parental choice. When Michael Gove was interviewed by three deaf students in January, he said:

“I think for years now we have had this assumption that it’s always better for children who have a hearing impairment or who are living with another disability to be in mainstream school. My view is that there should be a choice. It depends on the child, it depends on the parent, it depends on individual circumstances. And it’s wrong to have a fixed view on this.”

Many would agree that there needs to be choice and flexibility so that the child and parents gets what they need and want. It’s broadly consistent with the Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party’s vision for children with special educational needs. And looking at the National Deaf Children’s Society statement on inclusion, there is a call for a spectrum of provision to ensure that parents of deaf children can, in fact, have this choice.

Nevertheless, the line “ending the bias” has raised a few eyebrows within the charitable sector and the parties do differ in their emphasis and their specific policies fror making sure disabled children are able to fulfil their potential. More widely, it’s fair to say that there are some fairly entrenched views on whether the problem is that local authorities won’t fund places for disabled children in mainstream classrooms, or for special schools, further away. Certainly, many parents of deaf children seem to struggle to get the provision they want, regardless. I suspect, in many areas, there is simply not enough money given to pupils with special educational needs and disability, even though such pupils amount to one in five of the school population.

Despite the lack of answers, it’s good to see this issue getting an airing during the election. Congratulations to Mr. Angry Dad of Disabled Son for making this happen.

To help you make up your own mind, NDCS’s summary of the main three UK party manifestos on deaf children can be found in the manifestos section of the NDCS election web special. Let us know below what you think of what the parties are saying on special educational needs and disability.

So what was all the party conference fuss all about?

When the party conferences finished a few weeks back, I was at a stage when I couldn’t look at a MP on the TV without screaming “No! No more!” and looking wide-eyed for a hill to run up. Happily, I’ve now recovered enough to look back and attempt a sum-up of the NDCS experience at the party conferences 2009, bookending all of the daily blogs I did here last month.

Looking at the numbers, altogether, we met 57 MPs, peers and candidates for election. Of these, 27 were Ministers or Shadow Ministers, including:

* Lead on education for each party, and another four junior education ministers.
* Minister responsible for Building Regulations.
* Minister for Disability, and his Conservative counterpart.
* Minister responsible for audiology services.
* 11 prospective parliamentary candidates who are likely to be influential in the next Parliament.

Not bad, if I say so myself. All of these chin-wags helped us achieve cross party support for our campaign on acoustics which, in turn, helped us achieve our recent campaign victory and the new package of measures from the Department for Children, Schools and Families. In fact, the conferences came at just the right time for us, allowing us to do some precision lobbying at the moment it mattered.

Part of the reason why so many MPs wanted to meet with us was Louis Kissaun, our deaf young person with us, who was able to explain the issues in a more direct way to MPs. After all, it’s young people like Louis who suffer most from rubbish acoustics. Louis seemed to enjoy himself: you can read our little interview with him here.

More than anything, the conference was a chance to chin-wag, muscle in on conversations, network and have an informal chat about our work and concerns, which is something you can’t really put a price on. It was one big Mastercard priceless moment if you like. Lots of unexpected opportunities arose during the conference, like a chance encounter with a journalist from ITV Yorkshire, think tank academics working on special educational needs, other charities concerned about new schools, and so on. And not forgetting all the fringe meetings. We attended around 30 and tried to sneak in a question at every one.

By August next year, I will have forgotten how tiring three weeks of schmoozing is, and will be raring to go again…

Lobbying Conservatives on deaf children: day 3

Last day at the party conferences! The travelling circus is coming to an end for NDCS tomorrow morning when we return to London. And hibernate for a month to catch up on our sleep.

Mark HarperBut not before another busy day of meetings between our deaf young supporter, Louis Kissaun, and a range of Conservative MPs and candidates standing for election. Of which a surprising number have a deaf father or grandfather (three, at the last count). One of the highlights for Louis was meeting Mark Harper MP, who is the Conservative Shadow Disability Minister. Mark really took the time to engage with Louis and ask lots of questions. Gratifyingly for us, we had very little need to lobby Mark on our concerns on acoustics and access to examinations for disabled people – he already set out his position, nearly identical to ours, before we’d even said anything. Lovely, I thought.

Richard BenyonLouis also met the MP for his school, Mary Hare school for the deaf. Richard Benyon MP was also very clued up on the needs of deaf children, realising that noisy classrooms will be exhausting and frustrating for deaf children, forcing them to concentrate twice as hard as everyone else. Another supporter signed up in Westminster.

The only downsides of the day were my failure to a) find an opportunity to ask what the Conservative’s think of Access to Work. Alas. Something to take up on our return to London… And b) take decent photos. I don’t think I’ll be giving up the day job.

It’s been a tough two weeks for Louis. But he has really excelled in representing other deaf children and young people, posing for lots of photos and being extremely patient with everyone. Apparently, he hasn’t ruled out a career in politics. So, watch this space…

Lobbying Conservatives on deaf children: day 2

If I’ve learnt one lesson today, it is not to travel to Manchester without a very good umbrella.

It’s been a wet day at the Conservative party conference. But also another good opportunity for MPs, Lords and prospective parliamentary candidates to hear from a deaf young person that deaf children can achieve anything – providing that Government takes action to break down the barriers holding them back. Once again Louis Kissaun has been spreading the word about why good acoustics are so important, and the impact that poor acoustics had on his English grades. And some of the key figures he’s been meeting include:

Michael GoveMichael Gove, the Shadow Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and someone who’s been very supportive of NDCS in the past. In fact, he told Louis how much he admired NDCS and our campaign work. We won’t let it go to our head. Well, maybe a little bit.

Baroness VermaBaroness Verma, who is the Conservative lead on education in the House of Lords. She told Louis how she had a child with a unilateral hearing loss. She also expressed Tory support for the amendment on acoustics currently in the House of Lords. Gratifyingly, she already seemed familiar about our acoustics campaign.

Timothy LoughtonTim Loughton, Shadow Children’s Minister, who is the Conservative lead on safeguarding and social care, and was given a quick update on our concerns that deaf children are falling through the net when it comes to social care services.

We also took some time out to meet some bright young stars standing for election next year, including Priti Patel and Nick Boles, both of which had lots of questions about our work and lots of useful advice and suggestions for our campaign.

Overall, another positive day of campaigning for deaf children. Tomorrrow though, is our last day at the conferences and we still have a bit more stalking to do…