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.

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Conservatives sets out education plans… but what does it mean for deaf children?

Image courtesy of www.conservatives.comThe Conservative party launched their draft manifesto on education yesterday. It’s not very long and makes for very interesting reading for those wondering what a Conservative government might mean for deaf children and other children with special educational needs and disabilities.

One of the most interesting points for me, that hasn’t really been picked up by the media, is the line that says: “We will call a moratorium on the ideologically-driven closure of special schools and end the bias towards the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream schools.”

What this might mean in practice? Are we likely to see a trend of more schools for the deaf opening under a Conservative government? How will any ‘bias’ towards inclusion in mainstream schools be addresssed? Lots of food for thought…

If you’re interested, NDCS has issued a statement giving their initial response to the draft manifesto. What’s your response? Be interested to hear your thoughts on their proposals…

NDCS uncovers damning evidence on acoustics in schools

Even though the Government is aiming to build or refurbish thousands of new schools, it has done very little to survey schools for their listening environments. It was always a bit of stumbling block for NDCS’s campaign. Although we had lots of parents and professionals telling us about their own experiences of new classrooms with poor acoustics and a wide range of other organisations supporting NDCS’s campaign, we found it hard to demonstrate that schools with poor acoustics were just one-off examples.

Well, no longer. We did a survey of local authorities in which we knew a new school has been built in that area since 2003. We got 38 usable replies. Of those, only 21% could confirm to us that the acoustics in the schools in their area met the government’s standards.

The rest couldn’t confirm because the schools in their area a) hadn’t been tested or b) had done a test but failed it. In fact, where testing took place, over half of local authorities had schools that failed it.

All of this now means that I can go around using the term “damning evidence” with wild abandon like a Daily Mail journalist. We think this damning evidence makes for compelling evidence for the central ask of our campaign – that all new school buildings should be required by law to be tested for their acoustics. A fail means they should not be allowed to open. This damning evidence should also result in the Government making sure it monitors the quality of acoustics in schools. Small charities like NDCS shouldn’t have to pay of it.

Along with the event, the hope is that this damning evidence bring us closer to the moment where the Government just gets on with it.

You can read the report here. If you’re outraged by the findings as we are, you can contact your MP and demand action. Over 300 of you have done so already.

NDCS supports call for action on inclusion

As well as being an opportunity to eat lots of easter eggs, Easter is traditionally the time of the year when teachers get together for their various conferences. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Woman Teachers or NASUWT have been busy this week debating the difficulties teachers face in making inclusion of children with special educational needs a reality in the classroom.

This chimes with much of our campaign work to Close the Gap in how deaf children do at school compared to their hearing friends. So we issued a press statement in support. And here is what we said:

“The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) is supporting the NASUWT’s call for action on inclusion. NDCS believes all deaf children have a right to an education that makes them feel fully included in the life of the school and ensures that they make the same educational progress as their hearing peers. To achieve this, a continuum of provision is needed to ensure that the education service meets the needs of all deaf children. Too often, this is not available and children are expected to adapt without the support they need. As a result deaf children continue to under achieve – deaf children were 41% less likely to achieve 5 GCSEs at grades A* to C, including. English and Maths, in 2007.

A significant number of parents regularly contact the National Deaf Children’s Society with concerns that their child is not receiving his or her entitlement to appropriate education. When we investigate, we often find frontline classroom teachers trying their best in very difficult circumstances without the required support and advice to meet the pupil’s needs.

Teacher’s need more support. When a child with special educational needs enters the classroom, teachers should automatically be given training, access to qualified specialist support and guidance on how to adapt the curriculum for their needs.

We support NASUWT’s call that inclusion needs to be addressed. Government and local authorities need to take action to ensure that inclusion is a reality for all deaf children.”

There you have it. I’m now going to go back to wondering how to pronounce NASUWT…

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

One of the ways a charity can punch above its weight at the party conferences is go to lots of fringe meeting and ask a question to the speakers at the end. It gets you noticed and gets you attention as a player in the game. It also means people know who you are afterwards, and can lead to all sorts of new connections. This is advice that our Director of Policy and Campaigns has been taking up at virtually every single opportunity throughout the party conference. And today, in a very interesting fringe meeting hosted by RNID, Treehouse and NUT on special educational needs and inclusion, he took the opportunity to ask about the tension between national standards and local autonomy. In other words, people often talk about the importance of delegating funding and decisions to schools – but does this make it more difficult to ensure that deaf children still get the support they need and expect across the UK? It’s a good question, and triggered an interesting debate and, I suspect, some thought-provoking, in the audience.

Apart from lots of fringe meetings, we’ve also met with a few MPs, either pre-arranged or we’ve grabbed them as they passed by. As with the other party conferences, all MPs have been supportive of our aims to ensure the best possible start for every deaf child and keen to help in whatever way they can. One MP seemed keen to start hosting parliamentary meetings on our behalf which was a very welcome suggestion.

But our time at the party conference is now pretty much over. We head back to London tomorrow to start all the follow ups and all the thank you letters for everyone we met with, importantly, details for them of what practical things they can do to support us. I, for one, am absolutely knackered. One party conference is tiring. Three in a row is exhausting. So whilst its been fun, I’m more than happy to be returning to my bed back in my flat. Once I’ve had a good night’s sleep, I’ll be doing a post mortem of the past few weeks and a summary of what we’ve achieved. And asking the question whether our near-exhaustion was worth it.

Oh, and I’ll also be doing an in-depth comprehensive analysis of the freebies on offer. Don’t miss it.