Freedom of information? Not for deaf children

Last week, the Government promised “a quantum leap of transparency” in public services. Good! A bane of my life as a campaigns officer is trying to get information from public bodies, particularly around services for deaf children.

Much of the time, I ask for fairly basic information – like how many deaf children are known to the council and how many Teachers of the Deaf they employ. Sometimes I ask for something fairly important – has there been a reduction in funding for help for deaf children.

Parents of deaf children are taxpayers too. They need and want this information in order to decide what support is best for their child. Yet I hardly ever come across any local authorities that proactively provides this information to parents.

However, I do come across lots of local authorities that refuse to provide this information until legally required to do so under a Freedom of Information Act request. There are a handful that drag their feet.

I’m getting very grumpy to keep reading complaints from councils that someone had the audacity to ask them to provide information about themselves. Then I get even grumpier when I read the lame excuses. Some have attempted to justify a refusal to provide information on the basis that the information is too complicated and “open to interpretation”. In other words, parents of deaf children won’t understand it, even if the council took the time to explain the context. Others have complained that the data will be “misused”. In other words, the information might be used to hold the public service to account to see if they are doing a good a job as they can to help deaf children. Scandalous.

Parents of deaf children are being patronised by people whose job it is to serve them. If NDCS, a national charity, finds it hard to get this information, even with the force of the Freedom of Information Act behind it, how easy are parents of deaf children going to fare when trying to find out about help for their deaf child?

The stupidity is compounded when you think that this kind of information could be used by parents and campaigning organisations to campaign for better support for deaf children – i.e. more funding.

A quantum leap of transparency can’t come soon enough to end the arrogance of those that think they shouldn’t have to be held to account to parents of deaf children.

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Publishing more information on how deaf children are doing

Image courtesy of NDCS

The second recommendation in the National Deaf Children’s Society Hands up for help! campaign report is probably the one quickest to turn me into angry deaf man mode.

The Government must require local authorities to publish information about the level and performance of services for deaf children so families can assess whether their child is getting a fair chance at school.

NDCS did their own survey of local authorities because a lot of the information they needed on what help deaf children are getting wasn’t out there. Many services replied quickly and fully, which was great. Others did so under suffrance. NDCS is still waiting for replies from a handful. If NDCS has these problems, what about parents? Well, when we asked parents of deaf children to let us know of their experiences for the campaign report, one mother in London replied:

“It’s not easy for parents to know what the best educational options and choices there are for deaf children. There is very small provision in the units [for deaf children], which now seems the best option for my child, but I did not even know about this provision until I heard about it from other parents!”

Amazing. Why had no-one in the local authority told her? Why wasn’t the information out there in a place, easy to find, so that she could see for herself what options were available in her area? As for information about how deaf children are doing in her local authority or how many people are employed to help deaf children? Forget about it. There’s a real absence of any specific or local information about the education of deaf children, and I think it’s completely unacceptable.

Why isn’t more information published? One clue came from a meeting the other day I went to where a Head of Service for deaf children said that she suggested that some local data on deaf children’s outcomes shouldn’t be published as it might be “used as a stick to beat her with”. How awful, I thought. If more information was published, it might be used to ask impudent questions like “are the services for deaf children doing a good job?”. How impertinent! God forbid that someone might actually try to hold her to account for the service she’s providing to deaf children?!

Another excuse, and one that makes me most annoyed, is that this kind of information can’t be published because it would be “meaningless” and that each service is different, you can’t compare and that a service is actually “good” might come across as “bad”. I think such arguments patronise the intelligence of parents of deaf children. I also find it arrogant – who are professionals to decide what information should or shouldn’t be available to parents? Surely a good service has nothing to fear from being open about how it is run? Surely a good service would welcome any opportunity to tell everyone what a great job they’re doing?

Sure, publishing data takes time. And if you’ve never done it before, it’s going to take a while to set the systems up. But it does need to be done, if parents are going to be able to exercise informed choice about how to support their deaf child. I’ve met some fantastic professionals in my time working to support deaf children and I still have happy memories of the people who supported me and insisted that my mainsteam teachers have high expectations of what I could do. I also know that some professionals and Teachers of the Deaf are as frustated as I am about the resistence to seeing more information available to parents. This resistance, I think, discredits the whole profession and I think it’s time to start challenging such views.