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. 

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Ofsted failing to inspect education for deaf children?

Image courtesy of http://www.cartoonstock.com

Tomorrow, a recurring issue around Ofsted inspections will be under the spotlight again in Parliament…

The issue? Why Ofsted inspections of schools that cater for deaf children, for example, those with a unit or resource base, so often seem to be inspected by people with zero expertise in deafness? Parents of deaf children already get very little information about education for deaf children, so I imagine many feel patronised that Ofsted inspectors don’t seem to think it’s important enough to comment on their children’s specific needs. Or they send someone who can’t even communicate with the deaf children at the school.

The National Deaf Children’s Society submitted evidence to the Lamb inquiry on the problem so it was great that the final report recommended that Ofsted change the way it looks at education for children with special educational needs (SEN). Some other good news came when Ofsted announced it would change its inspection framework, as of September last year, to make sure that inspectors of provision for children with SEN actually have expertise in that SEN.

So it was pretty disappointing to hear towards the end of last year from a father that his deaf son’s school, which has a unit, had just been inspected, and that the inspectors didn’t engage with the deaf children at all. Only after persistent chasing, was the father able to get Ofsted to confirm that none of the inspectors had any expertise in deafness.

Tomorrow, the House of Commons will be looking at a section of the Children, Schools and Families Bill which covers the Lamb inquiry recommendation on Ofsted. We’re supporting this section of the Bill and we hope that MPs will be able to confirm with the Government that Ofsted really is going to improve the way it handles these types of inspections.

Have you got any views or experiences of Ofsted inspections of education for deaf children? If so, please have your say and leave a comment below.

Final Lamb inquiry report on SEN now out

Brian Lamb finally published his report last week on how the Government can increase parental confidence in the special educational needs (SEN) system, and just before Christmas too. After three interim reports, the Lamb reports were beginning to feel a bit like a gift that keeps on giving.

The final report makes for very interesting reading. It contains not 1, not 2, but 51 recommendations on actions needed to improve the SEN system. NDCS has given a very warm welcome to the report which addresses a range of issues from our Must do better! report on educational underachievement of deaf children and our Close the Gap campaign.

Some of the recommendations had already been published and are being acted upon already by the Government. For example, recommendations on making Ofsted inspectors more inclusive and stronger rights of appeal for parents in the statementing process are being taken forward by the Children, Schools and Families Bill. This piece of legislation is due to get its first debate in Parliament in January, and NDCS will be calling for it to get through Parliament quickly, before the general election.

Other recommendations are new and a welcome surprise to boot. Currently, schools don’t have to take ‘reasonable adjustments’ if a deaf child needs auxiliary aids (like, for example, a microphone or amplification system). It’s often provided as a part of a statement, but this isn’t much consolation to the many deaf children who don’t have a statement. So the Lamb inquiry proposes that disability discrimination laws be improved so that schools do have to make reasonable adjustments in this area. NDCS is going to be writing to the Government to stress how important this is.

Another surprise was a recommendation for a new national and independent helpline on SEN. Given the volume of calls NDCS’s free helpline gets, there would seem to be a clear need for this.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families is going to be publishing it’s formal response to all of the recommendations in January, but already they’ve issued a fairly warm response. I’ll be checking to make sure the warm words lead to warm actions.

What do you think of the report and its proposals for improving the SEN system? Is it good news for deaf children? Let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Shake up for Ofsted inspections of deaf children

Last week, I blogged about the first of two interim reports from the Lamb inquiry into parental confidence in the SEN system. The second one looked at an issue which NDCS has been pestering the Government about for ages – the deaf awareness of Ofsted inspectors.

The pestering commenced last summer when we published our Must do better! report into the barriers holding deaf children back at school. In it, we called for a stronger focus on deafness at Ofsted, pointing out that if inspections of provision for deaf children are not conducted with the necessary rigour, underpinned by good awareness and expertise in deafness, Ofsted cannot play an effective role in driving up standards for deaf children. If the line sounds rehearsed, then it’s because it’s something I’ve been saying with alarming regularity since then.

For example, earlier this year, we asked Glenda Jackson MP to table a PQ about it which elicited an interesting reply from Ofsted. We followed this by briefing the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee on this issue. John Heppell MP directly challenged the Head of Ofsted on the issue. And more recently, we sent a submission to the Lamb inquiry highlighting some of the examples we’d come across of Ofsted inspectors being deaf unaware.

All of this has culminated in the Lamb inquiry proposing that a) Ofsted inspectors should be specifically required to report on provision for children with special educational needs in all school reports and b) that inspectors should have more disability awareness training. The Government has already accepted these recommendations.

I’m not sure NDCS can take all of the credit for this, but I think we’ve been a leading figure in putting the issue on the agenda. If anything, we deserve an award for refusing to shut up about it. And now we’ve got a great result which should result in big improvements in the way Ofsted do inspections.

What do you think? Do you think it will have a positive impact? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.

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.