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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Debating deaf children’s futures

After 18 months of campaigning and 50,000+ petition signatures, MPs have agreed that concerns over cuts to funding to support for deaf children are so serious that Parliament should debate them.

Deafness is invariably described as the invisible disability. The needs of deaf children too often get overlooked. Well, not on Thursday. This isn’t going to be a debate in some poky committee room – it will be on the floor of the House of Commons. The needs of deaf children will take centre-stage and the Government will be forced to explain what exactly they are doing to make sure deaf children get the help they need. And the whole world can judge whether this is good enough. This is a big deal, ladies and gentlemen.

The debate is going to be an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the fact that help for deaf children is being cut across the country. The Government say they have protected funding for vulnerable learners yet this protection isn’t being carried through at a local level. 29% of local authorities are cutting services and another 25% are at risk, according to analysis from the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS).

You might take the Government’s point that this is a matter for local communities. But there’s only so much fire-fighting that parents can do without getting exhausted or neglecting their core job – being Mums and Dads to their deaf child. It’s time for the Government to take action to stop the fires starting in the first place.

There are different ways the Government can do this. It could intervene directly in some of the worse cases and name and shame council bosses that don’t protect funding for vulnerable learners. The Government seems quite happy to tell councils what to do about rubbish collections and council magazines after all.

It could also introduce stronger checks over councils. It could make Ofsted inspect specialist services for deaf children. It’s easy for councils to cut services if they don’t think there are going to be any serious consequences.

The debate is also going to be an opportunity to say that, well actually, before even all of these cuts, in many places the support deaf children were getting wasn’t good enough. Over two thirds of deaf children fail to get 5 good GCSEs. It’s an opportunity to debate openly the fact that:

  • Too many families aren’t getting enough support after their deaf child is born. Where they want to learn sign language, families sometimes have to pay thousands of pounds just to learn to communicate with their own child.
  • Too many deaf children don’t get the specialist support they need in the classroom. They have to learn in poky noisy classrooms without extra help and support.
  • Too many deaf young people don’t get the help they need to prepare for adulthood and independence.

My biggest fear is that the Government will, come Thursday’s debate, do as they’ve done before and just bat away concerns. They’ll point to tiny pots of money given for small projects – not unappreciated but not enough. They’ll point to new laws on special educational needs even though this doesn’t address the fundamental issues deaf children face.

This is why a big turnout from MPs is needed. The more MPs that turn up and say something must be done, the more likely the Government will actually do something substantial. So MPs need to know this debate is important. MPs need to hear from families and deaf people of the individual stories and challenges that deaf children face. MPs need to challenge the Government to do more, much more.

And hopefully then Thursday’s debate will be the start of a lasting change that makes a big difference to deaf children.

To ask your MP to come along on Thursday, you can email him / her via the NDCS website. For more information about the debate, you can also check out NDCS’s Stolen Futures campaign pages. You can email your MP via the

Academies Bill becomes law and something about sausages

I was reminded of the old saying this week that laws are like sausages; you really don’t want to know how they are made…

The Academies Bill is now law, meaning that lots of schools will soon be able to convert to academies, and be independent from local authority control. I personally don’t mind where deaf children are taught, providing they get the support they need. But in most areas, specialist support services are provided by the local authority. So there was always a real question mark over how academies would be able to support deaf children when they’re cut off from the local authority. There were also some big questions over where the money for this would come from, given that academies effectively disperse school funding far and wide.

In an ideal world, there would have been plenty of time to consider and reflect on these issues and come up with solutions that work. But the new Government was hell-bent on getting the Academies Bill into law as soon as possible to allow schools to convert from September. That didn’t stop the House of Lords from trying to slow things down. There were lots of lengthy debates on specialist support services and special educational needs. To the Government’s credit, some big concessions were made early on to help consistency in the legal framework on special educational needs. But they were reluctant to move on specialist support services. It was incredibly frustrating. The Government recognised there was a problem. But wouldn’t come forward with any solutions before the Bill became law. Their response could basically be characterised as “Meh…”

Enter the amazing Baroness Wilkins, a long standing NDCS supporter. With help from NDCS, she kept returning to this issue, put forward a draft amendment to the Academies Bill and eventually forced a vote on it in the House of Lords. The Government rarely loses votes in the Lords or the Commons. It lost this one. It was the 2nd defeat in the Lords for the new Government, and arguably the first major one.

And so the law was changed. It requires funding for support to remain with the local authority, to prevent it being dispersed far and wide. It also means the Government has the power and responsibility to ensure that any large scale conversions to academies do not disadvantage deaf children and other children with low incidence needs. To our surprise, the Government didn’t try to reverse the change to the law, though that was probably because its own deadlines didn’t allow for this. They have even made some fairly positive noises about it, despite trying to resist it in the Lords.

To me, perhaps the most disconcerting thing was that I drafted the change to the law on behalf of the Special Educational Consortium, despite not being an expert in such things and without access to an army of Government lawyers. On the one hand, I’m proud it wasn’t laughed out. On the other hand, I’m slightly alarmed that someone like me has effectively made the law. Is this how Judge Dredd felt?

It’s not the end of the road and the new law doesn’t revolve the issues and concerns fully. So NDCS and parents of deaf children will need to monitor what’s happening in academies going forward. But overall, despite a few weeks of frustrating to and fro, the end result is equivalent to a succullent sausage.

Deaf Awareness Week in Parliament

Image courtesy of NDCS

The NDCS/RNID parliamentary reception on Wednesday was a huge success. 57 MPs came, the deaf children, young people and adults were fantastic and the cakes were lovely.

I was in charge of making sure the deaf children and young people were fully involved, but I was barely needed. They were hugely confident and assertive in telling MPs about the importance of deaf awareness and what action they wanted MPs to take. They were so good and so confident, that it was a bit scary to be honest.

Lots of photos were taken which are now winging their way to local media across the UK. Hopefully, this will get the message about deaf awareness far and wide.

Overall, it’s been a great Deaf Awareness Week. Lots of NDCS supporters have been sending in their thoughts and tips, and we also took the opportunity to share these with MPs.

It’s a shame we have to wait a whole year now for the next Deaf Awareness Week, really…

The calm before Deaf Awareness Week

Next week is going to be all about me. And the other 8,999,999 people who are deaf or hard of hearing in the UK.

Yes, it’s Deaf Awareness Week and this year’s theme is “Look at me”. The idea is to talk about simple deaf awareness tips throughout the week – like facing deaf people when you talk. And, of course, by looking at deaf people, you can finally find out one way or another whether deafness really is an invisible disability.

I’ve been busy at the National Deaf Children’s Society gearing up for it. The main focus of our work is a parliamentary reception next week where deaf children and young people will be part of a group educating and testing MPs on their deaf awareness. NDCS is joining forces with RNID and the UK Council of Deafness for the event.

For NDCS, the whole thing is a follow-up from the NDCS election pledge work. 223 MPs committed to making deaf children matter. Now is their opportunity to find out how.

I’ll be blogging throughout Deaf Awareness Week about what’s going on, and NDCS will also be encouraging supporters to get involved. So watch this space.

In the meantime, what are you up to for Deaf Awareness Week? Leave a comment below to let us know.

PS You can also get the latest via the NDCS UK twitter account – so get tweeting!

Academies: good or bad news for deaf children?

The Queen was dragged away from her TV last week to come and open Parliament for the new Government and to read a speech written for her by the Government on new laws coming through. I wonder if one day the Queen will just say “read your own speech, I want to watch Loose Women” but that day hasn’t arrived yet.

One of the new laws she announced was the Academies Bill. Academies are a type of school which are independent of the local council. They were popularised by Tony Blair and there are now over 200 of them. The new Government wants to oversee a massive expansion of the programme.

I can see some of the pros of the proposal. Why not allow headteachers and teachers to run their own school themselves; they themselves know their own pupils best, rather than some local council bureaucrat. It’s not as if local councils have been a complete success at improving the educational attainment of disadvantaged children.

On the other hand, there some real uncertainty about specialist services for deaf children. The problem is that this is usually provided and funded by local councils. If academies are independent of local councils, the councils will have less money for these kinds of specialist support services for deaf children. Academies would have to pay for it as an extra cost. But most academies may only have one deaf child; the cost of high quality expert specialist support may be proportionally very expensive unless you have lots of academies pooling their resources. So will deaf children in academies get the support they need?

The other concern is that, in a desire to give academies more freedoms, it’s unclear whether some laws on special educational needs are being followed. For example, non-academies have to make sure that their special educational needs co-ordinators are qualified teachers. The same law doesn’t apply to academies.

The National Deaf Children’s Society will be flagging up these concerns with politicians as they debate the Academies Bill. But since there are relatively few Academies already in operation, there is a lack of information over how deaf children already in academies are getting on at the moment. Is it good, OK or bad?

If you know of any deaf children, let us know how they’re getting on by leaving a comment below or emailing campaigns@ndcs.org.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.

Cheers!