New education laws to improve education for deaf children


Originally uploaded to Flickr by Joep R.

Yesterday, Parliament shut up shop. MPs were booted out. Maybe even chucked into the River Thames. But before they all went back to their constituencies, last week they were busy trying to pass lots of laws before Parliament dissolved. And two new bits of law were created which are worth getting a little bit excited about.

These are the Children, Schools and Families Act and the Equality Act. The former introduces a new right of appeal for parents of deaf children if their local authority refuses to update their statement for special educational needs support needed at school. And the latter makes a major changes to disability discrimination law by saying that disabled children now have the right to specialist equipment like radio aid microphones. Previously, this was only guaranteed to disabled children if it was included in their statement of support. A rather strange get-out clause for schools has now been closed.

Why are they important? Government figures from last year suggest that deaf children are 42% less likely to do as well in their GCSEs as other children. It’s an obvious point but unless deaf children are getting the support they need, we won’t close the gap in attainment. I think the Government deserves some plaudits for getting these new laws on the book.

The bad news is that the proposed new law on pupil and parent guarantees didn’t make it in the end. The week before Parliament is dissolved is known as the “wash-up” period where MPs take all their dirty coffee cups to the kitchen and where the Government and the opposition party also have to agree what laws will pass in the short time left. The guarantees didn’t get cross-party support so they fell by the wayside. I thought it was a shame. The guarantees wouldn’t have changed the world overnight for deaf children. But they could have been an important means to an end; of setting out new entitlements that would, again, have helped make sure that deaf children get the support they need.

Still, a nice little bookend to the last parliamentary session. More information about the new laws is on the NDCS website.

What do you think? Will the new laws make a difference? What else needs to be done to close the gap? As always, good to hear your thoughts.

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Communicating with MPs about communication for deaf children

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

Yesterday, I braved the freezing elements to get out of the office and head to Westminster for an All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness meeting about communication. The Group is basically an informal bunch of MPs and peers who have an interest in deafness and want to advocate within Parliament for more support for deaf people. RNID and NDCS are both temporary custodians of the group for the year, and this was the first meeting in Parliament with us running things.

Happily, it all went very well, with a respectable turn out from MPs. On our side, NDCS Director of Policy and Campaigns spoke about the need for parents to have impartial information in order to make an informed choice about communication with their deaf child, and for the family to be given support from the local authority in learning how to communicate effectively within the family. Raena, an inspiring mother of a deaf son, followed this with a talk about her own experiences and challenges, and her determination to make sure her son was fully included within the family, with the whole family committing to learning sign language. Hopefully, MPs left with a strong message that it can’t be ethical to leave families to their own devices when learning how to communicate with their own child.

Sadly, the message on impartial information and informed choice was lost on some members of the audience with one person strongly advocating for an oral approach and another for sign language and a range of views being expressed between them which caused a sharp intake of breath in me. I’m always surprised that some people seem to think that one approach is going to work for every deaf child, which cannot possibly be in the child’s best interests. Still, if one good thing came out of the exchange, being exposed to two opposite extreme views always leave me feeling quite reassured that I must be right if I completely disagree with both.

You can read more about the meeting, and one of the speeches, on the NDCS website. Am looking forward to the next meeting already.

How the acoustics campaign victory woz won

VictoryWell, it’s been two weeks now since we won the campaign victory on acoustics and the Government announced a package of measures to improve acoustics in new schools. So how did it all happen? Having mused and reflected upon it, here are what I think were the five key ingredients behind the campaign success:

1) Getting good media coverage. We were fortunate that the Times Educational Supplement, which is read avidly by civil servants and Ministers at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, were keen to follow the campaign throughout the year and to keep highlighting the issue with stories popping up in January on the launch of the campaign, May about support from other disability charities and, more recently, in October about a new school with poor acoustics.

2) Getting the message out to MPs and peers. We invested lots of time and effort in making MPs aware of the campaign, encouraging them to sign a parliamentary petition and to write to the Department to demand action. We couldn’t have done this without our supporters taking action and writing to their MP to check they were on board. In total, nearly 600 emails or letters were sent to MPs and the Government on acoustics by our supporters. It helped that we had a simple message that was easy for MPs to understand and get on board, all of which ensured we had a cross-party army of supporters within Parliament…

3) Making sure deaf young people led the way. Of course, one of reasons why so many MPs were keen to support the campaign is that they had attended a parliamentary event we arranged in June and met with a group of deaf young people to hear about their own personal experiences of poor acoustics, and why action is needed. The same group also appeared on the telly on BBC2 programme See Hear to demand action. They made a powerful appeal for action which was difficult for MPs and the Government to ignore.

4) Making sure we developed a strong case for action. Whether it was doing our own survey of local authorities to confirm that too many new schools were being built with poor acoustics or commissioning research from a school in Essex to show the dramatic impact that improved acoustics can have, we were keen to make sure that our briefings to Government were backed up by a compelling set of facts, pointing to a problem that needs to be solved.

5) Negotiations over a possible law change. Having got lots of attention from MPs and peers, several were keen to try and get the law changed to improve acoustics. Baroness Wilkins, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness, tabled an amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. We were quite lucky in a way; the Government was already behind schedule on this Bill and were keen to reduce the amount of time spent on debates in the House of Lords. But a good campaign exploits any luck and opportunities that presents itself. And so we entered into a game of brinkmanship and a series of negotiations to agree to a deal whereby the Department agreed to acoustic testing in exchange for the amendment being withdrawn. We ended up getting a good package that surpassed our expectations of what we could realistically achieve.

All in all, a good result for deaf children and lots of lessons to take forward to the next big campaign! I can’t chose but any thoughts on which was the most important factor out of this five?

End of term report on acoustics campaign

Parliament has now broken up for summer. As a campaigns officer, my initial response to this news is always “Praise be!”. As much as I love MPs, the summer months give us a time to reflect, strategise and do some blue sky thinking. Or some grey sky thinking if you’re enjoying the same weather as I am.

One thing we’ll be reflecting on is our Sounds good? campaign on acoustics. Looking back, I think we can point to some solid campaign ‘wins’, including:

* A recognition by the Government that there is a problem over poor acoustics, to which action is needed.
* A commitment to publishing guidance on how to achieve good acoustics.
* An unofficial clamp down on the use of alternative performance standards from those set out in government guidance, where there is weak justification.
* A recommendation of acoustic testing in new ‘minimum standards’ for new schools published by the Government.
* A reference to acoustic testing in new draft contracts for use by local authorities for new secondary schools.
* A promise to review the acoustics in new school buildings in future “post-occupancy evaluations”.

We’ve done this backed up my widespread support. Nearly 80 MPs have signed a parliamentary petition on this, 45 came to a parliamentary event, 16 organisations have endorsed the campaign and over 400 members of the public have contacted their MP to call for action on this issue.

All of this is pretty good. If we were to end the campaign tomorrow, I would do so with my head held reasonably high as I rush to buy some Pringles to celebrate.

But there is one very important thing missing that we think is needed: a hard mandatory requirement for new schools to be tested for their acoustics. Nothing has been put forward that would be a watertight requirement and which would apply to all new schools (and not just secondary schools). Without this, we don’t think there is any real incentive to make acoustics a top priority. It would fall off the radar as soon as we stopped our campaign.

Baroness Wilkins, a strong NDCS supporter, has been pressing to get the law changed to introduce this new requirement and her amendment will get debated after the summer. We had a meeting with civil servants last week to discuss this and we have a commitment that they will be seriously thinking about this.

In the meantime, we’ll be thinking about ways in which we can keep the campaign on the top of people’s minds when Parliament comes back from summer… Any ideas?

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.

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.

An end and a beginning for deaf children in Westminster

Last week, the parliamentary year ended. And then this week, a new one began. Nobody did an Auld Lang Syne, though the Queen did dress up a bit and hit the town.

With the end of the parliamentary year, all parliamentary petitions (known as early day motions) were wrapped up and no more signatures could be added to them. So we did a bit of number crunching to see how many MPs supported one or both of the two early day motions that were tabled in the last year on deaf children and education. These were early day motions 592 and 1607. Both called on the Government to take action to close the gap in attainment between deaf children and their hearing peers, and both pointedly pointed out that deafness is not a learning disability.

And the total number of MPs came to…. 156. Considering there are 645 MPs, this is nearly a quarter of all MPs. Since Ministers or anyone with a small part in running the machinery of Government cannot sign an early day motion, 156 is really quite good. I’m pleased. It’s allowing us to say that one in four MPs support our campaign.

But we won’t be looking back. On Wednesday, the Government set out it’s priorities for the future and its legislative plans for the year ahead via the Queen’s speech. NDCS did a news item on this, setting out the Bills that NDCS is going to be paying close attention to. For example, the proposed Equalities Bill might provide us with an opportunity to put forward changes that will benefit deaf children. This will be a big piece of work for us going forward. The proposed Children, Learning and Skills Bill might also be an opportunity for NDCS as well.

So its out with the old and in with the new…

PS Did you spot anything in the Bill that caught you eye or which might positively impact on deaf children? Let us know any thoughts you might have…