What are auxiliary aids and why do they matter?

I was having a rummage around the attic in my parents’ house over the weekend and came across a blast from the past: my old radio aids from school.

My radio aid clipped onto my belt and had a wire that plugged into my hearing aid. My teachers or my mum would wear a microphone around their neck. And hey presto, everything said would be amplified remotely into my hearing aids.

They weren’t perfect. I could only hear what the teacher was saying, not my best friend sitting next to me. They sometimes amplified wider background noises. And, of course, the teacher would sometimes forget to turn the microphone off. Let’s just say I’ve been subject to conversations in the staff room that I really shouldn’t have.

But it did the job. I could follow lessons in the classroom. And my Mum could do her job and help me develop language. And other children loved the fact I could give them a 5 minute warning of when the teacher would be back from the staff room.

Radio aids like mine are often cited as an example of an “auxiliary aid”. It sounds like something from Star Trek but they are basically things that help disabled children in the classroom. They could also include, for example, communication support workers. Lots of deaf children get this kind of support because they have a statement of special educational need that says this help is needed. But most deaf children don’t have a statement and therefore no entitlement to this help if they need it.

Around 18 months ago, the previous Government passed a law, with cross-party support, that would legally require schools to provide auxiliary aids as a “reasonable adjustment”. In other words, schools better have a very good excuse if they didn’t provide it, if needed. A consultation has just closed on whether the Government should go ahead and bring this law into force. Better late than never.

It’s a really important change to the law and will introduce a new safeguard to help sure deaf children get the help they need. I needed it 20 years ago and deaf children today need it now. If the Government don’t hurry up and bring it into force, I’m going to seriously question their commitment to helping deaf children.

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2011 predictions on campaigning for deaf children

What will 2011 bring for my work as a campaigns officer for deaf children? Last year, the general election meant that it was impossible to predict anything with any certainty. This year, I’m tempted to have a shot. Here are three predictions from me.

1) Acoustics in schools is going to come back on the agenda. At the end of 2009, the National Deaf Children’s Society won a big campaign victory on acoustics. However, this year we are expecting the Department for Education to come up with a new strategy for how it builds new schools, whilst the Department for Communities and Local Government is revamping Building Regulations. Both could potentially result weaken, rather than strengthen, standards on acoustics. If they do, the Sounds good? campaign may be making a return.

2) The cuts are coming. Last year, the Government announced the cuts it would be making to overall budgets. This year, the impact will start to be felt and we are likely to see some heavy cuts in many parts of the UK. Much of my time this year is going to be spent working with parents to fight the cuts to help for deaf children.

3) The special educational needs debate goes out of the box. The Department for Education is publishing its policy ideas on special educational needs. This year. Probably. It’s already been postponed twice. Assuming they do see the light of day, we can expect to see some quite radical proposals. Personal budgets for children with special educational needs is rumoured to be one of the proposals coming out. Some MPs think that the Government might go further and ditch the whole statementing system. It will certainly be interesting at the very least.

Do you have any other predictions for the year ahead in campaigning for deaf children? Leave a comment below to share them.

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.

Making sure there’s enough money for help for deaf children

Well, it’s been a week since I help the National Deaf Children’s Society launch the Hands up for help! campaign report. In that time:

* Over 250 people have contacted their MP in support of the campaign
* It’s been plastered all over BBC London news, reaching millions of viewers
* Over 200 people have joined the Facebook fanpage for the campaign
* Lots of people have also leaving details of their own experiences of help for deaf children on NDCS’s interactive map
* Over 300 people have downloaded the campaign report

Image courtesy of NDCS

The campaign’s key message – that every deaf child deserves a fair chance at school – seems to have hit a chord, among a wide range of people, which is great to see.

So what next? The report makes four recommendations for action and NDCS is going to be lobbying MPs, Ministers, Peers, councillors, local authority decision makers, anyone who will listen, to get them to take action.

The first recommendation is probably the most important. It says:

The Government must ensure adequate funding for specialist support services so all deaf children have a fair chance at school, no matter where they live.

The context behind this isn’t hard to see. We know that massive spending cuts on the way. In the past, local authority budgets have been hit hard. And with deafness being a low incidence, “invisible” disability, budgets for specialist support services have often been seen as an easy target. Anecdotally, there is evidence of vacancies for Teachers of the Deaf being frozen and of loads of local authorities exploring the scope for cuts through SEN “reviews”.

So now NDCS is going to have to make sure deafness isn’t “invisible” in discussions around budget cuts across England.

Have you come across any cuts to services for deaf children where you live? If so, leave a comment below or email NDCS at campaigns@ndcs.org.uk.

I’ll blog about the campaign report’s other recommendations over the next few weeks.

Are deaf children getting the help they need at school?

The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) is launching a new campaign later this week, and I’ve been busy getting everything ready for the big kick off. The campaign is on a subject close to my heart: making sure that deaf children get the help they need at school.

Image courtesy of NDCS

For most deaf children, Teachers of the Deaf play a critical role in providing this help. These are teachers who’ve studied a little longer to become experts on how deaf children learn at school. Not all Teachers of the Deaf are perfect, as in all professions. But I think most do a good job, or the best they can. I have some fond memories of my Teachers of the Deaf as a child. They came and saw me every week, made sure I was being assertive over my radio aids and checked up on my mainstream teachers. They had nothing but the highest expecations for me, and pushed me hard. They also made my parents believe that I could do just as well as any other child. Best of all, their visits always coincided with RE lessons.

Academic research backs this up too. Specialist teachers make more of a difference than any other kind of help in the classroom, including teaching assistants. Teachers of the Deaf are also a key factor behind high achievement in deaf pupils.

So why are there so few Teachers of the Deaf? The campaign, called Hands up for Help! , will reveal evidence showing that deaf children across England have unfair access to help from Teachers of the Deaf. In the South East of England, for example, each visiting Teacher of the Deaf is working with over 50 deaf children. Unless they have some sort of time travelling device down in the Kent countryside, I find it very hard to believe that each visiting Teacher of the Deaf can really do everything necessary to make sure every deaf child is getting the help they need. A NDCS interactive map of specialist support services reveals some of the variations in the help that deaf children get. It also shows how deaf children are under achieving on a significant scale across England. It makes for pretty depressing reading. You can leave your own good or bad memories/experiences on the map too.

The new Government bandies the term ‘fairness’ around a lot. Well, a failure to provide deaf children with the help they need seems to be pretty unfair to me. So I’m looking forward to seeing their response to the campaign.

Come back later in the week for more details of the campaign launch.

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.

NDCS campaigns at Labour conference 2009: day 4

Picture3 002On our final day at the Labour party conference, on a day the sun disappeared, we were on the hunt… for someone to take responsibility for building regulations.

Our Sounds good? campaign on school acoustics has got the attention of Ministers and officials at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), but to get what we want – a requirement for acoustic testing in all new schools – there needs to be a change to the building regulations which govern how school buildings are built. Which is the responsibility of the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG).

Sadly, though, having spoken to four Ministers who work at the Department, including the Secretary of State who in theory has overall responsibility for everything in his Department, none of them seemed entirely sure who was responsible for this issue. It was slightly worrying. In the end, one of them agreed to look into it further and get back to us.

Otherwise, the day was spent networking and going to more fringe meetings. Overall, there have been some really interesting fringe meetings over the past week. Some of the highlights include:

* The Every Disabled Child Matters meeting which featured four ministers in total. Our acoustics campaign got a mention when someone else asked about the accessibility of new school buildings. I raised a question about whether Access to Work, to pay for additional help for disabled people in the workplace, should be extended to disabled people doing unpaid internships, to help them get up the career ladder. The answer from the Minister for Disability, Jonathan Shaw, was that he would like to, but there wasn’t really any money for it. So that was that.

* At a NASUWT fringe meeting, we asked a few questions about acoustics. DCSF Minister Vernon Coaker, who used to be a deputy headteacher, asked my boss to “come and see him afterwards”. Fortunately, it was not for a detention or corporal punishment but to convey his desire to see this problem sorted out as soon as possible. He said he would ask officials to update him.

* And at a fringe meeting by Action for Children, with Baroness Morgan, Children’s Minister, in attendence, we again raised the concerns that the social care needs of deaf children are being overlooked.

Overall, it’s been a busy few days getting NDCS mentions here and there, introducing Louis Kissaun to MPs, and raising awareness of the needs of deaf children. Now we’re going to get busy drafting letters and doing all the things we promised MPs that we would do, before the next conference for the Conservatives in Manchester…

Any points you want us to raise at the Conservative conference about deaf children? Leave a comment and let us know.