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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Is this really the right time to push ahead with special educational needs reform?

Sad parliamentary geeks of the world, rejoice! The long-expected Children and Families Bill has now been published, setting out, amongst other, wide-ranging proposals for reform to the special educational needs framework. This is likely to result in significant changes to how deaf children and their families are supported and educated. If you’re unfamiliar with what the reforms mean, the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) have produced a FAQ for parents of deaf children.

For much of this year, I’m going to be working on the Bill and briefing politicians what it might mean for deaf children and which bits of the Bill they should support, question, clarify or violently throw their Committee chairs against the wall and revolt against. Who knows, I might end up accidentally changing the law again.

In short, it’s going to be a big deal. So before we get into all of that, it’s worth asking a fairly fundamental question: is it sensible to go ahead with these proposals now?

The reason I ask is that the NDCS Stolen Futures campaign has already found that in the two years running up to April 2013, 1 in 3 councils have cut vital services for deaf children. So who is going to be left to implement these reforms?

The reforms are not cost-neutral. That much is clear from the ‘pathfinders’ who have been testing out the reforms. One Teacher of the Deaf working in one of the pathfinder areas told me that the work she had been doing on creating new ‘Education, Health and Care Plans’ involved lengthy meetings with parents and lots of work to co-ordinate with other professionals. This is not to say that the reforms are a bad idea. But it is to question whether they are sustainable in the long-run, without extra investment. However, the Department for Education have been clear that there is no new money on the table.

The big fear is that this reform actually causes so much upheaval that services get worse and deaf children’s education suffers. Parents of deaf children are already a little anxious about what this all means. In a NDCS survey, just 6% of parents of deaf children thought the proposals would mean that deaf children would get better support. 80% of parents who were familiar the reforms said they thought the real aim was to reduce spending. The Department clearly has some work to do to reassure parents.

As the Bill goes through Parliament, NDCS is going to be reinforcing this point: that unless the Department for Education ‘step up’ and intervene where local authorities are making cuts to services, their SEN reforms risk making a bad situation worse.

What does the big special educational needs shake up mean for deaf children?

The Department for Education are now full steam ahead with the biggest shake up of the special educational needs framework in England for 30 years. It certainly feels like 30 years since they announced their initial proposals but has actually only been less than 2 years. So what will the shake up mean for deaf children? Will it lead to better services and more choice for parents?

Well, despite a recent ‘Next steps’ update from the Department, some of the details are still somewhat hazy and will only become clear when the Department publishes their new laws in draft in September. Lots of the proposals are also still being tested by pilot pathfinders in 30-odd areas across England. The reforms are mega and it’ s impossible to try and summarise everything in one go. But I’ll have a go. Here’s a selection of 3 key questions and areas of uncertainty.

1) Education, Health and Care Plans

The statements are dead. Long live the Education, Health and Care plans. Yes, the statements – the legal entitlements to support that around 25% of deaf children currently have – is going to be broadened out and replaced with Education, Health and Care plans. The stated intention is to better ensure joined up working and prevent parents from having to give professionals the same information over and over again when their child is being assessed.

But will it do the job? Some key issues include:

* Existing legal protections won’t be lost (i.e. for education). But it’s not yet clear whether the plans will introduce any new legal protections (i.e. for health and social care). If it doesn’t, it kind of begs the question as to what the whole point of changing it is.

* Who will get one? When similar reforms have been done in other parts of the UK, the stated intention has been to reduce the number of children with statements. Will the same happen in England?

* Who’s going to do all these assessments? NDCS’s latest Save Services report, Stolen Futures, has found that 1 in 3 councils have cut education services since April 2011. Half of these cuts involve Teachers of the Deaf. Are the Government’s ambitions being thwarted by the cuts taking place on the ground?

* What will the plan look like? Will it have a proper focus on how deaf children should be doing and what support they need to get there? Or will it be a wiffly-waffly smiley face document of general platitudes? Some of the pathfinders seem to be going down the latter route…

2) Personal budgets

Parents who have a statement/plan will now get the chance to take control over the budget for their child’s services and buy in services from whoever they choose. The right to personal budgets will be an option and councils are expected to provide support to parents to help them navigate the system through what are sometimes known as ‘key workers’. Tricky issues here include:

* What will parents be able to buy with a personal budget?

* Choice for parents is great. But if parents chose not to buy from existing services, how much of a problem will that be?  Will existing council-run services have to wind down? Will personal budgets in effect end up actually reducing choice for other parents?

* The concept of personal budgets assumes a choice of services for parents. Yet does this really apply to educational services for deaf children? Can a parent pop down to Tesco to get a new Teacher of the Deaf?

3) The local offer

Every council will now have to say what’s available in their area for parents of children with special educational needs via a new ‘local offer’. The idea is that it will improve accountability and help parents get the information they need more readily. But…

* Will information be broken down by type of special educational need? The needs of a child with autism will be very different from that of a deaf child so how will councils produce something which is genuinely useful to all parents without cutting down the Amazon?

* Will there be a set format for a local offer? If not, how easy will parents find it to make comparisons between what’s in their own area and in neighbouring councils?

* Do parents really want a local offer? Or do they want a national offer? To be confident that the same basic services for deaf children will be available everywhere? I suspect the latter, but the Department has effectively already ruled this out.

This is barely scratching the surface and there are loads of other unanswered questions. NDCS’s response to the initial proposals sets out some of these other issues. Suffice to say, it would be a shame if the biggest, and badly needed, shake up of special educational needs reform doesn’t improve things for deaf children. So anyone with an interest in deaf education should start paying very close attention to the developing proposals in the coming months to make they do deliver for deaf children. Watch this space very closely.

If you’ve got any views on what the reforms will mean for deaf children, drop a line below – be good to hear from you.

Good news on academies and help for deaf children

Clearly this blog is very influential and being read by people at the heart of Government. Because within a fortnight of my blog about academies and deaf children, the Government took action to respond to concerns on this. Bucks Fizz all round!

The risk was that deaf children in academies wouldn’t get the help they need because of the way that the silly funding arrangements work. And that specialist support services for deaf children would lose funding.

Clearly, the Government has been listening to these concerns because yesterday they wrote to all local authorities to announce that they would be tweaking the funding arrangements so that specialist support services for children with special educational needs would not lose funding. It’s a short term, one-year, solution, pending a review of academy funding, but still a very welcome one. Here’s the NDCS story on it. A good day for deaf children.

If any Government Ministers are reading this, I also think every deaf person should be given a free I-Phone. Ahem.

Who will make deaf children matter in the general election?

All the newspapers seem to be busy publicly endorsing political parties, so I guess it’s only fair and proper that this blog, as an equally important media outlet, advises you on who you should vote for tomorrow.

This blog therefore endorses the following party for the general election 2010….

Only joking! I would probably get carted off to jail or, worse, forbidden from ever going near the chocolate digestives at work ever again. Charities need to be politically impartial under the law, after all. In any event, I’m quite old-fashioned about voting and think everyone should decide individually and privately who they want to vote for, without nudges and winks from others.

Image courtesy of NDCS

However, if you are interested in what the parties say about deaf children, disability and special educational needs, then the National Deaf Children’s Society website has a very short summary of what the three main UK party manifestos have to say on this, which may help guide you.

You can also read the transcripts from the interviews that education spokespersons from each party did with deaf young people back in January.

Finally, you can also see whether the politicians in your area have promised to support deaf children if they are elected, by signing the National Deaf Children’s Society election pledge for deaf children.

The election promises to be very close and the next Government is likely to be making some difficult decisions on public spending cuts to come, so every vote will make a difference.

Happy voting!

Will new pupil and parent guarantees make a difference for deaf children?

A busy week doing campaign work on audiology training, access to exams and British Sign Language in primary schools. In an attempt to try and juggle four things at the same time, I also wrote up a draft National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) consultation response on the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ proposed new pupil and parent guarantees for schools in England.

The guarantees are basically a write up of existing and new entitlements for children and parents in schools. So, for example, if a child is falling behind, the pupil is “guaranteed” catch up support. The guarantees detail how you can ‘claim’ your entitlements.

Usually when I write consultations responses, I end up saying something lilke: “Hello?! One in five children have a special educational need?! Duh!” in light of the often zero consideration of the needs of children, such as deaf children. But this consultation was refreshingly different – the needs of children with special educational needs or disabilities, and their entitlements, was referenced throughout. It is the first time I can recall seeing a government document about all children really “mainstream” the needs of children who need extra support. My draft consultation response is therefore generally supportive and positive, a new and unsettling experience for me.

As for the policy, people have mixed views on it. The “guarantees” alone won’t guarantee that every deaf child gets the support they need. But they could be a powerful means to an end? Where deaf children are falling behind, parents now have a new mechanism to make a fuss about it and demand they get more help. The proof will be in the pudding but it adds a new weapon to our armoury when battling to get better education for deaf children.

But what do you think? NDCS is inviting views on our draft response so let us know if you agree/disagree, or if there is any key point that we’ve missed. You can read the draft response via the NDCS website. Deadline for comments is the 19th March.

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.