Traded services (or how to cut deaf children’s services by stealth)

A new menace is sweeping specialist support services for deaf children across England and the protagonists claim they’re doing so with the Government’s approval. It goes by many names. But most people refer to it as “traded services”.

Definitions vary. But when I refer to traded services, I refer to it as the practice whereby local authorities stop providing specialist support services for children with special educational needs free of charge, and instead start “selling” or “trading” their services to schools who must now buy them back in. Warwickshire council, for example, charges up to £85 for an hour of Teacher of the Deaf time and up to £285 for a day with a specialist Teaching Assistant.

Why is this a problem for deaf children?

1) Because deafness is relatively uncommon, most schools will rarely come across a deaf child. How will they know what to buy?
2) How are they going to pay for it? If budgets are split between all schools, regardless of whether they’ve got a deaf child, then the schools where there are actually deaf children present are not going to have enough money to buy the help that deaf children need.
3) It produces a whole set of distorted incentives. Schools are incentivised to save money for buying support “on the cheap”, like a general teaching assistant, rather than a specialist teaching assistant. Councils are incentivised to spend more time “marketing” their services rather than actually giving deaf children the help they need.

In Warwickshire, these problems are particularly acute because of (in my view) the incredibly cack-handed way in which the service has made the shift to traded services. A sub-group of deaf children have now been shifted over to “traded services.” 3 reasons to be angry with the council are:

1) Schools haven’t been given ANY extra cash to help pay for the help they are now expected to purchase for deaf children. The council repeatedly refused to answer questions on this issue and the council only admitted there was a funding cut when forced to through a Freedom of Information request.
2) Headteachers were told about the move to traded services for some deaf children over the summer break. When the school was closed. Many may only have got the letter once school term started.
3) Parents weren’t initially told. Many parents only found out when they discovered their child was no longer getting any help from a Teacher of the Deaf. The council has been remarkedly reluctant to meet with parents.

Warwickshire’s attitude has been incredibly cavalier. These deaf children are now the responsibility of the schools, they say. It’s a pretty shocking state of affairs when a council can just wipe their hands of a group of deaf children that they had until recently been supporting.

Parents are rightly upset and outraged. They’re petitioning the council to think again. And on Saturday, there will be a campaign day of action in Stratford-upon-Avon. The National Deaf Children’s Society is supporting their campaign to reverse the move to traded services. The help that deaf children receive should be determined by what they need, end of. Not by what their school is able or willing to buy back. And any cuts should be openly and honestly (or not at all). Not through reckless changes to funding systems or by stealth.


Government failing deaf children in academies?

I mused a long while ago in this blog whether academies are bad news for deaf children. The way the Government is going, the answer seems to be a pretty resounding yes.

I’m not anti-academies. If it delivered a good education, I wouldn’t care if deaf children were being educated in McDonalds. What worries me is that the funding system is set up in a way that risks deaf children in academies not getting the help they need.

Charlie Swinbourne’s recent article in the Guardian explains, but in a nutshell, imagine, if you will, a pie. The local authority normally looks after the pie and gives it out according to whoever needs it most. Now allow a group of schools that decide to become independent from councils and become academies, to take a chunk of the pie and split it evenly amongst themselves.

If everyone’s need for the pie was the same, there would be no problem. But when it comes to support for deaf children, the need isn’t the same. Most academies won’t have any deaf children and so will have no need for any pie. This bit of the pie gets wasted. But the academies that do have some deaf children are only getting a tiny piece of the pie. It won’t be enough.

Worse, the more academies taking a piece of the pie, the less that is left for the local authority to give out to deaf children in other schools. At some point, the service will become unsustainable.

Not all local authorities deliver a good service to deaf children. If they did, there wouldn’t be such a wide attainment gap. But without any changes to the funding arrangements, things aren’t going to improve and the pie isn’t going to taste any better.

What really hacks me off is that none of this is new. The National Deaf Children’s Society has been raising these concerns for ages. And the Government promised – in the Houses of Parliament, no less – that they would sort it. A year on, we are still no closer to a solution. And yet the Government is still expanding and accelerating its programme for more academies through it’s new Education Bill.

The message the Government is giving? Deaf children are an afterthought and it’s OK to leave them in limbo. Is this fair?

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.