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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Five random reflections on deaf life at primary school

I spent most of last week musing on life at primary school. I do love a good amble down memory lane but I had another reason; I had volunteered to give a presentation to parents of deaf children at a National Deaf Children’s Society family weekend. These are weekends for parents to learn more about various issues facing deaf children and to meet other families with the same kind of experiences.

I was mainstream all the way through the system. I loved primary school; I got my education. It’s fair to say I was probably a bit of a swot. I loved getting gold stars and certificates. My best friend now and back then in primary school is the one and same very person and he doesn’t even wonky ears like me. But primary school did come with its challenges and listening to other deaf adults, I get the impression that I wasn’t alone in these kind of experiences.

So without further ado, I present my top five random reflections of times gone by at primary school:

1) Teachers never remembered to turn the microphone on. Every morning I left my microphone on my teacher’s desk. And nearly every morning I would then have to put my hand up as the lesson started to prompt my teacher. Luckily, I was a cocky confident little boy who was happy to do so. And it didn’t stop there; teachers invariably forgot to turn the microphone off. The range on these microphones back then was quite something. I heard all sorts of staff room conversations that I shouldn’t have been listening to. I felt like James Bond Junior sometimes.

2) The Teacher of the Deaf came to visit weekly to check everything was alright. She was great. But she seemed to have an impeccable knack for coming exactly when lessons were getting most interesting. I would always have to sheepishly leave the classroom at inopportune times and then return to loads of questions from my friends as to where I’d been bunking off to.

3) My speech had a bit of work. A lot of work. I didn’t always enjoy it though I think I knew then it was done with good intentions and “for my own good”. But there were times I felt completely demoralised realising again and again that I wasn’t saying something right. And it’s left a legacy of me hating to do any public speaking,  finding myself worrying more about how I’m saying something, rather than what I’m saying and often ending up having a verbal car crash with my words.

4) Break times were sometimes tough. It could be a struggle to work out what my friends were up to. Being spontaneous was a challenge. As a result, I often ended up trying to ‘arrange’ and ‘control’ the fun myself by putting myself in charge. That way I could know what was going on. Unfortunately, it didn’t endear me to my friends and I ended up getting a reputation for being bossy and bolshy.

5) Finally, teachers invariably made assumptions about what I already knew, based on what everyone else already knew. And, invariably, they were mistaken. The classic example on my part is the Lord’s Prayer. I was at a Church of England school so every morning we all had to recite the Lord’s Prayer. For six years I didn’t have a clue what the words were. In fact, it wasn’t until Cliff Richard did that millennium prayer song, that I finally picked it up. Of course, everyone else picked it up just by listening to everyone else. I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know. The moral of the story is that gaps in incidental learning means there is loads that deaf children don’t quite pick up. And it turns out apparently that our Farther arts in Heaven, rather than Devon. Who knew?

It’s difficult to be angry or sad about any of the above. Had I not worked through any of the above challenges, I wouldn’t be where I am today. But part of me hope that things are better now, that deaf children are thriving rather than coping.  And that teachers are reading the guidance produced by (shameless plug alert) the National Deaf Children’s Society. I suspect though that there is more work to raise awareness among teachers of the little idiosyncrasies around supporting deaf children in school.

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

How I started to lose faith with the Government on deaf children

I can’t really pinpoint the moment when it happened. I started with really high hopes. But slowly, I’ve personally been getting more and more exasperated with the Government. The trickle of inconsistencies. Assumptions. And, above all, the lack of urgency on protecting help for deaf children when 1 in 5 councils are making cuts to the vital services on which deaf children rely.

My main gripe is the increasing tendency for the Government to say it’s a “matter for local authorities” to arrange provision for deaf children. That councils are expected by the Government to protect funding for “vulnerable learners”. If deaf children are not getting the help they need from specialist support services for deaf children and/or where massive cuts are taking place, it’s the nasty councils’ fault. Don’t blame the Government.

The Government can’t do everything, obviously. But at the end of the day, where else does the buck stop? The Government has the legal powers to intervene in specialist support services for deaf children. But even when faced with evidence of councils making swingeing cuts to vital services and not following legal processes, it has seemed quite relaxed about the impact on deaf children. Whenever asked to intervene, we hear that the Government can only intervene in “limited circumstances”. What those circumstances are remain a mystery – the Government has refused to be drawn, despite several attempts.

I wouldn’t mind so much if this was a principled approach on not intervening. But it isn’t. Instead, there’s a rather arbitrary way of categorising what’s for local authorities to sort out and when local authorities can’t be trusted. For example, the Government appear quite unapologetic about apparently imposing academies on poor performing schools, regardless of the views of the local community – if this article is anything to go by.

The Government’s main defence is that they have a massive programme of reform underway with the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Green Paper. But many of the proposals will only benefit the quarter of deaf children that have a statement. The proposals come with a lot of risks that haven’t yet been properly assessed or mitigated. Throughout it treats children with special educational needs as a homogeneous group; there’s little in it that is directly focused on the unique needs of deaf children. But most importantly, if so many councils are making cuts, what’s going to be left by the time the Green Paper is implemented?

The article I mentioned earlier includes this quote from a Department for Education spokesperson:

“We can’t just stand by and do nothing when schools are sub-standard year after year.”

It’s a shame they seem content to stand by and do nothing for deaf children when their services are being slashed.

New NDCS campaign, Hands up for help!, launches

Exciting day as the National Deaf Children’s Society officially launches the new Hands up for help! campaign. It’s all go, and everything I’ve been working on for the past few months is now out there.

To see it all, just pop along to the Hands up for help! webpage on the NDCS website. Here you can download the campaign report, find out what deaf young people had to say about the help they get at school and see an online interactive map showing how the help a deaf child gets depends on where they live, not what they need.

And now the hard work begins. Once the launch is out of the way, NDCS will be looking to get the Government to do something, to make sure every deaf child gets a fair chance at school. To do that, we needs lots of people to spread the word and contact their MPs about the campaign. So please support the campaign by contacting your MP. As always, our website makes it easy to do this and you don’t need to know who your MP is. And we won’t make you feel guilty if you don’t.

You can also show your support for the campaign by downloading a special NDCS Twibbon on Twitter and/or “liking” the fanpage on Facebook.

I’ll be doing some blogs about the campaign and what the report found in coming weeks. But in the meantime, let us know your thoughts on the campaign.

UPDATE: London’s Evening Standard have done an article on the campaign. It also has a comments box if you want to leave your comments/thoughts/experiences.

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.

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.