Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I was surprised to discover in the briefing from the National Deaf Children’s Society the underachievement of deaf children. As it rightly points out, deafness is not a learning disability and there is no reason why deaf children should not achieve just as well as their hearing peers. I was staggered that deaf children are 42 per cent less likely than the average to achieve the expected level of attainment in their GCSEs and that that is the only known published statistic on the educational attainment of deaf children. We need to know more. There has apparently been no major government research into the issue since a literature review in 1998.

I hope that the Bill will change that situation. It can improve our understanding of what works, raise expectations, provide a better basis for the evaluation of programmes, give us a better basis for good practice, improve our understanding of the training and continuing professional development needs of professionals and provide a more secure basis for national policy. The potential is a lot wider than just the academic attainment of children, and that is particularly welcome.

A lot of issues were discussed in the House of Commons. I welcome the fact that the Government are listening and responding. I hope that the Minister will respond to the call that the provisions of the Bill will extend to children at school action level and that he will be able to say something about whether the information will be published at school level, because parents of children with special needs need to be able to choose a school that will be good at providing help for their children.

I have six or seven main concerns; I shall be brief about each of them. First, I am concerned that the collection of information does not involve any additional testing of children but will be just putting together information from tests that are already carried out with the children. I am aware that that might require a certain amount of standardisation so that information from all the various sources can be collated meaningfully.

Secondly, the information must be meaningful and helpful in determining what works. As several noble Lords pointed out, that is a more complicated task than it sounds, as there are so many kinds of disabilities

13 Jun 2008 : Column 783

and special needs and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The Government collect information on the attainment of different ethnic groups, so it should not be impossible to do this, but I suspect that the task that the Bill asks the Secretary of State to do is even more complicated than obtaining information about the attainment of different ethnic groups because of the wide range of different disabilities and, as the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, said, multiple disabilities.

Thirdly, I would like to see parents’ views collected. I would like to have parents asked what they think about the help or treatment that their child is getting. What difficulties did they have in getting that package together? Is it what their child needs? Is the current package fulfilling their child’s needs? Did they have a battle to get it? That information would tell us a lot about what needs changing in how people go about getting the right support for their children. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, said, it can be a horrendous trial.

Fourthly, will there be expert evaluation of the various strategies after the information has been collected, in particular about their effectiveness and their value for money? I was at a seminar only last week, I think—days pass so quickly in this House—where someone was talking about the contrast between two packages of support offered to two children with the same level of dyslexia. One package was many hours of unskilled support in the school and the other was a much smaller number of hours of expert support from a well trained dyslexia professional. Of course, the latter was much more effective and much cheaper. It is not just a matter of intervening in a timely way, as early as possible; it is also about knowing the most appropriate and cost-effective method of intervention. I hope that the information collected will help us to do that.

It is most important that the right intervention and support are given. I have a friend with two grandchildren who were profoundly deaf, although I am pleased to say that because of advances in medical science they are both now hearing. Their middle-class parents were able to move to a place near a school that had a good special unit—it is near to where I used to live. The boys had good support and did well. They are both very bright; as the society said, deafness is not a mental disability. Later, the family moved to Scotland because of the father’s job and again deliberately bought a house near a school that had a good deaf unit. Both boys have done remarkably well and have tremendous personalities, as well as having achieved academically. The right support at the right time can be absolutely magic and take away the disadvantage to these young people.

My fifth point is that I particularly welcome the bit in the Bill that respects children’s privacy and ensures that the information is anonymised. However, if ever it is necessary to reveal the identity of the child, it is important that the parents’ consent is obtained.

My next-to-last point is that I hope that the Bill will expose the serious underfunding of special needs in many mainstream schools. The inclusion agenda, welcome

13 Jun 2008 : Column 784

though it often is, is undermined when teachers struggle with inadequate training and inadequate specialist support. Training is a hot issue, and I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, on it. The one-year PGCE has to pack in an awful lot, which is why I welcome the Government’s stated intention to make teaching a masters-level profession, particularly because that may give more time for better training in SEN.

Finally, the Bill gives the Secretary of State powers. I hope that he or she will use those powers and that government policy will respond to what is discovered through their use.

11.40 am

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I, too, join all noble Lords in the House today in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, for presenting this Private Member’s Bill. As we have already heard, it was introduced in another place by Sharon Hodgson MP. She and I are both officers of the All-Party Group on Breast Cancer, so it gives me particular pleasure to speak on the Bill. We assure her and the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, of our support for the Bill, which makes a welcome contribution to the provision of special needs education.

The noble Baroness spoke with conviction, sincerity and great experience when describing why the Bill is needed. She described the difficulties and the reality of the problems faced by the parents of children with special educational needs, and highlighted the importance of all those children reaching their potential. If ever there was an example of someone overcoming their difficulties and realising their full potential, my noble friend Lord James of Blackheath demonstrated that in his moving speech. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, in asking the Minister to heed my noble friend’s sensible words.

The support that the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, has received from across the House, as in another place, reflects the importance that we attach to this vital subject and the experience that so many of us have of special educational needs, either through our links with organisations involved in this area or through our families. My own son, who like Sharon Hodgson’s son was as bright as a button, never enjoyed reading. Yet it was years after he was diagnosed as being dyslexic before we discovered that when he looked at a book or a page, the words danced before his eyes; so I know at first hand the difficulties that parents face when their children have special needs. As the House knows, I, too, suffer from a mild form of dyslexia. It is not that bad, but it is enough to cause me grief when I am closing for the Opposition and have to scribble notes as the debate goes on, separated from my computer. I shudder to think what Hansard makes of my spelling. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, speaks with great authority, particularly on dyslexia, and I echo his call for clarity and an understanding of what works.

It is so important that we in Parliament devote time to making things easier for people out there in the real world. Parents and support groups work selflessly to better the plight of some of our more vulnerable children, but so, too, do our special needs teachers,

13 Jun 2008 : Column 785

and we should place on the record our appreciation of the excellent and often challenging work that they do. The important point has been made that the Bill should not be an additional burden on schools, and we agree. We should rationalise the data that are collected and focus on what will create a real difference to help these children achieve the best possible outcome. Given that we are talking about a problem that is experienced by one in five of the total school population and is growing, the positive effects of the Bill will be welcomed across the country.

As we have heard, the Bill is very straightforward. It aims to collect and publish information about outcomes for pupils with special needs and to highlight information about the quality and efficiency of special educational needs support that is delivered in schools and by local authorities. This should allow parents to access data that will inform their choices and allow them to take the best course of action for their children. Greater parental choice is central to driving up standards in the provision for children with special educational needs, and greater availability of information, as outlined in the Bill, will, I hope, go some way to achieving this.

The Conservative Party has long held the view that the state should provide information to parents and equip them to take their own decisions. After all, it is parents who have the best idea of what to do for their own children. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, whose report so many years ago gave rise to important legislation on SEN, is so right when she says that parents are simply seeking to do the best for their children. I echo her plea for not lumping together all children with SEN.

The type of data that are collected and published is key. There is all manner of statistics, figures, numbers and information out there. Much of it is no doubt very useful, but we must remember that we are not legislating to make the statisticians and number crunchers happy. The information that is published needs to be relevant and easy to access by parents and to be understood by them. The plea for it to be in simple English should be heeded.

As my honourable friend Maria Miller said in another place:

That means that the information should be clear and relate to those things that parents care about. We have a slight concern that the Bill places the discretion wholly in the hands of the Secretary of State. Perhaps it would be helpful for the Bill to be more explicit about what sort of information is gathered and released, including information on the quality and quantity of training in special needs skills that teachers and classroom assistants receive, and the nature of that training.

During our Second Reading debate on the Education and Skills Bill, my noble friend Lord Elton spoke passionately of the need to pick up special needs as early as possible. He is quite right; early diagnosis will lead to more confident children who can achieve those important Every Child Matters outcomes of enjoying and achieving and making a positive contribution, which will, we hope, lead to economic well-being. As

13 Jun 2008 : Column 786

my noble friend also pointed out, early diagnosis ultimately saves money, but teachers need to be trained to spot problems and to have some understanding of the steps to take. That is why we agree with the Government, who stated in 2004:

The General Teaching Council has just published a parliamentary briefing on special education needs. It notes that,

It also notes that there is an increase in mental health issues, more autism and more speech and language difficulties. It sees these challenges as drivers for more professional practices, with initial teacher training and continuing professional development in special educational needs. Why this is necessary becomes only too apparent when you look at the detailed research carried out by the NUT last year, which revealed that in the previous 12 months the vast majority of teachers contacted had not received any training and development in severe or moderate learning difficulties; nor in behavioural, emotional and social difficulties.

Moreover, as my honourable friend John Bercow pointed out in another place, a YouGov survey, which was commissioned by the Communication Trust, showed that 73 per cent of teachers did not feel that they had received adequate training to help children with speech, language and communication needs. Experts in the field from voluntary organisations, such as the excellent Xtraordinary People, are at a loss to understand why proven teaching methods for dyslexia are not part of teacher training. I am sure the Minister would be most upset if I did not mention this; if only more schools taught synthetic phonics, we could avoid many of the problems that children with reading difficulties encounter. It would free up precious resources for children with more complex needs; yet we have no idea of the number of teachers trained to teach synthetic phonics. I heed the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, on whether this Bill is the right vehicle for the issue of training, but we remain convinced that this is a vital component and that it must be addressed somewhere.

It would be helpful for the information collected to be broken down to as local a level as possible. In its briefing, the RNID quoted a 2004 Ofsted report, which found that only 25 per cent of LEAs had strong strategic management of SEN and that the majority had weak evaluation systems. Lucy Wilkins, in her excellent pamphlet, Learning the Hard Way: A Strategy for Special Educational Needsthe noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, went to the seminar on this, but I, unfortunately, was unable to attend—observes that only 47 per cent of local authorities currently detail the help they are giving to SEN children on their websites, although this is a legal requirement. The more localised we can make this information available, the better; not least for those children with the complex, multiple needs of which the noble Lord, Lord Low, spoke. What is going on in one’s own area is of much more immediate concern than what is happening nationwide. This would allow valuable comparisons to be made.



13 Jun 2008 : Column 787

I know that statementing is a cause of concern to parents who sometimes feel, rightly or wrongly, that statements are tailored to fit the budgets of local authorities. That dual role has been described as the local authority acting as both poacher and gamekeeper. This Bill presents us with an opportunity to gather information on statementing, which would assist in monitoring the process, be more transparent and would help to dispel parents’ worries.

Although we support this Bill because the information which is to be published will be invaluable to parents of children with special educational needs, I am sure it goes without saying that the information to be published must not be personal details or compromise privacy in any way. The Conservative Party has a proud tradition of special needs legislation and we welcome this much needed Bill, which we will not seek to amend. It provides us with yet another opportunity to shine the spotlight on special educational needs, an area which is sadly too often a battlefield where parents feel bemused and exhausted.

The publication of information will allow us to keep an eye on the progress that the Government are making. Of course, the passing of this Bill is not an end in itself; rather, it provides the means with which we can gauge progress in schools all around the country to ensure that all children get the education that suits them and which they deserve.

11.52 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families (Lord Adonis): My Lords, first, the idea that the noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, might at any stage of his life have been unteachable or educationally subnormal is the most preposterous proposition I have ever heard put forward in this House in my three years of membership. However, his story demonstrates, in a way that no statistics can, how important it is that our teachers are trained and that our local authority systems take full account of the needs of children with special educational needs. His experience, which I am glad was now 60 years ago, I hope would not be repeated today and that it would not be in any way revealing of current practice in providing for such children.

On the treatment of the noble Lord’s personal data, I would be pleased to look at that personally if I can be of any assistance. I am not clear what advice he was given by the officials from my department when they appeared before his committee, but I will see whether anything can be done. However, I imagine that his career and job prospects will not be affected by anything that was recorded by that local education authority in the 1940s.

The Government are very glad to be supporting this Bill, initiated in another place by my honourable friend Sharon Hodgson and introduced to the House of Lords by my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley with her customary clarity and expertise. I am also delighted to hear from the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris and Lady Walmsley, that there is strong cross-party support. I echo the tribute made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, to all teachers and staff who support children

13 Jun 2008 : Column 788

with special educational needs. There is no more important work undertaken in our society and they deserve our full and unstinting support. Both my honourable friend Sharon Hodgson and my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley are champions of the cause of children with special educational needs. So, too, are the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, and the noble Lords, Lord Low and Lord Addington, all of whom have made immense contributions in this area. We also pay tribute to their work today. I and my department absolutely support the work of all organisations to which noble Lords have referred, as well as the many other voluntary organisations which give assistance to children with special educational needs and those who have declared their support for this Bill.

The proposal in the Bill is very sensible; that is, children with special educational needs should be specifically taken into account as the Secretary of State exercises his powers in relation to gathering data. It is my department’s highest priority that all barriers to education should be removed for all children, whether they arise from physical, financial, or family circumstances. It is even more imperative for those who are already set at a disadvantage against their peers, including the 570,000 children living with a disability and the 1.6 million children with special educational needs.

The Government’s Every Child Matters reforms have begun to embed a more personalised approach to removing barriers to learning. They have helped professionals work together more effectively, with greater focus on the individual needs of particular children and young people. The Children’s Plan, published last December, builds on these foundations. In the plan, we announced £1.2 billion of investment over the next three years to support the personalisation of education, which will include support for children with SEN—for example, through improved training, and more small-group and one-to-one help where this is appropriate.

Over the past six years, local authority planned expenditure on SEN has increased by £2.1 billion, which is a 75 per cent increase and signifies the importance that the Government attach to this area. The collection and effective analysis of accurate information is important to ensuring that the education system provides better support for pupils with SEN, not least those with multiple disabilities and needs, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Low. In particular, the noble Lord said that the school census allows schools to identify only a primary type of need. I am pleased to tell him that the school census allows schools to record a primary and a secondary type of need for children at the level of school action plus and with a statement. I will write to the noble Lord to give him further information of the primary and secondary needs of those with visual impairments.

My department already gathers data on children with special educational needs from a number of sources, including the school census and the SEN2 survey. It is published annually and provides useful information from individual pupil to local authority level. However, formalising and extending the Secretary of State’s powers and duties in respect of children with special educational needs when gathering data is a sensible next step forward, for all the reasons set out by the

13 Jun 2008 : Column 789

noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, in her remarks about accountability to parents, the sharing of best practice between local authorities and the promotion of better evidence-based policy. It is for all those reasons that the Government support the Bill.

I also accept my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley’s point about the importance of the format of the publication of any such information. Plain English and the DCSF are not always the easiest of bedfellows, but we are giving careful attention to how we can best make additional detailed information available in an easily digestible format. What more can be published or made available at school level, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, will be part of that consideration. It will be subject of course to the concerns which she and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, quite rightly raised about data protection and about ensuring that individual pupils are not in a position of being identified. Our aim is to provide an accessible and valuable reference for parents and professionals, but of course one that respects fully the privacy of individuals.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page