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Education (Hearing-Impaired Children)

Volume 886: debated on Friday 14 February 1975

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4.1 p.m.

I am glad of the opportunity to raise with the Minister the question of educational facilities for children suffering from hearing impairment of one kind or another. This has been for me something of a field day. I have already had the good fortune to be able to speak on the Second Reading of the Litigants in Person (Costs) Bill and now I have the good fortune to be able to raise this important subject. Judging by the amount of good will that has been shown in the House today, I am sure this will continue during this debate. It may have something to do with the fact that this is St. Valentine's Day.

I thank the Minister for coming here to listen to and answer the debate. I trust that on this important subject he is in close touch with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris), who is greatly concerned with the problems of disabled and handicapped people.

My interest in this subject stems from discussions with and representations from parents of deaf children in my constituency. They have formed an active and well-run action committee for The National Deaf Children's Society in the Worthing area which overlaps into my constituency. This has been followed by discussions with the county authority and by visits to the magnificent Mary Hare Grammar School in Berkshire which provides an outstanding service for deaf children. All this has led me to believe that there is a need to probe the Government's attitude and their policies towards children suffering from this handicap.

Dr. Johnson once said of deafness that this is the "most desperate of human calamities". That may have been the case about 200 years ago, but with all the knowledge that we have today and all the experience that we have built up such harshness that is inflicted upon a child can be mitigated to a considerable extent.

I have heard figures bandied about of the large number of people who suffer from some form of hearing impairment. I have heard the figure of 1·5 million quoted. Perhaps the Minister can assist by telling us about any evidence which may be available to him concerning the number of people who suffer from such impairment. It would be of great assistance.

In the case of children, the figures which I have been able to discover are fairly small. One figure which I have seen and which perhaps the Minister may be able to confirm is that there are about 12,000 children who suffer from hearing impairment and consequently have to have education either in special schools or in partially-hearing units in ordinary schools. I understand that about 6,000 are in special schools and that the remainder may be absorbed into special units in ordinary schools. Perhaps the Minister can confirm those figures.

What concerns me, however, is that there may be an enormous number of other children in ordinary schools who suffer from some kind of impairment which has not as yet been detected. This may be a problem which we should look at and probe.

When we consider the figures of deaf children today, we should ask ourselves how we are using our available knowledge and experience to enable us to provide an effective education system for these children. What is more, when we discuss this issue, it is right to make it distinctive from the problems of other children with other special handicaps. The two issues should not be looked at together. Their needs and difficulties are quite distinctive.

I begin by welcoming the fact that there is in existence the Warnock Committee, which is looking into the educational facilities for handicapped children. I am glad to note that serving on that Committee there is a Mrs. Tumim, who is active with The National Deaf Children Society and has two deaf children herself. I am sure that her experience will be invaluable to the Warnock Committee.

Can the Minister say when he thinks that the Committee will report, and the kind of time-scale that he envisages? When the committee reports, will its findings be made public?

There are seven areas which need examination. The first is the problem of detection. A critical factor must be the ability to detect children who suffer from some kind of deafness at the earliest possible moment. The mistake may be made that children in ordinary schools give the impression of being retarded in some form or another when they are not retarded but may be suffering from a hearing impairment which has not been picked up. It may be that the facilities for detection are not adequate. Clearly, in a perfect situation, one needs a proper range of audiological centres and an effective liaison between the county council and the parents of children of pre-school age and at primary and secondary school age, so that the detection service can be improved.

In May 1973, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph), who was then Secretary of State for Social Services, said in a Written Answer:
"I am not satisfied with the existing arrangements for the early detection and treatment of hearing impairment in childhood, and I am reviewing them as well as other services for the deaf."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd May 1973; Vol. 857, c. 103.]
Perhaps the Minister will find it possible to say what progress has been made.

Secondly, I want to touch upon the type of education available to hearing-impaired children. There are special schools, boarding and day schools, partially-hearing units attached to ordinary schools, peripatetic teachers, and the very special boarding schools such as the Mary Hare Grammar School and the Burwood Park School, which specialises in teaching deaf children on the technical side.

I should like to evoke the anxieties of some parents about boarding. They feel that, by being made to board because the facilities are at boarding school, their children suffer because they are institutionalised and cut off from family and normal life. Will the Minister tell us the Government's views? One understands that the geographical spread of hearing-impaired children makes it not only inevitable but probably to some extent indispensable to have boarding facilities. There are obvious values in the expertise, resources and facilities available, but the system leads to the disadvantages of lack of contact with everyday life and no contact with one's family.

There is one way of overcoming this—some county authorities, including my own in West Sussex, appear to be making a move in this direction—namely, to see whether weekly boarding is possible for such children. This means helping parents with transport costs but also implies a need for smaller catchment areas. I know that there is a shortage of places, but my county authority is finding it necessary to send children to Mary Hare Grammar School in Berkshire, to Redhill, to Margate and even to Exeter, as well as to Caterham, and Boston Spa. We should try to devise a system with smaller catchment areas so as to regionalise the areas in which children can board and make weekly boarding easier.

Will the Minister tell us something about the units for partially-hearing children? Some are closing due to lack of staff. A number of parents are keen to see more units attached to secondary schools, for example, where specialist facilities can be provided but the children can also be integrated to some extent in the ordinary school.

The third area is that of teachers. There is a great shortage of people with qualifications for teaching the deaf. According to the National College of Teachers of the Deaf, teachers are leaving at an alarming rate. That could be due to the fragmentation of this part of the education system which is creating some malaise among the profession of teachers of the deaf. Will the Minister say something about the number of teachers available and what shortage there is? I understand that perhaps one in three of teachers of the deaf in special schools do not possess the extra qualifications required.

There are also inadequate promotional prospects within the service, right across the board, and the salary structure may not be adequate. On that point, I believe that there is a £300-a-year allowance for teaching in special schools, but there does not seem to be an adequate extra allowance for those with special qualifications, gained after extra study, in order to teach the deaf. Perhaps there should be an extra allowance of another £200 a year if they obtain these qualifications.

There is no clear policy on further education. Will the Minister say what opportunities are available to hearing-impaired children for taking Open University courses?

I am concerned about the employment of hearing-impaired children after they leave school. In the old days it was easier for such children to be employed, because they could be absorbed into a family business and do a practical job, such as spinning or weaving. In present-day society it is much more difficult for a hearing-impaired child to find employment. Has the Minister any evidence about the ease with which it is possible to place such a child in employment, and what kind of jobs are taken up? In that context, a good careers advisory service needs to be evolved, perhaps centred on the local authority. I suggest that we look seriously at the possibility of developing a careers advisory service to advise children on suitable employment.

There is need for regional co-ordination in the education of deaf children. There is need for better co-ordination within local authorities between education departments, area health authorities and social service departments, and between all those who are concerned with the education of deaf children, so that their individual interests can best be catered for.

Parents in my constituency have expressed considerable concern about the servicing of hearing aids. National Health Service aids need to be serviced regularly—say, once a term. That would mean that spare aids would have to be available while the servicing was done. There is also a need for the servicing of commercial aids, through the State system. I hope that the Minister will consider this matter with local authorities.

There is much of which we can be proud in the educational facilities that are provided for hearing-impaired children. But there are many further steps that the Government, local authorities and voluntary bodies can and should take to ensure that the hearing-impaired child is adequately educated to enable him to overcome his hearing impairment, so that we evolve a carefully thought out education plan which is geared to individual needs and interests.

4.19 p.m.

I welcome the speech which has been made by the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce). It gives us an opportunity to have another look at the work that is being done for hearing-impaired children. We share his great concern and interest in this subject. When hon. Members raise special problems of this sort we are given the opportunity to consider the whole service and how it is working. The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that any of the points he has made to which I do not reply in detail will be followed up and he will receive a detailed reply.

I am constantly in touch with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, who has special responsibilities for the disabled and whose appointment has given us a new initiative. The provision of hearing aids and servicing are more in the court of my hon. Friend than in mine, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall take up that point with my hon. Friend.

One of the most important matters that the hon. Gentleman has raised is the early identification of anyone who is handicapped in this way. Obviously, the extension of pre-school education will give us a better opportunity of identifying individual children and enable us to begin the kind of treatment and education that they need much earlier in their lives. That must be to their advantage.

I understand the feelings of parents with partially-hearing children of secondary age who would have liked them to attend special schools near their homes. This is a great problem, and I shall give some of the details to the hon. Gentleman. There are 47 maintained and non-maintained special schools for hearing-impaired children in England, of which 28 take boarders. Two further schools are under construction. At the last count of the children who are deaf in all schools there were 1,809 boarders and 1,805 day pupils. There were 997 boarding and 1,754 day partially hearing pupils.

As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, there has been a growing feeling among those who suffer in this way and those who represent them so vigorously to the Department—that it is better that they should be associated with normal children in ordinary schools if they are to take their place in adult life. That presents many difficulties. At the last count there were 2,173 pupils in 200 units throughout the country. I am bound to say that they were mostly in primary schools. In most schools the reaction has been that it is not only beneficial to the children whose hearing is impaired but beneficial to normal children that hearing-impaired children and normal children should live together rather than having children of any kind of handicap boarded and remote from their own homes and the ordinary daily run of life.

Unfortunately, far too many hearing-impaired children are in boarding schools that are remote from the main centres of population. I can understand that parents are becoming increasingly reluctant to send their children a long distance away from their homes. The Department is encouraging authorities to plan their provision on a regional rather than a local basis and to enable children to attend as weekly boarders where it is impossible to attend as day pupils.

We acknowledge that day pupils would be the best arrangement, but, in considering the 1975–76 programme for building, some form of secondary provision in Hampshire which will serve several authorities in the south is being examined and the details are being worked out. We are also watching closely the recent development in Nottingham where a department for deaf secondary children has been set up within a comprehensive school. Birmingham has indicated that it is contemplating a similar provision. The general idea that the hon. Gentleman has put to the House is being developed by the Department and by local authorities.

There is particular pressure on secondary places in special schools for the hearing-impaired child as the peak in numbers reached in primary schools in 1973 passes through the secondary age range, but that is a comparatively short-term problem. While we think that the total number of places in schools for hearing-impaired children is about right, it sometimes happens that vacancies can be found only at considerable distances from a child's home. This is a matter that we deplore.

In considering what additional provisions should be made when capital resources permit, we must bear in mind that children with a hearing impairment need to attend a special school only if their needs cannot be met satisfactorily in a regular class of an ordinary school with special support or in a unit for partially-hearing children. We must all be thankful that hearing impairment does not occur more often. Its low incidence means that in all except areas with the largest populations there will be too few children needing to go to a special school to justify building one for the benefit of a single local authority. Hence the regional approach that we are now making.

I turn now to the very serious matter of teacher supply and the national staffing position. The joint statement issued by the National Deaf Children's Society and the National College of Teachers of the Deaf highlighted the problem, which we acknowledge—although I thought that the language used in the statement was rather exaggerated. I do not complain about that, because those in the service feel the desperate need and put their language rather bluntly. I am not complacent about the situation, but talk about the service being in a state of collapse and teachers leaving at an alarming rate is not justified by the facts, and gives a false impression of where the responsibility lies in overcoming the difficulties which remain.

I turn now specifically to the staffing position and what is being done to overcome the difficulties. As long as a part-time avenue exists for teachers to obtain, within three years of taking up their appointment, the specialist qualification in teaching the hearing-impaired, and as long as teachers engaged solely in teaching craft, trade or domestic subjects do not need it, at any one time a significant proportion of teachers in schools may well not have the qualification. Further, a substantial number of the teachers leaving the schools continue to teach deaf children in units attached to ordinary schools or in peripatetic service.

At the same time, I accept that there is a shortage of specially qualified teachers. This is, however, something that my Department has been taking steps to remedy. Looking at the service as a whole, the number of specially-qualified teachers in post rose from 899 in 1969 to 1,214 in January 1974, an increase of 35 per cent. and the annual number with training qualification rose over the same period from 108 to 143.

Not merely have training facilities increased in recent years, but I hope that the new one-year full-time courses at Redland College in Bristol and at Wall Hall College in Hertfordshire, each offering initially 12 to 15 places, will start this autumn. Other new courses are in prospect, and, with the continuing part-time training provided by the National College of Teachers of the Deaf, the overall situation should continue to improve and wastage from the schools should diminish.

Can the hon. Gentleman say what he feels is the establishment or target figure that he would like to see reached—in other words, the number of teachers of special qualification needed in order to satisfy the pupil-teacher ratio which is so necessary?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that figure because all the time we are reviewing the situation and, we hope, improving our methods of identification. This is a difficult problem. We are hoping that the Warnock Inquiry will give us the kind of information that will enable us to come to precise figures.

I do not want to say much about the question of salaries, since these are a matter for the Burnham Committee and negotiations. I understand that, following the Houghton Report, which went some way to meeting the problem, fresh proposals are being made, and these will be considered in the normal review leading up to the salary award which is expected in April under the Burnham system.

For its part, my Department has taken initiatives which have led to the recent or prospective increases in the places on one-year courses to which I have referred. It has sponsored or supported research into manual methods of communication and language development. Perhaps most important of all, we are promoting this year a fresh series of regional conferences at which local education authorities will be invited to review, in partnership with the voluntary bodies running special schools, the provision for all types of handicapped children within their region. A principal aim in this enterprise is to make it possible to keep handicapped children in closer touch with their homes.

Mrs. Tumim is a member of the Warnock Inquiry. We believe that it will be a thorough-going inquiry. It is getting on with the job. I expect it to take about three years, and its report will be published. It is taking evidence, and all the special interests concerned will be acknowledged and reviewed. In the lengthy process of regional planning now going on and which may be expected to follow the inaugural conferences I have mentioned, no doubt full attention will be given to the needs of children who are deaf or who have partial hearing. The deliberations of Warnock started last year. The headmaster of a special boarding school for the deaf is a member, so the hon. Gentleman can be sure that the needs of children who are deaf or have only partial hearing will be well taken care of.

We are not complacent. I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising this subject. I take my responsibilities for the education of the handicapped very seriously, but he has caused me to have yet another look at the provisions we make. I give him my assurance that we will continue to play our part in ensuring that the educational provision for these children continues to improve. If he wants to take up any individual points with me, I shall be happy to receive him at the Department. I take note of what he has said—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.