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Sign Language Support

Volume 457: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2007

I am very glad to have the opportunity to debate this issue. I have campaigned on it over many years, and I shall be intensifying the campaign, because sadly we have been going backwards rather than forwards.

Although I have no commercial interests in the issue, I have many personal interests that I should like to record. I am an honorary vice-chairman of the National Deaf Children’s Society, a trustee of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and chairman of the all-party group on deafness, and I have a grown-up deaf daughter, who of course has been the driving force behind my interest in the issue. She has just celebrated her 30th birthday, but I worry that if I had a deaf daughter today—and I have small children—she would not receive the same quality of education as my daughter did, because the provision of support for deaf children and their parents, particularly in the sphere of sign language support, has gone backwards rather than forwards.

There have been significant advances. There are much earlier diagnoses of deafness and much improved technology, with digital hearing aids and cochlear implants, providing extra support for deaf people—both children and adults—but there is no cure for deafness, and still three deaf children are born every day. Many will benefit hugely from sign language support, but for many other children and parents in many parts of the country, it is simply not available.

I attend many events, and there are many active and lively young signers in their teens and twenties in the population who complain to me vehemently about the lack of access to interpreters, and about their consequential exclusion from many activities in the hearing world.

During previous Parliaments, I was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and during my time there I was honoured to be rapporteur on sign languages. I was particularly pleased when the Assembly overwhelmingly supported my report calling for legal recognition of sign languages, on a par with other minority languages, which in UK terms include Welsh, Gaelic and even Cornish. I am sorry that in spite of such support from parliamentarians throughout 46 European countries, the Council of Ministers has been extremely dilatory in introducing a legal instrument that would provide such a guarantee.

I find it interesting that the countries that most proactively support the role of sign language are those where bilingualism is well embedded in their society. The trailblazers are by far and away the Scandinavian countries, where in mainstream education children have to learn English as well as their mother tongue, as a curriculum requirement. As a result, those countries have no difficulty persuading the parents of deaf children to learn sign language and the mother tongue as their equivalent of bilingualism.

Although the debate and my questions are about England, examples elsewhere in the UK are important. In Wales, where bilingualism between Welsh and English is well established, the Assembly has recognised that another minority language in Wales is British sign language. It has undertaken a radical programme—radical for the UK, not across the piece—to raise the provision of sign language interpreters to the European Union median, which is one in every 45,000 of the population.

At the programme’s outset, there were 12 sign language interpreters in Wales; at its end in 2008, they hope that there will be 64. In Scotland, there are fewer than 30 interpreters, and we would need to train more than 80 to meet even the Welsh aspirational standard. In England, 700 additional interpreters would need to be trained to meet the Welsh standard, which is the EU median. We have not met that—and it is nothing like the ideal standard. We must treble the number of interpreters in the UK simply to deliver the European average of support for deaf children and their parents.

Those are some practical facts. If you want to know the aspirational best, Mr. Amess, I shall point you in the direction of Finland, which with a population of 5.5 million has more than 600 interpreters. If the UK were to aspire to the same level of performance, we would need 6,500 interpreters, compared with the present estimated total of 435, which is a huge deficit.

I shall begin with education and schools, because that is where support is vital. Will the Minister recognise that the right of deaf children and their parents to learn and be supported in sign language should be fundamental and guaranteed? Will he acknowledge that it is a function of his Department at least to monitor and possibly to require delivery, not simply to say that it is up to local education authorities to deliver? It is absolutely clear that many authorities neither deliver nor even aspire to do so.

There are 35,000 deaf children in the UK, and we must address what happens when a child is diagnosed as deaf, and what support the parents receive. Then we can ensure that the child is granted the maximum opportunity to attain the communication skills that will give them the best chance of making their way in life.

First, parents should be advised about the role that sign language can play—I do not seek imposition—in their children’s education. They should also be given the right to learn sign language—a right that they should be able to exercise without having to pay for it. It should apply to the immediate family, too, because they will give the closest support to the parents.

Indeed, under the Every Disabled Child Matters aspirations, the service that a deaf child requires is access to sign language for them and their parents whenever they wish. That, I am afraid, is neither a Government target nor even an aspiration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who very much wanted to attend this debate but is away on Select Committee business, has tabled his own early-day motion on lip reading and sign language services. It has attracted many signatures, and it speaks for itself about the growing frustration in many parts of the country. People have to pay for support, and more often than not classes are over-subscribed, and the number of interpreters available to provide teaching and support is nothing like adequate.

Indeed, sign languages interpreters and other communicators for the deaf often have to travel 200 or 300 miles to support a meeting, because communicators are not available locally. It creates huge extra expense and delay, and it indicates the shortness of supply.

I have received from many sources examples that amount to a catalogue of frustration. People have been unable to access classes or obtain support for sign language education, they have been actively discouraged from the idea that sign language should be used in the education of deaf children, and they have found that provision is patchy across the UK.

In London, for example, Frank Barnes school for deaf children in the borough of Camden provides access to the national curriculum for deaf children through the medium of BSL. Camden is in the process of redeveloping the site, and although no decision has been taken, there is a concern that the service, which is provided to boroughs right across London, may no longer be available in the future.

I want to try to anticipate some of the Minister’s replies in the hope that he will not go down that avenue. Yes, it is a matter for local education authorities to determine provision and they have discretion in that, but it his Department’s responsibility to monitor what is provided, set minimum standards and ensure that deaf children throughout the country get access to the sign language support they need. If necessary, it should intervene where that is not happening. My challenge to the Minister relates to the fact that it is not happening, and there is no evidence that his Department is prepared to intervene.

For 30 years, I have been involved in many discussions on this matter, and it disappoints and distresses me that a debate I thought we had dealt with 30 years ago seems to be reasserting itself. There was a school of thought in this country that suggested not only that deaf children should not be taught sign language but that it should be actively suppressed. The oral tradition was a very vigorous school, which regarded sign language as an obstacle to learning and held that because the hearing world did not use it, deaf children should somehow be forced to learn to speak and lip-read. If the outcome had been that every child was able to speak and lip-read, the method would be totally applauded, but that was not the outcome. Many deaf children are simply not able to acquire that degree of speech and lip-reading understanding, and they rely on sign language.

I contend, perhaps more controversially, but I have no evidence to the contrary, that sign language gives profoundly deaf children access to an understanding of speech and communication much more effectively than the lack of it would. I profoundly believe that, so to deny them sign language is to deny them the means to acquire the best possible understanding of the spoken and written language. My own daughter would certainly have had considerable difficulty in acquiring the level of speech and linguistic understanding she has without sign language support. Incidentally, she often says to me, “I don’t really use sign language.” She tries not to, and has to do without it in most circumstances, but when I see her with deaf friends, it is suddenly all sign language, and speech goes out of the window, which is true of many young deaf people.

Does the Minister have information on the current number of school and pre-school children who are deaf? The estimated figures that I have come from organisations such as the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the National Deaf Children’s Society. Does he know how many schools offer specialised training for deaf children? How many of them provide BSL in England, and how many pupils are benefiting from that, whether they are in special units in special schools or in mainstream schools with support? How many interpreters are currently being trained? Those are the most important questions, because if we do not have that information how can we tell whether deaf children are getting access to the services that they need?

Consideration should be given to offering the teaching of sign language, as a language, as an option in schools. After all, we have given legal recognition to the spoken minority languages of the United Kingdom—Welsh, Gaelic and Cornish—but we have no such recognition or teaching of a minority British language used by at least 70,000 deaf children, and there are probably many more who communicate with them.

If the Minister were to go to Sweden, he would find that Swedish sign language is offered as a language on the national curriculum, and in any given year 10,000 people are learning Swedish sign language. That massively increases the understanding and acceptability of sign language across the whole community in Sweden, and it increases the provision of potential interpreters, who have had their appetite for sign language whetted and are then encouraged to provide interpreter support in the deaf community.

When my daughter signed the national petition to Downing street calling for such action, she got a reply from the Prime Minister that entirely addressed the English curriculum and said nothing about Scotland, even though she was writing from Aberdeen, and also said that it was entirely a matter for local authorities. I beg to differ. The Prime Minister often tells us that education, education, education is his priority, and he often wants to direct in very great detail how the school curriculum should develop. In that context, it would be regrettable if sign language did not have the same level of campaigning support from the centre. I have received a heartfelt plea from Sense, which is a charity for deaf-blind children. For many such children, sign language that is touched on the hand is a vital means of communication, but again there is no absolute right of access to such support.

I am anxious that the Minister should have time to respond, and in conclusion, if his Department wants to pursue the matter further—I hope that it will—many agencies representing the deaf community will be happy to supply him with detailed anecdotal information on the huge variation in provision across the country, and the huge frustration for parents denied sign language for themselves or their children, who feel that their children lose out as a result. There are many instances of young people and children diagnosed as having behavioural problems that, when analysed, are found to be entirely due to the fact that they are unable to communicate effectively. They are frustrated because they are not understood and are not able to make themselves understood. In some specific cases, giving them access to sign language support has been the practical solution to that problem.

I urge the Minister to recognise that it is simply not good enough to deny deaf children and their parents the right to be taught sign language, use sign language and be educated with the support of sign language in their school environment—in a special or mainstream school. I urge him to ensure that he knows what is going on. If he does, and agrees that it is inadequate, will he tell us what action he proposes to take to put the matter right?

This is the first time I have had the privilege to serve under your stewardship in Westminster Hall or anywhere in the House, Mr. Amess, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. I should like to put on the record my congratulations to the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) on securing the debate. I know that he feels very passionately about the matter, not least for the reasons he has given concerning his family. Someone told me yesterday that his maiden speech was given in BSL.

The fact that one of the right hon. Gentleman’s early speeches was signed shows that his commitment to this cause is commendable. From the outset, I shall not try to pull the wool over his eyes or use jargon. It is important to get a number of things on the record, and in that context, he made some interesting points. I was keen to listen to what he had to say, and I would be happy to encourage a further dialogue, should he wish it, with me or my noble Friend the Lord Adonis, who takes lead responsibility in the Department for Education and Skills on this issue, and the stakeholders whom he has mentioned or himself. He is greatly respected in the House with regard to the issue. I would be happy to have that dialogue, or facilitate it with my colleagues.

We know that about 35,000 deaf children and young people in the UK have moderate to profound hearing loss. BSL is the first language of around 70,000 people and the most popular form of communication for deaf people in this country. Advances in computer technology, to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded, such as digital hearing aids, and surgical interventions, such as cochlear implants, have broadened the range of possibility for deaf children and adults who were either born deaf or lost their hearing as a result of disease or a trauma in their lives. Those advances have simplified and enriched the lives of many hearing-impaired people, but they have also further complicated a debate that stretches back many decades, perhaps even centuries.

There are a number of different forms of communication in sign language in Britain, and sign language varies from country to country. BSL finger spelling is, for example, different from American sign language; it uses two hands, whereas ASL uses one It is also distinct from signed English—a manually coded method expressed to represent the English language.

Parents of deaf pupils who have statements of special educational needs are able to express a preference for the maintained school that they would like their child to attend and also to make representations for a place at an independent or non-maintained special school. Before expressing a preference, parents can consider the different communication approaches for deafness. Auditory-oral, total communication or sign bilingualism are the most popular methods offered by different schools.

The right hon. Gentleman stressed the importance of pupils having access to BSL, but that is already possible through the statementing process, as families can choose BSL if they wish. However, I hear what he said about patchiness of provision. I would be interested to hear more about that, whether through the anecdotal experience of stakeholders or others with whom he is linked.

We know that the attainment of hearing impaired children falls below the national average. Only 32.9 per cent. of hearing impaired children achieve five GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with a national average of 57.1 per cent. Although BSL is not a core national curriculum subject, as it is in Sweden and other countries, schools are free to offer it as a non-core subject, according to local needs and preferences. Local education authorities determine what provision they make for children with special educational needs, including deaf children, taking into account the needs of the individual child, parental preferences and local circumstances.

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman said about monitoring information from the centre, rather than leaving everything to local authorities. However, in this day and age, when we are looking to work more closely with local authorities, it is important that we should let them have responsibility over their budgets. The national framework is obviously “Every Child Matters”. That framework needs to be responsive to the needs of each and every child.

I accept that point, but does the Minister not acknowledge that, when local authorities have constrained budgets, the cost of providing those extra resources to a small number of children is disproportionately high? Too often, the service is not available locally and parents are forced to look elsewhere, and that can involve boarding, which is discouraging in itself. It is not good enough to leave the situation like that, so we need to get beyond those bald statements.

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says. In a couple of moments, I shall speed through some of those points and come to the funding side of things, specifically as it relates to local authorities.

The Government have already taken action to improve access to BSL and steps to ensure that deaf children, young people and adults generally have access to BSL provision where it is appropriate to their needs. Many teachers and other staff have taken the opportunity to make use of the resources that the Government have made available that can be used to support training in special educational needs and disability, to improve their understanding of BSL. Courses in BSL are widely available in local colleges and through other training providers throughout the UK.

The Government will seek to ensure that teachers and other staff have access to appropriate training in BSL wherever appropriate. For instance, as part of its programme for raising standards in schools, the Department is focusing specifically on improving the education of children with SEN through training and professional development, including in BSL. We have worked closely with charities such as the RNID, which co-badged the early support materials, and the National Deaf Children’s Society, which sits on working parties such as our early support management group. There is more that can be done, but we are working with stakeholders.

We are also working with the Training and Development Agency for Schools and the Children’s Workforce Development Council on a number of initiatives to build staff skills at all levels. Through the specialist schools programme, we are enabling many more special schools to develop their outreach capacity and provide access to specialist advice and support for mainstream schools. We are encouraging all schools, mainstream and special, to collaborate and share their most effective practice in SEN. We shall also use the findings of the national audit of specialist provision for low incidence needs to promote collaboration between local authorities and other agencies, to provide for children with the most complex needs.

The Department has produced a leaflet, “Access To Achievement”, which publicises the role of teachers of the deaf and other specialist teachers working with children with sensory impairment. “Removing Barriers to Achievement” is the Government’s long-term strategy for giving children with special educational needs and disabilities the opportunity to succeed. The strategy sets out the Government’s proposals for working together with local authorities, schools, early-years services, the health service and the voluntary and private sectors, to enable children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities to achieve their potential.

I am aware of the work being done in places such as Gloucestershire, where my child—I am the father of a one-year old—has had the chance to learn baby signing. There have been similar schemes in other parts of the country, often run by local private sector firms, to encourage children at an important stage in their development to learn those new skills.

The right hon. Gentleman made a good point about bilingual countries perhaps being more aware of the benefits of picking up BSL as another language. Our early support programme is making a step change nationally, regionally and locally to the delivery of family-centred local services for disabled children. For example, there is a local authority monitoring protocol for deaf babies and young children, guidance for lead professionals and a range of materials for parents of hearing impaired children.

We have made progress in recent years in improving provision for children with special educational needs, but there is further to go before we can achieve our aims. The work of the Select Committee on Education and Skills, in its report on SEN, has helped us to review our priorities. Over the coming years, we intend to raise the awareness and skills of staff in identifying special educational needs and personalised learning. We shall also improve the specialist support to schools and early years settings in meeting children’s special educational needs, so that all children with special educational needs and disabilities receive the support that they need.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the number of children in pre-school settings. I do not have those figures, but I shall write to him as part of the dialogue that I hope we can have. After that he might wish to request a meeting, which I should be happy to facilitate.

We want to ensure partnership working between education and health services, and social care and the voluntary sector, to provide integrated services organised around the needs of children with SEN and their families. We shall build on the proposals for integrating children’s services in “Every Child Matters”—in particular, the common assessment framework, multi-disciplinary teams and children’s trusts—to deliver joined-up services for children and families.

Considerable funding is already in the system to support the education of children with special educational needs, including hearing impairment. Expenditure on SEN nationally has increased from £2.8 billion in 2001-02, to £4.5 billion in 2006-07. That is an increase of 60 per cent. and represents approximately 13 per cent. of all education spending. Local authorities decide how best to distribute funding and how to allocate their budgets between and within services. It is right that we work with local authorities and that they should be able to set their local priorities, because every area is different and every cohort of children in a locality is different.

I accept, however, that there may be some patchiness in provision. I am willing to hear that case and to have the dialogue that I have promised with the right hon. Gentleman. Local authorities decide how best to distribute funding and how to allocate their budgets. The Government’s view is that a range of educational provision should be available to deaf or hearing impaired children. Four fifths of deaf children and young people in the country as a whole are currently educated in mainstream schools, but that will vary among authorities.

There are other points that I would like to answer, about the siblings and parents of deaf children, but we are running out of time, so perhaps we can do that as the right hon. Gentleman and my Department enter into, I hope, an honest and open dialogue on the issue.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.