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Volume 537: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2011

[Mr Mike Weir in the Chair]

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir, possibly for the first time. Forgive me if I am wrong.

This debate on dyslexia was initiated following a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties, which raised three particular concerns: first, the changes to the examination access arrangements issued by the Joint Council for Qualifications; secondly, the Green Paper—I will not read out its title—of which we are aware; and thirdly, the continued need to include in initial teacher training the teaching of children with dyslexia.

I am pleased to lead the debate. Dyslexia is an important subject and is of concern to millions of our fellow citizens and constituents. Astonishingly, one in 10 of the population experiences dyslexia to some degree. The condition stays with people for life. Some people can accommodate it to an extent on occasions; others find that more difficult. Like colour blindness, it is a condition that is hidden and sometimes not even recognised. I am sure we all have friends, relatives and certainly many constituents who are dyslexic. The lives of millions of adults have been affected by dyslexia.

Even now, many people live with their dyslexia unrecognised, particularly those of my generation. I suspect I am the oldest person in the room. In my day, it was a strange word; nobody in my experience knew the word dyslexia. There were no doubt children in classes when I was at school who were constantly punished and treated rather cruelly sometimes because they could not spell or read. There was no understanding that they had an inherent difficulty or disability.

Dyslexia affects people across the ability range; it is not limited to people with learning difficulties. Many famous and celebrated people suffer from dyslexia, and it can affect people who are highly intelligent. I give as an example one of my relatives. He failed the 11-plus, essentially because he was dyslexic, yet he finished up studying physics at Imperial college later in life. He is clearly a man of considerable intelligence who could not pass the 11-plus because he was dyslexic. Our concern today is that teachers often lack the skills to identify and support dyslexic children, who need to be diagnosed and given extra support.

As a member of the all-party group, I was pleased when my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families in the previous Parliament and now shadow Chancellor, commissioned a report on education and dyslexia, which became the Rose review. Rose recommended that initial teacher training should include dyslexia and special learning difficulties. However, currently there is no mandatory level of dyslexia training that must be provided in initial teacher training courses.

It is of great concern that little action has so far been taken to implement fully the recommendations of the Rose report. Indeed, the situation is worse, in that thousands of academically gifted teenagers with conditions such as dyslexia have lost the right to extra and other help in A-level and GCSE papers, under a crackdown by exam bodies introduced by the Joint Council for Qualifications.

Has my hon. Friend read the report of the Science and Technology Committee on literacy interventions from two years ago? If he has not, I will quickly read two quotes from it:

“The Rose report’s definition of dyslexia is exceedingly broad and says that dyslexia is a continuum with no clear cut-off points. The definition is so broad and blurred at the edges that it is difficult to see how it could be useful in any diagnostic sense.

The Government’s focus on dyslexia, from a policy perspective, was led by pressure from the dyslexia lobby rather than the evidence, which is clear that educational interventions are the same for all poor readers, whether they have been diagnosed with dyslexia or not.”

Will my hon. Friend take a look at that report? I am sure it would help him in his work on the Committee.

I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. We are aware that there is an enormously broad spectrum, from slight spelling difficulties to almost an inability to read. At the same time, there is a definite difference between those who have a degree of dyslexia and those who just have difficulty learning to read, perhaps because they are educationally challenged. Clearly, we need rigorous teaching of reading. In a completely separate context, I am strongly in favour of more rigour in the way we teach young people to read and to learn mathematics and other subjects. I take note of what my hon. Friend said. No doubt the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) will also respond to his points.

The JCQ rules clearly discriminate in that the measurement scores they use affect some youngsters and not others; some are excluded from help and others get help, because of an arbitrary decision by the JCQ on what their needs are. Complaints have been made about that by parents and teachers across the country, including Helen Wright, president of the Girls’ Schools Association, who said that a number of sixth-formers, without being given extra time for exams or other help, would

“definitely fail, and unfairly so”.

There are those who will suffer from the application of the rules who would otherwise do better. I hope the Minister will respond and give further consideration to the question of the arbitrary cut-off point.

Many thousands of children across the whole ability range are not getting the help they need, and are not even being diagnosed, because of the lack of specific training for teachers. There are no doubt some who, even today, do not recognise dyslexia, thinking it is just about youngsters who are not very good at reading, and do not recognise it as a specific and identifiable problem for some people. The problems experienced by those youngsters are distressing for them but they are also damaging to the economy and society as a whole. Clearly if youngsters are becoming disillusioned with education because of their dyslexia difficulties they drop out of school, education or training or have difficulty with apprenticeships and so on. That is damaging not just to their lives but to the economy and society in general. Help for dyslexics to succeed in education at whatever level is a matter, therefore, for national concern and Government action. The Rose review should be implemented in full and the JCQ rules withdrawn.

Although I am not dyslexic, I have taken a particular interest in the phenomenon. I know that it is not easily overcome, but a variety of coping strategies can be enormously beneficial. The academically gifted can perhaps apply those more readily, but there are millions for whom it is more of a struggle. I was recently approached by a group of Labour councillors from Thanet, not because I am their Member of Parliament, but because I happen to be a Labour member of the all-party group on dyslexia. They gave me some interesting statistics from their area. They are concerned that youngsters from the most deprived areas of the constituency were not getting the help they needed and were falling further behind, exaggerating the educational gulf between their achievement levels and others, even those who might have dyslexia. They want the Rose recommendations implemented as a matter of urgency to address those problems.

The Rose review proposed among other things the training of 4,000 specialist teachers in dyslexia over a two-year period. That is quite a tall order, but that is what he recommended. If we are going to approach and attack the problem seriously, we need to follow that recommendation. Other recommendations were to boost early identification from year 1 and effective intervention for pupils with dyslexic difficulties, to make provision for dyslexia-awareness training for existing teachers, to put more special educational needs training into initial teacher training courses and to acknowledge the need for specialist teachers and one-to-one interventions for severely dyslexic pupils. The review also recommended that schools build a positive dialogue with parents and provide them with relevant information, and provide support for children with dyslexia on transfer to secondary school, and that there should be continuing helpline advice for parents and teachers.

Dyslexic children have just as much right as any other child to be educated by teachers who understand them and their condition. We have made enormous progress in recognising dyslexia since the dark days of my childhood, but we must now demand the necessary support and resources for our dyslexic children, and only the Government can provide them.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I fear that the vote in the House has caused disruption for many people who intended to be in this debate, but what we lack in quantity we will make up for between us in quality.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) for securing this timely debate. As he said, I was at the meeting of the all-party group on dyslexia and specific learning difficulties at which he resolved to apply for this debate. His success in doing so gives us a great opportunity to take forward the discussion we were having in that meeting, along with the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), the noble Lords Addington and Clement-Jones and representatives from the main dyslexia organisations. We will continue that debate here today, and I hope we will receive responses from the Minister to some of our concerns.

I want to record my thanks to the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust, Dyslexia Action, the British Dyslexia Association and Patoss for not just the excellent briefings they provided in advance of the debate but for the work they do day in and day out to unlock the world of words for dyslexic people, particularly children and young adults. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North gave an excellent speech, which drew on the many concerns that those organisations have raised with us about the current direction of travel in the education system—concerns shared by anyone with an interest in helping young people with special educational needs get the most from life.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) commented on the thinking that dyslexia, rather than being a disability, is to do with a very wide reading ability spectrum, along which most of society would fall. He knows that I disagree with him on that point. There is a huge amount of evidence that proves that dyslexia is a very real and significant disability, especially at the extreme end of the spectrum where it goes way beyond a problem with learning to read and affects memory and organisational ability.

I am sure that we have all come across friends and relatives who have slight spelling disabilities, particularly with unusual names and foreign words. At that end of the spectrum, we are not talking about an inability to read. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that there is a difference between those of us who fairly quickly pick up names and foreign words and those who do not, and that is, I believe, the thin end of the dyslexia wedge.

I agree. My son is severely dyslexic, and it affects not just his spelling and writing capability. Dyslexics are often much slower in learning to speak, and when my son was younger the condition affected his speech. He was three before he first said a word that was understandable to others—I could understand his grunts and moans a bit earlier. He has very bad memory problems and organisational ability; dyslexia really does affect a large part of his life. My daughter has been a bad speller most of her life—she is 16 now and her spelling is getting a bit better—but in no way would I say that she has dyslexia as I know it. They do say, however, that the condition runs in families, so she might fall somewhere on the spectrum if she was ever tested.

I follow the people who do not take my hon. Friend’s view, such as Diane McGuiness and other academics who gave evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, but I was not trying to make the point that there is no complete scientific agreement that dyslexia exists. I was saying that having carefully considered the definition and how it was applied, the Committee came to the conclusion, which I will repeat, that the

“definition is so broad and blurred at the edges that it is difficult to see how it could be useful in any diagnostic sense.”

The Committee was concerned that because of the use of the term, people who had difficulties learning to read and who were not diagnosed were being discriminated against.

Obviously, I am not an expert in the diagnosis of dyslexia, but there are people who are, and when they do the various tests what comes out is something called a spiky chart. Where there is a huge disparity between performance in non-verbal reasoning and other tests of intelligence on the one hand and reading and writing ability on the other, it becomes very obvious that someone is dyslexic. If someone has not very good reading skills but equally does not have high levels of intelligence, they have a flatter profile. Perhaps at the lower edge of the spectrum, as my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North has said—this is getting into a very technical conversation—diagnosis might be difficult and there might be blurred edges, but as we progress along the spectrum I do not think that the edges are blurred. Again, however, I am not an expert.

My hon. Friend touched on dyslexia being an inherited characteristic, and I am sure that we all know families in which a parent is dyslexic and one or more of their children is. Two male friends of mine who are graduates have three children each, and dyslexia has affected only one child in each family, with that child having a serious spelling disability. All six children went to university and graduated.

The chair of our all-party group, the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, is dyslexic, and I believe that his two sons are also. Yes, it is a trait that runs in families, and that is recognised.

Most Members here today know of my personal interest in this issue, as a mother of a severely dyslexic son. My son was unfortunately not diagnosed or helped anywhere near soon enough. The Minister also knows very well most of the concerns that have been raised today, because we have already had debates on the matter and have been in correspondence recently. I thank her for her comprehensive response to my first letter, and I look forward to her response to my reply, which she might preview today.

I wrote that first letter because I had started to see how various changes in education policy could, when taken together, start to put children with certain special educational needs at a disadvantage, and I used dyslexia to illustrate my point because that was the SEN I had personal experience of and knew best—I could see how the changes would have affected my son if he had been coming up to the start of key stage 4 now. I have no doubt that the potential effect is not desired at all by the Minister or her officials, and that it is one of those unintended consequences that we sometimes do not see unless we are looking at something from the outside, or until the effect has begun to manifest itself in statistics.

There are a number of issues on which I will touch briefly. My hon. Friend has mentioned many of them already. It is best in most narratives to start at the beginning, and in this case the beginning is initial teacher training. Without teachers in our classrooms who can spot the signs of dyslexia and teach in a way that does not alienate dyslexic children, we will continue to fail those children. I know from bitter experience that many teachers have a woefully inadequate knowledge of dyslexia. It was not until my son was nine that he came across a teacher who could spot what I now understand were glaringly obvious signs, and even then, that was probably because her own son had dyslexia as well, as I later found out. Too many children in their early years of school life are going through the motions without being noticed and supported. Like other communication difficulties, that can manifest itself in significant problems further down the line such as rebellious behaviour, depression or, as we find in our prisons and young offender institutions, criminality, which often starts as youth disorder.

The answer, in one word, is training. I understand that a module on dyslexia that has the backing of the sector has been prepared and is ready for incorporation in initial teacher training, but the Minister also indicated in her letter to me that the Department has commissioned new materials on specific learning difficulties, which will be available online in the spring. Will those materials form a mandatory part of the initial teacher training course, and will she consider the sector’s calls to incorporate the existing module from 2005 as a minimum requirement? She might be aware that the British Dyslexia Association has an online petition calling for the 2005 module to be used for teacher training; I think the BDA is seeking 100,000 signatures.

My hon. Friend mentioned people in prison and people with personal difficulties in life. I am sure that she, like me, has come across youngsters with behavioural problems at school that can be traced back to self-esteem problems due to difficulties with spelling, which in their case is dyslexia. That stress can be relieved early on by saying, “You have a condition that we can help you to cope with. It is not something you should be ashamed of or behave badly over; it is something that we can help with and that many other people experience.” If we can convey that to young people, we can probably avoid a lot of the problems in life that many of them suffer.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Early identification is vital. The earlier we can identify all special educational needs, not just dyslexia, the better, but we find that speech, language and communication disorders such as dyslexia often have the biggest effect on children’s self-esteem, and can often lead to problems such as youth disorder further down the line. The number of people in prison with speech, language and communication difficulties and dyslexia is anywhere from 60% to 80%. The noble Lord Ramsbotham is knowledgeable about the issue and speaks about it a lot. Much of the problem could be failure to diagnose special educational needs in our schools. We must ensure that children with a label get the right label, whether it involves dyslexia, behavioural problems, autism or whatever, rather than “naughty”, “lazy” or “disruptive”.

To refer to my childhood, which was a long time ago, teachers regularly used to beat us on the back of the hand with rulers in those days. I was not beaten, because I was not dyslexic and was good at sums, but lots of my classmates were, simply because they had those sorts of problem.

That is a world we never want to go back to. Thankfully, that does not happen in our classrooms now, but what happens is that codes of conduct are given out. I saw it with my own son. He did not write down enough work from the board, so he came home with various punishments. The code of conduct was writing out the school rules. I got off the train from London one evening and walked into the house at 11 o’clock to find him still at the kitchen table writing out his punishment, the school rules. The punishment was given because the teacher thought he had not done enough work.

My son was 14 and had started at a new secondary school when we moved. I insisted that all the teachers at least knew that he was dyslexic. I was not asking for special treatment, just that they knew he was severely dyslexic and was statemented. I was assured that they would all be told. As I walked in and saw the punishment, I thought, “Either this is a very evil teacher, or he doesn’t realise my son is severely dyslexic.” I wrote a note to the teacher saying, “This is as far as my son got. I am stopping this punishment now. He is not going to do any more of these punishments. They must be proportionate to his ability.” It was like a child who came last in a sprint being forced to run a marathon. That was the equivalent of the punishment that he had been given.

A note came back the next day: “Very sorry, Mrs Hodgson, we had no idea your child was dyslexic.” That was unbelievable on many levels. The school was supposed to have told all his teachers that he had dyslexia, and it was obvious to anybody who knows anything about the condition that my son is dyslexic. That had not been picked up in him—a child in a new school. What if he had not been diagnosed in a previous school? At any stage in a child’s journey through school, teachers should be able to diagnose such disorders.

I know that we have plenty of time, but I will go back to the substance of my speech. The latest issue to present itself is the phonics screening that will now be required during children’s first years at school. I was more than a little annoyed to see in a departmental press release over the weekend that the Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr Gibb), referred to the fact that one in 10 11-year-olds could read no better than a seven-year-old as evidence that his favoured phonics scheme is needed, without mentioning that one in 10 11-year-olds have dyslexia.

Strangely, the same press release did not mention that two thirds of teachers who took part in the pilot disagreed that the check accurately assessed the decoding ability of pupils with special educational needs. That is why there are so many concerns about complete reliance on phonics as both a measure of ability and a teaching method. It is also crucial that children who fail the phonics test, as a dyslexic child almost certainly will, are not made to feel as though they have failed—although the test can be good, from the point of view that it identifies them. Appropriate remedial action, including testing for dyslexia, should be taken in a timely manner.

That brings me to the Government’s plans for the future of SEN provision, and the ability of those who will be expected to deliver it to do so. The Minister knows that I welcomed the Green Paper as a means of opening debate on SEN provision, and that I look forward to seeing the results of the consultation, as I know we all do. However, the concern throughout the sector is that young people with non-medical problems such as dyslexia might not warrant support when school action and school action plus are abolished, as very few dyslexic children are currently statemented. I sincerely hope that that will not be the case. I will welcome any assurance that the Minister can give us.

We then come to how support will be provided if a dyslexic pupil is deemed to need it. Local authority budgets are being stretched to breaking point right now. The proliferation of the academies and free schools desired by the Secretary of State will mean that few funds will be held centrally with which to sustain shared support services. I know that I have asked the Minister this before, but I hope that she will guarantee today that support for dyslexic students will not get worse before it gets better due to the austerity programme being imposed on local authorities, and that when the new system is fully up and running, the money will be there to back it.

I move to the end of students’ time in school. The Minister will know that I have concerns about the key stage 4 curriculum and examinations. I will not labour the point about the E-bac, but needless to say, it has been installed as the gold standard set of qualifications, despite the fact that it will exclude almost all young people with dyslexia, as they are usually not taught foreign languages, whether modern or ancient, for obvious reasons. On assessment, Ofqual confirmed in a press release today that it is implementing the changes to GCSEs that the Government told it to make—scrapping modular examinations, which allow students to break up their learning into more manageable chunks and sit exams as they go along, when the subject is fresh in their minds. Instead, from next year students will be required to learn for two years—a bit like when we sat our O-levels—and commit all of that learning to paper in one go. That intensity will pose a challenge for many children with SEN, but especially dyslexics, given the memory problems I mentioned.

The support that young people with dyslexia need to be able even to sit their exams, let alone do well in them, is also under threat. The Minister will, I hope, have seen my latest letter to her in which I drew her attention to an article by Jack Grimston in The Sunday Times on 20 November. He reports the concerns that school teachers have over the changes that the Joint Council for Qualifications has made to eligibility for access arrangements in examinations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North highlighted.

The changes will prevent bright pupils with dyslexia from getting extra time or a reader and a scribe in exams to mitigate their limited reading and writing abilities, which gives them a level playing field with their non-dyslexic peers. That will have a detrimental effect on the qualifications that they will be able to achieve. There are many bright pupils with dyslexia, as we have heard today, some of whom go on to doctorates in physics. They say that Einstein was dyslexic, and I could list many other examples.

In a timed exam, the most intelligent young person is only ever as good as their ability to read the questions set and transfer the answers from their minds to the paper, which is why the most severely dyslexic pupil is given a reader and a scribe. In making the changes, the JCQ is limiting what intelligent dyslexics can achieve, and from my conversations with the sector, it appears to have done so without any consultation. I urge the Minister to look into the matter and intervene where necessary to ensure that such young people are not held back by their disability.

Finally, I understand from today’s Ofqual announcement that once the exams have been sat, dyslexics will be at a disadvantage yet again during marking, because the proportion of marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar in certain subjects is being increased following interventions from the Secretary of State. Even if a dyslexic pupil gets a reader and a scribe, whose spelling is the examiner marking?

I am sorry to intervene once again on my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. The points she raises suggest that dyslexic pupils should be identified and the fact that a pupil is dyslexic recorded on the examination paper, so that allowances are made. I heard only today of a young woman who is highly intelligent in conversation and can come top of her class in most things, but has difficulty with writing due to her dyslexia. Every time she is tested orally, she does brilliantly, but when she is tested in writing, she has more difficulty.

I hope that the Minister will take up those other concerns with the JCQ and that compensations can be made in marking. We do not ask for favourable treatment for dyslexics, but for their disability to be recognised and accommodations made, so that there is a level playing field.

I have not set out to make political points today because the debate has been well informed and constructive, and I know that supporting young people with dyslexia is important to Members on both sides of both Houses. I sincerely hope that the Minister will commit to returning with her officials to look at the specific concerns raised today, and that she will take any necessary steps to mitigate, or indeed undo, the impact of what are the, I hope, unintended consequences that the various reforms and changes may have on the education and life chances of the estimated 750,000 young people in our schools and colleges who have dyslexia.

Order. Although we are into the winding-up speeches and it is rather unusual, if neither of the Front-Bench spokeswomen object, I will allow a contribution from Miss Mordaunt.

Thank you, Mr Weir. I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing this important debate. I have a ten-minute rule Bill, which is barely alive, on special educational needs, with particular focus on dyslexia and pragmatic language disorders. I thank both Front-Bench spokeswomen for allowing me to say a few words. I apologise for being late; I have been in a Committee.

My Bill was motivated by the enormous amount of casework in my constituency. There are very sad cases of extremely large numbers of children who have low to medium educational needs that are not being met by the local authority. I was dealing with about 30 cases, including a young lad with a very mild disability; he has had no assessment yet, so no one really knows what his needs are. He is supposed to be taking his GCSE options next year, but he has never been to a secondary school because a suitable place is not on offer. People do not understand what his issues are and there is no funding for a travel grant, which might open up some options for him. There are large numbers of extreme cases.

My Bill suggests that, common to all the cases I am dealing with, a wider burden of proof for parents to be able to demonstrate that their child has SEN would be extremely helpful. The old statement route catered for people with medium to high need, but did not help to provide leverage for parents whose children had lesser needs. In one case, a young girl with a reading age four years below her age was not considered to be significantly falling behind. If parents have paid for, or got a charity to make, an independent assessment from a qualified assessor, that should be enough to require the local authority to take action.

Teacher training has been mentioned, but training for those in local education authorities is also important. Part of our frustration in getting cases resolved was due to people not understanding what CReSTeD—Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils—accreditation was, or what the different levels meant for a particular individual. We were not really dealing with educationalists, which was partly due to staffing problems at the local education authority, so I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). Training should be extended to the LEA.

The local education authority should already be required to publish what provision is available in its area, but many do not, yet such a requirement would help parents tremendously. When the LEA has decided that a need will be catered for under school action plus, it should send the parents a quality letter, not simply one that tells them that the need will be covered in school action plus, so they should not worry. They should get detailed information about what that will mean for their child week by week.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her ten-minute rule Bill. I hope that it moves to the next stage and influences Government. She said that she wanted detailed letters from the local authority, which not only say, “Your child is falling behind and has a problem”, but identify the problem. There is sometimes an overlap between dyslexia, dyspraxia, low academic ability and other conditions that can confuse the diagnosis, but the local education authority should be able to define dyslexia when it writes the letters.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Getting an assessment to start with is a battle for parents, and then they must have confidence in it and in the remedial action that should be taken. Many parents I have been dealing with have not had satisfaction on any of those fronts.

I would be grateful if the Minister could say more about the statutory responsibilities of the Department for Education and the discussions she may have had with the Department of Health. We need to strengthen the tools available to parents and other advocates for these children. My constituents certainly believe that they pay their taxes to ensure that the education system we provide gives every child the education they need to reach their full potential.

One of my final points relates to costs. Where we have not been able to get a school place for some of the children in my constituency, we have actually funded placements for them, and I should like to place on record my thanks to a number of London livery companies and local Rotarians for providing funds to allow that to happen. In just one year, the girl I mentioned at the start, who was four years behind her expected reading age, has caught up. She is a bright girl, and having been given the proper, full-time dyslexia teaching that she needed, she is now doing really well.

An argument that is often thrown back at us is that providing all the top-notch SEN provision that children need costs too much and that the state cannot possibly afford it, but that is a bit of a myth. The placement that we have funded for the child I mentioned cost less than the provision that the local authority would have had to put in place in the school that it chose for her. It is possible to do these things, and they will often save the state money not only initially, but, as has been mentioned, in the long term, given all the problems and issues that people have if they do not get the help that they need.

The hon. Lady is making some important points, and she makes a good point about spending money wisely. Research has been done—I do not have it in front of me, but that is not necessary to make my point—showing that an hour with a specialist dyslexia teacher is worth more than 50 hours with a well-meaning teaching assistant who is not able to give the specific support that a child needs. I might have the ratio wrong, but it is in that realm.

That is absolutely right.

To carry on using the example of the girl I mentioned—I have said this to the Minister before—the problem was not so much that the local authority could not be bothered to find her a suitable place as that the restrictions on how it could use its funding meant that it could not fund some of the obvious solutions. Will the Minister therefore say something about how she might reform the rules governing how local authorities and schools can spend particular pots of money, to ensure that we use that money in the best and most sensible way to meet people’s educational needs, whether they have dyslexia, a pragmatic language disorder or autism? We must ensure that we get every child who needs this provision the help that they need.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Weir. It is a Wednesday afternoon; I am here in a debate that you are chairing; and I am very pleased to see you.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) on securing the debate. It was good to see other Members come into the Chamber, although a bit late, because I was anxious that we would not have so many Members contributing. This issue interests Members right across the House, and I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in the all-party group, whose input and advice I have very much welcomed.

I listened with interest to the rather technical debate between the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer). None us is a qualified educational psychologist, and it has certainly been an awfully long time since I did any neurophysiology. The Government take their advice from the best and latest scientific advice available. The Rose report tried to get away from the debate about the exact nature and cause of the difficulties that people face—something that was often distracting for many students—and instead tried to focus on solving the individual child’s problems, whatever they might be, as they present in the classroom. With that in mind, I will not get involved in the detail of that debate, because it might be better if it took place somewhere else between expert educational psychologists. Instead, I will deal rather more with service provision.

Dyslexia affects a significant number of pupils. From the school census, we know that 78,000 pupils receive support for a specific learning difficulty, including dyslexia and dyspraxia. They receive that support through school action plus or a statement of SEN educational needs. About 11% of all pupils receive such support. Many others will be supported as part of a personalised approach to teaching in the classroom, as a number of hon. Members mentioned. That will perhaps involve additional help from teachers or teaching assistants.

Dyslexia primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word spelling and reading, and it can occur across the range of pupils’ intellectual abilities. We know from parents and pupils that they are often frustrated with the assumptions made about what they can achieve, and the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, referred to the case of her son. Sometimes that can lead to incredible frustration and a stymieing of aspiration in individual students.

For far too long, there has been a real attainment gap between students with dyslexia and their peers. The proportion of pupils with a specific learning difficulty gaining the expected qualifications has more than doubled since 2006, but the gap remains far too large. In 2010, fewer than one in six such pupils, or just under 15%, achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C, including English and maths, compared with more than half of pupils as whole. The Government are determined to see that change and to improve overall outcomes for pupils with SEN or a disability. Support for pupils with SEN is provided within a statutory framework that has, unfortunately, remained largely unchanged for three decades.

One of the first things that I did when I became a Minister was to begin a review of special educational needs. In March this year, I published our Green Paper, “Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability”, which sets out plans fundamentally to reform the special educational needs system. It was a response to a set of core problems that undermined the achievement of too many children and young people, and those problems have been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). The problems include parents having to battle through a confusing and adversarial system to get the support their child needs; SEN statements not joining provision up, with education, health and care often ending up being provided disparately, and families having to go between the three different providers to negotiate their own package of support; children falling between the gaps in services or having to undergo multiple assessments; and paperwork and bureaucracy adding to delays, rather than providing the support that is needed.

The Minister is talking about delays. A number of members of my family have been schoolteachers, and getting statements has often been an enormous difficulty. Sometimes, it has taken up to a year before a child who clearly needed to be statemented actually was statemented. The suspicion is that local authorities are trying to delay things to save money. I hope the Minister will take that into account.

One thing that we suggested in the Green Paper was speeding up the process, but this is also a question of trying to make clear what the thresholds should be, and I will say a little more about that later.

The other thing that informed the Government’s work on the Green Paper was Ofsted’s report, which showed that too many children are being over-identified as having SEN. In other words, the wrong children are often labelled as having SEN, and we need to ensure that we put in place the right support for children at the right time.

At the heart of the Government’s vision for the reforms is a desire to support better life outcomes for young people, to increase parents’ confidence in the system and to transfer powers to the front line and local communities, as we are trying to do across all areas of policy. To achieve those changes, we are introducing a new approach to identifying SEN to challenge the culture of low expectations. There will be a new, single early-years setting and school-based category of SEN.

I heard the concerns of the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West, who was worried that it might lead to some young people not getting the support they need, but I should stress that, of course, school action at the moment brings with it no extra funds. School action plus money is provided to schools on the basis of other proxy indicators, rather than the number of children actually in the relevant category in previous years, so it should make no difference to the resources that are allocated. However, it will make it easier for schools to decide how to deal with the young people that they focus on. Many of them say that the existing categories are somewhat bureaucratic. Ofsted has made the point that some children are labelled as having special education needs when really they are just falling behind. That is a rather different debate from the one about specific learning difficulties.

We are looking for reassurance that when the reason for children falling behind is an underlying special educational need, rather than there being no specific reason, they will still be identified by some marker. They might not need the education, health and care plan, and all that it brings, but the marker would have been school action or school action plus. Will there still be some mechanism to identify those children?

I suppose the reason for giving the relevant marker to children who fall behind might be to try to find out whether there is an underlying reason.

When Ofsted reported, a rather heated debate took place between teaching unions and Ofsted, and it shed a lot of heat but not light. Many accusations were thrown from both sides about motives. I do not think that teachers label a child as having special educational needs to get round league tables or for similar reasons. It is human nature, when a problem is seen, to label it. Unfortunately, that labelling was often not followed by action. It is all very well to label a child, but it is purposeless to do so if no action follows. The child then carries a label with them, irrespective of whether it is helpful, and does not get the support needed to enable them to progress. We are trying to get away from the focus on labelling, and instead to adopt an approach in which those concerned look at the child in front of them, and ask what they need. Some of that approach, to be fair, is about good teaching practice, which will deal with many needs.

The hon. Lady is right about dealing with individual children. Boys need more pressure and rigour in school, when they are young, than girls do. Girls tend to be more conscientious and are now succeeding in education. In every field and at every level they now beat boys. I agree that we need to consider teaching quality as well, so that youngsters do not fall behind because they are more interested in playing on the computer, or doing something not to do with their studies. Rigour in education is right for all youngsters. However, we also need to take account of those with specific difficulties.

All sorts of young people fall behind. The fact that so many young people born in the summer are in the school action category is particularly good evidence that we do not at the moment necessarily label the right children. Other children who may have specific needs go through school without being identified. That is not good enough, because such children do not get the support they need.

The Green Paper made some radical proposals to change the system. As several Members, including the hon. Member for Portsmouth North, said, we have just finished a consultation and will respond to it in the new year. The rest of what I say now on the matter will pick up on what we have already said, rather than announcing what we will do. Hon. Members will have to wait a few weeks, until we have finished crunching through the detail of the consultation. We had an enormous number of responses from parents, charities and teachers. That is very helpful detail and we need to work through it.

As I said during my introduction, many pupils with dyslexia receive most of their support in the classroom through high-quality, personalised teaching. We know from the independent review led by Sir Jim Rose that the early identification of problems and the right teaching support are critical to helping dyslexic pupils achieve. Alongside the special educational needs reforms we are also working with schools to support teachers to identify and respond to pupils with dyslexia. Difficulty with phonics and the ability to identify and manipulate the sound of words is central to the challenges that dyslexic pupils face. It is also a critical element for all children learning to read.

We are introducing a new phonics screening check for children in year 1, which should pick up children struggling with early literacy because of dyslexia. I think that the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West slightly misunderstood some things about the statement at the weekend by my colleague the schools Minister. When he highlighted the fact that inadequate numbers of young people were passing the screening test at the relevant stage, he was trying to make the point that phonics, as a system for teaching reading, had not properly embedded in teaching at the earliest stages of schooling. He was not labelling half of children as failing. He was recognising how much further we need to go to embed the practice clearly in the way teachers teach the youngest children to read, from the beginning. We know that phonics is particularly helpful for identifying difficulties in children who have dyslexia.

The Minister has been speaking an enormous amount of sense, recognising that teaching children to read is one of the most important things that the state does. I think she has recognised that Jim Rose recommended in his report that systematic phonics should be at the heart of good Government strategy for teaching children to read. When the Select Committee on Science and Technology considered the scientific basis for the Government’s policy, we found from the written and oral evidence that there was still, in the wave 3 reading recovery programme, a continuing practice of word memorisation and the use of whole language theory. That does exactly the opposite of what the Minister has been saying about recognising phonics and the transferability of the sound and the letter. Has she had a look at what is happening in wave 3 reading recovery?

I certainly looked at the reading recovery programme, Every Child a Reader, most of which is based around phonics. There are some other, more flexible, practices. We must recognise that although the evidence suggests that systematic phonics is absolutely the most effective way to teach children to read, some children for various reasons will not respond to that system, and it is important to have some flexibility at the margins to pick up the children who have fallen through the net. However, almost all the programme is still based around systematic phonics.

I agree with the Minister and my hon. Friend about phonics for those who do not have the disabilities in question. Two generations of teachers have almost been forbidden phonics in schools. Even in the past year I have come across a teacher working in London who was forbidden to make any reference to phonics in school. We still have a serious problem.

To support the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics we are making £3,000 of match funding available to all schools with key stage 1 pupils, for phonics materials and training. I hope that that sort of systematic, structured approach to teaching phonics will help, because we know that it supports pupils’ approach to learning to read, particularly for those who are dyslexic.

I want to make some wider comments about support for teachers and work force development, which goes to the heart of our programme on SEN. It begins with the new standards for qualified teacher status, which include a continued focus on meeting the needs of all children, including those with special educational needs or who are disabled. Similarly, as part of the national scholarship programme for teachers, we have a clear focus on supporting teachers to improve and extend their knowledge and expertise when working with pupils with special educational needs and disability, including specific impairments.

It is anticipated that around 50% of those scholarships will be available to support SEND. We have provided funding for up to 9,000 special educational needs co-ordinators to complete the mandatory higher level SENCO award by the end of 2011-12. The Teaching Schools network, which will allow schools to support each other and drive up the quality of teaching, will help to improve the quality of support for pupils with special educational needs or a disability. Of the first 121 designated schools, 113 have been judged as outstanding for the quality of learning and progress of pupils with special educational needs. The new Teaching Schools initiative has real potential to radically improve the quality of peer-to-peer mentoring and support for teachers in relation to SEN.

On support, one of the other problems that I encountered in Portsmouth was that, where a child had not got a school place and the parents were trying to do their best to teach them at home, they received no support, because if they admitted to the local authority that they were teaching the child at home, they were instantly crossed off the waiting list for a school place. I would be interested to know whether the Minister has any views about how such training and support could be extended to provide parents whose children are at home waiting for a school place with the support and help that they need to ensure that they are not missing out.

I cannot comment on a specific case, but perhaps if the hon. Lady drops me a note about the matter, I will have a look at it. In the Green Paper, we indicated that local authorities need to provide support to families who are home schooling a child. They are often doing so because they have been unable to get the support that they need in mainstream settings or perhaps because their local special school did not provide them with the support that they wanted.

I want to say something about Achievement for All because it goes to the heart of some of the issues that we have been discussing about the need for someone to look at the child in front of them and have high aspirations, rather than necessarily think about the labels. The Achievement for All programme has been running in around 450 schools for the past two years, and the evaluation has demonstrated some dramatic results. Under the programme, children made greater progress in English and mathematics than other children with SEND across the country, and they also often exceeded the progress of children without SEND, so there has been a really dramatic improvement.

The independent evaluation, which was carried out by the university of Manchester, demonstrated that pupil attendance significantly improved. That picks up some of the other points that we were discussing a moment ago about additional needs sometimes being confused with SEN. Often the issue is just about getting young people to attend school. For children taking part in the Achievement for All programme, there was an average increase in attendance of just over 10%. The evaluation also found significant improvements in behaviour, including less bullying, stronger relationships between schools and parents and a greater awareness and focus on SEND.

Some of the points that the hon. Member for Portsmouth North discussed in relation to her Bill—parental engagement and the need to communicate better with parents—go partly at the heart of this. One of the key facets of the Achievement for All programme is parental engagement and enabling teachers to feel confident about having a conversation with parents about the progress of their child. The Government are investing £14 million to roll out the programme across the country, so that more children can benefit. The programme is being delivered by a newly formed charity, Achievement for All 3As, chaired by Brian Lamb and supported by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Schools can now see for themselves the evidence that the programme works, and we want more schools to come forward and sign up.

The evaluation highlighted some important lessons in how to improve the outcomes for pupils with SEND. Perhaps most crucially, there needs to be strong leadership from the head teacher and senior leadership team, rather than simply relying on a SENCO to provide leadership within a school, although that is important. Achievement for All 3As is currently engaged with 41 local authorities and 598 schools. We hope and estimate that, overall, 1,000 schools will have signed up to the programme by April next year.

I want to turn to some of the specific concerns, particularly on the Joint Council for Qualifications guidance, expressed by hon. Members. I understand that there has been significant concern following recent coverage about apparent changes to the availability of reasonable adjustments for dyslexic pupils. It is, of course, absolutely vital for the fairness of an exam system that reasonable adjustments are made where needed. We have therefore been in touch with the JCQ about the changes, and it maintains that there has been no change to the circumstances in which a student is entitled to extra time for an exam. What has changed is the type of evidence that is acceptable to demonstrate that such extra time is needed.

The most recent edition of the relevant guidance confirms that a school or college must consider and maintain on record the evidence that the student has been assessed as having a below-average standardised score in an assessment of processing, reading or writing speed. I emphasise that the previous guidance similarly required evidence of low standardised scores using assessments of processing speed, reading or writing. I am afraid that we are picking up differences in practice, not differences in the guidance. Such difficulties have always been the basis on which extra time can be awarded to dyslexic pupils, and difficulties in phonological awareness—understanding and decoding the sounds of words and verbal processing—were two of the characteristics of dyslexia identified by Sir Jim Rose.

I understand that Dyslexia Action has written directly to the JCQ to set out its concerns. It is right that the JCQ and Ofqual, as the independent body overseeing the examinations system, should respond to those and determine whether any further clarification of the arrangements is required. I understand that they will be meeting with dyslexia charities and experts in the new year to explore those differences further. Ofqual has assured me that pupils already granted extra time will remain entitled to it on the basis of their existing assessment. I hope that hon. Members will be reassured on that point.

On a point of clarity about the difference between the old and the new criteria, is it the case that, under the old criteria, students had to have a low score and that now it has to be below average? I am not sure whether I heard the Minister correctly.

There is no change in the criteria; there is a change in the evidence that has to be provided. What we are picking up on is how schools interpreted the previous guidance, not necessarily the actual guidance that was being provided. That raises some issues about how schools were interpreting the guidance and the freedom that they thought that it gave them. In fact, the guidance is the same, but slightly more rigorous evidence is being asked for to demonstrate that schools have met the guidance, and they are being asked to hold that on record. The best thing is for Ofqual and the JCQ to meet dyslexia charities in the new year, as they will do, along with other experts in the area. They should make those points to the JCQ and Ofqual at that stage.

The hon. Lady spoke briefly about the changes to spelling, punctuation and grammar in some GCSEs that were announced this afternoon. Hon. Members may be aware that that was likely to happen and that we would be restoring marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar in some key subjects that have extended pieces of writing. During Ofqual’s consultation on the proposals, it heard concerns from dyslexia organisations about the potential impact on pupils with special educational needs, particularly dyslexia. I understand that it will be considering that as it decides how to roll out and implement the proposal.

However, during the consultation, there was also widespread support for ensuring accuracy within the qualifications. People expect those with high grades in GCSEs to be able to write accurately. The need to include an assessment of accuracy in spelling, punctuation and grammar is key to restoring confidence in GCSEs as rigorous and valued qualifications. Ofqual has set the level at 5% of total marks for the GCSE, so that the assessment of subject knowledge is not affected disproportionately. There will be the possibility of partial marks. It is not an all-or-nothing assessment and students will be able to achieve some or all of the marks depending on the extent of accuracy and how well they have conveyed meaning. In practice, there will be no blanket effect on the grades achieved by individuals, and the credibility of the exam and the grades achieved will be increased for all. Such changes, alongside some of the reforms to special educational needs provision, will give a real incentive to teach all pupils those core skills and prevent pupils with special educational needs from being sidelined or aspirations being lowered.

I recently chaired a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for social science and policy, at which we considered and had academic presentations on social mobility. A major factor in poor social mobility is the gulf in the use of language and education. Is the Minister saying that for the great mass of pupils, we will ensure that the standard at which they are able to use the language formally will be targeted and improved, or just that we will have a race to the top where the middle class will again have the advantage?

I agreed with the hon. Gentleman’s first point. The second point seemed to bear no resemblance to the first. To raise aspirations for all is a good thing. To say that it is possible to achieve, regardless of background, is really important. To believe in social mobility and have it at the heart of educational policy, we have to have high aspirations for every child.

To clarify, if one just gives marks for punctuation, grammar and syntax, certain people from certain backgrounds will have an even greater advantage over people from other backgrounds. The gulf in our society will widen unless extra effort is put in to ensure that everyone has a rigorous education in these methods.

I really do not accept that point at all. It is simply not good enough to say that, because someone is from a certain background, they will not be able to learn how to spell or use language correctly. That is exactly at the heart of what we are trying to break. I have to say that, as an employer, I meet lots of graduates who do not have dyslexia who have not learnt how to use accurate punctuation and spelling. Unfortunately, it is a continuous frustration, and I sometimes wonder whether I am the best-paid proofreader in the country, given the amount of time I spend correcting grammar and punctuation in the documents that leave the Department—I probably should not say that in Hansard.

I agree entirely. The Minister’s experience and mine are the same, but those who had the rigorous experience that I had at school have an advantage over those who did not, even though they might have been equal in ability in every other way. I appreciate that we are off the subject of dyslexia now. We are running out of time; but it is important to say that, if we are to have a society that is less divided, we must ensure that we provide education for those who do not have natural advantages.

If we are to have a society that is less divided, we must ensure that all children, regardless of their background, are given the same benefits of that sound education. Putting those marks, even 5%, back into qualifications will create an incentive to ensure that all children have that grounding. That is really important.

To return to the subject of dyslexia and the dispensation that will be given for children with dyslexia, the additional 5% can make the difference between an A and an A* for a very bright, dyslexic pupil.

Ofqual will consider and take into account the concerns of dyslexic charities when it decides on implementation. The issue of reasonable adjustments continues to remain.

I should like to conclude now. I thought that we would not have many speakers. In fact, I seem to have prattled on for so long—[Interruption.] Are there 17 minutes left? I thought that we finished at 3.45 pm. I have been racing to the end and thought that I only had two minutes. In fact, we have loads of time. I might still conclude anyway, or I will not have any voice left.

I am very grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that I have been able to allay some concerns. Dyslexia charities will no doubt make the points that they made to the hon. Members who came to this debate to Ofqual and JCQ in the new year, but I want to leave hon. Members with the assurance that we are absolutely committed to reforming the support for children with special educational needs and disability. We will say much more in the new year, in response to the consultation. I am grateful to all hon. Members for their constructive input on this matter.

Sitting suspended.