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Education for Young People with Disabilities (UK Aid)

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 28 October 2014

[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I do not know how long we have for our speeches, given that this is a long debate and there are not many of us in the Chamber. However, we are considering an important topic. The timing of the debate presented some challenges for Department for International Development Ministers, who are all over the world as we speak, but I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), are present, because it is important that we hear from the Government and the Opposition. I welcome this opportunity for the debate given DFID’s recent commitments, the progress made on addressing the issue of UK aid to education for young people with disabilities, and the report published earlier this year by the International Development Committee and the Government’s largely positive response to it.

I approach this matter as a former teacher—education is important to me, as it is to other Members of the House—and co-chair of the all-party group on global education for all. Education is fundamental to ending the poverty, discrimination and exclusion faced by disabled people in developing countries, but it is estimated that in most countries disabled children are much more likely to be out of school than any other group of young people. Disability has long been neglected as a niche area of development, deemed by many to be either too complex, due to the wide range of challenges that it presents, or too small to be core to development issues.

The millennium development goals fail to mention disability, but disabled people make up an estimated 15% of the global population, and disability is both a cause and a consequence of poverty. Some 80% of disabled people live in developing countries and the United Nations has labelled them the world’s largest minority. It is estimated that there are 93 million disabled children globally and, as I said, they are more likely to be out of school than any other group of children. In Ethiopia, less than 3% of disabled children have access to primary education. In some countries, being disabled more than doubles a child’s chance of never enrolling in school. Disabled children are also less likely to remain in school. There are huge challenges throughout the developing world in keeping children in schools, but that challenge is heightened for children with disabilities. Difficulties also present themselves when attempting to transition to the next grade of education.

The exclusion of disabled children not only denies them their core human right to education, but makes it impossible, unless we address the matter properly, for the world to reach the millennium development goal of universal primary education by 2015. Some 58 million children of primary age are still out of school. While it is undeniable that progress has been made, it has now stalled. It is estimated that disabled children could make up a third of the out-of-school population. Without specific targets to include disabled people, it is clear that many of the millennium development goals will not be reached.

I welcome DFID’s progress in recent years, including through several commitments made under this Government and the previous one. In 2000, DFID was the first donor to develop an issues paper on disability, and development guidance notes on disability-inclusive programming and education for children with disabilities. DFID also commissioned research to help to address some of the evidence gaps around disability. In 2008, under the previous Government, DFID was the first donor to support the Disability Rights Fund, and constructive progress has been made more recently. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), has been championing the cause, in particular by announcing that UK aid will fund accessible school construction. DFID is working with partners to improve the data on disabled children and education in developing countries. The UK is playing a vital role in championing a post-2015 agenda that leaves no one behind, specifically by saying that no target will be considered unless it will be met for all social groups, including those with disabilities.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this debate. It is appropriate that disability issues are being debated in the Chamber and Westminster Hall at the same time. It is good that we have an all-party, no-party approach on the matter. Does he agree that while there has been substantial movement from both the previous and present Governments—I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and Ministers, who are receptive to what is said about this issue—the notion of being a young girl in poverty with a disability in the developing world should concern us all, because those girls are literally at the bottom of the pile? Anything that we can do to focus attention on that in the post-2015 agenda is vital.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. He speaks with passion on such matters in the all-party group. We have examined targets in the past, and he is right that part of the challenge has involved a narrow focus within the broad issue of getting out-of-school children into school. There are key issues affecting gender and disability, and there is often a critical crossover between the two. I concur with his generosity towards this Government and the previous one, but there is still a huge amount to do. If this debate serves one purpose, it is that of continuing to highlight the real need for action.

I welcome the UK’s position as a leading donor to education, including with the pledge of up to £300 million to the Global Partnership for Education in June, and the way in which DFID Ministers have worked with GPE to ensure that disabled children are prioritised. As co-chair of the all-party group, I have visited Nigeria, Zanzibar and Tanzania during this Parliament. I pay tribute to the DFID staff whom I met in those countries, as well as those throughout the world, who are working hard in the educational field to further our aims on the ground.

The Government published their response to the thorough International Development Committee inquiry early this year. DFID committed to publish a new cross-departmental disability framework, and the work to develop it is going on right now. I believe that the aim is to launch the framework in November. DFID has pledged to prioritise education in the framework, which goes back to the point that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) made about a cross-sectoral approach. There is a package of issues relating to disability, education, inclusion and gender. I look to the Minister and DFID officials to reaffirm that education is prioritised as a key sector and that the educational needs of those with disabilities will be thoroughly addressed.

The framework is welcome. However, one of the past challenges has been that while DFID produced optional guidance for their country offices that said the right things, it did not incentivise action. The Department has just published a new inclusive learning topic guide for its staff, which is an excellent resource, but it is still just guidance. How will DFID ensure that the new disability framework is implemented after its publication? Will the framework include mandatory, action-orientated requirements for, with strong accountability mechanisms for reporting on, the inclusion of disabled people in aid programmes? That is the situation for gender, and that needs to be the case for disability, too.

Will the Minister outline what DFID will be do to support and train country staff on disability inclusion? That, too, is a key principle. We need to ensure that all teacher training programmes that are supported by UK aid promote inclusive teaching approaches, and that all education aid programmes will measure whether they are reaching disabled children and young people. While I commend the Minister for the positive commitment to ensuring that UK-funded school construction projects are accessible to disabled children, that is not all that is needed.

Physical accessibility to buildings must be complemented by an attitudinal change, and inclusive teaching and learning environments. During a visit to a school in Lagos, I remember that the head teacher was keen to show us the DFID-funded toilet block. There was a dire need for the block, as it was a big school and there were issues to do with water and sanitation, so DFID had addressed that. The head teacher proudly showed us the toilet block, with its accessible ramps and equipment, but I saw very few people with disabilities accessing the facilities in that school.

I also visited a school in Zanzibar that had a wheelchair ramp to assist with access to a classroom, but I then saw in that classroom 60 to 70 teenage children in front of the teacher with no desks and no seats, so there was no conceivable way in which a wheelchair user could have accessed it. We need to be mindful of the teaching and learning environments in which schools operate. A ramp is no good unless the needs of the children who would use it are also met through their education provision.

Children with disabilities have the same right to education as all other children and UK aid can help by supporting the resourcing of inclusive education that ultimately benefits all children, not just those with disabilities, and that helps to change negative societal attitudes and discrimination about disability. It is particularly important that we develop inclusive teacher training so that more teachers in developing countries are equipped to include children with disabilities. The UK is a world leader on aid to support teacher training, so we could make a big difference.

The challenge so far has been to address the shortage of teachers and the need to get more children into schools. Getting more children into schools means that more teachers are required, so we have seen short cuts in some parts of the world, especially in teacher training courses and the professional development that is offered. If challenges on teachers’ pay are not addressed, the teaching profession does not get the esteem that it does in our country. Those multi-faceted problems need to be addressed.

I ask the Minister to make a commitment that UK-funded teacher training will promote inclusive teaching methods and curriculums. That must not be lost in the big challenge of training more teachers in that valued profession to address the growing number of out-of-school children across the world.

Will DFID put in place disaggregated data for its programme and funding to measure how many, and to what extent, children with disabilities are reached and supported into education? The biggest challenge is to identify the scale of the problem that we need to address. Will DFID encourage an increase in its targeting of resources into the area of disability and education, such as through the creation of a disabled children’s education challenge fund? Such a fund would be similar to the laudable girls’ education challenge fund, which I remind hon. Members is an innovative £355 million fund to tackle the extreme marginalisation from education of the poorest girls. May we have something similar for disability? We all know that disabled children suffer from extreme marginalisation in developing countries and that they should be supported with targeted additional investment, as well as mainstreamed, in a twin-track approach. I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts on creating such a fund.

I welcome the commitments already made that DFID will work with partners to strengthen data. Lack of data at a national level both reflects and compounds the invisibility of people with disabilities in development efforts. That is a major barrier to the recognition of disability as a core development issue.

Information is often speculative and out of date. I am aware from my friends in the third sector—I pay particular tribute to Results UK, which was responsible for my trips and provided the secretariat for our all-party group—that DFID held a conference on disability data last week, so I would be grateful to know what outcomes arose from those discussions.

What is DFID doing to support the capacity of national Governments and international organisations to collect and use data on children and young people with disabilities. How many of them are in or out of school? We need to ensure that the UK champions the strengthening of data in developing countries so that our development efforts mean that no one is left behind, although I realise that that task is huge.

Let me set out two ideas that could well be used. In Nigeria, I saw that DFID had successfully promoted school-based management committees to try to create a community leadership in schools to encourage young people into school and to liaise with parents and stakeholders in the community. In effect, the committee would operate like a school governing body, but with tentacles that were more developed for attracting young people into schools. We talk about disability issues being hidden, so community engagement and empowerment should be a great tool in assisting those who are currently excluded.

I saw another project, albeit in a health context, in a rural part of Zanzibar, where we were looking at malnutrition and early-years education. Volunteers went out into villages and communities to talk to young mothers about malnutrition. They located children who were suffering from malnutrition and encouraged their mothers to go to the hospital or health centre to get the support that they needed. We know about the hidden problem of disability, so I am looking for strategies to empower communities to make information available so that action can be taken.

Research by the Global Campaign for Education has noted that DFID has undertaken some activities in Nigeria on the inclusion of children with disabilities in its education work. It has supported censuses of out-of-school children, with results aggregated by gender and disability. Good, practical work has therefore been done on the ground, but while the information contains three sub-indicators on inclusion, the Department’s business case makes scant reference to disability. Nigeria is one of the largest recipients of UK aid, including through the education sector support programme, which will provide up to £134 million between 2008 and 2017. The programme is delivered by a consortium headed by Cambridge Education. Given the scale of funding it receives, one would expect that children with disabilities would be a much more prominent element in it.

Finally, our attention turns to the post-2015 agenda. I welcome the Government’s championing of an agenda that leaves no one behind, and that should be our guiding principle, especially as it is expressed in the idea that no target will be considered to be met unless it is met for all social groups, including people with disabilities. As we know, the millennium development goals did not mention disability at all, but 2015 gives us a crucial opportunity to change that.

How are Ministers seeking to ensure that the needs and rights of disabled people are recognised as an agreed priority in the final goals and targets? We particularly need to consider a tangible measure of how we ascertain that no target is met unless it is met for all. International negotiations are always challenging, involving many different agendas, but I hope that the Minister will reassure us that DFID is working with other Governments to consolidate support and ensure that the “leave no one behind” target does not get lost.

I have not mentioned any individual examples and will refrain from doing so, but I should reiterate that behind every one of the statistics, there is a real human story. Handicap International came to see me last week and showed me a charming photograph of Fanta, a seven-year-old girl with cerebral palsy from the Kono district of Sierra Leone. The photograph shows her smiling because, as part of a DFID-funded GEC project, she had just received a wheelchair that will allow her to access her local primary school for the first time. That will be to the benefit of her school, of Sierra Leone, and, above all else, of that young lady.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this excellent debate and on his contribution to it; there was little, if anything, that I disagreed with in what he had to say. It is a real shame that there are not more Members in this Chamber. I suspect that we are preaching to the faithful.

I will start by quoting from article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights, which the UK signed back in 1948. Back then, we said:

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.”

So, 66 years ago we signed up to free primary education for all—not just for those in the developed world, or those who could afford it, or those who were not disabled, but all children. However, for many children, particularly those living in the developing world, that is as far away from becoming a reality as it was 66 years ago.

Even in countries where children get access to primary education, millions do not complete it, or else leave school with limited skills and poor levels of reading and writing because the quality of teaching is variable, to say the least. Women and girls fare poorly, with less than 50% of girls making it to secondary education in some African countries. Across the world, women make up almost two thirds of the 796 million adults without even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Although those statistics in themselves are awful, as has already been pointed out, the children who fare worst in this situation are those with disabilities. The United Nations millennium development goals committed to providing universal, free primary education for all children by 2015, yet we are still short of 1.8 million teachers to deliver that, with 1 million needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone. That situation is unsatisfactory for everyone, but for disabled children and their families the picture is far worse. Disabled children are far more likely to be out of education than the general populace and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) said eloquently, a disabled girl has virtually no chance at all of going to school.

For those few disabled children who get access to education, what is provided is far from appropriate and in the vast majority of cases falls well short of meeting their educational needs. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke about physical access, which is part of the issue, but making education accessible in terms of access to the curriculum and an inclusive culture is as important—if not more so—as ramps, wider doors and so on.

The UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities has forced some recognition of the rights of disabled people to be involved in their own development. It places an obligation on signatories, including the UK, to ensure that their overseas aid programmes include disabled people. However, the millennium development goals are largely silent on disabled learning, and so miss out a whole 15% of the world’s population. Data on this subject are not good—although I congratulate the Department for International Development on its recent work to improve data—but even from the poor data we have, it is estimated that disabled children make up one third of the out-of-school population across the world.

I want to set our debate in the context of what is happening to disabled children across the world. I do not think that we can afford to be smug about this issue in the UK. We require disabled children to attend school, but far too often we provide for disabled children by segregating them in special schools. In my experience, too many of those schools have low expectations of their pupils, and I say that as a supporter of special schools—I am a strong supporter of inclusion, but it must sit firmly on a foundation of good special schools. However, in my experience, even in 2014 too many of our special schools have low expectations of children with disabilities.

Even those countries that we consider progressive and enlightened often have a far worse record than we do. The hon. Member for Ceredigion mentioned that the UK is something of a beacon of good practice in this regard. I am a member of the Education Committee. Last year—or the year before; I am not sure—we travelled to Denmark. When I asked what percentage of children with disabilities there attended special schools, I was told it was 6% of the school population. I was amazed; in the UK, 1% of our children attend special schools. That means a huge number of children in this country are attending mainstream schools and having their needs met very well in those schools.

I never quite got the previous Secretary of State for Education to accept this point, but when we look at the PISA—the programme for international student assessment—tables we are not comparing like with like. In this country 1% of children with disabilities attend special schools, but 6% or more do so in some of the jurisdictions at the top of the PISA tables, and in countries such as Singapore or China disabled children never get access to mainstream schools at all.

On that trip to Denmark, we clearly looked shocked when we learned that fact, and officials were quick to tell us that they were going to do something about the situation because they recognised that it could not continue. I then asked how many children attending special schools in Denmark went on to university. Basically, the officials said it was none, as children from special schools went on to get Government pensions, by which they meant benefits. Although the situation is better in the developed world, when it comes to disabled children, none of us can afford to be smug.

Most disabled children in the developing world who manage to go to school face learning in segregated schools with very large class sizes, poor teaching from teachers with inadequate training and skills, and a lack of resources. We know that education is fundamental to reducing and ending poverty. Good quality, free education should be the right of every child, including every disabled child. More than anything else, education has the power to transform lives, and will help economic development and poverty relief, contribute to social stability and promote global health. We know that children whose mothers have received five years of education are 40% more likely to live beyond five years of age. That is as true for a disabled child as it is for every other child.

I call on DFID to introduce a disability strategy that gives disabled people full and inclusive access to its programmes, with clear baselines, milestones and success criteria. The strategy should make it easier to access funding for programmes that support disabled learning, and should make sure that all mainstream civil society organisations that DFID funds do the same. To do that, DFID must build a larger team of disability specialists, so that it can champion disability learning in its programmes, provide disability training for its own staff and even—here is a revolutionary idea—employ a few disabled staff in its programmes overseas.

I welcome the Government’s response and commitment to the report by the Select Committee on International Development. DFID has argued that a disability strategy is not the right approach and prefers to take a more holistic view in its social inclusion programme.

Before I came to Parliament in 2010, though not immediately before, I was the person who turned up in a school or local authority the week after a school had gone into special measures and the senior management team had gone. The two things I did immediately were: first, make friends with the secretaries, because they made life bearable; and secondly, put together a strategic plan with clear goals for what I would achieve and by when. I then measured periodically how far I had achieved those goals. The bottom line is that what gets measured gets done. Taking a holistic approach generally means faffing about a bit with nothing really changing. A strong framework setting out clear goals, milestones and success criteria, and measuring impact, is the only way to change things. Anything else is just nice warm words. Will the Minister be brave and ambitious today?

I started by quoting from article 26 of the universal declaration of human rights from way back in 1948. Sometimes it feels as though we had greater aspirations and hopes for our children and ourselves back in 1948. We were living in a time of austerity, and the UK was practically bankrupt and saddled with massive debts after fighting total war for five years, but we had ambitions for ourselves and our children. We created the NHS, a welfare system with a safety net for the poor and a free, compulsory education system for our children. We had a commitment to provide the same for others throughout the world. The Minister can be the new Clem Attlee. What better time to rediscover the same ambition, aspiration and courage we had in 1948, and to secure the universal free education for every child, including disabled children, that this country has promised to deliver, but has failed to for more than 60 years?

It is a great pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. It is also slightly intimidating to follow two former teachers. In my duties as a Member of Parliament, I am never more nervous of my presenting skills than when following teachers. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing this debate on such an important issue.

It is true for many that we remember the people who taught us, although I am sure that they do not remember the many hundreds of children they taught. It shows the great contribution made by former members of the teaching profession in the House and we should be proud of that, not least the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) who, as ever, showed her expertise on the subject and her absolute determination to achieve for children not just in this country but around the world. I agree with so much that has been said. It is good, helpful and right that we can speak as one across parties on such an important issue as the rights of children with disabilities wherever they are in the world.

We know from our constituency experience how often disability is closely tied to poverty or disadvantage. The matter is being discussed on the Floor of the House now. In the developing world, that problem is magnified many times, and when reading the International Development Committee’s recent report on disability I was struck by what Professor Groce of University College London said:

“If one goes into the poorest…slum or the most marginalized rural village and asks ‘who is the poorest person in your community’? one will almost invariably be directed to the household of a person with a disability.”

The World Bank estimates that eight out of 10 disabled people live in developing countries, and that people with disabilities make up 20% of the world’s poorest people. In reality, I suspect that that figure is probably an underestimate. The great philosopher and economist, Amartya Sen, has pointed out that the poverty line for disabled people is significantly higher than for many other people because, as we recognise in our social security system, the cost of day-to-day life is often inflated by the sheer fact of disability.

The debate today is focused specifically on education for children and young people with disabilities and with good reason, as we have heard. In many cases, young people with disabilities in developing nations find themselves doubly disadvantaged, living in nations where youth unemployment may be as high as seven or eight in 10, where poverty wages are most prevalent among the young, where access to education remains far too low, and where young people disproportionately lack access to health, or are more likely to face violence and displacement. On each and every one of those counts, a young person with a disability is more likely to be negatively affected.

It is often suggested that the very welcome forward movement in poverty reduction that has been achieved under the auspices of the millennium development goals has in part been a case of picking the lowest hanging fruit and upping the incomes of those closest to the poverty line. If that is the case, young disabled people are perhaps the hardest to reach among that group. A key focus of the sustainable development goals that will replace the millennium development goals next year must be to address the hardest parts of poverty reduction, to ensure that no one is left behind and to include within the development agenda help to bring those with disabilities out of disadvantage and poverty, not simply focusing on income, although financial disadvantage is significant. I agree that education for the most excluded people in society must be at the heart of what we try to do in the coming year within the sustainable development goals.

I do not want to dwell on the negative, but there is no question but that being disabled as a child in a developing country makes them far less likely to access education. Some of the figures are startling and bear repeating. Some 85% of children not in school in Nepal are disabled and only 3% of disabled children in Ethiopia complete primary education. Ethiopia has made great strides in poverty reduction, but still only 3% of disabled children make it through primary education. For those who do receive education, the correlation between disability and poor outcomes is striking.

The underlying reasons are manifold, but all too often are based on negative attitudes and discrimination. Disabled children are hidden away or placed in segregated education and Governments provide low prioritisation or split responsibilities for the education of disabled children. Teacher training is vital in poorer countries, particularly in helping disabled children to meet their potential. Those fundamental problems must be placed at the centre of development policy.

The Government inherited a strong focus in DFID on disability issues. In 2000, Britain became the first donor to develop guidance notes on disability-inclusive programming and specifically on education for children with disabilities. In 2008, we were the inaugural donors to the Disability Rights Fund. The Government have continued to take important steps. In particular, I welcome on behalf of the Opposition the decision to require all school building funded through DFID programmes to incorporate the principles of universal design and to tackle the huge data gaps on children with disabilities and education. It can be hard to get people excited about data, but they are at the heart of developing effective policy in this and every other development area. The sustainable development goals have the potential to take forward our ambitions for the poorest people in the world, so they must be rigorously data focused.

The sustainable development goals will, I hope, address the fact that the millennium development goals noticeably failed to mention disability as an issue to be addressed. I would, however, offer a warning. The fact of having something codified does not guarantee progress in itself. The Indian constitution directly protects disabled people from discrimination, but in few nations are disabled people more discriminated against than in India.

We want the sustainable development goals to be focused in a way that encourages development that works for all, including the most marginalised groups. The UN high-level panel recommended that the post-2015 goals should specifically state that no target should be considered met unless it is met for all social groups, including people with disabilities. The Government have publicly backed the inclusion of such a caveat, and I support them in doing so, but it has disappeared from the outcomes document of the UN open working group on sustainable development, which was published in July. Will the Minister therefore update us on where the negotiations stand on ensuring that the sustainable development goals do, indeed, work for all and do encourage Governments worldwide to tackle some of the hardest development issues, including education for children with disabilities?

If we are to be successful in encouraging other nations—donors and recipients—DFID must lead the way. In its recent response to the Select Committee report, it promised to publish a DFID disability framework in November. Will the Minister confirm that the Department is on track to publish that framework and that education will be a key focus? Will he set out how the Department will ensure that what will no doubt be the finest of words also become concrete actions? Will DFID country offices report back frequently on how they are supporting and including disabled people?

I have a further question on some of the practicalities. Does the Minister believe that DFID has the skills base genuinely to develop world-leading disability policy? As we have heard, the UK plays a proud role in the field, and we want to see Britain at the heart of new thinking. In response to the Select Committee, the Department promised to increase the number of disability specialist staff, but only to two. In comparison, 21 staff are working on gender issues. I have absolutely no interest in playing gender off against disability, because they are both vital issues, but the comparison is striking. Does the Minister think that the Department has the advice and support it needs on disability issues?

In conclusion, this has been a useful debate on a crucial issue. DFID has a good track record on disability issues within development, and I feel sure we can be a world leader. However, we need a genuine commitment throughout the run-up to the next set of development goals to make sure that the global development agenda is clearly based on the principle of “no person left behind”.

The Deputy Leader of the House has many interesting roles to perform in life, but today’s might be one of the more interesting, because he is standing in for Lynne Featherstone and he has been asked to be Clement Attlee, so let us see how it turns out.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am indeed playing a rather unusual role today, but it is refreshing to be taking part in a consensual debate, with cross-party agreement about what DFID does. I wish the same could have been said about our debates on the Bill that became the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, for which I was one of the responsible Ministers. The House’s consideration of the Recall of MPs Bill has also not involved the unanimous cross-party support demonstrated in this debate.

We heard about the background of the participants to the debate, which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing. I was interested to hear about his past life as a teacher. Indeed, the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) was also a teacher. I have not been a teacher, although both my parents were at some point in their working careers, so we are all in good company. Given that this is a cross-party, consensual debate, I would like to acknowledge the role that the Labour Government played in helping us to get to our current position in respect of international development, our spending on it and the prominent role we play on it internationally.

I do not think that I am going to be the next Clem Attlee, but those of us in this select group of Members of Parliament can play an important role in making sure the priority that successive Governments have placed on international development remains. There is an awful lot of pressure on the international development budget, and one prominent party—the UK Independence party—would, if it had its way and was represented in large numbers in this place, simply seek to do away with it, or at least a significant part of it, even though one can only imagine what impact that would have on things such as Ebola. I therefore welcome the fact that we are having a consensual debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the role he plays as co-chair of the all-party group, which monitors these issues.

My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development is in Bangladesh on a departmental visit, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for International Development, is in Berlin at a conference on the Syrian refugee crisis. They have asked me to pass on their apologies for not being able to attend this important debate, but the issue is a particular priority for the Department, and my right hon. Friends will pay close attention to the debate and respond to any points that I do not have a chance to deal with. If I have any credentials at all in terms of my ability to respond to the debate, they will be that I was the Liberal Democrat international development spokesman for a number of years.

In the global context, disability continues, as we have heard, to be one of the primary causes of educational disadvantage and exclusion, creating the largest single group of girls and boys who remain out of school. Even in those countries close to achieving universal primary enrolment, children with disabilities continue to miss out on education and, as a consequence, on opportunities to access meaningful employment and a sustainable route out of poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion cited an example of a school with a ramp, but said that in practice, however, if any child managed to get into that school in a wheelchair, they would not physically be able to get into the classroom because of overcrowding. Anyone, including me, who has been on such visits abroad—in my case to Ghana—will know that a very basic school with little more than mud floors will not be an ideal environment for someone with a disability to access education.

What is positive is that all Members have probably been lobbied in the past few months by school children in their constituencies about the need to ensure that all young people, including those with a disability, go to school. I certainly have, and I congratulate St Mary’s in Carshalton, which joined the Send All My Friends to School campaign. The school asked me to go along and receive the cut-out figures the children had created of pupils and to send them off to the Prime Minister. I did that, and I am pleased that he responded to the pupils’ letters about that important campaign.

The challenges involved in ensuring that disabled children can learn are fourfold. First, responsibility for children with disabilities in the countries in which we work is divided across education, health and social protection, which often results in a focus on social welfare and special treatment, rather than on inclusion and equity. Secondly, there are often school-level barriers, including physical access, inflexible and inappropriate curriculums, inadequate teacher training—that has been mentioned frequently in the debate—and discriminatory attitudes that reinforce the marginalisation of children with disabilities. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion referred to that. It is not simply a question of providing accessible schools; it is also about changing the mentality of some of the people responsible for ensuring that children get to school and, once there, are fully involved in the educational process.

On the first of those points and the issue of cross-departmental responsibilities, and given the visits that my right hon. Friend has made to Ghana—hon. Members have no doubt visited other countries where this would apply—does he share my frustration that in the Government Departments of countries I have been to there is all too often a silo mentality, meaning that that the issue gets lost? Kind and generous words can be heard in health, social services and education Departments, but action on the ground is impeded by a failure to work together. I should be grateful for anything we can do to encourage countries to leave the silo mentality behind.

I agree entirely, but even in a well-run Government such as ours, there is still always a risk that there will be a silo mentality and that Departments will not communicate with each other as would entirely befit them. There are ways for us to help, but we have not managed to perfect that even within UK borders.

The third of the four challenges is that we struggle to understand the extent of the problem, because of a lack of disaggregated data by sex, type of disability and level of functioning. That makes educational planning for inclusive learning extremely difficult. Linked to that, the evidence base on learning outcomes for inclusive education for children with disabilities focuses largely on high-income countries—particularly the US and UK—and there are challenges in identifying good-quality evidence from low and middle-income countries. Finally, there has been a lack of the political will and commitment needed to drive improvements in learning for children with disabilities, and that has limited the ability of Governments, donors and others to assess, monitor and address the situation of those children.

I am pleased to say that the UK is at the forefront of seeking to address those challenges. Through DFID’s work, the UK is committed to ensuring that all children are able to complete a full cycle of quality education, and we are increasingly focusing on the most marginalised as part of the “leave no one behind” agenda, which includes a special focus on children with disabilities. In September 2013, we made two public commitments: first, to ensure that all directly funded school construction is fully accessible; and, secondly, to work with partners to improve data on children with disabilities and special educational needs in and out of education. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), made the point that getting quality data is one of the keys. It is not possible to deal with a challenge without knowing the scale of it, and it is fair to say that at the moment we do not.

Across DFID’s global and country programmes we are supporting a range of activities to support access to education and learning for children with disabilities. Depending on the context, we are working through either partner Governments or local and international partners. In the majority of our programmes we support an inclusive approach to ensure that all children can be educated in mainstream schools. In our most mature and innovative programmes, such as Pakistan’s Punjab programme, we are looking at new partnerships with respect to children with learning disabilities. The Pakistan office is currently assessing the feasibility of implementing our school construction standards in the £104 million reconstruction and rehabilitation programme. Current projections indicate that 50,000 classrooms may be reconstructed or rehabilitated. That work is really about extending the present programme of ensuring that all new schools are fully accessible. DFID’s policy on accessible construction has since triggered similar commitments among other global partners, including UNICEF.

Often children can suffer many types of disadvantage. DFID’s girls’ education challenge, which targets the most marginalised girls, is funding disability-focused projects in Uganda, Kenya and Sierra Leone, totalling more than £9 million. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion referred to that and asked whether DFID would be able to create a disability education challenge fund. I suppose the answer is that the girls’ fund is clearly a new model, which has not been tried before, to ensure that 1 million of the most marginalised girls get the quality education that they deserve by 2016. As it is a new programme, its effectiveness will need to be assessed, and we perhaps need to get through that challenge before we embark on a new disability education challenge fund. However, I shall draw the proposal to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

My hon. Friend talked about disaggregated data. There is a critical gap with respect to evidence and data on disability prevalence, on which DFID is focusing. As he will know, the Government hosted an important conference jointly with the UN on 23 October to improve disability statistics. During the conference we committed to developing guidance on disability data disaggregation with the UN’s Washington group on disability statistics. We are certainly working towards the goal that my hon. Friend set out of ensuring that disaggregated data are available, and that we can identify where the key problems are and what is effective in ensuring that education reaches the most disadvantaged. To improve education-specific data, we are supporting UNESCO’s institute for statistics in regularly publishing education indicators disaggregated by specific population groups, including people with disabilities, and in developing new standards for school censuses and surveys related to marginalised populations.

As hon. Members know, the true benefits of education accrue only if children achieve good learning outcomes. Our recently published inclusive learning topic guide brings together for the first time evidence on what works in inclusive learning for children aged 3 to 12 years in low and middle-income countries. It focuses on the varied learning needs of children who either are not benefiting from the learning opportunities available to them, or do not have the opportunity to engage in learning at all, owing to their impairments and disabilities. It explores the role of inclusive approaches in contributing to inclusive societies and, ultimately, inclusive growth, and addresses some of the contested and debated issues around terminology, discrimination, and segregated and inclusive schooling. The topic guide supplements our guidance note on educating children with disabilities, and both resources are available freely to all policy makers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion and the hon. Member for North West Durham asked what was being done to train staff in inclusion. DFID is rolling out training to its in-country staff on the inclusive learning topic guide. Once the framework has been developed, we will consider how we can continue to upskill our country staff. That is work in progress.

At the global level, we are working closely with the World Bank, the Global Partnership for Education, UNICEF, Australia, Germany, Sweden, the United States Agency for International Development and Norway to ensure that more countries eligible for GPE funds implement an inclusive approach to education, with a specific focus on children with disabilities. Our influencing efforts made disability a priority for the June replenishment of the GPE. Twelve countries pledged at that event to do more for children with disabilities, including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Ghana.

My right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is an unrelenting champion for children with disabilities and I know that she raises the issue at every opportunity, in every meeting, with ministerial counterparts when she travels to partner countries. I do not know, but I imagine that she has travelled to Nigeria recently. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion raised the issue of disability not being mentioned in the business case for the Nigeria education programme. I reassure him that the programme is in line with DFID’s three priorities in education: improving learning, focusing on girls and ensuring that the most marginalised can learn. DFID business cases are used primarily to assess the evidence on and financial basis of programmes, and do not contain all the detailed information on programme delivery. Disability will clearly be part of the programme.

The International Development Committee’s recent inquiry into DFID’s work on disability recognised that we are doing some impressive work already, but that more ambition would be transformational. DFID is committed to developing a framework to strengthen our work on disability further, and it will be published on 3 December—I think that my hon. Friend referred to the end of November.

My hon. Friend asked how the framework would be implemented. As he knows, we have made two public commitments: first, about accessible schooling; and, secondly, about improving disability data. Through the second commitment, we are working to develop disability-sensitive indicators, which currently do not exist, to measure progress on disability-sensitive education and inclusive learning. That is how we will be able to monitor that things are, in fact, working, and that this is not just fine words without matched fine action, to which the hon. Member for Wirral South referred.

I thank the hon. Lady for her support. I am sure that the teachers present will have given her top marks for her presentation, so I do not think she needed to worry about that. I hope I have answered most of her questions, but I might need to return to her point about whether DFID has the skills base to develop disability policy. If I do not get inspiration about that point, I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary hears that that is a particular concern, and I am sure that she will want to respond directly. As my right hon. Friend makes disability issues a priority, however, I am sure that she would not want a situation in which there were not the necessary skills in her Department to deal with that critical issue.

As the 20th anniversary of the Salamanca framework for action passes, we must ensure that co-ordinated action from Governments, donors and other key stakeholders is able to secure better access to schooling and inclusive learning outcomes for disabled children, as well as wider benefits for inclusive societies. The economic and social costs of exclusion are high. Many low and middle-income economies suffer greater losses from maintaining large out-of-school populations than they would from increasing public spending to achieve universal primary enrolment. It is clear that enrolling all children in basic education is a productive and smart investment. The economic benefits of education are well established and the inclusive growth to which it can contribute is, by definition, grounded in societies that are open, equitable, tolerant and just.

As I have just received inspiration, I can say in response to the hon. Member for Wirral South that DFID has increased the specialist headquarters staff to two. We also have a secondee into the Australian Government, who are world leaders on disability policy. There has been some strengthening of the team but, none the less, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary may want to respond to that point in writing.

Recognising and valuing diversity within learning communities and welcoming all children into the classroom must be pivotal components in all learning strategies. Leaving no one behind at school and in wider society is essential not only to a sustainable approach to development and poverty eradication, but to the attainment of the freedoms, dignity, tolerance and respect that are fundamental to our common humanity.

Sitting suspended.