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Deaf Students (Educational Achievement)

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 13 January 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Damian Hinds.)

I am very pleased to have been given an opportunity to raise an issue that is of importance not only to my constituents, but to many other families and young people across the country. Deafness is a disability and although that does not mean that children who are deaf are categorised as having learning difficulties, it most definitely means that learning can be difficult. There remains a wide attainment gap between deaf children and their peers. There are a variety of reasons why that is the case, but it need not be that way. It is clear that more could be done across the country to ensure that deaf children receive the support they need to close the gap. It is important to emphasise that while this debate falls under the Department for Education’s brief, it is also clearly a health issue, so unsurprisingly I will touch on health matters in my comments.

Deafness affects more than 45,000 children in the UK, the majority of whom are born to hearing parents with no background in deafness. More than three quarters of them attend mainstream schools with little specialist provision, where they are often the only deaf child in attendance. Most of those deaf children—85%, in fact—do not have a statement of special educational needs, but when they reach working age, just over 50% of them are in employment, compared with 80% of the non-disabled population. We are clearly not assisting them in achieving their full potential.

It is important at this stage to establish who I am talking about when I refer to “deaf children”. When the National Deaf Children’s Society talks about deaf children, it means any child with hearing loss from mild to profound, whether temporary or permanent and whether in one ear or both. Even a mild hearing loss can have a negative impact on deaf children’s achievement. Recent Government figures show that just 43% of deaf children achieve five GCSEs, including English and maths, at grades A* to C, compared with 70% of children with no identified special educational need. It is the Government’s main benchmark for GCSE success, and there is no reason why we should not have the same educational benchmarks for deaf children as for their peers. Clearly more can be done to support these children throughout their school life and to best prepare them for the working world.

I say this as someone with deafness myself. I am, as many in the House are aware, completely deaf in one ear and have been since the age of 16 when I contracted mumps. The damage to my nerve endings meant that nothing could be done to enhance my hearing. It poses problems when there is ambient noise, in a room with poor acoustics and in the Chamber, Mr Deputy Speaker—quite frankly, if you were to speak to me, there is a good chance that I would not hear you unless I was looking at you. I would not be aware that you were talking to me. That happened at one of my early forays at the Dispatch Box. The only way I knew that something was amiss was that I could see the faces of the Members on the Benches opposite, who looked somewhat puzzled that I had not responded to the fact that the Speaker was standing and trying to attract my attention. That can clearly pose problems in a classroom and throughout the education process for many young people, and for teachers who have to consider the physical placement of those students within the class and the eye lines and the background noise during the lesson.

In September I met a young woman called Renée, a lovely and bright 17-year-old girl who is profoundly deaf in both ears and has two cochlear implants. To communicate, Renée uses a combination of speech and British sign language and can lip-read. She told me how hard it could be for her and many of her deaf friends to concentrate and focus on their work in school or college. Especially at the age of 17, when friends are finding their own way in the world, she found it hard to become truly independent like many of her peers, but she has not let any of these obstacles affect her, as they can so many. She sits on the National Deaf Children’s Society’s young people’s advisory board, is a peer buddy at her school, is a member of the National Portrait Gallery youth forum and wants to become an art therapist when she finishes her education. I am sure that she will excel, yet sadly many who experience similar obstacles do not.

Addressing the issue does not simply lie in the classroom. It starts with providing the best possible care and services we can for deaf children. The National Deaf Children’s Society believes that one third of audiology services are failing to provide for deaf children. It has NHS figures that it believes show that those services are failing to see children within Government time frames, failing to use the most up-to-date tests, incorrectly setting up hearing aids, seeing too many children during school hours when they should be learning, and even lacking deaf awareness. The suggestion that the Government are planning to stop assessing the quality of children’s audiology services is therefore very worrying. I realise that this is not a matter for the Minister, but I hope that he will pass my concerns on to his colleagues in the Department of Health. That decision has clearly had a knock-on effect on the educational development of these young people.

Why are audiology services so important? As we know, children learn and socialise through hearing, so it is unsurprising that hearing loss can present considerable challenges to a child’s progress at school and their ability to make friends and develop socially. Good audiology services make a critical contribution to a deaf child’s success in life, as they are responsible for ensuring that a deaf child can use their remaining hearing to the fullest possible extent.

The Government recommend that newborn babies should receive an audiology appointment within four weeks of referral. Older children should be seen within six weeks, and rightly so, as hearing is critical to a child’s development of language and learning, and early diagnosis is vital as it will reduce the risk of delays in language, educational and social development.

The problem is that when asked by NDCS about the length of time it took to get their child an audiology appointment, 44% of parents said that they had to wait five weeks or longer, and 20% said they had to wait for more than eight weeks. At such a young age, that length of time without diagnosis can be seriously detrimental and will certainly put those children behind others of their age when it comes to starting school.

Obviously, effective hearing aids are an integral way of mitigating the effect of deafness, and making sure that they are correctly set up and fit for purpose is essential. Children grow out of the ear moulds for their hearing aids as often as they grow out of their shoes, and any parent will be well aware that that can happen every few months. If a child experiences a delay every time they need an ear mould replaced or if a new one does not fit correctly, they lose out on significant listening and therefore learning time. Sadly, almost 80% of the parents who spoke to NDCS said that they had waited longer than the target time for their ear mould impression appointment. Those are all health issues, but they obviously have an educational impact in the classroom. Almost three quarters of deaf children fail to achieve a good level of development in the early years foundation stage assessment. If deaf children are struggling to attain the same educational outcomes as their non-disabled peers, consider how challenging it must be for deafblind children.

In 2011 a school was built in Belfast specifically to cater for deaf and blind children who needed the level of educational standard it delivered. The school gave those people an academic standard and achievement that prepared them for jobs in future life, but it was done through private finance. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government could follow that example from Northern Ireland, and that the Education and Health Departments could work with the private sector to look after those who are deaf and blind?

The hon. Gentleman has always brought interesting examples and ideas to my previous debates on health-related issues. I am sure the Minister has listened to him. We should seek to learn from any example of good practice, whether it be in the public or the private sector, but whether we would support rolling out the private element more widely is a different issue. That said, if the practice is good and the children are achieving, clearly we should look at it.

Although there are fewer deafblind children than deaf children in the UK, they face a unique set of challenges —of which the hon. Gentleman is clearly aware—when accessing education, and they therefore require specialist support. To be able to get that support, they first need to be identified as deafblind, which is their local authority’s responsibility. Every two years, the charity Sense conducts a survey of local authorities and their identification rates. It estimates that local authorities should be identifying 31 deafblind children per 100,000 of the population. In 2014, they were identifying on average just 14 per 100,000, which is a 7% drop from the figures reported in 2012. The low identification rates are attributed by Sense to poor professional awareness of deafblindness and to inadequate information sharing between agencies. Although this is a crossover issue for health and education, I am concerned that identification of deafblindness is proving to be more difficult and that fewer young people are being identified early enough in the process.

In Plymouth, as in the rest of the country, the number of deaf children has risen. In 2012 there were 171 deaf children in Plymouth and by 2013 there were 175. In the south-west as a whole, 49% of deaf children managed to achieve five GCSEs at grades A* to C in 2011, which is more than the current national average, but way below the average for children without a special educational need. In 2013, however, the attainment levels dropped, with just 40% of deaf children achieving the target of five GCSEs.

Clearly there is an issue. I welcome statements by local authorities that specialist education services are increasing, despite the cuts in the system, and that a review of the specialist educational service for deaf children will go ahead in 2014-15. However, there is a shortfall in specialist teachers nationally and that is having an impact on Plymouth. In England, the national average ratio for visiting teachers of the deaf to children is 1:44. In Plymouth, with just two visiting teachers of the deaf, the ratio is 1:72. I am told that those two specialist teachers are being stretched by unrealistic and unmanageable caseloads. What is being done to recruit, train and, importantly, retain teachers across England with that level of expertise?

The impact on education of being deaf is not only felt at a young age. Many young people continue to experience problems when in higher education. When I met NDCS at the Labour party conference in September, I was told about a young man who relied on note-taking support at university, but when he started his first term he found that no support had been organised, despite the fact that the university had been given plenty of notice of his needs. Unsurprisingly, that made his first couple of months very stressful and unproductive. The issue affects the whole of the education spectrum—from nursery right the way to young people seeking to move from secondary education to university—and it needs to be addressed.

Deaf students will certainly be impacted by the changes to disabled students allowance, in relation to which there has been no mention of non-medical help, such as using British sign language interpreters. I wonder whether the Minister has discussed that issue with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. As I have said, young people coming out of mainstream education and seeking to progress to university may find that that journey is not possible because of the new barriers that are being erected. Randstad student and worker support has told me that 27.7% of the students it surveyed said they would not have attended university without DSA. I am sure the Minister is as anxious as I am not to close off any option to pupils who wish to progress their education.

What needs to be done? Obviously, budgets are tight, and everyone is being asked to do more for less. Charities such as the Plymouth Deaf Children’s Society are working with partners, including the Plymouth YMCA, which has provided admin space in its premises and is incredibly supportive. I have some wonderful people working with various organisations, such as something called CHSWG—the Plymouth Children’s Hearing Services Working Group—and the Plymouth Deaf Children’s Society, including its chair, Yvette Beer, who is fabulous. They are doing a lot of good work, but they were very anxious for me to come to the House to raise some of the concerns that they had raised directly with me.

From my remarks, the Minister will understand not only that we risk making the educational pathway of many young people more difficult, but that there are still gaps in the existing provision. I look forward to hearing his comments.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck)on securing this very important debate. I want to take the opportunity to thank her not only for her personal insight into deafness, but for the work she has undertaken in her local area to support parents and carers of children with disability through the Make a Difference Plymouth parent support group. As she said, through her role as president of the Plymouth YMCA, she was instrumental in helping Yvette Beer and the Plymouth Deaf Children’s Society to secure new premises, which I understand she opened in December. One of the principal reasons for being so encouraged by hearing about such initiatives is that they are very much in the spirit of the special educational needs and disability reforms that came into force last September. I am sure I speak for the whole House when I express my appreciation to her for all she is doing to improve support for deaf children in her constituency.

As ever, I will do my best in the time available to respond to the points made by the hon. Lady, but if I run out of time, I will as usual write to her to pick up any outstanding issues.

The Children and Families Act 2014 sets out a range of measures to reform the special educational needs system so that it extends from birth to 25, giving children, young people and their parents greater control and choice in decisions about their support and ensuring that their needs are properly met. The reforms drew support from all parties and should work to the benefit of all children and young people, regardless of the type of need or impairment.

In addition, under the Equalities Act 2010, schools and other education providers must make reasonable adjustments for disabled children and young people to help alleviate any substantial disadvantage they experience because of their disability, and they must not discriminate against them. If children and young people need special educational provision or specialist services, the duties on schools, local authorities and others in relation to special educational needs then come into play. That ensures that strong legal protections and safeguards are in place.

To support deaf children in particular, the Department is funding many voluntary organisations to enable local areas to benchmark the support that they provide to them, and to access many of the tools and pieces of information on the most effective approaches. Much of the good practice that we know exists can then be used by many more people. We are keen to build on our understanding of the evidence about what works, and we will continue to work with organisations with expertise in this particular area. Our national voluntary and community sector grants programme is an important opportunity for us to continue to support good proposals. From my own involvement with charities supporting deaf people—including Signature, whose conference I spoke at in 2013—I know that there is a huge amount of knowledge and understanding that we can help to harness and bring to bear. We have provided £1.1 million to the National Sensory Impairment Partnership to carry out a benchmarking exercise and develop an outcomes framework for local authorities to assess how well they are supporting deaf pupils.

On that note, does the Minister agree that it is terribly important for deaf children that the local authority is flexible? My constituent has a young son who is within a few days of the switchover and being enrolled in a school for this September. He is profoundly deaf with cochlear implants. The local authority says that he must join that school, but I think it should be flexible. Does the Minister agree that local authorities must be flexible to ensure the best outcomes for deaf children?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I do not know the details of that case and it would be wrong for me to comment on it, but the whole thrust of our reforms to the special educational needs system is to ensure that it focuses relentlessly on the individual needs of each child, and on the support that they and their family need, in order for the child to reach their academic potential. We must have high aspirations and remove any barriers that prevent them from reaching their goal, and I expect that to happen in every local authority, irrespective of where it is.

The Government have funded the production of an early support guide for parents of deaf children, and the I-Sign project to develop a family sign language programme is available from the National Deaf Children’s Society. That is particularly important in the first few years when children are learning to communicate, especially for 90% of deaf children who are born to hearing parents.

The most important service for all children and young people is high-quality teaching—the hon. Lady touched on that. We have set clear guidance in the new code of practice on the process for identifying and assessing children’s special educational needs, putting support in place, monitoring the progress made by each child, and securing further support where necessary. Narrowing the gap between deaf children and their peers is a key barometer for whether deaf children are getting access to high-quality teaching. Although we must endeavour to make further progress in that area, we should also recognise the enormous improvements that have been made.

More deaf children are leaving school with good GCSEs, and we want them to aspire to reach their full potential. In 2012-13—the latest year for which data are available—73.5% of deaf children achieved five or more A to C grades in GCSE, compared with 50% in 2008-09. For pupils without SEN, those figures were 89% and 80% respectively. Over that period, deaf pupils progressed at approximately twice the rate of their peers. The attainment gap has closed significantly, and that must be a testament to the hard work of pupils themselves, as well as to the work of sensory support services across the country. I hear what the hon. Lady says about recent figures from her constituency, and that is disappointing when so much progress has been made. However, I hope that with our reforms and the renewed appetite to ensure that health care, social care and education work more closely around a family, those improvements will come back on track.

Improvements in teaching practice and technological advances mean that deaf children are now far more likely to achieve their full potential than they were five years ago, and we want that progress to continue. We are working to improve the training of teachers and school leaders to help them identify where pupils with hearing loss face barriers to learning, and offer appropriate support. The hon. Lady rightly asked how we are seeking to do that. Through the national scholarship fund, teachers and support staff can apply for funding to undertake high-level qualifications to improve their knowledge and enhance their ability to support the teaching and learning of pupils with SEN and disabilities. Importantly, that fund can be used for qualifications relating to sensory impairment, and more than 1,300 staff have gained such qualifications since 2010.

In April 2014, the National College for Teaching and Leadership launched a new funding round with up to £1 million to support up to 50% of course fees for qualified teachers and SEN support staff, and 648 awards were offered from last September. We need to ensure we have provision to meet demand, and that is an area we need to continue to keep our attention on.

The hon. Lady asked a specific question about the issuing of hearing aids. She acknowledged and appreciates that that falls within the remit of another ministerial portfolio, but I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) addressed this issue in a previous debate and that Health Ministers are handling and monitoring the matter closely. I will of course re-emphasise the concerns the hon. Lady has expressed this evening to my colleagues in the Department of Health. Every intervention by health professionals should be based on clinical need and the legislation is clear that reasonable adjustments legislation applies to all young people.

On funding, it is for local authorities to decide which SEN services to provide for children and young people, including services for deaf children and how much to spend on them based on the duties we have placed on them in the new Children and Families Act 2014 and the accompanying code of practice. The services typically provided by local authorities, either directly or by commissioning others in the public or the private sector, include: services for visual, hearing and physical impairment; specific learning difficulties; speech, language and communication; profound and severe learning difficulties; and autism.

Councils are reporting that they are spending no less this year on their SEN services than they spent last year. Through their local funding formula, they also include a clear amount of funding intended to meet the needs of pupils with additional needs. The majority of children who are deaf and have a hearing impairment fall outside the category of educational health and care assessments. They will benefit from that funding through the delegated schools budgets, which have been protected. Special schools and other schools with special units often use their budgets to develop particular specialist services, including those for pupils with hearing impairment. Where necessary, schools receive extra top-up funding from the local authority for the additional support costs for pupils with the highest needs. We are committed to making sure that the requirements of children with special educational needs are met, and we have been clear to local authorities that they should prioritise vital front-line services to vulnerable children.

Nationally, more than £5 billion is being made available to councils for children and young people with special educational needs, disabilities and other high needs, as part of their dedicated schools grant. Allocations for the year beginning April 2015, notified to local authorities in December, indicated that more than £50 million more was being allocated to local authorities in the high needs element of their grant. The hon. Lady may wish to know that Devon’s dedicated school grant is increasing by more than £16 million next year and that the high needs element of its grant, which this year amounts to £59.6 million, is increasing by £0.2 million.

Just as important is how that money is spent—the way we measure improvement and outcomes for children and how we hold services to account for the quality of service they provide. Most deaf children attend mainstream schools, some of which have additional specialist units offering support on site. Assessments on how well schools perform will be made as part of Ofsted’s school inspection regime. The Ofsted inspection framework places a clear emphasis on meeting the needs of disabled pupils and pupils with SEN, and on considering the quality of teaching and the progress made by those pupils. Where a school has a specialist resource for deaf children, or for other forms of SEN, it is specifically covered by the inspection report.

One of the central tenets of the SEN reforms is to provide clear opportunities for families to influence and shape the development of local services, and to maintain legal rights to challenge individual decisions at the first-tier tribunal for SEN and disability. Last year, I asked Ofsted to carry out a study of local authorities’ planning in preparation for implementation of the special educational needs reforms, and to advise me on whether there was a need for an inspection framework to drive improvements. Ofsted’s findings and key recommendations were published in December. I have invited Ofsted formally to inspect local areas on their effectiveness in fulfilling their duties.

The hon. Lady talked about the key role of health in delivering support for deaf children. Ofsted will inspect along with the Care Quality Commission, and inspections will also involve a local authority officer. Inspections will form part of a wider accountability framework we are putting in place that has strong local accountability at its heart and which should provide assurance to families. Ofsted is now working up the details of the new arrangements, after which I hope to be in a position to provide further details.

With a significant number of children in England having been identified as having a hearing impairment and requiring extra support, it is imperative we ensure that they all benefit from the new SEN reforms. Not only do the SEN and disability reforms in the Children and Families Act provide legal protections, but they establish a better system for identifying needs and commissioning services across education, health and social care. The hon. Lady rightly spoke about the need to improve identification at the earliest opportunity so that the best support can be put in place to ensure that progress is made as soon as possible and that we do not delay ensuring that every child progresses, not just in their education but in the other development goals we know they are capable of.

The reforms should help ensure that services are responsive to local needs and that families do not feel they have to battle to find out what support is available or to access services. The evidence from the pathfinder areas and the early implementation of the reforms indicates that many parents are starting to see a different approach from the different agencies involved with them and their child. The new education and health and care plan will clearly set out in one place all the support across services that a child will receive, and crucially will focus on the outcomes, in education, work and other areas, that the child and their family want to achieve now and in the future.

This has been a thought-provoking debate, and I am sorry that we do not have more time to elucidate many of the important matters the hon. Lady has raised, but I again thank her for bringing this matter to the House and raising awareness of the importance of ensuring that all deaf children are given the best possible chance of succeeding, both educationally and more widely in their lives, as they move into adulthood. Our SEN reforms will help to deliver that well placed aspiration, and I look forward to continuing to work with her and the professionals who work day in, day out to provide the best possible support to help achieve the goals we have set, not just for ourselves, but more importantly for the children we are all there for.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).