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Support for Deaf Children: South Gloucestershire

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for deaf children in south Gloucestershire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I am delighted to have secured a vital debate about the issues faced by deaf children and their families in South Gloucestershire. I am grateful to the House authorities for ensuring that there is a signer today in the Public Gallery and live subtitles during the debate.

I secured the debate after meeting parents and families of deaf children in my constituency, and subsequently the National Deaf Children’s Society, to discuss the current review of service provision across the four authority areas in the west of England. I thank those families and the NDCS for discussing the matter with me in great depth, and for all the work they do up and down the country to make life better and fairer for deaf and hearing-impaired children.

Hearing loss affects more than 10 million adults and around 45,000 children in the UK. Of those, around half are born deaf, while others can acquire the condition later during childhood. Around 370 children are born with severe to profound deafness in England each year. Deafness in children can be temporary or permanent, and it can be mild or profound. It can be in one ear or in both. Regardless of its type, it is often a very high-need condition and it can have a serious impact on children’s development and their ability to achieve their ambitions. It can affect language development, ability to communicate and educational achievements and attainment, and it can increase the risk of isolation and mental health difficulties. Around 48% of deaf children fail to reach the expected levels of language communication skills in their early years. It is easy to see how this condition can go on to have a negative impact on children and affect their quality of life.

Local authorities and schools in England already are required to provide support for deaf children, to ensure that young children especially are not at a substantial disadvantage to their hearing peers. The fact that only one in five children passes GCSE English and maths in the south-west demonstrates that there is still much more to do. Deaf children in South Gloucestershire face the same issues. Despite the fact that deafness is not a learning disability, 44% of deaf children are likely not to do as well as their peers. It is clear that more needs to be done to close the gap, to support children and to ensure that they have a fair chance of maximising their educational achievements and fulfilling their potential.

Deaf children and young people in South Gloucestershire rely on support provided to them by the Sensory Support Service, which has served other neighbouring local authorities since 1996: Bath and North East Somerset, Bristol and North Somerset. The service supports the educational development of children in the area who have sensory impairment and who are aged between zero and 16.

In November 2017, the four authorities decided to carry out a review of all the support services. That review is at an early stage. A stakeholder reference group has been created to enable parents, charities, children and carers to input into the review, and it allows anyone affected to have their say. The stakeholder group is meeting for the first time later this month, and it is timely to have this debate just days before that meeting is due to take place. The redesigned service will come into effect around September 2019, and it will continue to be jointly commissioned by the four authorities. Now is the right time to ensure that the new revised service is fit for purpose and is serving deaf children well in our community.

There are four main points that I would like to raise, which should be considered as part of the review: early years support, teachers of the deaf, speech and language therapy and, importantly, the provision of radio aids.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and pay tribute to the fantastic work he is doing on this important matter for children in our council area. I welcome more proposals, in particular to ensure that the new Sensory Support Service prioritises the provision of radio aids for children to use in nursery and at home. That would be hugely beneficial to the children and their families, who need that highly valuable resource.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. I will talk about the issues he raised in a bit more detail, but he has hit the nail on the head about the need for hearing aids and other assisted listening technologies outside the school or nursery setting. I thank him for that, and for his important work in South Gloucestershire on behalf of the communities.

Early years support services can be vital in determining a child’s future success. Therefore, it is important that local children get the targeted support that they require as early as possible during their development. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Many deaf children can face a lack of pre-school and early years support. The foundations for communication and language skills are often laid during the earliest stage of a child’s life. Local parents have expressed their concerns about the uncertainty that comes with the review and about making sure that the outcome is right. Support for early years and pre-school must be prioritised and strengthened during the review period.

Support in the form of teachers of the deaf can be extremely useful for children with hearing loss. They provide specialist training and advice to teachers, parents and pupils on how to deal with the difficulties that come with the everyday challenges that people may face. Those teachers can give skilled assistance to pupils and their families and make a significant contribution to their academic progress and achievement later in life. Currently, there are unfilled vacancies in South Gloucestershire that are a source of concern to local parents, who want to ensure that the frontline delivery of services remains a priority after September 2019. Parents want to be certain that children in our community will continue to have fair access to help from those specialist teachers so that they can continue to make positive improvements in their development and learning. It is vital that the review protects frontline teaching of the deaf.

My third point is about therapy support—specifically, speech and language therapy provision—beyond key stage 1 in South Gloucestershire. Speech and language therapy—SALT—can help children to develop better communication skills, optimise their speech, build their confidence and improve their interaction with others. It is important to ensure that the appropriate specialised SALT support is provided beyond key stage 1, because it can make a real difference to the development of children’s communication.

It is important that local children can continue to benefit from the expert advice and assessment of the NHS SALT service after the review. This is, therefore, the perfect time for South Gloucestershire Council and other authorities to consider improving the joining up of provision and support between health and education organisations, especially following the Ofsted report. Although I accept that in some cases commissioning is delegated to schools, it is important to ensure that support such as the provision of teachers of the deaf and SALT is complemented, and that there are no gaps in the provision of services for deaf children. That is a real concern that parents and the NDCS in particular have raised with me.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. He raises important points about education provision in South Gloucestershire, which is not as good as it should be. South Gloucestershire does not do as well as neighbouring local authorities such as Bristol, particularly for deaf children and people with special educational needs. On speech and language therapy provision and its funding, does he believe that the Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire clinical commissioning group also has a role to play? Deafness is a special educational need and a physical impairment, and its detection can take place at GP centres and in hospitals, so the NHS and South Gloucestershire Council both have roles to play.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and for all the work he does on behalf of people, including children, around South Gloucestershire. He is absolutely right: of course the clinical commissioning group and local NHS services have a role in ensuring that children around South Gloucestershire receive optimal support. He is right to point out that there are clearly ways we can improve in South Gloucestershire following the Ofsted report.

The need for improved access to assistive listening technologies such as radio aids—especially, as my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) pointed out, for pre-school children outside the nursery setting—has come up time and again in my conversations with local parents. Radio aids help deaf children to hear speech and sounds more clearly, as they transmit sound directly to a child’s hearing aid or implant. That can be critical in the early years of a child’s life, when they are at the earliest stage of learning. Radio aids can play an essential role in language development and in improving parent-to-child communication in the home and outside nursery.

We had a fascinating day when the NDCS brought hearing aids here so that we could hear the remarkable difference, in a busy and loud environment, between having that technology and not having it. Such environments often make for difficult listening conditions, and radio aids can prove useful in reducing the effects of background noise and improving the listening experience. Using them in places such as the car, public transport, after-school clubs and the home can make a big difference in a child’s language development and improve their concentration and attention.

My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Is that not the critical point? Academics such as Leon Feinstein have shown that word acquisition varies: at the age of three, a child in a disadvantaged family might know 600 words but a child in a more affluent family might know nearly 6,000 words. For a deaf child, being able to acquire words early is vital. The success of the Government’s phonics programme in developing language acquisition has clearly been proven, but that cannot take place unless we have radio aids. Does he therefore believe that there should be universal provision of radio aids for deaf children in South Gloucestershire, and that children should be able to take those aids outside the school setting to ensure they are constantly learning and engaged in whatever setting they are in?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the success of the Government’s phonics programme and the disparity in children’s vocabulary. I will come on to an example of a child in my constituency who benefited and learned new words by being part of a trial in South Gloucestershire that made radio aids possible. I completely agree that it is vital for people to have access to radio aids outside the home.

Living with hearing loss is sometimes an isolating and lonely experience, and radio aids have been shown to have positive effects on children’s psychological and emotional wellbeing and self-confidence. Perhaps the best argument for the use of radio aids I have heard came from my constituent, Hannah, whose daughter has severe hearing loss and has been wearing hearing aids since she was eight weeks old. Hannah’s daughter was offered the chance to use a radio aid for a trial period. Hannah told me how beneficial that had been for her daughter, who started to pick up new vocabulary and became more confident and independent. That radio aid enabled her to have an experience of life that was much more like that of her hearing friends.

Local parents are concerned about the fact that although the provision of radio aids outside the school or nursery setting might be greatly beneficial, it is not a certainty for children in South Gloucestershire. In this review period, there is even more uncertainty about what will come post September next year. I therefore urge all four authorities to use the review to consider providing radio aids to all deaf and hearing-impaired children for use in the home and outside the school or nursery setting as quickly as possible.

I ask the Minister to urge South Gloucestershire Council and the other three authorities to take the review process as an opportunity to evaluate overall provision for local deaf children, and to have in mind the four points I have raised: prioritising early years and pre-school provision and ensuring that it is strengthened as a result of the review; protecting the provision of teaching of the deaf; joining up the teaching of the deaf and speech and language therapy services, which is particularly important and has been raised a number of times; and considering providing radio aids to all deaf and hearing-impaired children outside the home as quickly as possible. The review gives us the opportunity to improve the support we offer to deaf children, and to help children in South Gloucestershire to develop better communication skills, optimise their speech skills, build their confidence in interactions with their families and others, maximise their academic attainment and become more confident and independent. Taking those steps will make that possible.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) on securing this timely debate, which follows my recent meetings with members of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness. I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the Government’s position on supporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, including those who are deaf and hearing-impaired, and to understand views about the services available in South Gloucestershire.

I am determined to ensure that children and young people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment receive the support they need to achieve the success they deserve. Our latest figures show that more than 21,000 pupils who have a hearing impairment as their primary special educational need are supported by schools in England, and 93% of children with a hearing impairment are educated in mainstream primary and secondary schools. I know that many colleagues are concerned that that group of children and young people is likely to receive a poorer service, and I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) about hearing aids in early years settings. However, I assure colleagues that it is not my expectation that those children should receive a poorer service. I expect deaf and hearing-impaired children and young people to receive the support they need to help them fulfil their aspirations alongside their peers. I hope that message gets home to the leadership in South Gloucestershire and neighbouring authorities.

The 2014 SEND reforms were the biggest change to the system in a generation, placing a new emphasis on promoting better involvement of parents and young people in the planning and support provided for their children. The Children and Families Act 2014 and the “SEND code of practice: 0 to 25 years” in 2015 built on best practice developed over many years. The reforms are about improving the support available to all children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, which we are doing by joining up services for nought to 25-year-olds across education, health and social care and by focusing on positive outcomes in education, employment, housing, health and community participation. I want to be absolutely clear that that vision applies equally to deaf and hearing-impaired children and young people.

The completion of the statutory transition period in the SEND system is not the end point for the SEND reforms. We all recognise that we are only partway to achieving our vision; the biggest issue we have to address now is changing the culture in local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and education settings. We must support organisations to overcome the barriers that prevent them from working together, focus on the long-term outcomes for these young people and ensure that our policies are delivering for families and supporting children to succeed. Supporting schools to respond to the needs of all their pupils is crucial to achieving that goal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate mentioned teachers and the training they receive, and that is very much part of the Government’s strategy. In the past five years, we have funded the National Sensory Impairment Partnership to provide a wide range of support to early years, schools, post-16 providers and local authorities to improve outcomes for children and young people with sensory impairment. The work has included the development of resources and training, which are now being accessed by practitioners across the sector.

Having developed those resources and many others relating to other specific impairments, we are shifting our focus to better supporting schools and working to embed the SEND reforms within the school-led system of school improvement. In that way, we aim to equip the workforce to deliver high-quality teaching across all types of SEN. We have recently contracted with the Whole School SEND consortium for a two-year programme to equip schools to identify and meet their training needs in relation to SEND. We are delighted that the National Sensory Impairment Partnership is very much part of that consortium. The consortium will, among other things, help to review the mandatory qualifications for teachers of pupils with sensory impairment to ensure that they remain fit for purpose. I hope that provides my hon. Friend with some reassurance on one of his points.

The Government have separately invested in a number of programmes to support children and young people with hearing impairments and their families. We have funded the development of an early support guide for parents of deaf children, which is available through the Council for Disabled Children’s website. In addition, we have funded the National Deaf Children’s Society’s I-Sign project and the development of a family-orientated sign language programme, which is available free on the society’s family sign language website.

To support local areas to improve and to reassure families that services will be held to account, we have introduced joint local area inspections. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) alluded to the fact that South Gloucestershire is challenged, certainly. The inspections, which started in May 2016 and will see every local area inspected by 2021, are carried out by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. Parents’ views of services are an important part of the inspections. The inspections are playing an important role in our reforms, not least by bringing together education, health and social care services, and I am pleased to see services working collaboratively with families to act on the inspections’ findings.

By the way, I have written to South Gloucestershire, which has been asked by Ofsted and the CQC to produce a written statement of action and is required to update me on progress in the action it is taking to address its weaknesses. We will, of course, support South Gloucestershire to respond to the written statement of action through the Department for Education’s professional SEND adviser team and NHS England’s regional adviser team. I understand the local authority is working hard to address those weaknesses.

The duty to commission services jointly is vital to the success of the SEND reforms. We recognise that unless education, health and social care partners work together, we will not see the holistic approach to a child’s progression and the positive outcomes that the system was designed to deliver. Joint working is also one of the best ways of managing pressures on local authority and NHS budgets. Looking for more efficient ways to work together, to share information and to avoid duplication will work in favour of professionals and those who are most important: families and their children. The child or young person and their family must be at the centre of that joint commissioning approach.

Some areas are demonstrating excellent joint working. For example, Wiltshire received positive feedback on the effectiveness of its local area’s joint commissioning arrangements. It was reported that senior officers across education, health and care worked together effectively, adopting a well-integrated, multi-agency approach.

What might all of that mean to the deaf and hearing-impaired children and young people in South Gloucestershire? As my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate articulated, South Gloucestershire, along with its neighbouring local authorities, is considering the best way to support sensory-impaired children and young people through its Sensory Support Service. It is important that parents, carers and young people have and take the opportunity to feed into that work. My hon. Friend, by securing the debate, has provided a wonderful opportunity for his constituents and local authority to hear from colleagues and the Department on what needs to happen, and to shape those services for the future.

I am very supportive of local authorities working together to provide effectively for children and young people in their areas. Working in that way is not about local authorities abdicating their responsibility; rather, it is about achieving a better service and better value for money by working together and sharing knowledge and expertise for the benefit of all.

How local authorities choose to allocate their funding is a matter for them, and each authority will carefully consider how best to meet the needs of its children and young people. I understand that South Gloucestershire has funded radio aids for children to access their learning in early years and schools settings from its equipment budget. I am encouraged that it is working closely with children, young people and families to make decisions on how local funding is allocated to overcome barriers and improve access to education for the children in its area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood mentioned closing the word gap by improving children’s vocabulary. Last week, we announced a fund of £8.5 million to which local authorities can apply for peer-to-peer review of what really works in terms of whole learning. We now need to assess and collect evidence for best practice from a number of projects, and then we will begin to work out how we scale that for the whole country. I am proud of what has been achieved so far and I look forward to working with the SEND organisations, delivery partners and practitioners to ensure the vision becomes a reality.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate also mentioned speech and language therapy at key stage 1 and how local authorities should look to expand that and take it forward. Early years provision was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke. We have a pretty comprehensive strategy in early years interventions. We currently invest about £6 billion a year in childcare, with the disadvantaged two-year-old offer of 15 hours a week and the universal offer of 15 hours a week for three and four-year-olds. All of that is very much part of our overall strategy for early years intervention.

I thank the Minister for making that absolutely vital point. We have these accusations of school funding cuts and less money going to young people. Will he finally nail this lie once and for all? Across the country and in South Gloucestershire more money is being spent on special educational needs and our primary schools. Cuts are not taking place; the Government are investing in our future.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood, who wonderfully articulated the position of the Government. It is absolutely correct.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.