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Dyslexia Screening and Teacher Training Bill

Volume 723: debated on Friday 2 December 2022

Second Reading

This is the third Bill of the day—I note that you appear to be making a habit of coming third these days, Mr Hancock.

I am not quite sure what to make of that, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am honoured to be third today. Let us see how it goes. It is a pleasure to be here, and to be clean and well fed.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

“The best way to spread opportunity and reduce inequality in society is by providing every person with a world class education”.

Those are not my words but the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I passionately agree that this should apply to all, and my Bill represents the next step in turning those strong words into action.

I am delighted that the Bill has cross-party support. Indeed, its gestation had support from both sides of the House, including from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), and indeed from the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), who has sat on both sides of the House since the Bill was first drafted.

I firmly support the Government’s approach to increasing rigour and improving standards in our schools, which is at the heart of this Bill. That drive over a decade is raising standards, and with raised standards comes raised opportunity and increased hope for children. We have especially seen improvement in the most deprived parts of our land.

The Government’s explicit goal is now even greater literacy. Earlier this year, the then Secretary of State for Education—I think he was the last Secretary of State but four, but I have slightly lost count—put 100% literacy at the heart of the schools White Paper and the special educational needs and disability review, and he was right to do so. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed the Government’s continued support for these two incredibly important planks of education policy: the schools White Paper and the SEND review.

There is a gaping hole in the Government’s literacy drive because, shockingly, just one in five dyslexic children is identified at school. Those are the Department’s own figures. When I found that figure in the Rose report of more than 10 years ago, I asked the Department, through parliamentary questions, for the updated figure, because I thought one in five was so shockingly low, but I found that it has not changed over the past decade. Only one in five dyslexic children is identified at school.

Without early identification, we will never reach full literacy. Success in driving up literacy requires us next to support those who have the most difficulty in increasing their literacy. The next stage of the education revolution under this Administration must be to improve opportunities for dyslexic children and for children with other neurodivergent conditions.

It is estimated that around 10% of people in the UK are dyslexic, but if we do not know who is dyslexic at school, how can we possibly help them and equip them with what they need to deal with the challenges life throws at us? Having been Health Secretary, I draw this analogy: if a person does not know they have a heart condition, they cannot get the support to sort it out. That is at the heart of what we need here, to ensure that we have early identification. Screening is a standard and valuable medical intervention. It helps people to live healthy, improved lives, and so it is with dyslexia.

My Bill would result in every child being screened for dyslexia at primary school, and it would give teachers adequate training to teach dyslexic children properly. It is an outrage that, although every teacher is a teacher of dyslexic children, teachers currently do not need to be trained to support dyslexic children. That needs to change, as it leaves thousands of dyslexic children without the world-class education they have been promised.

The fact that only one in five children with dyslexia is identified at school means that many leave school not knowing they have a specific condition that affects how they translate the letters on a page into sounds in their head. Instead, dyslexics up and down the country are called lazy or stupid. The worst is that that undermines their self-esteem, and the problem with that is that they label themselves. I was once told, “We don’t want to label children as dyslexic because they might feel downtrodden by that,” but I can tell the House from personal experience that once someone has found out, as a dyslexic, what the problem is, they can get the support. In my case, when I was identified as dyslexic aged 18—after I had left school—I then got the support to essentially relearn how to read, and that allows me to stand here reading from a little piece of paper while speaking it out in a way that I simply would not have been able to before I got that support.

However, it is not only the practical support we need; we also need to ensure that we know what the problem is. I know, and dyslexics who have that dyslexia identified know, that the problem is a specific neurological one of the translation of letters that wobble around slightly on the page into how that sounds in your head. It is not that someone is bad at languages or stupid in some way, and there are still thousands of children who have labelled themselves as that because they do not get the identification that they need. That has got to change, and it is wrong to say that labelling children is a mistake. On the contrary, ensuring that children know what the problem is gets them support and helps to improve their self-esteem.

Is it right that some people who have been identified as dyslexic are able to get particular help—extra time, for example—in taking their exams? If they are not identified as dyslexic, they will not be able to take advantage of that.

My hon. Friend brings me immediately on to the next page of my speech, and I know that he is extremely experienced in work on these private Members’ Bills on a Friday—so much so that he can anticipate precisely the next point I was going to make.

The current system is broken, because identification as dyslexic requires expensive tests that only a few children do, and there is a strong correlation between being able to access those tests and the means of one’s parents, the result of which is a much higher rate of identification in the private school system than in the state school system. In the state school system, 2.2% of people are identified as having a special learning need. In the private school system, 18% have an education and healthcare plan. The divergence between those two figures cannot possibly be explained by a difference in the nature of the children; it is all about access.

In this country for more than 100 years, we have had universal access to schooling—quite rightly; it is the basis of a fair society and equality of opportunity—but we do not have equal access to identification for dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions, and as a result it is not just that we have a problem accessing the extra time that might be appropriate, but we have an essentially unfair system of allocating that extra time, because if someone can afford to get the identification, they get the extra time, and if they cannot afford to, they do not, and that is a social outrage.

It is not only an issue of morality but an issue of social and economic justice. I gently make the point, which relates to the previous Bill, that more than half of prisoners are thought to have dyslexia, and more than half of successful entrepreneurs are thought to have dyslexia. If someone is dyslexic, their life can go two ways. If they get the support they need and become successful, they often are more creative. There is more lateral thinking among dyslexics, not least because we think around problems like how to read something on a page. People who do not get the support, however, can end up too often in a life of crime.

The 2012 “Dyslexia Behind Bars” programme found that when prisoners were taught to read, the reoffending rate dropped by 5.9% within four years. Sadly, as Ofsted and His Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons reported earlier this year, there has been no progress in literacy in prisons over the past decade, and the report was one of the most upsetting I have ever read. A dry Government document should not be as upsetting as that, and it describes precisely the problem caused by failing to put in place the measures in this Bill.

It is not all doom and gloom, though; there is also a massive opportunity. Dyslexic people tend to have skills that jobs increasingly need and future jobs need: creativity, lateral thinking and enhanced communication skills, especially in oral communication. Computers increasingly do the boring straight-line thinking; dyslexics have brains fit for the future. It is no wonder that progressive employers such as GCHQ, Universal Music and Deloitte proactively hire neurodivergent people. But if dyslexic people do not know that they have those talents—if they are not identified and they do not get the support they need—they cannot make the most of those advantages.

I have one further point on why there might be objections to the Bill. I have heard some people say that we do not want more false positives and to over-identify children who are not dyslexic. The Bill is carefully written to take that into account. It is calling for screening for all—it is not calling for all to take a formal test—with the purpose of the screening to get better data. We have an excellent phonics test in primary schools, which is good at identifying how good children are at turning phonic symbols on the page into sounds in their heads, but the measure of a dyslexic brain is the gap between that capability and capability at languages.

Most dyslexics are good at oral languages. They have got the gift of the gab—a bit like me, you might say, Mr Deputy Speaker. If they are good at that and poor at the phonics test, that identifies a different problem from being bad at the phonics test and bad at languages, which requires a different type of support. I am trying to address that gap. By having a test of language ability alongside phonic ability in primary school, we will find those who we know have the intellectual capability and wherewithal but have just got a specific neurological problem that means that they need support to get through this barrier. The Bill would help to address that problem. It would ensure that the Government have what they need to implement a system that takes the literacy that we need to see to the next level. If 10% of children are dyslexic, there is no way that we can reach full literacy without measures to find out who those children are and addressing that.

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I thank him for shining such a bright spotlight on this area and setting out the opportunities for neurodivergent people. Increasing educational and employment outcomes is a huge priority for me, and I know that he is a passionate campaigner. I want to put on the record my gratitude to him and willingness to work with him further on this issue.

I am grateful for that willingness—passing the Bill would be a good starting point. The Minister is also right that there is good work ongoing, especially in the SEND review. However, the critical point is early identification and rejection of the false argument put to me, including by some in her Department, that it is a bad idea to identify problems. We need more data in the classroom to know how children work. The best outcome would be that some children would have dyslexia identified, be given support and therefore close the gap between their phonic ability and their language ability just as my gap was closed and I can now read long words off a piece of paper and read perfectly effectively to be able to hold down a half-decent job.

May I say how much I admire the right hon. Gentleman’s campaign on dyslexia? Could he say a little bit about what happened at the age of 18 from his own point of view? Why did he not get the support that he needed before that age? What sparked that? I think that would be of interest to people.

I am incredibly grateful for that question. I know that others want to speak about the Bill, but I was fortunate in that I was okay at maths, so I got to university on my maths. I specialised in maths-based subjects—maths, physics, computing and economics—at A-level. I arrived at university to do an essay-based degree and, by the end of my first term, my tutor, Dr Michael Hart, at Oxford, took me to one side and said, “You can talk, but you can’t get it down on paper. You should go and get identified.” I was lucky because I was at one of the best universities in the world, and it had a brilliant education department that essentially retrained my brain in how to read. It took me back to the phonics, and now I learn each word and look at a word essentially as a picture, which means that I can read normal words quite well. I am not that good with brand-new words and have to concentrate hard to learn them. That gave me the ability to prosper at university and to succeed afterwards.

It did not stop all the screw-ups—I have some terrible stories of errors, including when I wrote an election address for the former Member for Guildford in the 2001 election, and managed accidentally to write in very large letters across the front, “I want to untie the community”. I intended to say, “I want to unite the community”. Unfortunately, we only discovered the error when the election address had landed on the 40,000 mats. The former Member for Guildford, who is here no longer, is still my friend. My dyslexia has continued to cause some problems for me—it caused a problem for him, but I hope that he has forgiven me.

I want to put on record my thanks to the British Dyslexia Association and to Made by Dyslexia, which campaigns to explain the benefits of dyslexic thinking, and to Neurodiversity in Business, which campaigns for businesses to open their minds to people who think differently. These are superb campaigning organisations, but more needs to happen. The choice is very simple. We must not leave generations of dyslexic children without identification or the support they deserve. We can back this Bill and end systemic discrimination against neurodivergent children in our education system. If hon. Members, like me, care about every child actually receiving a world-class education, there is no good reason to reject this Bill.

For decades, Governments of all colours have failed dyslexic children and put this issue in the “too difficult” box. Today we have the opportunity to right that wrong. This Bill will improve literacy, increase economic growth and reduce crime. Now is the time to stop talking and start delivering.

Let me start by saying how good it is to see the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) here in the flesh. He may have felt at home in the last few weeks among late-career pop stars and soap legends, but what he is hoping to do here is far more important. I thought he was very cool in channelling his inner Arnie, although I am not sure that he’ll be back—that may be one for the Government. In all seriousness, I know that the topic of this Bill is close to his heart. He has campaigned long and hard to raise awareness of dyslexia and neurodivergent conditions. As was made clear earlier, his campaign is as much a personal one as a political one. For that, I commend him.

The British Dyslexia Association, as the right hon. Gentleman said, estimates that between 10% to 15% of UK people are dyslexic, while around 6% suffer from dyscalculia. We are all committed to ensuring that neurodivergence should not hold children back from achieving their potential. With early intervention and the right support through their education, children with dyslexia can succeed at school. Yet, all too often, lack of access to diagnosis and support creates multiple problems. An estimated four in five young people leave school with dyslexia unidentified, thinking that they just find reading and writing hard. That can hold back pupils’ grades, particularly in exam-based assessment, and affect their confidence and mental health. We need to prioritise earlier intervention and quicker support, as the right hon. Member said.

Those with dyslexia clearly feel different from their peers. Many dyslexic children show strength in lateral thinking and creative skills. It is vital that those skills are nurtured and encouraged alongside the additional support that children need with their reading and writing. Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking and Abraham Lincoln were all recorded as having dyslexia. Their individual contributions were immense, despite being outliers and often going it alone.

Teachers and school staff across the country work hard all year round to support their students, but a staggering 59% of teachers believe that there is no appropriate training in place for all teachers to support pupils with SEND. I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s efforts to try to change the statute book to address this glaring deficiency in our education system for neurodivergent children, but I wonder if additional legislation is necessary in this form. I sense that, perhaps with more engagement with Opposition Members and with the Department for Education, he could have sought to focus his energy on reforming the system as it stands, but more broadly.

Labour is just as committed to this agenda as the right hon. Gentleman is. Indeed, our national excellence programme, funded by ending the tax breaks for private schools, would provide a £210 million teacher development fund. It would ensure that teachers have access to appropriate ongoing training for SEND, including dyslexia, at every stage of their career, through existing channels. Although Labour supports the underlying thrust of this Bill and sympathises with its aims, we believe that this is better delivered through trainee teacher continuous professional development programmes. That will allow trainee teachers to develop an understanding and awareness of a range of neurodivergent conditions, not just limited to dyslexia. With that in mind, and without wishing to delay the House further, it is worth asking the Minister what steps she is taking to ensure that the principle behind the Bill is noted in the improvement plan for SEND Green Paper. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will be aware, the Government had committed to publishing the improvement plan by the end of the year but have since delayed it until after the new year. So will the Minister indicate when she expects it to be published, given the stresses that many parents of SEND pupils have to cope with in the current SEND system?

Many of the harrowing cases I hear about in my constituency surgeries—this is weekly—involve people who are worried about the SEND system as it currently operates. We should all feel an imperative to break down the administrative hurdles making the lives of parents and neurodivergent children and pupils harder. For that reason, although I admire the right hon. Gentleman’s attempts to bring this legislation through—like him and so many others, my brother suffered greatly through a lack of early diagnosis—I do not believe this Bill is the answer in the way it currently sits. What is needed is better diagnosis across all education and all neurodivergent conditions. We believe that that can be done through continuous professional development. So along with my Labour colleagues, I look forward to seeing how the Bill develops and to hearing from the Minister.

It is with great pleasure that I rise to support this private Member’s Bill from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock). When I had the pleasure of serving with him in the Department of Health and Social Care, we had a shared objective of making services deliver better for people with neurodiverse conditions. We still have a long way to go on that journey, but I say to the Minister that this Bill will go a long way to helping do that. We have heard that as many as 10% of the population are dyslexic, but only one in five of them is diagnosed. For the other four in five, every day in school is a misery. They are made to feel stupid because their brain does not work the same as everyone else’s, yet their education is completely driven by everyone else’s experience. That misery leads them to fall out of school. As he has said, half of the prison population is comprised of people who have suffered with dyslexia, yet with diagnosis they can be equipped with the tools that enable them to realise that they are not stupid and that their brain just works differently from everyone else’s, and they can get on and become a great success. They have other skills and the fact that their brain works differently means we can better utilise their skillset. I will say no more, because we have just got time to say yes to this Bill. So please, Minister, give us all an early Christmas present and back this Bill.

I am over the moon to be here discussing such important issues. As the Minister for special educational needs, and having served briefly as the Minister for disabled people, I want to start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) on introducing a Bill on this important issue. Having heard from people from across the House, I think we can agree that we have to work tirelessly to improve the outcomes for children and young people with SEND. I want to make sure that the decisions we take are well-informed and evidence-driven. I was asked about the SEND Green Paper. We have set out our ambition to respond to that early next year, and I am very committed to doing so. We will be looking at some of the questions we have talked about today, to make sure we can get the early identification right, so that people are getting the help they need when they need it; to make sure we are getting the teacher training right, so that people are getting the right support from the right teachers; and to make sure that we are setting out a series of standards so that at each point of the process those children, their families, and their teachers and schools can see what they should be getting and how they should be helped. We are incredibly ambitious about literacy and making sure we can achieve the targets that we have set out, and we will be working to do so not only through the measures in the Bill but throughout the Department. I shall be happy to work with my right hon. Friend on this issue. Now we can ensure that all our ambitious programmes are working together to deliver for young people with dyslexia—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 11(2)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed on Friday 3 March 2023.