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Schools: Dyslexia

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the high levels of illiteracy among London school children, what steps they are taking to promote dyslexia awareness amongst the teaching profession.

My Lords, the Government are funding the training of specialist dyslexia teachers, the development of online study modules for all teachers and the Dyslexia-Specific Learning Difficulty Trust to raise awareness of dyslexia among teachers, parents and other professionals. We are promoting systematic synthetic phonics as the best method of teaching children to read. We intend to introduce a phonics screening check at the end of year 1 to identify pupils, including those with dyslexia, who need extra help with their phonic decoding skills.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, would he agree that, even with the efforts made by the last Government, we are in the situation whereby we have several schools per specialist teacher in the education system? When are we going to have a unit of training in initial teacher training, as there is in Scotland, to identify dyslexics and to allow people to be able to cope with them better in the classroom without having to call in specialists?

As my noble friend will know, in order to achieve qualified teacher status, teachers must meet the standards that require them to be able to teach children with a range of needs, including special educational needs. I agree with my noble friend on the importance of taking measures to help children with dyslexia, and the key to that, although he knows a lot more about this than I do, is early identification. It is our hope that having the phonic screening check in year 1 will enable that to happen, and then support can be put in place. We are increasing the numbers of specialist dyslexic teachers and working with ITT providers to look at ways of ensuring that primary school training teachers get the support that they need to learn how to identify and help dyslexic children.

Does the Minister accept that quite apart from dyslexia, which is difficulty in reading, there are other specific developmental learning defects such as dyspraxia, which is serious clumsiness, and dyscalculia, which is difficulty in calculation, each of which can be fully identified and characterised only by skilled psychological assessment? Having been identified, they can be effectively dealt with in schoolchildren only by highly specialised teaching. Are the Government aware of the needs of these children with defects other than dyslexia?

I accept the noble Lord’s point that there are a range of challenges across the piece. Communication difficulty is another one, and in that case we are putting in place more specialist help through therapists. Working with the Department of Health and others, we need to find ways of early identification and giving as much support as we can to children with those challenges.

Will my noble friend say whether literacy is worse among children for whom English is a second language?

Looking at the literacy figures, we know overall that roughly one in five children leaving primary school are not achieving the basic standard expected of them, and those figures are worse for boys and for children on free school meals. With regard to children who do not have English as a first language, there are more challenges, and some schools that have large numbers of those will have to be realistic about the challenges that they face. It is also the case, however, that outstanding schools, which I am lucky enough to visit, are able to put teaching methods in place so that children who do not have English as a first language are able to learn to read fluently and well. The whole thrust of what we are doing is to try to increase the emphasis on moving to systematic synthetic phonics and early identification, and I hope that we will put in place in all schools systems to ensure that all children, including dyslexics from all backgrounds, have the chance to master the skills of reading and writing early, because without those they cannot go on to learn.

My Lords, is not the honest answer to all the questions that the Minister has had today that he does not have the money? Would he care to have a word with his noble friend Lord Sassoon, who is sitting next to him, to see whether he could use some of the reserves that he is using in other areas?

I normally have my discussions with my noble friend Lord Sassoon in a slightly more private setting. I do not accept the basic premise of the noble Lord’s question. Clearly, there is a problem across the board that we do not have as much money as we would like, but the education settlement that we got from my noble friend Lord Sassoon and his friends at the Treasury enabled us to maintain school funding at flat-cash levels, so that is not the main issue for us in this regard. It would always be nice to have more, but that is not the fundamental problem.

My Lords, when most initial teacher training is done in schools, as the Minister of State for Schools appears to wish, how will the Government ensure that all newly trained teachers get proper training on this issue? Do this issue and others not make the case for ensuring higher education institution input into the theoretical side of initial teacher training, especially when 10 per cent of the population are somewhere on the dyslexia spectrum?

I agree with my noble friend about the importance of input from higher education institutions. The Government are not saying that we do not believe that higher education institutions will play an extremely important part in teacher training. We are saying that, alongside that, there should be more opportunities for teachers to learn from other teachers, professionals and practitioners in the school. I very much take the noble Baroness’s point about the important role that higher education institutions play.

My Lords, can the Minister explain what requirement there will be in academies and free schools to ensure that teachers are supported in recognising and working with children with dyslexia?

My Lords, as the noble Baroness may recall—other noble Lords certainly will—during the passage of the Academies Act 2010 the requirements about special educational needs across the board were applied on an equal basis to academies. Through the funding agreement, we have maintained those. Clearly, lots of the first-wave academies set up by the previous Government were often in areas with the greatest challenges in overcoming illiteracy and helping children with dyslexia. Those academies have generally done an extremely good job in making sure that those children get the support that they need.