Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on deaf children’s services

13th September 2018

Nadhim Zahawi responds to a debate on deaf children’s services and sets out the Government’s position on supporting childern and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, including those who are deaf and hearing-impaired.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and congratulate him on securing this important debate. Much of his speech rightly advocated for the National Deaf Children’s Society. I let him know at the outset that I will meet the NDCS on 29 October.

I thank the many colleagues who participated in this important debate, including the shadow Minister; they really brought home the voices of the different stakeholders. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) talked about his daughter, who is a teacher; the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) spoke of the Bolton and Ward families; and the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) spoke of his personal experience.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and the hon. Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us that Thomas Edison achieved so much with such a disadvantage. I also thank my good friend, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for her intervention.

The debate is timely, following my recent meetings with members of the all-party parliamentary group on deafness. I am grateful for the 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. It was great to see the percentage of pupils with a hearing impairment getting good GCSEs in English and maths increase last year, from 38% in 2011-12 to 46% in 2016-17. I congratulate those young people who received their results in August.

As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse pointed out, there is more to do, and I am determined that all children and young people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment receive the support that they need to achieve the success that they deserve. I think hon. Members will agree that the 2014 SEND reforms were probably the biggest change to the system in a generation. They are about improving the support available to all children and young people with special educational needs and disability. I am clear that this vision applies equally to deaf and hearing-impaired children and young people.

I think we all recognise that we are only part way to achieving our vision of the reformed SEND system. We know that there has been a steady movement of children with special educational needs out of mainstream schools and into specialist provision. We also recognise the significant consequence of this trend of moving away from mainstream schools into specialist provisions is extra pressure on councils’ high needs budgets, as we have heard from many colleagues.

The Secretary of State recently spoke at the Association of Directors of Children’s Services conference, where he set out his core mission, which I absolutely share, to provide every child with world-class education, training and care, whatever their background or needs. Our plan to build on the 2014 reforms includes equipping and incentivising mainstream schools to work with all pupils— I will say more about that in a few moments—and supporting and challenging local authorities and clinical commissioning groups to become more effective planners and commissioners of provision.

In the current financial environment, both central and local government continue to face difficult choices. Local authorities are best placed to judge local priorities and to make local funding decisions, in consultation with local people and having regard to the range of statutory responsibilities placed on them. However, I fully appreciate that that is not easy in times of financial constraint. To support local authorities, the core school funding that the Government provide will rise to a record £43.5 billion by 2020—a 50% real-terms, per-pupil increase since 2000. Within that total, the high needs budget for young people with more complex special educational needs in schools and colleges is £6 billion this year, as the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse mentioned.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman, we will keep this level of funding under careful review and will of course discuss it with ministerial colleagues in the Treasury as part of the next spending review. I and my officials in the Department engage with local authorities and schools so that we understand what drives the increasing costs of provision and how we can support them in managing their high needs and wider special needs budgets.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the ring fence on the schools block and whether we can allow more flexibility for local authorities to fund schools more. I am sure he will agree that there is a balance to be struck in protecting spending on mainstream schools and making sure that local authorities have enough for high needs. We are keeping that under revision, as I mentioned. We are particularly interested to ensure that the financial incentives in the current system do not lead local authorities and schools to make decisions that are not in the best interests of their children and young people with special educational needs.

As the hon. Gentleman recognised, local authorities play a crucial strategic leadership role, both in managing the special educational needs provision in their area and in overseeing high needs budgets. Those responsibilities are discharged most effectively when there is a strong partnership between the local authority and education providers, good engagement with parents and young people, and a shared understanding of where different types of need are best met.

The Department has committed £23 million of additional funding to support local authorities to conduct strategic reviews of their SEND provision, and we are investing £265 million of additional capital funding specifically aimed at helping local authorities to develop provision for children and young people with education, health and care plans.

To respond to the hon. Gentleman’s specific point on funding for FE colleges, they also receive disadvantage funding, which provides funds to support students with additional needs, including moderate learning difficulties and disabilities. Disadvantage funding is not ring-fenced, which means that institutions are free to use that element of the funding to choose the best way to attract, retain and support those with additional needs.

I appreciate the reassurance that has just been given, but as the money is not ring-fenced, if the NDCS or anyone else can find any evidence that it is not being used properly for profoundly deaf students between the ages of 16 and 18, will the Minister be prepared to review the matter?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I will take up that point with the NDCS in our meeting on 29 October to understand the evidence in relation to that. In addition to high needs funding, colleges receive disadvantage funding, which provides funds to support students from areas of economic deprivation, based on the index of multiple deprivation—the IMD—and with additional needs, including moderate learning difficulties and disabilities. As I said, that funding is not ring-fenced and can be moved.

I am very supportive of local authorities working together and I know that many will be considering how best to support the sensory impaired children and young people in their area, including by working closely with neighbouring authorities to provide joint services. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney asked about joint working. To support that, we have established a national network for designated clinical officers, funded a local authority-led regional network and developed resources to support joint self-assessment and peer review. We have also funded a SEND leadership programme and legal training for all local authorities and their health partners to ensure that they are clear on their statutory responsibilities.

I understand that many local authorities have provided information to the National Deaf Children’s Society, setting out their plans for sensory support services in the future. My hon. Friend raised particular concerns about provision in Suffolk. We have provided an additional £140 million in high needs funding this year and will provide an additional £120 million next year. In Suffolk, the local authority will receive £59.9 million in high needs funding this year. I understand that Suffolk has not indicated cuts to funding for deaf services this year.

Also this year, we have contracted with the Whole School SEND Consortium to deliver a two-year programme to help to embed SEND in school improvement and help schools to identify and meet their training needs in relation to SEND. That will of course include ensuring schools, including mainstream schools, know where to access the expertise that they need to support pupils with a hearing impairment.

In addition, a team from University College London will be working with the SEND sector to understand better the supply, demand and drivers for SEND training and continuing professional development. That will enable us to target resources at addressing those areas, too. The National Sensory Impairment Partnership will feed the views of the sensory impairment sector into that work, and we will review the NDCS report on local authority funding as part of that work. We have also asked Ofsted to consider how our accountability system can sufficiently reward schools for their work with pupils who need extra support, and encourage schools to focus on all pupils, not just the highest achievers.

As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse stated, the vast majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents who have no prior experience of deafness. That is why 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, available through the Council for Disabled Children website. In addition, we have funded the NDCS’s I-Sign project and the development of a family-orientated sign language programme, which is available free on the family sign language website.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether more can be done to ensure that school forums include more representation in respect of SEND. Local authorities are required to include at least one representative from a maintained special school, and a special academy, in their area. Many extend the representation of specialist providers by creating SEND subgroups to look specifically at issues relating to children and young people with SEND across the whole age range to 25. In some areas, there is strong partnership with parent groups so that they are engaged as well. We need to learn from those areas and spread that good practice.

I want to touch on a few issues that colleagues mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead and the hon. Member for Nottingham South talked about the lack of teachers for deaf and hearing impaired children. To be awarded qualified teacher status, trainees must satisfy the teachers’ standards, which include a requirement that they have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils, including those with SEN, and are able to use and evaluate distinctive teaching approaches to engage and support them. Also, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) pointed out, we provided £900,000 of funding to the National Sensory Impairment Partnership between 2016 and 2018 to equip the school workforce. The new SEND schools workforce contract with the Whole School SEND Consortium, led by nasen—the National Association for Special Educational Needs—aims to equip schools to identify and meet their training needs.

There was a question on the specialist workforce and the report by the Consortium for Research into Deaf Education that there has been a 14% reduction in the number of teachers for deaf children over the past seven years. That is based on annual surveys of local authority specialist educational services, and we will look at it very carefully, especially in my discussion with the NDCS. As I understand it, the figures do not include teachers of the deaf in special schools, but I will take that up with the NDCS.

The hon. Member for Blaydon and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead spoke about British sign language and the curriculum. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for School Standards has written to the NDCS. We are open to considering a proposal for a new GCSE at this stage—for possible introduction during this Parliament. The development of a new qualification is of course a lengthy process, but we are certainly open to that.

I shall conclude now to allow my very good friend the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse to wind up the debate.

Hansard

Surgeries

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