Nadhim Zahawi responds to a Westminster Hall debate on support for young people and children who are deaf or hearing impaired.
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 part-way 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.
Order. We are running out of time. The Minister needs to wind up very quickly.