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Schools: Reforms — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:14 pm on 29th January 2015.

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Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 3:14 pm, 29th January 2015

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Perry for bringing this subject to our attention. I would like to follow on from where she finished her speech, talking about teachers. When you are talking about education, you are trying to get to a situation where a teacher can deliver properly to—shall we say—their customer, their client base. Most of what we do here is to discuss the best way of doing that. If this is taken as the basic principle from what we are getting on to, making sure that the teacher is properly prepared to do the job is the most important thing that we can do.

We have spoken often here about teacher training and I usually come back to the same point. When I talk about people failing because they have learning patterns that are different, I am talking about the hidden disabilities. I do not think anybody will be surprised when I raise the subject of dyslexia, but we can also add in dyscalculia, dyspraxia and autism, which are not obviously recognised. They are the run-of-the-mill cases, if there is such a thing—the people who are not screaming out that they have a problem. Unless we train the teacher to spot and recognise and help those people, we are guaranteeing a level of failure that is avoidable. There are just no two ways about it.

I will refer to dyslexia now. My brain, along with those of other dyslexics, has a problem with its function within the language area which means that I do not pick up certain skills very easily. I pick them up more slowly: I always have and I always will. That means that, unless you train somebody how to recognise the different learning patterns, those children are always going to be at a disadvantage and potentially damaging to the entire system. You are taking on a natural resource and wasting it. Any structure that you put in place that does not address this properly is going to guarantee failure. Of course, this has improved dramatically since I came to your Lordships’ House. You are now on the lunatic fringe if you say that the problem is not there or does not matter. That was not always the case: we have whittled away at this block. Any learning process—any pattern—that does not have a due regard for this will mean that there will be a degree of failure.

Phonics has made a come-back: the way you teach dyslexics is with synthetic phonics. However, I, or another dyslexic, will always pick them up more slowly, at a different rate. The structures and patterns of English—and English is the worst subject in Europe for dyslexics—means that we have two different sets of grammar going back to the Norman invasion, Teutonic and French, with other words put in. The great richness of the English language means that it is more difficult for dyslexics. Therefore, we have to try to get people trained. At the moment, we do not do that. We do not have a really coherent pattern of saying: “You will spot these conditions”. Dyscalculics are people who struggle with maths. As maths becomes more recognised as another keystone—and we do not write the problem off with “He can’t do maths” the way we used to a few years ago—they will have a different but similar type of problem from people who cannot form words. Different learning patterns being recognised is the vital thing. At the moment, we have not done that.

Scotland—the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is not in his place, but I think that we will forgive someone with his work rate—has actually managed to give those going through teacher training programmes a degree of awareness of dyslexia. It is so common that it surely should be there: the Government say that 8% are dyslexic; everybody else says 10% and in America they say 20%. It is even more common in those areas where people have failed. In the prison system, it is at least twice as common as it is in the general population—some people say five times as common. Unless we get in there and start to recognise these problems with our formal training structures, we are not going to do it. If we need to do this comparatively quickly, we must do it in-service and not just in initial teacher training. There still has not been that great drive towards it.

I cannot help but feel that if we had a royal college of teaching it might be helpful; it could be a driving factor in bringing these things into the training processes, and not only in the universities—they should make sure that anyone who does any form of in-service training should have that sort of awareness built in. We talk about driving up standards and about reaching those groups. We know that dyslexics tend to be on a downward spiral, particularly in a world that now expects more and more qualifications. It is not difficult to understand why; if you cannot fill out a form to get a job on a building site, you end up being unemployed. If we do not address that, we will constantly fail and let them down.

Can my noble friend say when she replies whether there are any plans to try to work this better into the system? It does not matter what other changes have taken place. Also, in the current system, which has got rid of things such as school action and school action plus, we are supposed to have an integrated approach and to check up on how good we are at checking and working so that special educational needs are integrated into the main structure, and better training will make that easier. You cannot expect people to do that without the training to do it. That is ridiculous—“bricks without straw” comes to mind. Unless we take this action here and take a more positive approach, we will make life more difficult for those who do the teaching, which will lead to failure.

That is effectively an open-and-shut case. I do not know why Governments persistently have not done it. It seems to be too expensive or too specialist, or, as has frequently been suggested to me by people involved in the system, Governments are frightened of finding people who might cost them more money. However, unless we start to do that, getting into all those hidden groups, we will always have that hard core you cannot crack, regardless of how you set up your school or motivate it, because the process you are dealing with is more difficult and takes longer. Unless there is practical action here, we will guarantee that we have a small section in schools that will continue to fail.