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My Lords, all those in our school system who seek to provide better assistance and support to children with dyslexia and neurodiverse conditions have no more determined and effective champion in this House than the noble Lord, Lord Addington. He deserves strong support across the House this evening. The current system is, indeed, in trouble, as he said at the outset.
A government review is in prospect. Announced last September, further details about it are eagerly awaited, as my noble friend who will be replying to this debate will be well aware. The review will need to be conducted thoroughly and swiftly, leading to clear recommendations for improvement. Sadly, these are not always features of government inquiries. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, and his supporters across the House will need to keep a sharp eye on this.
The all-party Commons Select Committee on Education, in its report last year on special educational needs and disabilities, found that
“the 2014 reforms have resulted in confusion and at times unlawful practice, bureaucratic nightmares, buck-passing and a lack of accountability, strained resources and adversarial experiences”.
This is a formidable catalogue of woe. It is up to the Government, through their review, to set the scene at last for the success we all want to see in the reformed system, created amid such high hopes in 2014.
I declare my interest as president of the Independent Schools Association, which works on behalf of nearly 550 smaller, less well-known schools in the independent sector, whose good work attracts little attention in the media. I wish that commentators and education pundits would look more closely at them. They would get a more accurate understanding of what the independent sector as a whole is really like today. Many of the association’s schools are giving very effective help and support to the kind of children who are at the forefront of our thoughts in this debate.
One school in particular always leaps to my mind when dyslexia is under discussion: Maple Hayes Hall School, near Lichfield. It is known to the noble Lord, Lord Storey. It achieves magnificent results year after year for the 100 or so pupils with severe dyslexia that it can accommodate. Ofsted rates it as outstanding. What is the secret of its success? The joint heads, Dr Neville Brown and his son Dr Daryl Brown, explain:
“Pupils who come to us have had great difficulty in learning their letter sounds, in splitting up the oral word into syllables and the syllables into their component sounds or ‘phenomes’, and in getting these sounds and their letters in the right order when spelling words. The dyslexic child has extreme difficulties in learning to read and write by phonics. We specialise in teaching methods which lead away from a dyslexic’s area of weakness and build on their strengths with a range of targeted teaching strategies which do not involve phonics or multi-sensory methods. A good all-round education follows.”
These world-leading experts are now working on a phenome dictionary, which will be the first of its kind in the world. What is truly tragic is the time they have to spend battling with local authorities which seek to obstruct families with EHC plans exercising their right to choose a place at the school. The government review must address not only the inadequate funding of the system as a whole but the bias of some local authorities which want to keep money away from schools such as Maple Hayes, despite the outstanding results achieved.
It is interesting to note that at Maple Hayes the emphasis is on moving away from a child’s weakness and building on their strengths. That is at the heart of the approach advocated by leading authorities on neurodiversity. An American expert, Dr Thomas Armstrong, said in 2017:
“Special education needs to change … For too long it’s been weighed down by a history emphasising deficit, disorder, and dysfunction … the role of the neurodiversity-oriented special educator” should be
“one of creating environments within which neurodiverse students can thrive.”
Some very useful comments were made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, as to how a more positive approach could be achieved.
In this debate, we are all conscious primarily that the existing system is far from fulfilling the hopes with which it was introduced in 2014. But is there, perhaps, a deeper problem arising from the deficit model that the system incorporates? That, I think, is a question worth careful consideration.