Schoolchildren: Dyslexia and Neurodiverse Conditions - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:21 pm on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education) 8:21 pm, 4th March 2020

My Lords, I was very interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, because when I first started teaching in a place called Prescot, near St Helens, pupils who had behavioural problems or learning difficulties were referred to as “the remedials” and were pushed aside from the rest of the children. We have come a long way since then, thank goodness. I want to start by recognising the progress we have made in special educational needs in general, and dyslexia in particular. It is through the rugged determination of parents and numerous organisations, and their constant tenacity, that we have seen the progress we have made thus far. Speaking of rugged determination, one need look no further, of course, than my noble friend Lord Addington, who has secured this debate; we thank him for that.

If we go back 10 years or so, it was a very different state of affairs. Now, we have qualified special needs co-ordinators in our schools; whether they have the time to do the job properly, given their timetable commitments, is another issue. Many noble Lords have referred to the education, health and care plans, which were a really important development. Sadly, we did not realise at the time that their success in identifying special educational needs almost created an unsustainable situation. It was at a time when schools did not have many resources; schools and local government were facing huge financial problems. Parents felt let down, of course, when the appeals system became clogged up as well. We must ensure that those resources are there now for the education, health and care plans.

Two statistics really shocked me, and they have been mentioned already: 52% of teachers said they had no training in dyslexia; and, as my noble friend Lord Addington and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, mentioned, schools in England are failing to diagnose at least 80% of children who have dyslexia. Those are frightening statistics. Let us put this in perspective: 10% to 15% of children are dyslexic; 14.9% of our pupils have special educational needs; and 3.1% of our pupils are on education, health and care plans. We need to sort out all that potential and talent among young people. As a number of noble Lords have said, the earlier we do it, the sooner we can sort those issues out. It is a sad state of affairs that £100 million a year is spent by local authorities in legal fees, fighting the parents who want dyslexia support for their child. Imagine if we used that £100 million in schools: we would be able to solve many of the problems that have been discussed. Talking about schools, I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, to go to Maple Hayes School and I thank him again for doing that. I actually learned a tremendous amount and was very impressed with that school.

Most teachers still get little or no formal training in addressing learning difficulties. Most teaching courses include options on teaching children with special educational needs—but notice the word “options”: it is not compulsory. What do we need to do now? As the noble Lords, Lord Sterling and Lord Bilimoria, have said, we need to spot this early on. We need to make sure that schools have resources for special educational needs. Some schools are facing financial difficulties and then have to find £6,000 for diagnosis and support, which leads to delay and excuses, and that is just plain daft. All training of teachers—whether at college, university, teachers-direct or Teach First—must have mandatory components on special educational needs. Teachers need to be able to recognise learning difficulties and there needs to be CPD in all our schools: the British Dyslexia Association has suggested 30 hours. The BDA has suggested that dyslexic assessors train teachers to spot signs in the classroom. I am not completely convinced about this; if you released time for the special needs co-ordinator and trained teachers, that would not be necessary.

I hope that the rugged determination shown by your Lordships—my noble friend Lord Addington in particular—and the various associations will continue until we get this issue right.