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Sign Language Support

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:46 pm on 6th March 2007.

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Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Education and Skills 1:46 pm, 6th March 2007

The fact that one of the right hon. Gentleman's early speeches was signed shows that his commitment to this cause is commendable. From the outset, I shall not try to pull the wool over his eyes or use jargon. It is important to get a number of things on the record, and in that context, he made some interesting points. I was keen to listen to what he had to say, and I would be happy to encourage a further dialogue, should he wish it, with me or my noble Friend the Lord Adonis, who takes lead responsibility in the Department for Education and Skills on this issue, and the stakeholders whom he has mentioned or himself. He is greatly respected in the House with regard to the issue. I would be happy to have that dialogue, or facilitate it with my colleagues.

We know that about 35,000 deaf children and young people in the UK have moderate to profound hearing loss. BSL is the first language of around 70,000 people and the most popular form of communication for deaf people in this country. Advances in computer technology, to which the right hon. Gentleman alluded, such as digital hearing aids, and surgical interventions, such as cochlear implants, have broadened the range of possibility for deaf children and adults who were either born deaf or lost their hearing as a result of disease or a trauma in their lives. Those advances have simplified and enriched the lives of many hearing-impaired people, but they have also further complicated a debate that stretches back many decades, perhaps even centuries.

There are a number of different forms of communication in sign language in Britain, and sign language varies from country to country. BSL finger spelling is, for example, different from American sign language; it uses two hands, whereas ASL uses one It is also distinct from signed English—a manually coded method expressed to represent the English language.

Parents of deaf pupils who have statements of special educational needs are able to express a preference for the maintained school that they would like their child to attend and also to make representations for a place at an independent or non-maintained special school. Before expressing a preference, parents can consider the different communication approaches for deafness. Auditory-oral, total communication or sign bilingualism are the most popular methods offered by different schools.

The right hon. Gentleman stressed the importance of pupils having access to BSL, but that is already possible through the statementing process, as families can choose BSL if they wish. However, I hear what he said about patchiness of provision. I would be interested to hear more about that, whether through the anecdotal experience of stakeholders or others with whom he is linked.

We know that the attainment of hearing impaired children falls below the national average. Only 32.9 per cent. of hearing impaired children achieve five GCSEs at grades A to C, compared with a national average of 57.1 per cent. Although BSL is not a core national curriculum subject, as it is in Sweden and other countries, schools are free to offer it as a non-core subject, according to local needs and preferences. Local education authorities determine what provision they make for children with special educational needs, including deaf children, taking into account the needs of the individual child, parental preferences and local circumstances.

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman said about monitoring information from the centre, rather than leaving everything to local authorities. However, in this day and age, when we are looking to work more closely with local authorities, it is important that we should let them have responsibility over their budgets. The national framework is obviously "Every Child Matters". That framework needs to be responsive to the needs of each and every child.