It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick on securing the debate. Colleagues have spoken very movingly about their personal experiences.
It is great to see my hon. Friend Steve Brine in his place as the responding Minister. I am sure he will do this ably, but it is an indication of the challenges that the hard-of-hearing and deaf community face that hon. Members have mentioned five Departments that have issues that need to be addressed: the Department of Health, the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Work and Pensions. That shows that by working in departmental silos, there is perhaps a danger that some of challenges that we are hearing about today are not being properly addressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse is a champion for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. I will briefly highlight the work of another such champion, Ann Jillings, from Lowestoft, who is working with passion and determination to secure the best possible education for her son, Daniel. In doing so, she is campaigning for other parents of deaf children in north Suffolk. Daniel started at Bungay High School in September. He is doing well and there is good package of support in place for him, but Ann had to fight very hard to get that and she continues to campaign for a hearing impaired unit in north Suffolk.
It is clear that not just in Suffolk but across the country, deaf children do not get the right support right from the start, so they cannot always realise their full potential at school. That can put them at a considerable disadvantage for the rest of their lives. We need to break down these barriers and create a properly funded national framework, within which local education authorities such as Suffolk County Council can provide a good education and support service locally. If they do not do that, they must be held to account.
The National Deaf Children’s Society, which does great work campaigning for deaf children to have the same opportunities as everyone else, has highlighted four issues on which Government action is needed to break down the barriers that deaf children face. First, the NHS needs to improve the quality of children’s hearing services. The National Deaf Children’s Society highlighted in its Listen Up! campaign that, across the country, many such services have significant shortcomings and are failing to meet the necessary audiology standards. The quality assurance process that was previously in place has ended, and it has not been replaced by any other mandatory process.
The NDCS has a three-point action plan to address this particular problem. First, NHS England must ensure that the children’s audiology services that it directly commissions, such as for the under-fives, comply with the IQIPs—improving quality in physiological services—accreditation programme. Secondly, it is vital that that programme is more transparent, so that families know whether their services are good quality or whether they need to improve. Thirdly, the accreditation must be compulsory, so that all paediatric audiology services move towards running a good-quality operation.
My second point relates to access to radio waves technology for deaf children. Radio aids play a vital role in helping deaf children to hear speech; they enable them to better understand their teacher, and they have a big impact on improving parent-child communication. Despite the obvious benefits, most local authorities do not currently make radio aids available for use by families in the home. The NDCS is calling on local authorities and the Department for Education to ensure that every child who could benefit from a radio aid is given access to one at the earliest possible opportunity. To do that, the Department for Education should encourage local authorities to make use of their special provision capital fund, to provide radio aids where they are needed.
My third point relates to the need for a GCSE in British Sign Language. The Government really must listen to the right to sign campaign, to make British Sign Language available as a GCSE that can be taught in school. Ann Jillings points out that it is the first language of deaf children, so it is discriminatory that deaf children do not have the opportunity to achieve what is probably the most widely recognised qualification, and that it is given a lower status than other languages. There are other accredited qualifications in British Sign Language, but they are not widely available to children in schools and they are less likely to be recognised by employers. Daniel Jillings achieved his BSL level 1 three years ago, but it was not funded. Ann tutored him and paid for all the assessments herself. There is a compelling case for a GCSE in BSL, based on equality, the denial of choice for deaf children and the unnecessary barrier that it poses to further and higher education, and thereafter, entry to the workplace. That barrier must be removed. A GCSE has already been piloted and is largely ready to go. The Department for Education must make an exception to its blanket policy of not allowing any new GCSEs to be developed.
My fourth and final point relates to the special educational needs and disabilities framework. The Children and Families Act 2014 made significant changes to the SEND framework. One key change was replacing SEND statements with EHC—education, health and care—plans. The deadline for implementing those changes is April next year. There is a concern that many schools and local education authorities are struggling to implement the changes in time. In Suffolk, Ofsted and the CQC identified weaknesses in the county council’s practices in meeting the requirements of the Act.
Authorities such as Suffolk must be provided with sufficient funding so that they can meet their obligations. Although the high needs block, which funds SEND support, has been protected in cash terms, it has not been adjusted to reflect a variety of additional challenges: the rising number of children and young people requiring additional support; the greater local authority responsibility for young children with SEND aged between 16 and 25 and in early years; and a trend towards placing more children in special schools. More money needs to be made available and Ofsted needs to review how it can strengthen the accountability framework around SEND and how it inspects schools.
Ann Jillings has gone that extra mile and works tirelessly to ensure that Daniel gets the opportunity to have the best possible start in life and the best possible education, so that he can realise his full potential. There are many barriers that have been placed in her way in pursuit of that goal. I suggest that it is our duty, the duty of Government and of local authorities to remove those barriers as soon as possible.