As we take in the results of the local elections, campaign groups including deaf children, young people and parents will be considering how best to engage with local politicians and local political parties. We know that, despite deafness not being a learning disability, the attainment gap between deaf and children with no identified Special Educational Needs (SEN) is large – with a 28% difference in those who achieve 5 GCSEs between A*-C including English and Maths – and whilst over time this gap is narrowing, closing the gap remains one of the key priorities for local areas, schools and health providers.
There are, however, challenges. Local politicians may feel disempowered in an education system that has recently favoured greater independence for schools in the way they run and deliver services, and in a system where the impact of proposed changes to the SEN system have been less than clear. Whilst councillors may have every best intention to make an impact, it may not always be clear to them how best to do so.
So what are the most important steps that campaign groups, parents and children can take to close the gap between deaf children and non-deaf children?
1) Reassure local politicians that there is something they can do
Local politicians should begin by gathering more information to find out exactly what the issues are in their area. What does the gap look like in their local area? What support already exists out there? In what areas is our local authority failing deaf children, and can we look at best practice elsewhere to improve the way we allocate our resources? How do we find the money to plug the gap? What powers do local authorities have to deal with these challenges?
2) Provide evidence and solutions
As a campaigner myself, I know full well that it is often when local campaign groups are quick enough to take the initiative, to do research themselves and put forward concrete recommendations that the most effective kind of influencing happens. Parents getting in touch with local representatives, identifying problems that they have encountered first hand, sharing their story, and offering concrete solutions makes it very difficult for the representatives to say no.
3) Stay ahead of the game
This week, we have a batch of brand new councillors who have never been local politicians before in a system that has changed a lot in recent years. For example, SEN reform – to be implemented later this year – presents great challenges as well as opportunities for local authorities and campaigners alike. Local authorities will be able to consider granting children personal budgets to meet their needs – balancing this with the need to allocate resources fairly in a world of dwindling resources, and they will also need to think about ways to make the most impact with less resource available. With a system such as this, a vocal, active parent-led campaign group could be very effective in securing improved outcomes and increased support for deaf children – and may well make a difference. Joining with other parents, as you can through the NDCS Campaigns Network, will amplify your voice going forward.
What local authorities can best do to support deaf children will vary depending on the needs of the child(ren) involved, the local area itself and what is already available in the local area – all in a rapidly changing local government and public sector landscape. Because of this, good local politicians will understand that part of their job is to make listening and responding to interested groups easier as well as building influence with stakeholders outside of local authorities in the health and schools sector, instead of adopting a ‘top-down’ approach and presumption of what is best for children without engagement.
It is a partnership with deaf children, their parents and advocates that will in the long-term enable local politicians to most effectively narrow and then close the attainment gap.