Two of the most important things the Government can do to ensure deaf children get the support they need are to ensure: 1) there’s enough funding in the system and 2) local authorities and schools are properly held to account for the support they provide.
Yesterday, the Education Secretary gave a speech which recognised concerns about the first and promised action on the second.
Back in 2016, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission began inspections of support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Under this new inspection framework, each local area would be inspected once over a five-year period.
This inevitably raised the question over what would happen after 2021 when the five year period was over and each area had been inspected. How would we know if those areas hadn’t got worse? What ‘incentive’ was there for local authority managers to make sure these services didn’t get deprioritised?
The good news is that the Education Secretary seems to have recognised these concerns and has confirmed he will ask Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission “to design a programme of further local area SEND inspections to follow the current round.” What’s more, he also asked Ofsted to consider further follow-up inspections for those areas where provision has been found to be poor.
The inspections aren’t perfect. On our side, we’d like to see much more focus on education support for deaf children. In fact we’ve been asking the Department and Ofsted to consider introducing new additional ad-hoc inspections of specific SEND services, including those for deaf children, to run alongside the existing local area inspections. But the inspections are still a vast improvement on the zero accountability that we had before. And the fact the inspections are likely to continue beyond 2021 is good news and a campaign victory.
Elsewhere, the Minister recognised that SEND budgets are under pressure and that he was “listening”. There was also an explicit recognition that one of the pressures on the SEND budgets is a shift of children moving from mainstream to specialist provision.
It’s important that deaf children are able to go to special schools if it’s right for them. At the same time, they should be able to get the support they need in mainstream schools too – and in reality, most deaf children will attend their local mainstream school. As the Minister said: “SEND pupils are not someone else’s problem. Every school is a school for pupils with SEND.”
To address this, we’re calling on the Government to look at the ring-fence on the schools budget. Currently, the ring-fence means that local authorities are unable to move funding from the schools budget to the high needs block (which covers SEND funding) in response to the growing funding pressures that the Minister highlighted.
We’re also calling on the Minister to take a closer look at the specialist SEND workforce. In relation to deaf children, Teachers of the Deaf play a key role in ensuring mainstream schools know what to do to support deaf children. It stands to reason that a 14% reduction in the numbers of Teachers of the Deaf over the last 7 years will impact on the quality of support they can provide to schools. Urgent action is needed to address this staffing crisis, and the Department can start by introducing a bursary scheme to fund the training costs to become a Teacher of the Deaf.
The Minister stated that SEND is a huge priority for his Department and that we need “High ambitions, high expectations for every child”. His speech and announcement on Ofsted are both welcome news – but there’s still more to be done.