Kate Cubbage asks whether planned reform will deliver for children with additional learning needs
What is an additional learning need?
Aged 3, my son started school. He was deaf and getting used to using hearing aids.
Aged 5, he was diagnosed with a vision problem which causes him frequent bouts of double vision and an inability to see in 3D.
He is a bright, funny and incredibly thoughtful child. A voracious reader, a Vinnie Jones style footballer and the only person in our household (other than my husband) who can negotiate the myriad of remotes and systems needed to turn on the TV.
Despite no longer needing hearing aids, he struggles with the acoustics in his Victorian school building. He often loses concentration and gets easily frustrated and over tired by the sensory overload of a foundation phase classroom.
When you think about my child you might presume that he has received additional support to help him cope at school. He hasn’t. The current system for identifying, assessing and providing for children with Special Educational Needs does not adequately capture many children like my son.
The National Deaf Children’s Society Cymru provided amazing support to my family when my son was first diagnosed. I now sit on their Country Advisory Committee and through this work it remains clear to me that the current statementing system does not adequately support deaf learners. It is essential that upcoming reforms deliver real change for these learners.
There are around 3,000 deaf children in Wales. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing families with little or no prior experience of deafness. By the time they reach the age of 10, 80% of all children will have experienced glue ear which causes temporary deafness. For those who experience longer term temporary hearing loss, like my son, this can have a profound impact on their educational development if appropriate support is not put in place.
Around 85% of deaf children attend mainstream schools where they are likely to be the only deaf child in that school. Deaf children are reliant on specialist support. Class teachers and Special Educational Needs Coordinators (SENCOs) have often never had any training on working with deaf children.
What changes are being proposed?
The Welsh Government has long proposed to transform the expectations, experiences and outcomes for children and young people with additional learning needs. Progress has been frustratingly slow.
The catchily titled Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Bill, finally began its formal passage through the Assembly in December 2016. The Children, Young People and Education Committee are due to publish their stage one report this month (24th May). This legislation marks a once in a generation opportunity to transform how our children are supported at school and in Further Education.
The Bill makes provision for a new statutory framework for supporting children and young people with additional learning needs. This will replace existing legislation surrounding special educational needs and the assessment of children and young people with learning difficulties and / or disabilities in post-16 education and training.
The Bill also continues the existence of the Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales and provides for children, their parents and young people to appeal to it against decisions made in relation to their or their child’s additional learning needs, but renames it the Education Tribunal for Wales.
Is what the Government’s proposing good enough?
Additional Learning Needs reform has the potential to address some of the very real barriers faced by deaf learners every day in all education settings, but more work is needed on the proposed reforms to ensure this is delivered.
An aspect of the reform is that it gives all deaf learners the right to timely and appropriate support delivered through an Individual Development Plan (IDP).
However, as with many things, their success will be defined by their implementation. The Bill enables the Welsh Government to put in place a national statutory template for an IDP, but only if it chooses to do so. Some local authorities have already developed their own IDP templates and processes which vary in format, detail and quality. In my view, it is essential that there is a single national statutory template for an IDP. A statutory template is fundamental to ensuring the transparency, portability and legal accountability of the IDP.
It is also important that deaf learners’ eligibility for an IDP and the need for a specialist assessment from a teacher of the deaf for these learners is clearly understood. Under current proposals, many deaf children will fail to get the support they need if school staff do not identify the need for an assessment – highlighting the need for broad deaf awareness amongst mainstream teaching staff. Incorrect assumptions are often made about hearing aids/cochlear implants restoring typical levels of hearing – they do not.
More detail is needed in the Bill and Code of Practice about the early years and post-16 context to ensure that these learners are also able to easily access an IDP and, subsequently, the support they need to reach their full potential.
Throughout the life of a deaf learner (and many others with ALN) health care support is often a major factor in accessing education. However, this key role is not adequately reflected in the draft Bill in terms of responsibility and accountability.
Whilst there are significant details that need to be ironed out, the Government’s productive and ongoing discussion with the third sector is encouraging. I am hopeful that these reforms will deliver better support for children like my beautiful boy.