HC Deb 05 March 1981 vol 1000 cc517-24

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gummer.]

10.16 pm
Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for selecting the subject of dyslexia for debate tonight. The fact that we are talking about this subject is controversial in itself. Many experts in this field do not accept that dyslexia exists. Only in the last 10 to 15 years has the word"dyslexia" become known outside a relatively small circle of medical or education specialists. Even now, we do not know the cause of dyslexia. We have no accurate assessment of the size of the problem or any complete agreement on how dyslexia should be treated.

I do not wish to take sides tonight in what are inevitably learned medical arguments about the causality of dyslexia. Nor do I wish to take up a stance in the discussion between the academics on the best way to teach dyslexics. I am interested only in ensuring that those who are dyslexic or those who have special learning difficulties—however we wish to term it—are diagnosed as soon as possible and treated in the best possible way.

We have to start from the fundamental question of"What is dyslexia?". To my surprise, I found that the best working definition I could identify was that used by Baroness Young in another place when she said: that, whatever the cause or nature of the condition currently called dyslexia, its manifestation was that the child had difficulty in reading, writing and spelling.

Those words, to my mind, constitute an important milestone. In those remarks, made in the course of a short dissertation on the subject of dyslexia, Lady Young was the first Minister to have gone on record both in admitting that dyslexia exists and that it requires special treatment. I was therefore rather sad when I received responses to parliamentary questions that I tabled to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) in which I felt that he went out of his way to avoid using the word"dyslexia."

First, I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to give an assurance that the Government accept the words of the noble Lady in another place and recognise that dyslexia exists and that dyslexia is intended to be covered by the Education Bill that is now in Committee. Estimates of the number of those who suffer from dyslexia vary significantly. Some American studies have indicated that as much as 20 per cent, of the population suffer from some form of dyslexia at some stage in their lives. The consensus in the United Kingdom is that about 4 per cent, of the population have some form of dyslexia at some time. I know that the British Dyslexia Association prefers to be conservative and puts the figure at 1 per cent. However, if it is 1 per cent, it means that there are about 90,000 dyslexic school children.

It is worth considering the cost to society of failing to identify and help children and adults who suffer from dyslexia. An aspect of dyslexia that Baroness Young's definition does not cover is the dyslexic child's performance in reading, writing and spelling, which is often considerably below what would otherwise be his natural ability.

Children who are dyslexic but are not diagnosed or treated once diagnosed will not be able to make the contribution to society of which they are capable. The result of lack of diagnosis is only too often that the child involved comes under the most tremendous emotional stress. The child appears to parents and adults to be as bright, sharp and intelligent as his contemporaries. The child feels that in conversation and play with other children he is at least their equal, as in conversation and argument. However, all too often he finds that when in the classroom his inability to read, write and spell leads to complete frustration, a frustration that he cannot understand and comprehend.

I do not have to remind the House that a frustrated and emotionally disturbed child is often the first to get himself and others into trouble. I am not aware of any studies that have been carried out to try to link dyslexia with crime. However, about 20 per cent, of convicted offenders in detention centres and prisons have real reading difficulties. It is fairly certain that a high proportion of that 20 per cent, are dyslexic. I do not claim that dyslexia excuses crime, but it is worth saying that failure to diagnose and to treat dyslexia may have played some part in setting aside the offender from the rest of society. It may mean that the child or individual will become a charge on society rather than a contributor to society.

I turn to some of the areas in which I feel that the Government could be of assistance. I recognise the severe financial restraints under which the Department of Education and Science is now operating. I have tried deliberately to limit my suggestions to areas that will not lead to significant additional costs. First, and most important, the Government should follow up Baroness Young's statement in another place by giving a strong lead to local authorities, and if necessary doing this by issuing a circular drawing attention to the Government's recognition of dyslexia and making positive recommendations on the treatment that dyslexics should receive. It is still a sad fact that many local education authorities refuse to recognise the problem, or even if they recognise a child as being dyslexic, they claim that no additional remedial teaching is necessary beyond what is already given in remedial classes.

It will not be sufficient for the Government merely to shuffle the problem on to the LEAs. I hope that, as a result of proceedings in Committee upstairs and indeed as a result of the Second Reading debate, the Government will respond rather more positively to the need for in-service training and teacher training courses to be geared to ensuring that teachers who have worked with children in primary schools and those in training who are shortly to become teachers have the necessary training both to identify dyslexic children and to treat them. I have found no trace of any comment in proceedings in relation to the Bill which specifically draws attention to the problems of dyslexic children. I emphasise that in-service training, in particular, cannot simply be left to LEAs. The Government must give a lead.

I recently attended a conference run by the London Dyslexia Association which was attended mainly by teachers and educational psychologists. The strongest theme coming out of that conference was that none of those people, either in additional training that they received to become education psychologists or in their original training as teachers, had even been made aware that dyslexia existed and was a problem, let alone given any training in how to cope with dyslexics.

As a layman, I have difficulty in understanding the different attitudes taken towards dyslexia by the various people involved—education psychologists, teachers, general practitioners, LEAs and administrators—all of whom seem to consider the problem of dyslexia only within their own little circle. They do not seem to talk to the other professions involved or to exchange ideas about treatment. I hope that the Government will encourage a trend towards more interdisciplinary discussion and debate. Again, the Government could perhaps do this by running courses at very little cost.

It is not only in education that we seek a lead. I shall not dwell on this point, but I believe that the Government must go outside the sphere of education and try to make probation officers, social workers, welfare officers, the general medical profession and indeed the public as a whole aware of this problem. Again, this will not involve vast expenditure so much as judicious announcements at the appropriate time.

There is a further point on which I hope that the Minister will comment in some detail. It is surprising in many ways that much of the expertise in dealing with dyslexics lies with the voluntary groups such as the British Dyslexia Association and its many branches—I believe that there are now about 50. In many cases, the LEAs and the education psychologists are somehow not prepared to refer children to those voluntary' groups and they are not prepared to work with them. I cannot really get at the reason for this. Admittedly, some of the voluntary groups require payment for remedial teaching if it is given. But there is somehow a lack of willingness on the part of many LEAs and many professional people to get the voluntary groups actively involved in treating children and indeed in running some of the in-service courses which should be put on for teachers in primary schools. Now that the LEAs are to have a statutory duty placed on them by the Education Bill I hope that the Government will use that new opportunity to discuss with the voluntary groups how they can play a more active role in assisting the LEAs to meet those statutory obligations.

I have concentrated mainly on the need for diagnosis and treatment for children. But clearly many children go right through secondary school who are not identified early enough, and who enter employment without being identified. The MSC is doing a fair amount through its psychological service to help in that area, but again I feel that more publicity and more open talking to employers about the problems faced by dyslexic people would help also.

Another point, of which the Minister is aware, is the unfortunate tendency of examining boards to apply different criteria when they decide what assistance to give the dyslexic children taking examinations. There is a need for some guidance from the Department on the criteria that should be used by the boards. There is definitely a difference in the way in which dyslexic children are treated.

I have deliberately ranged widely and superficially over what is a complex medical and educational problem. Much progress has been made during the past decade, but much more needs to be done. The tragedy of dyslexia is that it is a tragedy of wasted human resources. No country can afford that. No country can afford a substantial number of people who are dissatisfied because of their under-achievement. I hope that as a result of this debate the Government will take a rather more positive stance in tackling the many problems that face dyslexics.

10.32 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

The House and those who have children with learning difficulties will have every reason to be grateful to my hon. friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar) for raising this subject. In the few minutes available to me to reply to his points, I hope to cover as many of them as possible. I shall communicate with him on the points that I am unable to deal with to ensure that this important matter is fully covered.

I endorse the comments made by my noble Friend the Minister in another place. That particular definition is something that caught my eye when, because of the debate this evening, I did some historical reference work and read the Tizard report. The Tizard committee was brought into this by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in 1971, when she was Secretary of State for Education and Science. She asked her advisory committee on handicapped children to advise whether LEAs required guidance on the education of children suffering from dyslexia. That resulted in the Tizard report"Children with Specific Reading Difficulties". It was sceptical of the view that a specific syndrome of developmental dyslexia had been identified. That was the point made by my hon. Friend.

The Tizard committee expressed the view that there was a continuum spanning the whole range of reading abilities from those of the most fluent readers to those with the most severe difficulties. It preferred the term"specific reading difficulties" to describe the small number of children whose reading abilities were significantly below their general standards, and considered the needs of those children as part of the problem of reading backwardness of all sorts.

What interests me—and it may interest my hon. Friend, who may not have read the report—is that on its first page, written in 1972, it states: Consideration of the proper educational needs of children with severe reading difficulties has been beset by conflicting descriptions and definitions of their condition. The term 'dyslexia' was originally used—and is still applied—by neurologists to describe severe difficulty in reading after a localised injury to the brain of an adult who was previously a competent reader. That gives some idea of the problem. No doubt all of us who are interested in education, as Members of Parliament or as parents, have come across it. That definition is most interesting, and fans the problems of communication which exist in trying to identify the problem.

The review committee took the view that the majority of these children would respond in time to good remedial teaching closely geared to their individual needs, although it recognised that some children with acute difficulties might need to be withdrawn from school to attend part-time or full-time remedial sessions at remedial centres. In general however, it concluded that most children were best left in their schools.

My hon. Friend made some points about the role of my Department. Many of the points which I hope to cover in my remarks are about the regulations now being implemented for the end of 1982 as a result of the Education (No. 2) Act 1980. which will give parents protection.

I remind my hon. Friend that the Department of Education and Science does not employ any teachers. That is done through the local education authorities. However, I accept that there is a need for the Department to give guidance in conjunction with experts from other areas.

The Warnock report of 1978 also recognised that there were no criteria for distinguishing children with learning difficulties from others who require remedial teaching. The members of the committee considered however that there were children whose disabilities were marked but whose general ability was at least average. They used the term"specific learning difficulties" to describe the problems of those children and suggested that distinctive arrangements were required for them. The term"specific learning difficulties" is generally seen as the most useful terminology for education purposes. It suggests a"specific" problem requiring urgent attention, but without implying any definite causation or an exclusive categorisation.

First, the Bill now before the House will have the effect of abolishing a system of categorisation which does not identify—I hope this will appeal to my hon. Friend—a separate category of specific learning difficulties, and replacing it by a wider concept of special educational needs which could embrace such problems. A statutory obligation will be placed on LEAs and school governors to have regard to special educational needs in carrying out their functions.

In this context, it is particularly ironic that there should be a concern to categorise"dyslexia" precisely when general opinion emphasises the need for individual assessment. I recognise that it is important that teachers and other professionals should develop expertise in different aspects of special education, but that is most likely to be achieved by drawing attention to learning difficulties within the framework of our new legislation.

Secondly, children with specific learning difficulties will be covered in the Bill's definition of special educational need, and within this wider definition, guidance will be given to local authorities on the assessment of their needs. It will be for individual local authorities to determine whether a child's difficulties are so severe and so complex as to require multi-professional assessment and the maintenance of a statement. In such instances, a contribution of the Bill will be to encourage a detailed assessment of the child to identify the precise nature of his or her learning problem and point the way to appropriate teaching arrangements. The Bill also provides for the regular review of the child's progress.

Thirdly, the Bill proposes the establishment of new rights for parents and new grounds of appeal. That is an important element. Parents will be able to request LEAs to assess their child's special educational needs, and LEAs will have to comply with the request unless they consider it unreasonable. Where a child is assessed, his parents must be kept informed at every stage and will have the right to make representations. If the LEA decides not to make a formal statement, the parents will be able to appeal against that to the Secretary of State. If a formal statement is made, the parents will see it in draft and have the right to comment. If they are unhappy with the final statement, they will be able to appeal about the provision to be made to a local appeal committee and thence to the Secretary of State.

Parents whose children do not have needs such as to involve them in the process of multi-professional assessment and in the making of a statement will, of course, have rights under the Education Act 1980. The Act provides a right for parents to express a preference as to the school that their child should attend and to appeal to a local appeal committee if they are dissatisfied with the school place offered for their child by the local authority. It will be open to them to appear before such a committee, and the committee may allow them to be accompanied by a friend or to be represented.

The Bill, additionally, will encourage the early identification of children with special educational needs, and this will be particularly relevant in the case of children with learning difficulties, since it is important that such children should be helped at the earliest opportunity.

I should also like to point out that my Department has given priority to specific learning difficulties, and it is currently sponsoring an extensive programme of research in this field which aims to provide practical information on the prevalence of the problem, on the means of identifying children with specific learning difficulties and on different types of intervention programmes to help them. As part of this programme, my Department has sponsored a critical review of all relevant research, including research on assessment and remediation, and the report of this review by the National Foundation for Educational Research is due to be published later this year. Other reports will become available in 1982 and 1983. The purpose of all these studies is to provide practical information to local authorities and to improve the skills of teachers in identifying children with specific learning difficulties, in assessing their needs and in meeting these needs in the classroom.

The primary responsibility for securing that suitable education is available for children with specific learning difficulties, as for all children, rests with local education authorities, and it is for them to decide on the appropriate level of provision locally. A survey carried out by my department in 1977 found that three-quarters of LEAs in England and Wales had reading centres or clinics or remedial centres or both and that the remainder concentrated their remedial teaching resources in ordinary schools.

The crucial issue is not one of labelling, however. It is the pragmatic one of what can and should be done in the education system to meet the needs of children with learning problems. My Department has been in regular contact with the British Dyslexia Association as the national body in this field, and it has taken note of its major concerns, particularly with regard to the legislation now going through this House. This link has proved extremely valuable.

There has been some criticism about the effectiveness of remedial education in State schools. It is generally agreed that additional help with reading, writing and spelling difficulties is most effective when it is provided in close association with a child's general education in his ordinary school. This ensures that the skills acquired through special help can be regularly practised as part of the work carried out in ordinary classes. The separation of special instruction from other school work is one reason why the results of remedial education have not always been satisfactory. Another reason is the time taken to put the results of research into effective practice. In this respect, there has been a small but significant increase in the range of courses available to teachers which concentrate on meeting special educational needs in ordinary schools.

The question of terminology has caused many harmful and unnecessary disputes at local level which have not served the best interests of the children concerned. There have been cases, for example, where a child has been diagnosed as"dyslexic" by an independent expert, and his parents were then baffled to find that their local authority did not recognise the use of the term. Not unnaturally, they felt that their child's needs were not being properly assessed or met within the State system and that the answer to the problem was more likely to be provided by independent schools or tuition centres catering specifically for dyslexic pupils. I do not wish to decry the work of these bodies, but the plain fact is that there is little importance to be attached to a label, and there is no single universally effective solution to the complex problem of specific learning dificulties.

The answer is good remedial provision, using a range of established methods tailored to the individual needs of each child. There is much to be learnt from developments in both the maintained and the voluntary sectors about methods which are successful in helping individual children. However, there is at present no single approach which is generally agreed to be appropriate. As with many other aspects of education, much depends on teachers keeping abreast of research and continuing to develop their skill.

I hope that I have convinced my hon. Friend that my Department and the education service as a whole have a duty to respond and to complement each other. There is evidence that they are doing just that.

My hon. Friend has made many points in what has been an important debate. Many people will recognise the great contribution that he has made. He was a little disgruntled about some of the questions that were answered earlier this year by my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson), but, again, I believe that he understands the difficulty about identification and, indeed, the difficulty of communication.

I turn briefly to public examinations, which my hon. Friend referred to in his speech. If time does not permit, I undertake to write to my hon. Friend. The allowance made in public examinations for children diagnosed as"dyslexic", as for all handicapped children, is a matter for the individual examination boards. I know, however, that in September 1980 the Schools Council wrote to all the boards commending advice issued after discussions between the British Medical Association and representatives of the GCE and CSE boards. This stressed that dyslexia was not a medical problem but a learning difficulty and stated that certification should be primarily a matter for the education psychologist. It recommended that where schools had pupils with such difficulties they should warn the examination boards in good time and provide a clear statement of the child's disability. I commend this as sensible and realistic advice in a difficult and controversial area.

Many important points have been raised by my hon. Friend in the debate. I am grateful to him, as will be others who read the wider significance of the debate. It is a very difficult subject. It is a complex area. It is one of communication between those in the education service and those in the medical arena Suffice it to say that we believe in our Department—in co-ordinating the recognition of some of the problems, and the work of the Schools Council, the examination boards and the National Foundation for Educational Research—that the education service will respond as a whole. Additionally, we believe that not only the current legislation going through the House of Commons but also the Education (No. 2) Act 1980 will play a very significant part in helping young people who have this learning difficulty to try to make their way in society.

I fully accept all the points and problems to which my hon. Friend referred. This is an important subject. It is one of difficult identification, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which you will know from your previous years as a Minister in the Department. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject. If there are outstanding points, I undertake to write to him about those issues.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.