HC Deb 17 April 1991 vol 189 cc545-52

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

11.43 pm
Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

The last time that I had the privilege of initiating an Adjournment debate was in 1961, when I enthusiastically advocated a bypass for the village ofa Ombersley in my constituency. I am delighted to say that, 15 years later, the bypass was built. I hope that the result of this debate will be rather more speedy and that it will be more effective in its approach to a serious problem.

I raise this subject because of an event in my constituency 10 or 15 years ago, when the 11 year-old son of a constituent who was quite well known to me was having enormous problems at school. He had been condemned for being careless and bad at spelling and English. He had constantly bad school reports, and anxious parents condemned the boy for his failure to apply himself properly to school work. Suddenly, on the advice of a friend, he was examined for the possibility of dyslexia, and it was discovered that he was a bad case. Having discovered that, the parents approached the education authority to try to tackle the problems involved. The authority could provide no proper education to meet the difficulties of the child.

The parents discovered that, in the private sector of education, there were schools that specialised and had the appropriate training. One of the best was a boarding school. The parents sold their house and lived in a caravan for six years so that they could send their child to an educational establishment where his handicap could be overcome. They succeeded. Their son achieved good A-levels and went to university. He is now following a good and successful career. He survived because of the immense sacrifice of his parents.

Because of that experience, I have always wanted much more to be done in that area. If one has the privilege of serving in the Cabinet, one cannot publicly campaign on issues that are not within one's departmental responsibility. I recall going to see my former colleague Sir Keith Joseph when he was Secretary of State for Education and Science. I outlined the details of the problem, the failure of the whole education system to recognise it, and the failure of the Department of Education and Science and of the education authorities either to identify the problem or to provide the appropriate education.

Being the kind and compassionate person that he was, Sir Keith listened with immense interest. I must confess that the observations of the officials who surrounded him rather frightened me. They suggested that many parents used dyslexia as an excuse for the bad performance of their children. There was a slight atmosphere of suspicion about whether the problem was of the order that I was suggesting and whether it was something that could be clearly identified and treated. I went away depressed, but Sir Keith decided to hold a symposium to examine the subject in depth. He kept to his word and held that symposium, but alas, a few weeks later, he left that office.

I do not believe that there has been anything like the progress required. What is the dimension of the problem? The most authoritative organisations believe that 340,000 children in our schools are suffering from dyslexia. That means one in every class. It means that in the typical constituency, there are probably 550 children suffering from dyslexia, and so 1,000 parents are having to face all the difficulties involved.

Some time ago, I was given lunch by Sir Nicholas Lloyd, the editor of the Daily Express, and I persuaded him that it was a good area in which a national newspaper should campaign. He thought about the idea and decided to do it. The Daily Express fought a good campaign to try to arouse public interest in the topic. It is staggered by the correspondence that it has received, from all over the country, from parents and children who have suffered and whose problems have not been solved.

What is the basic requirement to tackle the problem? What are the areas in which the Government and education authorities can act? We start with the need for identification, and at an early age. The Government are now suggesting that the test for seven-year-olds may result in greater identification. I hasten to point out, as someone who has studied the matter in great depth, that it would be more appropriate if the problem could be identified even pre-school, if school starts at the age of five, or certainly in the first year at school. In New Zealand the condition is being identified in pre-school children and in children in the first year of school.

This brings me neatly on to the problem of teacher training, which in this country does not deal with the problem. I recently tabled a parliamentary question to the Department of Education and Science. The Minister who is kindly replying to this debate answered me with the magic words that teacher training colleges "should" provide tuition on the subject. He did not say that they would, or that they do. I know from my study of the subject that most teacher training colleges either spend no time at all or very little time on the topic. Teacher training colleges devote only 100 hours of training to literacy, and most of them devote none of that time to this problem.

We should see to it that every training college in the country trains teachers in how to identify and then tackle this problem. A vast section of the profession already practising has no training in this sphere, so we need courses for those already in education. Such courses exist, but I know that teachers find it difficult to be given time off and the necessary grants to attend them. Nothing like enough is being done.

Once the problem is identified, a typical authority should be able to issue a statement recognising that a child has a problem. A parent who believes that his child suffers from it applies to the authority. It takes many months in most authorities' areas before recognition follows.

Following recognition, what happens depends not on the needs of the child in question but on what facilities are available in an authority's area. Hardly any are available under most authorities; a few are available in some. A child with this condition, needs a certain type of tuition in order to overcome it, but authorities say that all they can do for the present is recognise the problem. The parent who knows what can and should be done sees that the private sector of education has the proper facilities—if he or she can afford the payments. Most cannot, so the problem goes untreated.

The education system must be made by statute to recognise the problem, and every education authority must then provide the required facilities. Such facilities have already been developed and shown themselves successful. They transform a child from a person who has great difficulty reading and spelling to someone who can read normally—and probably spell normally, although there is a long transition period—and who can pursue any type of career.

These children are not, as is often suspected, mentally handicapped or retarded. They are often of higher than average ability. By our failure to tackle this problem, we are losing 340,000 children—one in every class in the land —whose careers will be blighted and who will not achieve the happiness and fulfilment that they should.

As a former Minister, I have dealt with many Adjournment debates, and I am sure that I will be told this evening that a great deal is being done. I know that the Minister is consulting a number of expert authorities on spelling, on exam problems and so on. But the Department and education authorities have been discussing and considering this matter for 20 years. Some, but in my judgment very little, progress has been made.

In this pre-election period, I hope that there will be a competition between the parties to promise most in this respect in their manifestos. There is no reason why Governments of either complexion cannot promise that every teacher training college will begin to teach new teachers how to identify dyslexia and provide the teaching to overcome it—and carry out that promise within the lifetime of a Parliament.

That Government should be able to ensure that every education authority has the facilities to provide that which is required to overcome the problem. They should be able to ensure that, at the age of five, every child is tested to ascertain whether there is such a problem and immediately to identify it. If a Government put their mind to the problem, in five years we could have the perfect system for dealing with dyslexia. We could have a system under which never again would children and parents go through ghastly anxiety, terrifying problems, colossal misery, feelings of failure and immense frustration, which are the result of a complete approach never having been brought to the problem.

I shall be delighted to hear all that is going on, but I want from any Administration that governs this country a determination that in a few years the problem will have been tackled. Aston university has 10,000 case studies. A department was established, and over 20 years it became the expert authority. It was then closed down. The department no longer exists, but the case studies remain to be examined. I speak of an area of neglect within which there has been much human misery and much lost opportunity for coming generations, and the problems should be tackled.

11.56 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Michael Fallon)

I am sure that the House will wish me to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) on his persistence over 30 years in articulating the problems of his constituents and on the service that he has rendered this evening in enabling us to discuss an issue on which he has spoken so knowledgeably and, if I may say so, so passionately.

It is no secret that some well-known public figures have suffered from dyslexia. For example, Susan Hampshire and Angharad Rees have overcome their difficulties admirably to carve out successful acting careers. It may be less well known that some major historical figures are also believed to have suffered from the same condition. Such leaders in their fields as Hans Christian Andersen, Leonardo da Vinci, Auguste Rodin, Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein are reported to have suffered from dyslexia. I think that my right hon. Friend and I can agree that it is important that as many children as possible leaving school should have acceptable literacy skills. As Francis Bacon said nearly 400 years ago, Reading maketh a full man. … and writing an exact man. Our success as a nation depends upon our ability to communicate properly and effectively more than ever before.

It is remarkable that in the face of all the evidence, including the facts that my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester and the Daily Express have brought before us, there are some who do not accept the existence of dyslexia. I assure my right hon. Friend that I do, as does my Department. Some confusion arises from the different definitions that seem to abound. Dyslexia is in reality an old term which is today used in different ways, perhaps to the extent that the current understanding of the term has supplanted the original meaning. For some years, as my right hon. Friend implied, my Department scrupulously avoided using the word, and used instead the longer and more deliberate term "specific learning difficulties". Some local education authorities still do that as a firm matter of principle.

In any event, dyslexia is now generally taken by most in the field to be difficulty in learning to read or handle numbers, despite general intelligence at least within the normal range, a generally supportive environment and freedom from sensory disabilities of vision or hearing that could account for the difficulty. Whatever the learning difficulty is called, any child with such problems will have difficulties in environments that are book based or in those in which, for example, the decoding of road signs, maps or instructions of any sort are practical necessities.

Schools and society properly value those who acquire a good standard of literacy skills, but it is precisely those skills which dyslexic people find so difficult to master. Thankfully, most professionals and authorities involved today have a more responsible attitude towards helping such children. I am glad to say that we are now a long way from the bad old days when dyslexic children were destructively labelled as stupid or plain bone idle.

I shall mention three specific points that my right hon. Friend raised—teacher training, provision for dyslexic children and methods of reading. I shall deal first with teacher training. Specific training is now available for serving teachers of pupils with dyslexia. The training of teachers of pupils with special educational needs in ordinary schools and training to meet the special educational needs of students in further education with learning difficulties have both been priority areas supported by the Department through the local education authority training grants scheme since it came into operation in 1987. The Department has also sponsored the production of an audio-visual pack designed to assist teachers in ordinary schools to identify children with special educational needs. One module of this is specifically concerned with dyslexia.

My right hon. Friend is specifically concerned with courses of initial teacher training. They are now required to equip prospective teachers to teach the full range of pupils that they are likely to encounter in an ordinary school and to introduce them to ways of identifying children with special educational needs, including dyslexia. However, while we aim to ensure that all teachers receive a general introduction to dyslexia and other learning difficulties during their initial training, further specialist training is best reserved for experienced teachers.

That said, we have shared the widespread public concern about the teaching of reading generally. Last week my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State asked the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education to undertake an inquiry into the preparation of student primary teachers to teach reading. Dyslexia is one small part of the literacy issue. CATE does not have a remit to look into special educational needs in particular, but it has been asked to carry out a full inquiry into the training of teachers to teach reading, and to provide advice on the criteria that we apply in accrediting teacher training courses and the guidance that we give to institutions on the matter.

In view of what my right hon. Friend said, it would be right for that inquiry to reflect what has been said tonight. I shall refer the debate to CATE. We look forward to practical and sensible advice on the subject from the council by the end of the year.

There is currently a debate about precisely which methods of teaching are best for children with dyslexia. It is for local education authorities to develop an appropriate framework for provision and for the teachers on the spot to decide on and to use the methods appropriate for the individual children in their class. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State made that point the other day, when he told the Select Committee that he did not care which methods were used as long as they produced the result. But of course that proviso is all important. It is the result that counts.

Each method has its own approach and requirements of children. It is clear, for example, that the look and say method—the famous Janet and John books—which assumes that children learn best by recognising the shape of words rather than having them broken down into individual sounds, requires certain abilities and memory functions on the part of the child. Obviously that will not be suitable for all children, although it has its place. Much has also been said in the media about the "real books" approach, which relies on the attractions of books written primarily for their stories rather than on accommodating any particular reading technique. This method assumes that children are motivated best by understanding the meaning of what they read and must find it fun. It was revealing to hear of a teacher the other day insisting instead that this should be called the "good books" approach. Trollope would probably have agreed. He is supposed to have said: Of all the needs a book has the chief need is that it be readable. However, I wonder whether Lewis Carroll's Alice was taught to read by the real books method in an educational Wonderland, as I recall her saying What is the use of a book … without pictures". This approach, used in conjunction with other methods, may be suitable for some able children with no impediments to their learning. However, I have my doubts. Children may be eager and ready to learn. They may enjoy hearing stories and browsing through picture books. But they do not teach themselves. They cannot learn to read without skilled teaching. It is a wrong-headed fallacy of our times that the role of the teacher should or can be passive—that she or he should support, approve and encourage but never explain, instruct, question or correct, as preached by some disciples of "real books". Luckily, there are not many of them. Her Majesty's inspectorate found only a very small number of schools concentrating exclusively on "real books". I am reassured to some extent by that, because, first and foremost, as I said, reading must be taught. It cannot be picked up by osmosis.

The phonic method, which needs to he taught in that sense and requires children to memorise different consonant and vowel sounds and to break words down into their individual components, has many merits. There is, of course, the need later on to cater for the innumerable exceptions in our language and each child's degree of phonic readiness needs to be assessed individually. I believe that the phonic method has much to commend it, and it is a very appropriate element for some children with learning difficulties. But even in cases where a phonic approach can bring success, teaching should not sensibly be based on that method alone.

The main message from HMI is that no one method should be cherished as the holy grail to be pursued by all. The recent HMI report on "The Teaching and Learning of Reading in Primary Schools" found that the most effective teachers used a mix of methods to teach reading and that their teaching was carefully planned and structured. However, they invariably included phonics alongside other methods. An exclusive concentration on any one method of teaching reading, whether it was "real books" or phonics, was associated with higher levels of failure among pupils. I know, too, that the multi-sensory approach, which employs visual and auditory methods reinforced by tactile devices, has been preferred by many teachers of dyslexic children for some years. It has clearly had its successes, too. Whichever methods are adopted, it is important that the ethos of the whole school is flexible, positive and encouraging.

I turn to provision, which I suspect most interests my right hon. Friend. As he stressed, early identification of the signs of dyslexia is important. It is no good finding out that a child has dyslexia at the age of 14. However, it is open to some doubt whether LEAs would be able to pick up literacy problems—let alone dyslexia—at or before the age of six. I hold this view because reading and writing are not generally taught systematically to a sufficiently high level at that point for deficiencies, unless marked, to become obvious or testable. It is both the blessing and the curse of dyslexia that it is not as obvious to the beholder as, say, a physical disability.

As soon as learning difficulties are identified, however, schools and education authorities have a legal obligation to take action. Schools will often be able to make suitable provision from within their own resources. Where they cannot, LEAs must make an assessment and draw up a statement where appropriate.

The duties of all governors, schools and LEAs towards pupils with special educational needs are spelt out quite clearly in the Education Act 1981. It is for local education authorities and school governors to identify children who have, or may have, special educational needs, including those with dyslexia. In county and voluntary schools, governors must use their best endeavours to secure that the required provision is made for pupils with special educational needs. They must also make sure that teachers in the schools are aware of the importance of identifying, and providing for, any of their registered pupils who have special educational needs.

What has come to be called a "whole school approach" is necessary for children's special educational needs to be met effectively. For schools to meet the challenges before them, it is crucial that clear and coherent policies be set in place at the different class, school and LEA levels. Such policies should cover all aspects of SEN provision and should be based on a realistic assessment of the current costs of provision. They should also set out direct plans of action and indicate the duties and responsibilities of all involved in the service. Effective monitoring and evaluation of these plans is essential to their success.

When LEAs make assessments or draw up statements of SEN under the Education Act 1981 they must take educational, medical and psychological advice. If a statement is drawn up, it must stipulate clearly the provision, in terms of human or material resources, which is required to support the child and to give access to as near to a full curriculum as possible. Once a statement is prepared—I accept my right hon. Friend's point that there may have been too much delay in the preparation of such statements—the LEA is obliged to meet the provision specified.

Under the same Act, a parent has the right to ask the local education authority to carry out an assessment of his child's needs. The authority must comply with that request unless it is, in its opinion, unreasonable.

The process of drawing up a formal statement necessarily takes some time. However, parents are right not to accept sluggishness if it occurs in these cases and right, too, to press for faster action by authorities if they are not satisfied with the way that the process is being handled. My Department recommends that the whole process, from initial notification to the drawing up of a draft statement where necessary, should normally take no longer than six months.

My right hon. Friend might like to know that about two thirds of the appeals to the Secretary of State against an LEA failing to make a statement, or against the content of a statement, concern dyslexia.

It is not for my Department to make provision, but clearly Ministers have a responsibility for what is taking place. I do not treat that responsibility for oversight lightly. Indeed, the Department has taken its interest so far as to fund some substantial research projects in the past and now. The Department funded four research projects 10 years ago and we are currently funding a total of £250,000 over three academic years to support the work of the dyslexia centre of the Harris city technology college. It is the intention of the Harris CTC Trust that the approach of the dyslexia centre in the CTC should be innovative, particularly in relation to the use of information technology in approaching this work. The results will be widely disseminated and should achieve national significance.

I should like to say a word or two about the proposed spelling penalty of up to 5 per cent. in GCSE examinations. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the Schools Examinations and Assessment Council suggesting this in January. In its reply, SEAC said that it has agreed with the examining groups that for 1991 all candidates will be warned that they are expected to use good English". SEAC has also undertaken to initiate further work with examining bodies about additional steps that can be taken for 1992 and subsequent years and to report again to the Secretary of State in July and December.

When my right hon. and learned Friend wrote to SEAC earlier this month accepting those proposals, he made it clear that he would look to SEAC to be more specific in its further reports on the way in which marking schemes should take account of bad spelling, on the use of computer spell checks and on the possible need for changes in the arrangements for ensuring that handicapped candidates can compete on an equal basis with their peers.

I hope that my right hon. Friend is persuaded of my interest in and commitment to this hugely important area. Like him, I regard it as essential that we put an end to linguistic discrimination, and consign the lexical bar to the past. The issues of race and sex discrimination are serious and well known to the House, but discrimination against any person because he cannot read, express himself clearly, be understood or understand his own language is just as subtle and hidden a form of discrimination, and just as pernicious for that. It is, therefore, crucial that as many of our children as possible leave school functionally literate, and I am confident that the structures are in place to achieve just that.

A debate such as this serves to remind us that we must pursue that target with more vigour than we have in the past.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.