HC Deb 08 May 2001 vol 368 cc90-6

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

8.6 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I am honoured to have secured this Adjournment debate on such an important subject. There is an element of circularity in that what is probably my last speech in this Parliament is on education, because my first action in the Chamber after being elected was to ask a question of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, and my maiden speech was in the debate on the Bill to end the assisted places scheme and reduce class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds; so it seems right that my last contribution in this Parliament should be on education for people with dyslexia.

The Prime Minister promised that the first three priorities for this Government would be education, education, education. A child goes through education only once. Anything not done right in that time will stay with that child for the rest of his or her life. That is why it is so important that we get education right first time. It is even more important that we get it right for people with special needs such as dyslexia.

So what is dyslexia? I am grateful to the British Dyslexia Association, and particularly its policy director Carol Orton, for a briefing for this debate. The British Dyslexia Association is based in my constituency and further information about it, dyslexia and the support available can be found at www.bda-dyslexia.org. The word "dyslexia" comes from Greek and means difficulty with words. It involves a difference in the part of the brain that deals with language—it affects the underlying skills that are needed for learning to read, write and spell. More and more evidence has been gathered from brain-imaging techniques showing that dyslexic people process information differently from other people. That is particularly important and there is much more to be learned about what is and is not dyslexia, together with how it happens.

Around 4 per cent. of the population are severely dyslexic. A further 6 per cent. have mild to moderate problems. The recent Moser report found that 7 million adults had poor basic skills, many as a result of dyslexia, although many of them might not know it, having never been diagnosed. Dyslexia occurs in people from all backgrounds and of all abilities, from people who cannot read or write to those with university degrees. Dyslexic people of all ages can learn effectively but often need a different approach to learning.

Dyslexia is a puzzling mix of both difficulties and strengths. It varies in degree and from person to person. Dyslexic people often have distinctive talents as well as typical clusters of difficulties. Examples of difficulties include reading hesitantly; misreading, which makes understanding difficult; problems with sequences, such as getting dates in order; poor organisation or time management; difficulty in organising thoughts clearly; and erratic spelling. Examples of the possible strengths include innovative thinking; excellent troubleshooting; intuitive problem solving; being creative in many different ways; and lateral thinking.

The range of difficulties and strengths, along with the possible difference for different people, is part of what makes dyslexia difficult to detect. There has also been a reluctance for far too long among educationists to accept the existence of dyslexia. Too many were reluctant to accept it because they thought that middle-class parents would claim that their child was dyslexic when in reality the child was simply not as clever as they would like.

My experience as a Member of Parliament, as well as as a councillor before that, confirms that there are indeed parents who will claim dyslexia in such circumstances, but I would contend that a child's comparative achievements should be dealt with honestly, and I think that the growth of testing has helped enormously with that. The problem should not lead to a denial of the existence of dyslexia.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on a very important issue. Only yesterday, I spoke to Mr. Jordan, an optometrist in my constituency, who has been undertaking research involving 5,000 people in the United Kingdom over a period of 10 years. He believes that there is a way of measuring visual dyslexia. He and his colleagues have developed programmes that will be useful for teachers, including tests for visual reversals and a CD-ROM for teachers. If I forwarded that information to her and indeed to Ministers would they take it on board and examine it carefully?

Jane Griffiths

I warmly welcome what is clearly innovative research being done in the hon. Lady's constituency. I would be very glad to be furnished with information to help to make progress in research and development on this important subject.

It is important to identify dyslexia early. If it is identified early, support can be put in place so that a dyslexic child learns to its full capacity, just like any other child. If dyslexia is left unidentified, the child will have difficulties learning and will not develop to its full potential. In more extreme cases, which may be more numerous than we know, the inability to learn will result in the child switching off from education and from society, leading to disruption in school, to truancy and possibly to involvement in crime.

Angela Devlin, a prison visitor and researcher, found high levels of dyslexia in the prison population, which she considered both a symptom and a major cause of the prisoners' condition. That shows graphically why it is so important to get it right first time. Baseline assessment exists to assess how children perform when they enter school, but it will not normally identify children at risk of developing literacy difficulties because of dyslexia. Some schools use dyslexia screening tests so that they can pick up potential problems as soon as possible.

An audit was carried out for the BDA last summer by Members of Parliament during their school visits. It was admittedly not a scientific survey, but it covered 473 schools so it is worthy of note. It showed that only 11 per cent. of respondents had any formal procedures in place to identify dyslexia. A worrying 26 per cent. felt that they could not give specific help until the local authority educational psychologist had formally identified the child as dyslexic. Many pointed out how few visits they received from the educational psychologist and said that they had to prioritise what happened in those visits.

How many dyslexic children are still not being diagnosed, are being misdiagnosed or are being offered unsuitable provision? Are there any plans to standardise and distribute an assessment for dyslexia?

The literacy hours have been a great success and there has clearly been a significant improvement in literacy among children, but dyslexic children have fundamental difficulties with remembering and understanding sounds, and because the literacy hour moves fairly fast they can easily be left behind. How can we ensure that any falling behind is investigated long before it seriously affects self-esteem and causes frustration?

Too often, dyslexia is still seen as simply a reading problem, which means that children are being punished for dyslexic characteristics such as untidy handwriting or not listening, when in fact they have not been able to process language at speed and have been humiliated by the teacher's insisting that they read aloud in class, or even, in some cases, that they read out their work phonetically. We do not want such practices to continue.

The Department for Education and Employment has funded the printing of 35,000 dyslexia-friendly schools resource packs. That is a very positive and inclusive move, but it requires a proactive approach, which is too often missing. What steps will the Government take to ensure that similar policies are taken on board? I have heard about too many schools that are reluctant to admit children with dyslexia.

I am pleased to have had the chance to raise this important issue. I would like to summarise the points. They are: identifying dyslexia early; the impact on dyslexic people of the literacy hour; understanding dyslexia; and dyslexia-friendly schools.

A child goes through education only once. That is why it is important that we get it right and that intervention happens early. I have ambition for all our children. I have ambition that the potential of all our children is fulfilled though the education system. I do not want anyone to be held back—that is why ambition is so important: deliver help for children with dyslexia, deliver ambition to all our children.

8.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) on securing this debate. Dyslexia is an important subject which the Government take very seriously. It affects 4 per cent. of the population, with a further 6 per cent. displaying some dyslexia traits, with the effects that my hon. Friend ably and clearly outlined in her thoughtful speech.

I assure my hon. Friend and the House of the Government's awareness of dyslexia and specific learning difficulties, which is in no small part due to the positive and constructive working relationships that we have with organisations that support children and adults with dyslexia, such as the British Dyslexia Association, the Dyslexia Institute and the Adult Dyslexia Organisation.

The Government's drive to raise educational standards has to be seen in the context of our wider efforts to work towards an inclusive society and an inclusive education system. An important part of that is ensuring that special educational needs are recognised and acted on as early as possible. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his foreword to the booklet for the recent British Dyslexia Association conference in York, we must strive to ensure that children with special educational needs are not sidelined. All children must be helped to achieve their full potential.

The recently published Green Paper affirms that we need to have high expectations of such pupils, to tailor the curriculum to their needs and to ensure that teaching challenges and stretches them. My hon. Friend spoke about the importance and centrality of the national literacy strategy, which was one of the first steps that the Government took to achieve their goal of an inclusive education system with high standards for all. It is intended to raise standards for all children, including those with special educational needs.

The national literacy strategy has at its heart the concept of inclusion. We have some evidence that the literacy strategy is benefiting pupils with special educational needs, including those with dyslexia. Ofsted's report on the second year of the national literacy strategy confirmed that, in line with its inclusive philosophy, very few pupils with SEN are withdrawn from the literacy hour and that specific support for pupils with SEN was in almost all cases satisfactory.

An essential element of the literacy strategy is the training and support provided to schools. We have produced materials that support the national curriculum 2000 statement on inclusion and give teachers practical advice on including pupils with SEN effectively in the literacy hour.

Our training file "Supporting Pupils with SEN in the Literacy Hour" contains detailed guidance on the practical application of strategies for inclusion, the role of the teaching assistant and, with the help of the BDA, some specific guidelines on providing for pupils with specific learning difficulties.

Mrs. Ewing

I hear all that the Minister says, but there is a need to support teachers to ensure that they understand the complexities of dyslexia. Is any money being allocated to ensure that teachers receive such training at college before they are placed in schools?

Jacqui Smith

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, and I shall deal with precisely that point in a moment.

A variety of methods exists to help children catch up, and they are included in the literacy strategy, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East correctly said, the priority must be not to let children fall behind. All too often, the parents of dyslexic children have told me that it is not good enough to wait until a child has fallen behind before recognising that there is a problem. That is why we have piloted a year 1 intervention strategy—early literacy support—in 40 local education authorities during the current school year, and we will extend the strategy on a national basis from this financial year.

Evidence from the pilot scheme suggests that we can reduce the number of children encountering significant difficulties with literacy at the end of year 1, by a combination of extra training, the careful screening of children against literacy objectives and additional, daily, small-group literacy support for identified children from a trained teaching assistant.

As the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) has said, it is, of course, particularly important that teachers are aware of the needs of children who have, or may be at risk of developing, special educational needs of any kind. That is why, since 1998, to secure qualified teacher status—in other words, during initial teacher training—students must demonstrate that they can identify pupils with SEN, that they know where to get help so that they can give positive and targeted support and that they are familiar with the SEN code of practice.

Those arrangements are further reinforced by the induction period arrangements that all teachers must undertake, and opportunities for in-service training also need to be provided for teachers once they are in post. That is why, in 2001-02, under the Department's standards fund programme, we are supporting expenditure of £82 million on SEN and envisage that £30 million of that sum will be spent on training and professional development. Although LEAs are responsible for determining precisely how that money is spent, I certainly would expect in-post training in recognising and dealing with dyslexia to be included for staff.

As I suggested earlier, we are also actively working with the voluntary organisations to raise awareness. For example, with the BDA, we jointly developed a poster providing hints for primary school teachers to help them identify those pupils with dyslexia. As my hon. Friend said, we have also provided a grant to help the BDA produce a schools resource pack, called "Achieving dyslexia friendly schools", and we have recently agreed funding to reprint that as well. The pack promotes a whole-school approach to supporting pupils with dyslexia and provides examples of best practice.

We also want to play an active part in research on dyslexia. Together with the National Lottery Charities Board and W. H. Smith, we are funding a two-year "Spell It"—which stands for study programme to evaluate literacy learning through individualised tuition—research project, run by the Dyslexia Institute, to evaluate the effects of structured programmes of intervention. The project is targeted at seven-year-old pupils who are experiencing specific difficulties in learning to read, write and spell. Two key elements of the project are to develop activities that parents can do at home—parents are often keen and able to support their children—and to share the knowledge and skills of specialist teachers more widely. The results of that research are expected in 2002.

My hon. Friend rightly identified the key issue—the early identification of special educational needs and dyslexia in the early years of education. Such early identification and early intervention to support those needs are a critical part of the Government's programme to raise standards. We are taking a number of steps to reinforce SEN structures in the early years. First, the introduction of the foundation stage of the national curriculum and the early learning goals in September 2000, alongside the significant expansion in places for three and four-year-olds, is an important part of the programme. The foundation stage guidance, published last May, is designed to help all early years settings to create inclusive learning environments and to support early identification and appropriate intervention.

Again, we are focusing on the need to ensure that practitioners are trained, and we have set ambitious targets for early years and child care development partnerships, which are responsible locally for the strategy, to provide high-quality early education and child care places. The targets that we have set them cover the next three financial years and include establishing SEN co-ordinators in every registered early years setting by 2002; providing three days relevant training for every one of those SEN co-ordinators by 2004; and establishing a network of area co-ordinators to work with early years settings in the non-maintained sector, to provide expert advice and support. Significant funds are being provided to help carry forward that agenda.

My hon. Friend also rightly raised the important issue of baseline assessment. Baseline assessment can be a useful first screen. It helps teachers to consolidate their knowledge about pupils and devise strategies to follow up and meet any needs they may have. It also helps them to identify children whose needs may require further assessment and intervention, including those with dyslexia, if that has not been done already.

Although baseline assessment was not devised primarily to identify SEN, research into the current 90 local schemes shows that about two thirds of schools use it effectively as an early warning of learning needs, perhaps signposting a need for further screening, but there are differences between schemes. That is one of the reasons why we recently asked the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to consult on proposals for a national scheme for baseline assessment at the end of the foundation stage, to replace the current local schemes for the 2002-03 school year. The responses to that consultation are currently being analysed.

We believe that a national scheme would enable quality and consistency to be improved. It would build on the best features of successful local schemes, including pointers to raise awareness of phonological and language difficulties which indicate reading difficulties later on. It would also allow children with particular needs for intervention, such as dyslexia, to be identified before literacy and numeracy sessions begin in year 1.

The consultation document also asked whether and how baseline assessment could be used specifically to help to improve the early identification of special educational needs. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that is a complicated area. There are of course many questions as to how baseline assessment might relate to the code of practice, to the early years provision that I outlined and to school-based provision. I have been especially keen to pursue answers to those questions, and am keen to work with any organisations which have ideas for such early identification.

We have considered other avenues of early diagnosis and intervention that can be pursued. We recently announced funding of £100,000 to support work by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency at Farnborough, the Royal Berkshire hospital and the laboratory of physiology at Oxford university, through the Dyslexia Research Trust, on the development of a new diagnostic aid for childhood dyslexia. The objective of the project is to design a prototype, child-friendly eye movement and tracking system that may enable early detection of childhood dyslexia. That is a particularly interesting project, combining as it does the existing world of fast-jet technology with research expertise in understanding the physiological bases of childhood dyslexia.

In conclusion, I again thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I reassure her that the Government put both high standards for all children and the inclusion of all children at the centre of their education policies. We shall continue to work with partners to ensure that children with dyslexia are identified early and are given the best possible opportunity to develop to their full potential.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Nine o'clock.