HL Deb 01 May 2002 vol 634 cc682-5

2.39 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many deaf-blind children there are in the United Kingdom, what educational provision is made for them and what is the estimated cost of such provision.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, the Government do not collect information about numbers of pupils with special educational needs categorised by disability or learning difficulty. Sense, the National Deafblind and Rubella Association, estimates that about 3.1 in 10,000 children are deaf-blind. Responsibility for making provision for deaf-blind children rests in the first instance with local education authorities and schools. The type and cost of provision will depend on each child's individual needs.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, my noble friend's Answer is a little disappointing. On a serious issue such as this, I should have thought that it was absolutely basic to have statistics on what is happening. Does my noble friend agree that dealing with deaf-blind children is probably the most difficult problem faced by parents and carers? Little research appears to have been carried out on this handicap. Can my noble friend comment on that and, in particular, on the education of deaf-blind children? Finally, is my noble friend aware of the valuable work being done by interveners who visit children in their own homes? Can she say whether any government assistance is available for that work?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend was disappointed. I did try to provide some figures. If it would assist the House, I can translate those into an estimation by Sense that there are 4,200 children under the age of 18 in the UK out of a population of approximately 23,000 people in the UK who are deaf-blind. According to information collected by the Welsh Assembly, as of January 2001 there were 60 pupils with statements of SEN whose main need arose from a hearing and visual impairment. Scotland is also collecting information:0.4 per cent of children with a record of need in primary schools and 0.1 per cent in secondary schools had dual sensory impairment. I hope that that reassures my noble friend that I do, in fact, have information.

I also have information about reports which have been recently published by Sense. One is entitled, Breaking Out; another is entitled, Reach Out. We are looking very carefully at those reports, which focus on early intervention for children who are deaf-blind. We are working in that area and opening up the community for deaf-blind children and young people, particularly in after-school and out-of-school activities. We are considering those issues and take them very seriously.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, assuming that the main means of communication of deaf-blind children is touch signals, are there enough teachers in this specialisation or in any satisfactory alternative means? Are enough teachers being trained?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, teachers of deaf-blind and deaf or blind pupils must acquire an additional qualification. That is a mandatory qualification. The Teacher Training Agency has been reviewing that and has drawn up new specifications against which training providers can bid. Currently, eight institutions offer the mandatory qualification provision; two of them deal with deaf-blind children: Whitefield School at Kingston University and the University of Birmingham.

In addition, we should ensure that those who work in a support capacity with teachers are able to have training on special educational needs and the needs of children. The noble Lord makes an important point: such children have particular difficulties. My noble friend referred to the role of interveners, which is a crucial part of enabling them to communicate.

Baroness Warnock

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this disability demonstrates the inadequacy—I must take some responsibility—of lumping all children with disabilities together under the category of children with special needs? Does she agree that some children's disabilities are so profound that they require "special" special provision and that that group of children stands out as the most difficult to be put together with other children with less severe disabilities?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point. We believe that the time has come to obtain information about the different special educational needs of the different categories of children in our schools, so that we can adjust the provision and ensure that it is appropriate and adequate. Currently, we are working with officials from the Department of Health to ensure that we have similar categorisation for reasons that I am sure will be clear to your Lordships.

It is true that for some children being educated in a mainstream school is inappropriate as we are not thereby able to fulfil their needs. That is why special schools remain an important part of educational provision and why we are working closely with special schools to ensure that in the future their role is well understood.

Noble Lords will perhaps not be surprised that the number of children in special schools remains the same, but the kinds of disability or special educational needs that the children have are increasingly complex. Therefore, teaching and educational provision of the highest order are required. It is also important that those children who can be educated and wish to be educated in mainstream schooling are allowed to do so.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, how can the Government say, on the one hand, that services for children with special educational needs are adequate but, on the other hand, admit that they do not have the specific information about the particular special educational needs of different categories of children?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the important fact, as the noble Baroness is aware, is that we have schools that are working closely with these children. In the main, we delegate the money to the schools: £1.9 billion for special educational needs in 2001–02. We recognise that we have in our teaching profession real expertise of working with children with special educational needs which we want to ensure is shared. We have to be more sophisticated as we develop our inclusion agenda. That is precisely what we shall do.

Lord Addington

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that there is active communication between social services departments and education authorities while a child is in school and once he or she leaves school? We tend to ignore the adult world when discussing children with special difficulties. That is particularly true of a group of children whose entire communication with the rest of society depends on properly trained people.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct. We need to ensure that there is joined-up thinking of the best kind. The booklet produced by Sense, Breaking Out, has much to say about how services can link together to ensure that children, young people and adults are provided for. In my discussions with special schools, particularly those dealing with visual impairment, we have been considering the transition for such young people into adult life. We have considered the role that the specialist services can play in working closely with them—Connexions advisers and the special schools—so that we can ensure that they make the transition as successfully as possible.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, under the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970 deaf-blind children can receive a special assessment and a package of assistance. According to a survey by Sense, the organisation that deals with deaf-blind persons, as my noble friend will know, many children and families do not receive that help. Will the Minister urge local authorities to undertake more work in that regard? If she does not have the figures with her, will she write to me saying how many local authorities provide such assistance?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord refers to Section 7 of the Local Authority Social Services Act 1970. That is carefully monitored by the Social Services Inspectorate and, therefore, is the responsibility of the Department of Health. There is statutory guidance of which local authorities are required to take note. They need good reason not to, and it would be subject to judicial review. The Social Services Inspectorate is now monitoring carefully. I shall pass that request for information to the Department of Health for reply.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, are there any shortages of specialist teachers who teach deaf and blind people? If so, what are the numbers?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, I do not have that precise information. I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord. We believe that there is adequate provision, but I shall notify him if that is incorrect.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, do the remaining special schools act as centres of expertise for the rest of the educational needs of children and is it possible for a child with a disability, but particularly with the serious kind of disability mentioned in the Question, to start in one kind of school and move into another as he or she progresses?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an important point. We look to our specialist schools to become centres of excellence. Some of them are being co-located with mainstream schools, which will enable the students, even if they have complex disabilities or special needs, to interact with children in the mainstream sector to the benefit of the children in both settings. A number of pupils are registered in both settings and are able to move between them. Children with a particular disability—I use deafness as an example—may spend two days a week with a signer or an appropriate carer in a mainstream setting. That is to be welcomed and encouraged.

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