Sharon Hodgson MP

Working hard for Washington and Sunderland West.

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Speech, Language and Communication Needs debate 19.06.13

Sharon responded on behalf of HM Opposition to a Westminster Hall debate on Speech, Language and Communication Education, called by Paul Maynard MP.


It is as ever a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dobbin, just as it is to debate matters with the hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) and the Minister, which is just as well given how many times we have done so over the past few months. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Swindon on securing the debate and for his comprehensive and passionate speech. He is becoming a real expert on the issues we are discussing, for which he is becoming the go-to Member in the House, and he is to be commended for that. We had some good-quality discussions on this area of policy when the three of us served on the Children and Families Bill, with other Members—no longer in their place—who also served on the Bill Committee.

Today’s debate allows us to go into further detail, with specific reference to children and young people with speech, language and communication needs. The topic—to be more specific, speech and language therapy—was the subject of the first parliamentary debate that I spoke in as a shadow Minister, way back in 2010. That debate, which was secured by the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who is present this morning, was oversubscribed, as he might remember, but we heard a lot of personal stories about the need for and the value of speech and language therapy, including from the hon. Gentleman and me.

I have a son who had speech therapy until the age of seven. Sadly, that therapy did not cease at seven because he was cured, but because we moved south to a London borough that decided his speech was within the normal realms. It was not, but that is what we call the postcode lottery, which we hope will be addressed to an extent by the local offers, especially if they are underpinned by a national framework, as we called for in Committee. I will return to that point in more detail.

Since I have been a Member of the House, there has been a small number of opportunities to debate and discuss this important topic, not least the excellent debate on the Floor of the House in the previous Parliament following the outstanding Bercow review into speech, language and communication needs. As we all agree, it was a seminal report on the situation throughout the country of children and young people with speech, language and communication needs and on the support, or lack of it, available to them. I am interested to hear an update from the Minister on where we are with regard to the recommendations made in the Bercow review and whether they have all been met or are under way. Once again, we have had an excellent debate, with a great deal of interest from Members in all parts of the House and some excellent contributions.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned augmentative and alternative communication aids and equipment, because that area is often not discussed in the House, perhaps because it is so specialist. For the children, young people and adults who rely on such AAC equipment, however, it is fundamental to their lives and to the quality of their lives.

Paul Maynard: I recently had an Adjournment debate on that very subject, which was replied to by a Health Minister. Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is the lack of clarity in Government about where AAC should sit? Should it be a Department of Health or a Department for Education priority?

Mrs Hodgson: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. As the name suggests, the education, health and care plans are a combination of education, health and social care. The Minister must be commended for his excellent work in that regard, to get the involvement of the Department of Health and that collaboration and cross-departmental working that in the past has been lacking, leading to confusion about whether AAC sits under Education or Health. I am sure that the Minister will respond to that point when he winds up. Under the new plans, I hope that things will become clearer, if only in the sense that the different parts of government work better together to meet the needs of the child or young person. The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked for assurances from the Minister that the new system will bring improvements and not make it more difficult for parents to access the support that their child needs. We all agree that that is what we want to see from the new system, which I hope will be the case.

Speech, language and communication needs are highly prevalent: more than 30% of those on school action plus schemes have been identified as having speech, language and communication needs, and around a quarter have statements. Only 44% of pupils with speech, language and communication needs achieve their expected progress in English; as we heard from the hon. Member for South Swindon, even fewer—35%—do so in maths by the end of their school life. Even by age 19, little more than half those young people have achieved level 2 qualifications, which means a C or above at GCSE. Obviously, fewer still go on to get A-levels: just one in five young people with speech, language and communication needs has achieved a level 3 qualification by the age of 19.

Shockingly, those statistics suggest that speech, language and communication needs hold back children and young people more than other special educational needs and disabilities that we might otherwise think have a bigger impact on educational outcomes. The proportion of children achieving level 3 qualifications is lower for those with speech, language and communication needs than for those with hearing or visual impairment, multi-sensory impairment, physical disability, autistic spectrum disorders and specific learning difficulties. Such statistics clearly indicate that we have a real problem with how we provide support for such children and young people. It is therefore little surprise that they are so over- represented in exclusions from school and the youth justice system—about 65% of young offenders have speech, language and communication difficulties, according to the Communication Trust.

Mr Buckland: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for those shocking statistics about 65% or more of young people in custody having such need. Is it not essential that we use the Children and Families Bill as an opportunity to reach in to those young people in custody, to rehabilitate them and to reduce the risk of reoffending? That is what it is all about.

Mrs Hodgson: The hon. Gentleman has made an excellent point, which we discussed at length in Committee and on Report. Noble lords will return to the issue in the other place, and Lord Ramsbotham will be seeking some commitment from the Government, specifically to amend or even scrap clause 69 of the Bill. The area is vital, and I am sure that we and others will return to it time and again until that figure of 65% comes down to a more representative level.

Paul Maynard: I am afraid that my point might be slightly political. Will the hon. Lady put some pressure on her Front Benchers about the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill? They are opposing abolition of the antisocial behaviour order—ASBOs trap many young people with speech and language needs in a cycle of breach that ends up in imprisonment—and its replacement with the injunction to prevent nuisance and annoyance or IPNA, which will enable a positive requirement to be imposed on the individual and might help to tackle some of the conditions. Will she have a discussion with her shadow Front-Bench team, please?

Mrs Hodgson: The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but I will not test the Chair during this debate by expanding on antisocial behaviour or on my discussions of the subject with Front-Bench colleagues. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, however, and it will have been heard by my colleagues.

That failure—all those young people being excluded and ending up in the youth justice system and then adult prisons—is a significant cost to the public purse, through lost productivity and taxes from children not reaching their potential, and the cost of welfare or of keeping the young person in youth justice or in the prison system, if it comes to that. Therefore, early intervention and getting the right support in place as soon as possible are important not only to the individual child or young person, but to the whole of society. That is why I pushed the Minister so hard, as did everyone who spoke on these matters during Committee consideration of the Bill, on the provisions that will be in place under the new system, and particularly on the role that early years settings and early years area special educational needs co-ordinators working across those settings will be expected to play.

The Minister resisted my calls for local authorities to have a duty to co-operate with private, voluntary and independent child care providers with regard to children in their settings whom they believe to have special educational needs, saying that he believed it would place a burden on those providers. However, as I have heard from such providers, the problem is that they are often completely ignored by local authorities when they try to refer a child for an assessment or some other form of help. That is the problem that I was trying to solve with an amendment. I hope that our noble colleagues can address it in more detail in the other place.

I would also like early years area SENCOs to be given a statutory role to ensure that PVI child care settings are given the support that they need to identify and adequately cater for such children. As we discussed in Committee, the draft code of practice includes a heading on that role, which I welcome, although there is no content yet. I am sure that the Minister and his officials are working on that now, so I would be grateful if he could tell us what progress has been made on developing that guidance since our discussion in March.

Obviously, the vast majority of children and young people with identified SLCNs do not qualify for a statement at present, and will not qualify for an education, health and care plan when the new system is rolled out. At present, their teachers and parents have school action and school action plus as a graduated response to meeting their needs, which will become a single SEN category under the new code of practice. We are still not sure exactly how that will look in practice, but the Minister assures us that the 1.4 million children on school action and school action plus will continue to be supported, and we must take him at his word.

Clearly, though, the level of support that children receive will owe much to the quality of the local offer in their area, which is why I have sought at every stage of the Children and Families Bill to strengthen the wording of the legislation on that issue. In particular, the Minister and I, along with the hon. Member for South Swindon, have had many debates about what standards we should expect from local offers in terms of provision and accountability. I am sure that such debates will rumble on as the Bill continues its passage through the other place.

I reiterate a point made in last week’s debate by the Chair of the Select Committee on Education, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart). The success of this raft of reforms rests on getting local offers right. I do not believe that the Department for Education can afford to take the chance that 152 flowers will blossom if cash-strapped councils are left to their own devices.

Finally, teacher training is crucial in making every school a good school for children and young people with high-incidence SENs such as speech, language and communication needs; the hon. Member for South Swindon mentioned that as well. Every teacher is a teacher of children with speech, language and communication needs, but not every teacher knows how to be. Fewer than half of newly qualified teachers surveyed by Ofsted had good skills and knowledge of language development, and about one third did not have sufficient training to enable them to plan how to give such children extra help in the classroom. That is clearly not satisfactory.

Again, I feel that the Department for Education should be leading on that issue by requiring improvements to teacher training and continuing professional development so that every teacher has the skills needed to teach the class in front of them rather than just the subject. The Department is going in the opposite direction, saying that people do not need a teaching qualification to teach, or even to head a school in some instances. Labour Members restated our opposition to that idea this week.

That said, I hope that the Minister, outside the Children and Families Bill process, will consider our calls to make such improvements to the quality of the work force. He has made a lot of improvements to the Bill during his relatively short time in office, for which Members from all parties are grateful. During his remaining time in post, however long or short it may be, I hope that he will continue to listen to the concerns of parents and practitioners and take the actions needed to ensure that the unacceptable outcomes for children and young people with SLCNs that the hon. Member for South Swindon and I described will be improved in the years to come.

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