Savage cuts to support staff leave deaf children in England fighting for their futures

Savage cuts to support staff leave deaf children in England fighting for their futures

So far, the SEND reforms have not been kind to deaf children and young people. Despite a series of ground-breaking advances in deaf educational research, practice and technology over the last two decades, outcomes for deaf children have lagged stubbornly behind their hearing peers.

One of the key reasons for this has been a steady overall erosion of specialist support. A new set of survey data on the deaf educational workforce shows that this erosion is continuing.

Each year, the Consortium for Research into Deaf Education (CRIDE) conducts a detailed survey of educational staffing and service provision for deaf children. CRIDE recently issued its survey results for the 2018-2019 academic year in England; CRIDE also surveys services in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and these results will be out later this year.

What does the survey say this year?

The number of deaf children on local authority books is on the increase – at least 46,000, up 7% on last year. Of these, roughly 35,100 are of compulsory school age, and most deaf pupils – 78% of them - are in purely mainstream settings. 

The numbers collected by CRIDE are submitted by local authorities. For deaf pupils of school age, they’re much higher than the numbers returned by schools on the SEND census. Nobody knows why there’s this gap, and nobody in authority seems much inclined to find out why.

This isn’t a part of the SEND world where there has been a big drift to special schools, because specialist options are few and far between. The number of dedicated special schools for the deaf has shrunk substantially in recent years, and most areas do not have one locally. Most deaf pupils in special schools are not in specialist placements for the deaf, but have deafness as a secondary special educational need.

So the quality and quantity of support for deaf pupils in mainstream matters hugely. Deafness is a low-incidence disability. Most mainstream schools that have deaf pupils on their roll have no more than one deaf pupil. 

That makes specialist support services for mainstream schools absolutely vital to the life chances of deaf children – and over the last few years, many of these services have been stripped to the bone.

Why specialist Teachers of the Deaf are vital

Specialist Teachers of the Deaf (ToDs) are key – not just because they can support deaf children directly at home and at school, but also because they can train both parents and teachers to develop the skills necessary to support deaf children well. 

  • CRIDE surveys indicate that the number of qualified teachers of the deaf in the system has dropped by 15% since 2011.
  • This year’s survey broadly shows that the overall decline in ToD numbers has halted – a good thing - but a lot depends on where you live: nearly 40% of LAs reported that they were employing fewer teachers of the deaf this year.
  • Some mainstream schools operate units or resource bases for deaf pupils – and the fall in the numbers of these units and bases also stopped in 2019. However, this isn’t all good news: the number of ToDs working in these units and bases has fallen, and one in five of these units is no longer led by a qualified teacher of the deaf.
  • Most ToDs though are peripatetic, visiting schools, nurseries and homes. The average size of a peripatetic teacher of the deaf’s caseload has continued to rise, now standing at 62 children. Sixteen councils have an average caseload of over 100 children per ToD.
  • And a long-standing demographic problem still hasn’t been sorted: over half of all peripatetic ToDs are likely to retire in the next 10-15 years, and there aren’t enough ToDs in the pipeline yet to replace them. The deaf education sector has proposed setting up a training bursary; the Department for Education has rejected their proposals, and has offered the sum total of nothing instead.

It's good news that the decline in teacher of the deaf numbers halted last year. But that’s about as far as the good news goes. Take a look at the stats for the workforce who are supporting deaf children day in, day out – teaching assistants and communication support workers – and things don’t look good at all

  • CRIDE reported that the number of teaching assistants supporting deaf children in 2019 had dropped by 10% over the previous year.
  • Communication support workers play a vital role in ensuring that deaf children can access the curriculum – particularly for deaf children who use British Sign Language or cued speech. Their numbers have fallen by 7% in the course of a single year.

And the wider support network for deaf children is also under siege too. The main special educational need that deaf children tend to have is language delay and deprivation – particularly for the 90% of deaf children born into hearing families. 

Specialist support with language development is vital for many deaf children – and yet, these are the areas that saw the sharpest cuts last year.

  • The number of specialist speech & language therapists attached to sensory support services fell by over a third last year
  • The number of Deaf role models and British Sign Language instructors providing support to children, schools and families fell by 12% in 2019.
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What impact do all these cuts have on outcomes for deaf children? 

At a national level, the impact on attainment and progress is real: the National Deaf Children’s Society report that on average, deaf children fall behind at every stage of school compared to their hearing peers, including by an entire grade at GCSE. Deafness is not a learning disability – it’s the SEND system that holds deaf children back.

It’s hard to gauge the impact of these cuts at local level. Only one in five local authority services bothers to collect data on educational outcomes for deaf children and young people, according to CRIDE. The CRIDE survey also revealed a disturbing lack of awareness at local authority level about the quality and quantity of support that deaf young people over the age of 16 receive.

You might think that this would be picked up by Ofsted & CQC’s local area SEND inspections – but these have been largely silent on the quality of deaf education at local level.

How does the impact make itself felt?

Meet Ella. She’s 15, lives in Essex, and goes to a mainstream secondary school. Ella has a progressive hearing loss – she wasn’t born deaf, but her hearing has deteriorated bit by bit throughout her time in secondary school, to the point where she’s now profoundly deaf. She’s also had tinnitus (ringing in the ears) for much of this time.

The impact of a late-onset progressive hearing loss shouldn’t be underestimated. On an audiogram, it might look like you’ve got a mild or moderate loss – but because the level and frequency of the hearing loss is changing all the time, your hearing aids are only as good as the last programme they’re set to. Losing your hearing is also a life-changing, sometimes very scary experience.

Ella’s one of the BBC’s Young Reporters, and she told her story recently here. She captures the exhausting nature of life in a mainstream classroom without any specialist support – the effort of listening was so great that it effectively meant that at times, she couldn’t access the curriculum. And the impact on her mental health of making it through the school day was very severe.

Ella eventually chose to get cochlear implants – but these aren’t a magic solution. It takes time, and intensive listening effort, to learn how to interpret the sound from cochlear implants. They don’t – and can’t – turn you into a hearing person. So Ella needed support from a teacher of the deaf – but above all, she also needed a communication support worker in the class with her to ensure that she could access the curriculum on the same level as her hearing peers. 

Ella, BBC Young Reporter. See her report here:

Ella needed more support than a mainstream school could reasonably offer with its own resources. She was a clear candidate for an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) – but her local authority refused to assess her, because she didn’t meet their arbitrary thresholds. Nothing to do with clear and present need. Everything to do with policy.

Eventually – a year later, a year that Ella will never get back – the LA conceded, and agreed to provide an EHCP for Ella and to fund a full-time communication support worker.

The absence of specialist support for a deaf young person like Ella – for much of her time in secondary school, and also at a key moment in her GCSE courses – has had a real, lasting impact on her life chances. Ella also gave evidence last year to the Education Committee’s SEND inquiry, alongside another deaf young person, Francesca – you can find a transcript of their oral evidence here.

What can be done to help deaf children?

I have two deaf teenagers, educated in both mainstream and specialist settings. I know the difference that good support has made to their life chances – and also what happens when that support is whittled away. 

And too often, support for deaf children in mainstream is being whittled away, spread too thinly, or denied at source when requested. Most of the specialist support services that deaf children in mainstream rely on are funded out of the High Needs Block, which has been in meltdown for several years.

Next month, the High Needs Block is getting a £780 million, 12% uplift. There’s very little sign thus far that even an increase of this size is going to make much difference to the front-line – and most of the plans I have seen for local authority sensory support this year point towards further cuts in services. 

Likewise, the Government has pumped £365 million into local authority coffers to improve capacity and facilities for children and young people with EHCPs. There’s no evidence as yet to indicate that any of this capital funding has been directed at improving educational provision for deaf pupils.

It’s the usual mix of tight resources, institutional neglect of people with a low-incidence disability, and defective accountability; at Tribunal, just 3% of local authority decisions were upheld at hearing last year where deafness was the primary educational need.

There is another way...

And it doesn’t have to be this way. My eldest son was told at the age of 11 – by a leader of an Ofsted Outstanding school – that children with his profile didn’t get GCSEs, so there wasn’t any point working to that goal. With the right support at a different school, he got GCSEs, A-Levels, and is now studying Maths at university. 

He still needs support to thrive at uni – microphones, a note-taker, and an academic support counsellor. This support has been given to him, based on his demonstrated needs, without fuss, without gaslighting, adjustable as his needs rise or fall. Support systems at university aren’t perfect, by any means – but they are light years ahead of the SEND system.

There’s no inherent reason why deaf children and young people cannot thrive at school. Some definitely still do, despite the challenges. But too many don’t, for reasons entirely bound up in the SEND system. It needs fixing – now.

Download the report (PDF, external link)

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Matt Keer

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