HC Deb 13 July 1987 vol 119 cc949-56

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

9 am

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

Dyslexic or not dyslexic, that is the question. At least, it is a question that is posed by many parents who are desperately concerned about the progress that their offspring are making at school.

I shall not waste time by discussing whether the Department of Education accepts that there is such a thing as dyslexia; I shall assume that it does.

Many right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about this matter. I am delighted to note the presence of the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). My hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) is present and I am aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, during the debate. Many hon. Members have contacted me about this debate, including the hon. Member for Bolton, South-West (Mr. Sackville), who also wishes to catch your eye briefly. My hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame Peggy Fenner) has a related constituency problem. She hoped to be here this morning and I know that it is a subject that she wishes to take up with the Minister in due course.

Some 30 years ago I was a child with special learning difficulties. I fully appreciate how lucky I was to be identified as such a child and have the problem dealt with quickly. At the age of five I was apparently known as "Double Dutch". I had a very bad stutter and could not make the sound "ST" and "TH" and I needed my sister to act as my interpreter.

I attended St. Anthony's school in Forest Gate and sat in a class of about 50 children. My teacher, Miss Grey, asked to see my mother after school and explained to her that she thought that I had special learning difficulties.

For about three years I went to a speech therapist and the dentist fixed me up with braces on my teeth. If today I am able to communicate it is due to the dedication of that teacher and the provision that I was afforded.

For 18 months I taught at a junior mixed school, St. John the Baptist in Bonner Road, Bethnal Green. I specialised in teaching children who were described as ESN. They often turned out to be the most unruly children in classes and unfortunately were all lumped together, but I did my best under difficult circumstances.

Dyslexia is a special learning difficulty that results in a specific and persistent difficulty with reading, spelling, written prose and sometimes arithmetic. There is a discrepancy between the child's literary skills and his intelligence and abilities in other spheres. It occurs in spite of adequate educational provision and is independent of socio-cultural background. In addition to difficulties with the written language the individual may also have difficulties with orientation, time, short-term memory, sequencing, auditory or visual perception and motor skills.

There is a danger that some parents who feel that their children are not making progress will automatically assume that their child is dyslexic. I Would not wish to be part to an outbreak of dyslexia throughout Essex or the country. My hon. Friends and I fully understand parents' anxieties about their children not making the progress their parents expect. I willingly pay tribute to the work of the British Dyslexia Association for the way in which it has tried to help parents who have experienced difficulties in obtaining adequate educational provision for their children. I have had the honour of being made the first president of the Essex Dyslexia Association which was formed to assist parents with information on how to get the right help for the children.

As we all know, the Education At 1981 requires local education authorities to provide for proper assessment of children. That procedure can take a long time. We have already experienced some unfortunate delays in Essex and in my constituency of Basildon. After the assessment stage, the child must have a statement of his disability drawn up. From the time of the recognition of the problem to the final statement of disability, over two years may have passed. To alleviate some of the problems, an informal assessment can be made, but if the child shows signs of disability, he must go on to a formal assessment so that he can have a statement made. Even after that, it can often prove difficult to get adequate help for him.

I pay tribute to Essex county council and its education department. They are trying to provide education in difficult circumstances in the largest county in the country and to cope with ever-changing needs. However, I shall ask them to do more for children with special learning difficulties. At the moment, parents in Essex have to hope that a place is available for their child in a boarding school in another county or, if their child has not been diagnosed behaviourally disturbed as well as afflicted with a learning disability, they must be content with remedial teachers working with the child a few hours a week. Remedial teachers, however, are not necessarily trained in the methods of multi-sensory programmes used to assist dyslexic children to learn.

Because of the delays in assessments and statements and in locating proper facilities for teaching, a child may be almost ready to leave school before adequate training has been found. There is a clear need in Essex for more provision for special education for those with learning disabilities. Although I would not wish such children to be labelled "different", with may cases there is little alternative than to provide special tuition in a separate school.

I particularly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens), who has a special interest in this matter. I should have thought that there was a strong case for Essex county council to turn one of the schools which, unfortunately, had to close because of falling numbers into a centre for the provision of intensive tuition for chidren with special educational needs. Such an arrangement would surely make sense from an educational and a financial point of view. Naturally, I would be particularly delighted if the centre were sited near my constituency of Basildon and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point.

It is difficult to know how many children are affected by learning disorders, as the assessment/statement process includes all ranges of physical handicaps. When children with physical handicaps are evaluated, it is often easier to assess their needs and adequate provision is more easily arranged. I ask for those with learning disabilities to be given the same consideration and opportunities as other children. When a dyslexic person takes a driving test, if he presents the evaluator with a note saying that he is dyslexic, his test will be arranged to suit his condition and circumstances. Essex university's open university programme will make special provision for dyslexic people. However, I am concerned that few dyslexic people will reach the stage where they seriously consider university education, because they believe that the education they have already received is adequate. I believe that there are nowhere near enough teachers who are trained in regard to special learning difficulties.

Mr. Tom Sackville (Bolton, West)

I have a particular interest in this subject because we have a dyslexia institute at Horwich in my constituency where there are skilled teachers. The institute is for the children of parents who can afford to pay to have their children specially coached. Children who are referred to the education authority as dyslexic are not taught in that specialist manner. Whether it is a matter of teachers or psychologists getting their act together I am not sure, but I know that there is an injustice and that dyslexic children in my constituency are not getting the help that they deserve.

Mr. Amess

I welcome my hon. Friend's intervention and support what he says.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who has visited my constituency and seen some of the excellent work that is being done in some schools there, will encourage local education authorities to release teachers for training in this important area. If local education authorities put a programme for training teachers into effect immediately, I should like my hon. Friend to tell me whether there would be enough staff to meet the needs of children. Does the Department intend to have remedial teachers sufficient to meet children's needs in a certain number of schools, does it intend to release dyslexic children for private tuition for which the local education authority will cover the cost, or does it intend education authorities to set up their own units which dyslexic children can attend full or part-time according to need?

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he think that it would be sensible to enable dyslexic children to take examinations by having the questions read to them by specially trained teachers or a tape recording? Now. they may be able to pass an examination but cannot read the questions.

Mr. Amess

I am grateful for that intervention. My initial reaction is that I have no objection to that. We have oral French examinations and an oral part of the English examination already.

I am not entirely convinced that this important subject has been given enough attention. I draw on my own experience 30 years ago when I was one of the lucky children. I hope that, after this debate, others will be given extra help.

9.12 am
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

I am sure that the House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) for raising the subject of dyslexia with such sensitivity and understanding.

It is high time that the plight of children who have a normal intelligence quotient but who suffer from learning difficulties which have grown worse because they were not identified early enough—despite pleas from their parents—was properly examined by the authorities.

Two cases have been brought to my attention recently by frustrated parents. These suggest that the Essex education authority is failing in its statutory duty to ensure that such children receive their right under the Education Act 1944 to be educated according to their needs. One reason is that no directive is given to teachers to identify such children early and to refer them without delay to an educational psychologist. Essex does not seem to recognise—and I am speaking more bluntly than did my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon—that special teaching is required for dyslexic children and that to lump them together with other under-achievers in what was called before the 1981 Act a school for educationally sub-normal children is utterly wrong and should be changed.

One child in my constituency has been right the way through the system without any help. He is now 16. He is intelligent, he is capable of verbal reasoning, he understands his condition and he can converse sensibly, but he has been turned out educationally backward because of the absence of spcial teaching that only properly qualified teachers can provide. It is a disgraceful state of alloirs and I wonder how many more children are affected.

Another child in my constituency has an above average IQ. He needs what is called a multi-sensory programme, of which there are a number of variations, which can be geared to individuals. Nothing like that is provided in Essex. There is a complete failure so far on the part of the local education authority to understand the problem. Intervention takes place only when a child becomes so frustrated and his behavioural problems become so distressing that he has to be sent away outside the county to a boarding school, at great expense to the ratepayers. That is madness and it should stop. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to take the matter seriously and to put in hand steps to improve the situation.

The time has come for a directive to local education authorities. I hope that heed will be paid to the practical suggestions that were made by my hon. Friend. There is a great deal of sense in what my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) said only a few moments ago. These children deserve a much better deal than they have been getting.

9.16 am
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. Does the hon. Member have the agreement of the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) and the Minister to intervene? I gather that he does.

Mr. Wilshire

I thank the House for allowing me to intervene without giving notice. It was brought to my attention overnight that an institute based in Staines in my constituency specialises internationally in training teachers as well as helping children. It trains teachers to teach dyslexic children in ordinary state schools, and it has now launched an appeal for £1,500,000.

The best way of helping people is for the Department to contribute to that appeal, rather than to set up another training scheme. That institution has an international reputation, is visited by presidents, royalty and celebrities and is supported by charitable contributions. If the House wishes to make progress in the training of teachers so that children do not have to be sent away, this institute in Staines can help. Therefore, I wonder whether the Minister will see if the Department can support that appeal.

9.18 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Robert Dunn)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) on his superb election victory in Basildon recently and on his success in obtaining the Adjournment debate this morning on a subject of long-standing interest and concern to the House, and to the parents of children with specific learning difficulties all over the country. My hon. Friend has shown a particular concern for children with a range of special education needs and learning difficulties. No one could fail to be moved by the account that he gave of his own experiences over 30 years ago.

I open my response to this short but important debate by trying to dispel a myth—that the Department of Education and Science and its Ministers do not recognise dyslexia as a problem. The Government recognise dyslexia and recognise the importance to the education progress of dyslexic children, their long-term welfare and successful-function in adult life, that they should have their needs identified at an early stage. Once the assessment has been made—and I note the points made by my hon. and right hon. Friends today—the appropriate treatment should be forthcoming.

I know that there are some local education authorities, which as a matter of policy, refuse to accept the word dyslexia. They argue that there are very few children who present a common pattern of dyslexic symptoms. Certainly there is no one characteristic which defines a child as dyslexic or not dyslexic. There is a range of criteria, and a child who shows a particular pattern of difficulties may be termed dyslexic. Whether or not the term is used, the important thing is to be sure that something is being done about the problem.

So, what are we doing? Perhaps I can best start by using the definition which the noble Lord Ritchie used when introducing a debate on this subject in another place earlier this year. He said that dyslexia is a disorder in children who, despite conventional classroom experience, fail to attain the language skills of reading, writing and spelling commensurate with their intellectual abilities. That definition was made by the World Federation of Neurology as long ago as 1968, and some experts have subsequently added to that definition difficulty in handling figures.

The House will know that the issue has been considered by a number of committees who have advised successive Secretaries of State. In the light of this advice, the Department of Education and Science takes the view that there are children with severe and long-term difficulties in one or more areas whose general ability is at least average and for whom distinctive special arrangements are necessary. This normally takes the form of good remedial teaching in ordinary schools. The term "specific learning difficulties" seems to provide the best description of these children's problems, since it denotes the existence of an educational problem for which help is required, but without implying any definite cause or exclusive category.

Under the Education Act 1981, which came into force on 1 April 1983, local education authorities are under a duty to assess the needs of those children brought to their attention as having, or possibly having, special educational needs. Parents too, may ask for an assessment of their child's educational needs, and local education authorities must comply with the request unless it is, in their opinion, unreasonable. Such educational needs, of course, include dyslexia, as well as blindness, deafness and physical handicaps among other things. I should add that health authorities also have a duty to inform local education authorities of any child under the age of five who may have special educational needs. Those duties cover children with all forms of hearing difficulties, including those associated with dyslexia. What is more important, the 1981 Act requires local education authorities to ensure that the needs of children who have been identified as having special educational need are met.

Section 1 of the Act defines a child who has special educational needs as a child who has a learning difficulty which calls for special educational provision to be made for him. The section goes on to define a "learning difficulty" by reference to a child with a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of children of his age, or one who has a difficulty which either prevents him or hinders him from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided in school, within the area of his local education authority for children of his age. Thus, special educational provision is defined as educational provision which is additional to, or otherwise different from, the educational provision made generally for children of his age in schools maintained by the LEA concerned.

The Warnock committee estimated that up to 20 per cent. of school children might have some kind of special educational need at some time during their school days. It does not, however, follow that all 20 per cent. will be the subject of a statement made and maintained under the procedures in sections 5 and 7 of the 1981 Act. That is necessary only for those children whose educational needs are such as to call for the LEA to determine the provision which needs to be made for them.

The provisions of the Education (Special Needs) Regulations 1983 made under the Act are perhaps less well known than the provisions of the Act itself. Under the regulations, it is required that the people making assessments of children are qualified educational psychologists. All such educational psychologists will have been teachers before taking up the specialism. Also included must be the advice of a qualified medical practitioner and of the headteacher. Consequently, the people involved in making assessment are, or I truly believe should be, well qualified to reach the right decision.

There will be complaints that different authorities will make different provision for children presenting with broadly the same range of problems. Let me emphasise again that LEAs are under a duty to make available appropriate provision to meet the needs of all children identified as having special educational needs, whether or not they are the subject of a statement. The Department's circular 1/83 indicates that a statement is appropriate for all those children who have complex learning difficulties, as well as in all cases where a child is based in a special unit attached to an ordinary school, a special school, a non-maintained special school or an independent school approved by the Secretary of State for the purpose. On the other hand, formal procedures are not appropriate where ordinary schools make special educational provision from their own resources in the form of additional tuition or remedial provision, nor in normal circumstances for those children who attend a reading centre or a unit for disruptive pupils.

That is all well-known to hon. Members, but, in response to the comments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends, I shall bring to the attention of the Secretary of State the points that they have urged upon us in terms of direct action. If there is anything that we can do to tighten up any of the procedures that lie before us in the form of statutory or legal requirements, we shall be more than willing to consider such action as is represented to us on this occasion and from time to time in future. The 1981 Act, which governs most of the debate, was a major step forward. Clearly, concerns have been echoed by many hon. Members, not just today but in the past and, I am sure, will be echoed in the future. I undertake to bring this important matter immediately to the attention of the Secretary of State.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty seven minutes past Nine o'clock on Tuesday morning.