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Answering the need?

Betsan Powys | 10:29 UK time, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

It stops you short when you hear sentences like: "We don't know how many deaf children there are in Welsh schools".

Surely, that can't be true? In these days of form filling, box ticking and hypothecated funding, local authorities must know exactly how many deaf children they have in their schools.

Not according to Conservative AM, Alun Cairns. They will know exactly how many children have a "hearing impairment". They will know exactly how many of those particular boxes are ticked. They will know that much because of the PLASC statistics - an acronym that refers to the the twice-yearly statutory collection of school information and pupil details that takes place in all nursery, primary, secondary and special schools in Wales.

But Alun Cairns argues that knowing how many children have a hearing impairment doesn't tell you how many are deaf. Nor, therefore, does it tell a government how to be more strategic in offering deaf children the best education possible, or in targeting training, matching not only numbers but need with support.

"We simply don't know what is out there" was how he put it and the same, he argues, goes for children with all kinds of special educational needs.

When he won the backbench ballot and won the chance to promote a measure - a chance, put simply, to work towards a new, Welsh law - his idea was to bring forward a Proposed Special Educational Needs Information Measure. Its purpose, he said, was to give the Minister the power to gather more detailed information. It wouldn't be a call for data just for data's sake but so that more information could lead to better tailored care and opportunities.

The Bevan Foundation recently published a reflective look back at the successes and failures of the legislative process in Wales over the past year. Now granted, all three authors share a wardrobe of anoraks but they, at least, saw something of note in Alun Cairns' measure.

"This Measure is notable because it seeks to replicate provisions which already apply in
England through the recently passed Special Educational Needs (Information) Act.24 In England too, this Act was brought about through a backbencher ballot. This is the first example of an Assembly Measure which seeks to extend provisions from England to Wales. It is not being done through developing joint legislation in Westminster but through similar provisions in Wales informed by the process in England. As such it is an important staging post in the maturing relationship between two legislatures who can now "borrow" legislative ideas from each other".

Some are arguing that England were simply catching up with Wales on this. Others that Alun Cairns' measure would have allowed Wales to learn from and catch up with England. Does it seem unlikely, somehow, that the Welsh Assembly Government could change things via regulations, whereas the UK government feels it must bring in legislation to bring about the same kind of change?

Before you can make up our own mind, the Cairns backbench measure has bitten the dust.

The Minister, Jane Hutt, has read, listened and decided there's nothing in it for the government. Labour and Plaid, the governing parties, won't be supporting the proposed measure. There's nothing in it, not because its intentions aren't good but because the government have already put steps in place to gather more and better data. The Assembly Government already has the powers to do the job, goes the argument and from April 2009 they'll be getting on with pilot projects that could lead to reform of the system along the lines proposed by Alun Cairns.

No, you don't have the powers to do the job properly says a visibly frustrated and angry Alun Cairns. Oh yes we do, says the invisible Welsh Assembly Government spokesperson.

So two questions.

There's a gnawing feeling amongst some professional Assembly-watchers that - faced with a backbench measure - the Assembly Government's first instinct is to bat off the need for legislation. Fair?

I'm not not sure how much evidence you need for a "gnawing feeling" but here it is: one proposed measure (Jenny Randerson on healthy eating in schools) is going ahead nicely. Two (Mike German on school closures and Peter Black on youth services) are dead in the water. Another two (Dai Lloyd on the disposal of playing fields and Nerys Evans on community involvement in waste disposal decisions) are alive but not exactly kicking.

And the second question. DO we know how many deaf children there are in Welsh schools?

According to the National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS), no we don't. Local authorities know how many children have impaired hearing or impaired vision - but deaf? Mild? Moderate? Profound? No comes the unequivocal answer and it's about time that we did.

We have put the same question to the government and when their response arrives, I'll update.

UPDATE: A day late but pretty unequivocal: "We collect data on the numbers with impairment but not by level of impairment". So no, we really don't know how many deaf children there are in Welsh schools.

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