The most important reforms to deaf education since 1996 came into force today, completely unremarked upon by interpreting associations and the voluntary regulator, even though the changes won’t stop there.
Earlier in the year, I wrote about interpreters in the Local Offer and gave a very rough and ready background to the incoming Special Educational Needs (SEN) reforms – the headline was that SEN Statements are being replaced with something called an Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan, but there’s a lot more to it than that (NDCS have good summaries and FAQs available). Months have passed, and it’s now the notional start of the new academic year. Like a lot of much younger people, I’m excited and a bit nervous about going back to school.
Today is also the date that local authorities were obliged to have published their Local Offer by. However, of the six London Boroughs that I work in with my education hat on, so far only three have done so. The other three may now be in breach of statutory duty. They are far from alone, according to a list compiled by grassroots organisation Bringing Us Together – at the time of writing, 91 out of 152 local authorities (almost 60%) present every appearance of failing to meet the deadline.
There is much to celebrate about the reforms and they present new opportunities, which Steve Broach at Rightsinreality and Martin McLean at Limping Chicken explain better than I can. But inevitably, there are flaws. The Local Offer was originally intended to be a formal statement from councils that indicated exactly what services will available to young people with special educational needs within the council’s catchment area, so that they, their families and carers would be more able to make informed decisions about their support. That’s vital, as some families will now have the choice of being directly involved in planning the use of a “personal budget” under the more unified “single assessment” approach to support in education, health and care (despite some serious legal loopholes which might allow authorities to wriggle out of it). From now on, it’s possible that parents and young people could be directly involved in recruiting, managing and financing the communication support for deaf school and college kids and teenagers, either by accessing local service providers or, in theory, bypassing them completely. It’s going to be a new market – the question is, who or what is going to control that market? Freelance interpreters? The “regulator”? Public sector services? Or, as usual, the private Deaf Industry?
Despite much insistence that the Local Offer is “not just a directory”, that appears in most cases to be exactly what it is. Somewhere along the line, the senses of obligation, duty, and social justice have ebbed: the rhetoric is peppered with qualifiers such as “hoped that”, “intended to” and the brassily optimistic “expected that”. Councils can list resources, services and “outcomes” which voluntary sector organisations provide with no funding or other input from the local authority and whose prospects for continued existence are entirely unmonitored and not guaranteed, and then count that as a service that “is provided”. There is also nothing to stop a Local Offer describing something which should or could exist but, in reality, doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s impossible for families to access a non-existent professional or service because they have no automatic right to access any specific service anyway: welcome to the psychotic logic of the Big Society.
The empty category
Top of the list of things that don’t really exist are qualified interpreters in deaf education. Here is a comprehensive list of links to what the voluntary register, professional associations and union branch for sign language interpreters have to offer, outside of any paywalls, on the incoming changes in working conditions for professional interpreters in person-centred education, and general information or campaigns about interpreting in education:
||Resources on SEN reform/
educational interpreting in general
|The National Register of Communication Professionals working with Deaf and Deafblind People (NRCPD)
|The Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI)
|Visual Language Professionals (VLP)
|The National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI)
Barring a muffled squeak or two about “standards”, all of the organisations listed above are completely uninvolved. Their collective influence in the education field is utterly marginal, their “standards” are completely unrecognised, and it would make no difference to deaf education services if they all disappeared off the face of the earth tomorrow (something which more than one of them appears hell-bent on achieving).
How many interpreters are regularly at work in the education field? We know from CRIDE‘s work that the total number of “full time equivalent posts” in communication support for compulsory education is reported by local authorities to be in the low hundreds, against a sign language using student population of roughly 3,300 – but we don’t know how many of those students are currently going without any human communication support at all. CRIDE uses an extremely broad category for “communication support”, but we can legitimately extrapolate from the BATOD Deaf Education Support Forum’s research in 2010 that less than 1% of the staff working with students at that time were fully qualified interpreters (and that was back when the term “austerity” was more closely associated with interior design than anything else). We also know from CRIDE and NRCPD’s statistics that deaf sign language users in compulsory education currently outnumber registered interpreters by about three to one, and that’s not counting anyone in Further and Higher Education (literally: no-one counts them).
So in the mid twenty-teens, the real graft is being thanklessly done with scant resources, as it ever was, by Teachers of the Deaf, note-takers and the black sheep of the interpreting family, Communication Support Workers.
Tic-tac-toe with WOPR on the Kobayashi Maru
CSWs can essentially do nothing right: the interpreting elite have had them running back and forth for about 20 years, like runty kittens trying to catch a sadist’s laser pointer. CSWs approached professional associations for support, and were told to go away and come back when they’d trained as interpreters, which is essentially what they were asking for support with. After having the door shut in their faces, they were then smeared for not having professional representation or national support networks, so they set those up and were then slated for that. They endured constant criticism for not having any “standards” or regulation, but when they tried to work with awarding bodies and regulators towards achieving it, it was suddenly the wrong thing to do. They are completely misrepresented as not undertaking any CPD, supervision or reflective practice, despite the fact that CSWs are public sector workers in education, the field which practically invented those things (in all their performative glory); furthermore CSWs are far more likely to have been undertaking them as a compulsory condition of their employment (and since well before the current voluntary regulator was a gleam in anyone’s eye) than many contract-shunning freelance interpreters.
There are a handful of axe-grinding interpreters, and even the occasional Deaf politician, who would like nothing better than to exterminate CSWs, but strangely these people have absolutely nothing to say on the practical issue of where we might find the approximately £15-20 million in start-up costs it would cost to issue every Deaf student in compulsory education with their own brand new qualified interpreter (at current industry rates, and assuming that there are 3,300 people with a Level 3 BSL certificate just hanging around waiting to begin two or more years of training – I suppose you might get it down into the single digit millions if you cut a lot of corners).
For a long time, all this institutionalised bullying seemed unfair to me and it was the source of a lot of anger and self-esteem issues, and I know I’m far from alone in experiencing that. Those feelings actually got worse when I became a qualified interpreter. Today my reaction to it is much simpler: I feel relief. It’s because the deck is stacked against CSWs, because the double standards are so blatantly obvious, that I am morally free to simply disengage from the neurotic world of hyperprofessionalised interpreters and leave them to turn on each other. In some games, the only winning move is not to play by other people’s rules.
Like it or not, CSWs are the future. Fortunately there are some interpreters who are ready to knuckle down with joining them and supporting them. I expect that the Local Offer will be even slower to depart than it was to arrive: thanks to the current and previous governments, the marketisation of the public sector is clearly here to stay, and in education it will be the experts – experienced CSWs – who will be smugly picked off the shelf while interpreters are still running around splitting themselves into ever-smaller factions.
And even if you couldn’t give two hoots about education, just remember that the SEN reforms, with their Education, Health and Care Plans, are a unified approach to social services, and now apply up to age 25. It’s not the speediest of reforms – all students currently in receipt of support need to be on an EHC Plan by April 2018, except for those currently in Further Education, where government wants it done by September 2016 (source: DfE guidance).
We need to wake up. This isn’t going to be just about education for much longer.