Support for hundreds of deaf and blind children in Wigan could be cut by thousands of pounds

Support for almost 500 blind and deaf children in Wigan could be in doubt because of planned council cuts of more than £90,000, two major charities have warned.

Wednesday, 16th October 2019, 10:01 am
Jake Andrews, five, is registered sight impaired and has oculocutaneous albinism

Wigan Council is looking to slash “a minimum” of 10 per cent from its budget for deaf and visually impaired education next year, which could reduce vital support and visits from specialist staff for 493 children across the borough.

But the authority has not yet publicly confirmed what the level of cuts will be, when they will be implemented and how the support currently provided for these children will be affected.

Parents are extremely concerned by the lack of information, while the National Deaf Children’s Society and the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) have said that any cut would be devastating for the children affected.

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Responding to a Freedom of Information request by the National Deaf Children’s Society, the council said it planned to make cuts of at least 10 per cent to its budget for hearing and visually impaired students, which currently stands at £911,536.

The authority has since held an initial meeting with families, but made no reference to the planned cuts, with parents left in a state of confusion over what will happen to their children’s support.

There are currently 293 deaf children in Wigan and the National Deaf Children’s Society says that they fall behind at every stage of school, and almost an entire grade at GCSE, because they don’t receive the support they need. The charity said the proposed cuts would be a “devastating blow” to the futures of deaf children across the town.

RNIB estimates there are 200 children and young people with vision impairment in Wigan who require specialist support to learn on equal terms with sighted children. It said that any cuts to this support would leave them facing the serious risk of falling behind with schoolwork and social development.

Both charities have now called on the council to confirm its position and rule out the cuts so deaf and visually impaired children can thrive at school and achieve their potential.

Local parents have also been quick to speak out about the effects a cut would have.

Zoe Pennington’s five-year-old son, Jake Andrews, is registered sight impaired and has oculocutaneous albinism, Nystagmus (involuntary eye movement) and photophobia (light sensitivity). He currently has one-to-one support in class and weekly visits from a support teacher provided by the council’s Visual Impairment team.

Zoe said: “The Visual Impairment team play a huge part in making sure that Jake has the best support he needs so that he can learn to the best of his ability. As well as important information and advice, Jake also has special equipment provided by the sensory team to help him learn. Without all this, Jake and his teacher – who has no experience with a child with the same condition – would struggle massively.

“Jake has been making slow but encouraging progress and the VI team are making sure that he’s getting the most out of lessons. If the council were to make cuts and reduce his support, it would massively affect him and the improvement he’s making in school.

“Jake is at the very start of his learning journey and it’s so important that he is given the right support to get the best start in life. Without it, he’ll be massively affected, quickly fall behind in his lessons and simply struggle with everyday tasks.”

Jodie Telford’s eight-year-old son Kayden is profoundly deaf and wears cochlear implants. He’s currently progressing well, but Jodie says this wouldn’t be possible without the support he receives and she wants some reassurances from the council.

She said: “If the budget is cut in any way, it would have a detrimental effect on Kayden’s wellbeing and education. The support he’s received has stopped him feeling isolated or different from his friends. He’d become withdrawn and fall behind academically.

“We rely on this support as a family and it makes a huge difference to our lives. The council needs to be forthcoming about its plans and put our minds at rest by saying it will deliver the support our children. They deserve exactly the same chance to succeed as their classmates, but they won’t get that if the council decides to make cuts.”

Hazel Badjie, Senior Engagement Advisor at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said: “Deafness isn’t a learning disability and with the right support, there’s no reason that deaf children should achieve less than their hearing classmates. However, they now fall behind at every stage of school and achieve almost a grade lower at GCSE.

“If Wigan Council makes these cuts, this gap risks getting even wider and the futures that deaf children are working so hard for will slip even further from their grasp.

“Deaf children can thrive in the classroom when they’re given what they need, but their parents have been left in an unimaginable situation, where they don’t know if the crucial support their child relies on will be taken away.

“The council is the only one with the power to clear up this confusion and put minds at rest. It must move quickly to confirm its intentions, rule out these cuts and give every deaf child in its care the chance to shine at school.”

Responding to a Freedom of Information request from the National Deaf Children’s Society, Wigan Council said “We will look to achieve a minimum saving of 10% to help balance the budget”.

It confirmed its gross current budget for children with a hearing and/or a visual impairment for 2019/2020 was £911,536. Its net budget was £791,970. Both were the same as the previous year.

In response to the 2019 survey by the Consortium for Research in Deaf Education, Wigan Council confirmed that there were 293 children on its caseload.

Cath Pealing, interim assistant director for education at Wigan Council said: “Like many local authorities, we are reviewing our support services to ensure they can be as effective as possible.

“Whilst we have proposed a reduction in spending to our sensory support services, we will only do this if we can still deliver the right provision for our children and young people.

“In order to explore this, we have engaged with experts to ensure any new approach is implemented in the right way.

“The opinions and expertise of parents is also highly valued, so we have been holding workshops with families, children and young people and education professionals to gather their views. These conversations have generated some really great ideas and we will consider all of these when we produce a plan of how our future sensory support could look.”