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Deaf but not unheard

Headteacher Mabel Davis calls for a more flexible approach to the placement of hearing-impaired children.

It is distressing to find - on the evidence of recent articles in the national press - that archaic attitudes to the education of deaf children still prevail into the 21st century. It is time to present a more accurate account of the practice as opposed to the politics of the issue.

Polarised views are being commissioned from extremist groups. The British Sign Language lobby insists that deaf children should not "suffer" inclusion within mainstream schools while the oralaural lobby advocate just that. Thus a juicy piece of journalistic debate is promoted to the detriment of all deaf children.

It is hard to appreciate just how this "one size fits all" mentality can survive in an educational context that celebrates diversity. It is at odds with a climate which recognises the importance of meeting individual needs, where the curriculum is adapted to meet these individual needs rather than expecting children to adapt to any static offering.

Surely, commonsense alone would recognise that all children are individuals with different needs which have to be objectively assessed to ensure both correct school placement, in either special schools or mainstream schools, together with the most appropriate method of communication to meet these needs.

The range of options for parental preference extends from special schools, offering either sign or oral communication, to mainstream schools, also offering both but in a different way. There are also special schools offering a mixture of both at once, known as the Total Communication approach.

Providing that accurate assessments are made at the start and are needs-led rather than fund-led, the placements should be appropriate and meet the communicative needs of the individual child. Such decisions can be revisited as part of the annual review process to ensure that pupil progress verifies whether the placement remains appropriate or not.

That is the theory. The problem lies with the accuracy of the initial assessments, which are prone to influence by whichever extremist group is prominent in any local education authority. The Government's drive towards social inclusion, or rather the way this has been interpreted by various LEAs, may be partly responsible for this.

In many authorities, mainstreaming has degenerated into a cost-cutting exercise at the expense of meeting children's needs. This is due to the failure to give equal value to special school and mainstream provision as well as to both sign language and to the oral method.

It is necessary to recognise this and put it right, then continue to provide a flexible range of provision which protects the scope for parents to express their preferences rather than to ensure that they have no choice at all.

So let's stop playing politics with our deaf children's lives and concentrate on developing a flexible system with the child at the centre. Let's celebrate all achievements and diversity through mutual respect for all. Let's learn from each other and make it our purpose to work together in partnership to ensure that no deaf child experiences failure simply because there has been an inappropriate or prejudiced assessment of their needs at the start. If we do not do this we are ignoring both the "signs" and the "voice" of our times.

Mabel Davis is headteacher of Heathlands School, St Albans and Disability Council representative on the General Teaching Council for England.

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