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Deafness is isolating - -as the head of this St Albans school knows from personal experience. Gerald Haigh meets a woman who is determined her pupils do not miss out on the mainstream

Heathlands School, the last school for deaf children to be built in this country, occupies a modern building in St Albans. Since its inception in 1975, the trend has been towards integration and units attached to mainstream schools.

Mabel Davis, the headteacher, who is profoundly deaf, is cautious about the practicalities of integration. It's not that she's against inclusion - her own school has run integration projects since the 1980s - it's more her insistence that the condition is not like others. "Deafness," she says, "is a very isolating disability."

An obvious point, you might think, but one that doesn't really hit home until you hear how Davis made the case to a National Union of Teachers conference for disabled teachers.

"There were speakers representing a wide range of different disabilities, including wheelchair users, and I was the first speaker after lunch," she says. "I asked them whether they enjoyed talking to each other during the meal, then I asked whether anyone had spoken to me. Nobody had, and I said that I didn't need to point out who was the most disabled person in the room.

"This is where I come into conflict with other disability groups who are all for inclusion. They don't always understand that it's quite possible to be physically present and yet not integrated, not part of what's going on."

Among the children at Heathlands - it takes 115 pupils from nursery up to 16, 40 of whom are residential - are some who have failed to make it in mainstream schools. "If mainstream schools were suitable for all deaf children," says Davis, "we would not be having to remedy the damage they do."

The profoundly deaf child in a mainstream school, she maintains, often receives inadequate signing support. Even where such support is provided, there are dangers in generating a high degree of dependency on one adult.

"Unless the mainstream teacher and other pupils have deaf awareness training and sign-language lessons on a regular basis, the deaf child will have a restricted level of access to the curriculum," says Davis. Her approach is pragmatic. "The challenge for the teachers is to give the children equality of access to the two fundamentals of communication and the development of language," she says. "The child determines the policy."

That means working to children's strengths, through signing, lip reading, or using technology to make the most of any residual hearing - the key phrase is "total communication". Part of the approach involves carefully planned inclusion into a mainstream school. For example, all Heathlands secondary students are housed at Townsend school, a mile away. However, individuals take part in mainstream school activities according to their needs.

"Integration from strength", is the phrase Davis uses to explain her policy of including her pupils in the mainstream only when there is confidence that they will succeed.

She also places importance on the fact that her inclusion programme is driven from the special school. "The Government is keen to promote inclusion," she says, "but it made the assumption that it woul be the mainstream schools that would be pioneering the work, and directed funding to the mainstream schools.

"It didn't envisage the possibility that special schools might be the best place for this kind of initiative - consequently there's no inclusion factor in the funding formula for special schools."

The link with Townsend is the most visible of the Heathlands inclusion projects. "Heathlands at Townsend" occupies its own purpose-built classrooms, with a team of qualified teachers of the deaf, led by the head of department, Jason Hazrati. Core subjects are taught by teachers of the deaf, but the students have access to the mainstream school for subjects such as ICT, design technology, the arts and PE.

At primary level, inclusion is more limited, but some carefully chosen children go to one of a number of mainstream primaries for half a day or so each week. Not all of them want to go. "They may be very comfortable in the deaf community," says Davis, "especially if they're from deaf families where British Sign Language is the only language used."

She recalls one eight - year-old boy's distress at being in a mainstream classroom. "He felt disadvantaged for the first time in his life," she says. "I wrote him a poem about being brave and asked if he would try for two or three weeks. Then, if he was still unhappy, I'd let him stop. After two or three weeks he came back and said it was OK, and some children were learning to sign so they could talk to him."

It is a feature of the Heathlands inclusion projects that a number of mainstream children start to learn British Sign Language. Some Townsend students have taken BSL qualifications, and some mainstream primary children come to a signing club at Heathlands. There is some "reverse integration" in the classroom, too, where mainstream children come to work alongside Heathlands pupils.

Davis is full of praise for her team of teachers and support staff. Nevertheless, there's no doubt that her leadership is crucial. She works tirelessly for her school, and is constantly busy in the broader educational world - as a member of the General Teaching Council, for example. Much of her determination clearly has its roots in her own story. Her deafness came at the age of seven, the tragic consequence of streptomycin treatment during a TB epidemic in Ayrshire in 1952.

"Overnight, I lost my hearing totally," she remembers. "I woke up one morning and thought it was very quiet." She never went back to her local school. Instead, she went to a school for the deaf. For her, she feels, this was right. She felt relieved that there were other deaf children: "I am just very glad I was able to join the deaf world and, through that network of support, be in a position later to make choices on my own terms." Had the same thing happened today, she says, "support would be provided to enable me to remain in my local school, but no one really knows how that would have worked out."

Not many teachers, even now, have been educated in special schools or units. Mabel Davis is clearly in a position to be an inspirational role model. Children in special education - and their parents - desperately need influential friends. At Heathlands school they are blessed by having someone who understands their situation from the inside

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