Is anyone listening?

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Conversations with other parents invariably take the same course: first we discuss our child's deafness, its causes and whether they sign or speak; then we compare educational horror stories

Inclusion is failing deaf children for one simple reason: there just aren't enough specialist teachers to go round. It's time to break the conspiracy of silence, says frustrated parent Fiona Leney

In a bright mobile classroom bedecked with colourful artwork, a handful of small children sit in a horseshoe talking about "things that are special to me". They're watching their teacher's face and looking at pictures she holds up of the special things they might be thinking about: family, pets, toys. They are special too: deaf children preparing to tackle the topic with their hearing peers in mainstream lessons.

"Abstract concepts like these are harder to grasp for deaf children, who tend to think in very concrete terms," says Judith Marsden, teacher in charge of the unit for hearing impaired children at Slade primary school in Tonbridge, Kent. Without specialist knowledge, she says, "even the most gifted teacher may not realise that the deaf child in a class may be struggling".

Ms Marsden is a passionate advocate of inclusion and this summer won the special needs teacher of the year award for the south-east. But inclusion of the deaf can only work, she says, if children get expert support. And it should not be done on the cheap. Her concern is that, as special schools continue to close, and the number of deaf children in mainstream schools grows, there are simply not enough specialists to go round. "Already a frighteningly high proportion of units are not fully staffed with qualified teachers, and some do not have any qualified staff at all," she says.

Unfortunately, Slade primary is the exception rather than the norm. Its reputation led my husband and I to Tonbridge, after scouring the outer rim of London for a school that would provide our deaf son Oliver with a high-quality, inclusive education. Obtaining the right support for deaf children in the mainstream is a postcode lottery at the best of times, with the type of provision dictated by factors that have little to do with the individual child's needs. Budget constraints, the personal convictions of heads of services about whether signing or oralism is better, plus dire shortages of specialists such as speech therapists, cause deep frustration for the families of deaf children.

Conversations with other parents invariably take the same course: first we discuss our child's deafness, its causes and whether they sign or speak; then we compare educational horror stories. Sheila is a case in point. A teacher herself, she has drawn up a set of crib notes on how to teach her daughter Claire because she is sick of having to go in and brief every new teacher at Claire's school. Normally, a visiting teacher would provide Claire with support and advise her teacher, but the last one retired a year ago and, despite repeated advertising, no one, it seems, wants the job.

"Claire's primary school has to make up the best way of teaching her as they go along. This is what inclusion means in many cases. It's basically experimenting on deaf kids," says Sheila. Her words are only a little starker than Baroness Warnock's damning verdict in June this year of a policy she helped to frame almost 25 years ago. Referring to a "disastrous legacy", she suggested that, far from being phased out, the number of special schools should be expanded.

Inclusion was born of good intentions. Decades of educational segregation and prejudice against deaf children had delivered appalling statistics, such as the fact that, in 1979, the majority of deaf children were leaving school at 16, with a reading age of nine. Technological advances in the Eighties made it possible for more and more deaf children to access speech and it was believed that, if given adequate support in the mainstream, many would be able to achieve as well as their hearing peers. Even children who used British Sign Language could succeed in a mainstream class, with the support of a teacher of the deaf (ToD) or signing teaching assistant, it was argued. But in 1998 government-commissioned research concluded that, since 1979, there had been "no overall significant improvement in the education of deaf children".

At the heart of the problem lies a dire shortage of qualified teachers.

More than 80 per cent of Britain's 25,000 deaf children now attend mainstream schools, yet the number of qualified ToDs - whose job can range from full-time classroom teaching to advisory visits to schools such as Claire's - is falling. In 1989 there were 153 ToDs in training. In 2000 that had dropped to 94. Last year there were 91. The future is even bleaker. A recent survey showed that the average age of a ToD is around 50 and that half are planning to retire over the next five years.

"There are not enough ToDs, and the need for them is growing," says David Hartley, president of the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf. "An advert for a ToD will often get no response at all. There's simply no pool of qualified people out there. In those situations a head will try to appoint an interested teacher, but they will not be a qualified ToD. They will have no experience or understanding of what is required."

The length and structure of the training, which is only available to qualified teachers with three years' experience, puts off many young graduates, he adds. "Someone who has done a degree in deaf studies, for example, would have to do a 12-month PGCE, followed by a two-year part-time distance learning course while working in a hands-on environment. We are losing young, newly qualified teachers who go off to get their teaching experience elsewhere."

Those who do go for the qualification often leave it until their own children have grown up and they can cope with the extra workload, meaning an older, less mobile workforce. And there is a lack of funds for setting up new courses, providing training bursaries and offering more attractive pay scales.

One ToD from the north of England says there just isn't enough money to provide the quality of teaching needed. "As qualified teachers move on, the gaps are plugged by less qualified support staff who are cheaper and more plentiful," she says.

Whatever the case for or against special schools for the deaf, they did at least offer an appropriate learning environment, with carpeted floors, acoustically sensitive rooms, and technicians to fix hearing aids and other equipment. When one such school closed in Manchester, its pupils were just dispersed across the city's comprehensives, which were in no position to provide for their special needs. But this is how many local authorities interpret inclusion - a way of meeting their obligations with a minimum of cost and fuss - according to Tricia Kemp, co-ordinator for the cochlear-implanted children's support group (CICS), which connects families of children with a cochlear implant, an advanced hearing aid.

"Mainstream education with support which is inadequate is merely a cheap option for the local authority. It is no good having a child in mainstream education if that child's needs are not being fully met," says Ms Kemp.

Her deaf son, Alex, 17, has just started as a weekly boarder at the fee-paying Mary Hare grammar school for the deaf, in Newbury, Berkshire, because, she says, only there can he receive the kind of support he needs.

"There is so little choice in this," says Ms Kemp, who speaks bitterly of a "one size fits all" mentality among LEAs. "As long as your child is not causing problems, it may not come to light until too late that he is falling behind," she says.

In many ways, John Collins (not his real name), a 12-year-old cochlear implant user who regularly tops the class at his high-achieving grammar school, is a success story. But his mother tells of battles with an inflexible school management. "They made him sit next to projectors, which were noisy, so he couldn't hear the lesson. They refused to get DVDs with subtitles to make it easier for him to follow a video presentation. They refused to keep spare batteries for him or help with his equipment, and when his batteries failed one afternoon, they refused to believe him and he had to sit through a lesson hearing nothing."

While the problem lies in the school's attitude to its deaf pupil, more effective intervention by John's visiting ToD would help. But she can only give him two hours a week, and must divide that time between seeing him and talking to his teachers. "Some weeks he doesn't even manage to see her, such are the demands on her time," says Mrs Collins. "When he started at the school, which had no real experience of deaf pupils, she had 20 minutes to do a presentation on hearing impairment, to tell the teachers, who knew nothing about the subject, everything they needed to know about John."

As I listen to this story, I reflect on how different things are at the Slade, where all classrooms have areas of carpet to soak up noise, some have a soundfield system, with the teacher wearing a microphone, and Judith Marsden shows her steely side by ensuring that teachers at every level understand the needs of their deaf pupils; all children learn some signing in their PSHE classes. There is a culture of caring and interest in deaf classmates typified by the "treasure hunts" that ensue whenever a piece of expensive hearing equipment falls off in the playground, and children compete to see who can find it first.

The ageing mobile classroom which houses the Slade's hearing impaired unit is not ideal, but its carpeted floor, sound-treated walls and low ceilings provide good acoustics, and it is a cosy and welcoming place not only for the 11 deaf children at the school, but for the groups of hearing classmates who often accompany them on "reverse integration" lessons taken by Ms Marsden. "It's a real treat for the hearing kids to get that level of individual attention too," says one mother. "Everyone benefits."

Judith Marsden argues that a unit for the hearing impaired offers the best of both worlds: mainstream and specialist school. She cannot imagine doing her job any other way. "In some cases deaf children do not get direct contact with qualified ToDs. Visiting teachers are increasingly asked to advise class teachers and teaching assistants. I think to myself, 'How could I impart my knowledge, gained from a degree course plus the experience of 24 years of teaching deaf children, to a class teacher in a half-hour liaison every month?' " Even so, Slade parents have had to fight hard battles. In 2003, just as Oliver started school, the peripatetic speech and language therapist for our area of Kent resigned and the local health authority said it could not attract a replacement. That left 15 deaf children with no speech therapy provision.

We wrote letters, demanded meetings and wrote to the Secretary of State for Education. One year later our lobbying paid off when the post was filled, but only by poaching a speech therapist from across the county border, in Sussex. Presumably the problem then passed to them. For, as with ToDs, speech therapists are in short supply. Training structures and cheeseparing budgets are once again to blame.

There are some signs that the gathering crisis is being noticed. The National Deaf Children's Society is co-ordinating a group of representatives from local authorities, schools for the deaf, universities and other voluntary organisations to investigate the recruitment and training of teachers of the deaf. It will report to the Department for Education and Skills in late autumn 2005.

If inclusion is not to let down another generation of deaf children, the Government must act on the group's recommendations.

NDCS Freephone helpline: 0808 800 8880 (voice and text) 10am-5pm Monday to Friday. Email: Website: recruitment crisis in speech therapy is uncovered in this month's edition of TESExtra for Special Needs, the TES subscription newsletter. Visit

Facts and figures

* Teachers of the deaf in the UK: 2,500 (includes part-timers and those not working)

* Specialist schools for the deaf in the UK: 30

* Hearing impaired units in mainstream schools: 411

* Children (aged two to 18) receiving a cochlear implant in 2004: 280

* Number of deaf children and young people (under 25) in UK: 34,800

* Every year 840 babies are born deaf. The figure is rising with the improved survival rates for very premature babies, who often suffer from damaged hearing

* One in 1,000 children will have a severe or profound hearing loss

* Forty per cent of deaf children have other special needs

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