Breaking the sound barrier

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Inclusion is built into the fabric of an award-winning London primary. It's also prompted staff to rethink their teaching styles. Harvey McGavin reports

The children of Pearl class stand in a circle, linking arms, trying to remember whether they are a number one or a number two. At a signal from their teacher, the number ones lean forwards and the number twos lean backwards. As a demonstration of mutual support, it's fairly shambolic - some of the children deliberately fall over while others take the strain, but the circle hangs together.

As a demonstration of what goes on at Jubilee school in the south London borough of Lambeth, it's entirely symbolic. From the outside, Jubilee looks nothing like an ordinary place of education and it's easy to see why the Royal Institute of British Architects last year chose it as one of the best new buildings in Britain (it also won a Prime Minister's "better public building" award). The front door is in one corner of a vast purple-tiled wall; inside, light floods through huge windows into high-ceilinged corridors and classrooms; outside, brightly painted walls and playground markings are visually striking. All this is deliberate, as the main connection to the world for a significant number of pupils here is their eyes - more than 20 of the 440 pupils are deaf or hearing-impaired.

It's not only the architecture that is state-of-the-art; inclusion is built into the very fabric of the school. Carpet lines the classroom walls, there are sound baffles in the main hall, and teachers routinely don microphone headsets linked to induction loop hearing aids. As the children of Pearl class reassemble, another practical test of their communication, lining up in order of shoe size, makes the scale of the integration apparent. Hearing and deaf children sign to each other in instinctive little flurries, following the lead of Sumita Paul, who's giving them instructions from the front of the class.

Ms Paul, a 24-year-old sociology graduate who has been deaf from birth, has been running deaf awareness workshops at Jubilee school on Thursday afternoons. But instead of being worthy, consciousness-raising exercises, they tackle everyday themes. On the day of The TES's visit, she is looking at teamwork, last week it was bullying.

It's the method of delivery that sets the workshops apart from other events in the timetable. Ms Paul signs a request to the class - spoken by Colette Maynard, a freelance interpreter who works with Ms Paul - to suggest words that sum up the notion of teamwork. As they are written on the board, she asks for a volunteer to sign them, and 10-year old David jumps up, smiling, to assist her.

Gail Molloy, Pearl class's teacher, has seen the difference these sessions have had on her pupils. David - one of four deaf children in this Year 6 group - has overcome his shyness to become an enthusiastic class member.

Teaching such a varied group of children in the 18 months she's been at the school has made Ms Molloy, already an advanced skills teacher, reappraise the way she works.

One of her first tasks was learning sign language. "To have any real contact, it was imperative I could sign." She practised with her five-year-old son, Alistair, who is hearing, and, like most young children, has an affinity for signing. "The children here are also teaching me. It's a nice situation where everybody is a learner."

Seven of the school's staff 65, including one of the dinner ladies, have taken their level 1 certificate in sign language - the idea is for all staff to become competent signers. It has almost become second nature to Ms Molloy; signing's expressive gestures are now subconscious accompaniments to her spoken conversation.

As teachers, we rely on limited styles," she says, recalling her first PE lesson with the class, when she gave verbal cues without realising her mistake. "Making it more visual is good for everybody. It has enhanced my own practice - and it's good fun."

As English co-ordinator, she has noticed a profound effect on her teaching methods. "I would never have begun to think how deaf children learn to write. Emergent writing is based on sound, and deaf children don't have those sounds. When you are getting children to write, you can't say, 'sound it out'. It's opened my eyes. It's been a steep learning curve for me."

When the school opened, in September 2002, most of the deaf and hearing-impaired children were based in the onsite Rainbow centre, designed for them. Integration has been a gradual process. "It's a winning situation for everyone," says Ms Molloy. "Not only for children from the centre who are included, but mainstream children too." She taught a Year 2 class in 2002 - "an amazing experience. They completely embraced other children, not in a patronising way, just naturally. I couldn't understand why children with hearing impairment were being taught separately. There's no real reason why."

Ms Paul has been a great motivator for the deaf children, says Ms Molloy.

"Having someone with hearing impairment deliver a class must have a positive effect. What she does has nothing to do with being deaf or having hearing impairment. It's about breaking down barriers, and common issues such as bullying."

Ms Paul's workshops are part of a joint project by Save the Children and the Lord Mayor of London's appeal to raise deaf awareness in schools.

"She's such a role model, being young and trendy," says Belinda James, one of the school's deputy heads. "Children like David were lacking confidence, but you can see him swell with self-esteem. Now he'll go and stand at the front and help."

Ms Paul's own education was in a series of schools for the deaf in London and Brighton, and her limited dealing with mainstream education left her cold. "One day a week I had to go into a hearing school. I felt left out. I didn't feel anybody made the effort to communicate with me," she says.

"There are a lot of barriers. If you go into a shop and try to communicate, people look at you and think you're thick, and tend not to bother. People used to laugh at me because I couldn't speak clearly."

After university, she resolved to break down a few of these barriers. "I thought, 'I have to do something about this. I have got to be a bit pushier and give people a different awareness'."

It's an uphill struggle. Even her own family sometimes forgets to include her in the conversation. "They're always yakking away," she says. While she was growing up, she maintains, deaf schools were best for her, "because children had the opportunity to be equal within the school". But she regrets the lack of opportunities for integration. "In a way, it was a bit of a disadvantage because I wasn't able to communicate with hearing people and I didn't have the confidence. I might have had a bit more speech and a better understanding of the hearing world."

She wishes there were more schools like Jubilee. "Hearing and deaf children are learning separately. They need to get together. This school is good because it is thinking about that; it is going to create a better future for their children."

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