Hands of friendship

13th November 1998 at 00:00
It is autumn and a dreich day in Kilmarnock. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, as you watch the pupils, soaked and buffeted by the wind, making their way home. Except that in one small room of Grange Academy, a dozen pupils have volunteered to stay on, not to avoid the weather but to learn sign language.

The room is quiet but for the sound of whispered words as the pupils - along with one of their own class teachers - repeat the signed vocabulary they are being shown by a profoundly deaf adult.

They are learning to sign numbers, colours and family members. You can't help but be struck by the silence, the concentration, the dedication - punctuated, of course, by the occasional burst of laughter when somebody gets it wrong.

These mainstream pupils, mostly from Secondary 1 but ranging right up to S6, come every Tuesday for two hours after school to learn how to sign.

And they've signed up for 30 similar two-hour classes this session in order to be able to communicate with profoundly deaf and hearing-impaired pupils who also attend the academy which has had its own hearing impaired unit for more than 20 years.

The story began last year when Laura Aitken and Rachel Withers, two mainstream senior pupils, entirely off their own bat, went to Kilmarnock College to learn how to sign. From this grew the idea of a special project which is now fully underway, with #163;3,000 funding over two years from the Barclays New Futures scheme.

The aim of the project - which is partially managed by the two girls under the guidance of assistant head Christine McGuire and the four full-time teachers at the unit - is to enhance the integration of hearing-impaired pupils in the school through peer support, to enhance pupil self-esteem and improve current provision for hearing-impaired pupils.

A further aim of the project is for hearing-impaired and mainstream students to contact employers together and encourage them to offer work placements to pairs of hearing and hearing-impaired pupils.

"Through this project deaf children should be able to take part more fully in the life of the school and it should enhance the curriculum for them as well as increasing their employability," says Anne Barnaby who teaches in the unit.

"Ideally, in the future when they go into mainstream classes they will not need an adult interpreting during lessons all the time and won't be as socially isolated during breaks," she says.

One example of the benefits of increased socialisation is Sarah Anderson,the school's first profoundly deaf prefect, who attended a senior Hallowe'en party for the first time this year, because there are now mainstream senior pupils with whom she can communicate more easily.

On the job front, the school regards this project as extremely important.Employers sometimes refuse to host hearing-impaired pupils for placements because they are worried about any health and safety implications. But with hearing-impaired and mainstream pupils who can sign going out together on placement, they feel this problem will be overcome.

"One profoundly deaf pupil, 14-year-old Mark Glover, has already found a work experience placement at Kilmarnock FC. He is delighted at the prospect, quite literally, of polishing his hero Ally McCoist's boots!" says Anne Barnaby.

But the project helps mainstream pupils too. Christine McGuire comments:

"The project not only improves our young people's perception of hearing-impaired pupils but it's also a different way of learning for them."

The two senior pupils Laura and Rachel are now tackling Stage Two Sign Language at Kilmarnock College (and paying their own exam fees). "There are signs," says headteacher Hugh Miller, "that this kind of spontaneous interest will snowball. With so many S1 pupils involved in the volunteer group, many of their peers are already expressing interest in signing."

"The fact that two mainstream class teachers are also learning alongside pupils promotes the idea of life-long learning," says Christine McGuire. "In terms of pupil-teacher relations it enhances the ethos of the school and makes it more of a learning community."

History and modern studies teacher Donald Gray is learning to sign alongside the pupil volunteers in order to be able to communicate "in practical terms" with the hearing-impaired pupils in his classes.

"I certainly can't communicate at a higher level yet but I'm sure I'll get there. At first I found some of the signs difficult but the S1 pupils help me out. I think they enjoy watching a teacher learning alongside them."


Other Scottish Barclays New Futures 1998 Award Winners include: Bellshill Academy, North Lanarkshire The award is being used to provide training and develop materials for a peer support and counselling programme which involves partner primary schools. In the first initiative of its kind, pupils will work closely with ChildLine (Scotland) as trainees to their volunteer programme and as potential peer telephone counsellors.

Sanday Junior High School, Orkney Students are producing a monthly newspaper and a wildlife magazine for distribution within and beyond Orkney. Partner schools, Stronsay and Pierowall junior high, are learning how to contribute information electronically.

For the future of young Orcadians, electronic communication may prove the only way they will find work and be able to stay. It is hoped the project will also create a greater sense of identity among the islands' children and thus reduce isolation and the drive to leave.

Drummond Community High School, Edinburgh Pupils are working in partnership with the Bonnington Resource Centre for adults with learning difficulties, with the aim of encouraging Bonnington members to see the community school as an additional learning and resource centre. For Drummond students it means an opportunity to gain greater understanding of the issues affecting people with learning difficulties.

Pitfodels School, Aberdeen The pupils in this small special school for children with profound learning difficulties, are planning, designing and building a sensory garden. The aim is for the garden to become both a learning project and a meeting place for children of varying learning abilities.

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