From period piece to state of the arts

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
After 150 years in Edinburgh, Scotland's national school for the deaf and language impaired has moved to bespoke facilities in Linlithgow. Emma Seith explores the new premises
After 150 years in Edinburgh, Scotland's national school for the deaf and language impaired has moved to bespoke facilities in Linlithgow. Emma Seith explores the new premises

A low, grey, angular building set in mature woodland in Linlithgow, the new Donaldson's school for the deaf could scarcely be further removed from the dramatic turrets and sprawling lawns of its previous home in the capital.

When the decision was taken to leave Edinburgh, the intention was to create not another iconic building, but one that was fit for purpose. So while the new building is attractive, with stunning views of the Bathgate Hills, the Avon Aqueduct and the Ochils, it is what is inside that really counts.

Donaldson's wanted a school that the deaf community could be proud of, but also one that would be "acoustically effective", explains Janice MacNeill, the principal.

Its original home - a Victorian masterpiece by William Playfair - was educationally inappropriate. This became glaringly obvious in 2002, when two new units were added for primary and practical subjects. These modern buildings, free from the high ceilings, echoes and reverberations of the old building, made it clear the Playfair was hindering, not helping pupils.

It was also a financial burden, says Mrs MacNeill. "There was just no way we could make it accessible and do all the repairs necessary at the standard required for a grade A listed building. It was like putting your finger in a dyke."

Donaldson's reincarnation has cost pound;23.5 million - pound;1.5 million more than they expect to get for their former home, which is to be turned into 45 luxury flats and 60-plus houses by Cala Homes.

"We had been hoping there would be something in reserve, but if you take on a building like this, there is no point compromising," says Mrs MacNeill.

The instant you step up to the front door and come face-to-face with administrator Harley Rudge - via a small TV screen mounted on the wall - you start to see where the money has gone. Because you can see Mr Rudge and he can see you, sign language is now possible.

The school is peppered with gadgets like this that make life easier for the people within its walls.

Every class - from 2 to 19 years old - has a low-level PA system to ensure that teachers' voices are as clear as possible, even when their backs are turned. The system also sends the teacher's voice direct into pupils' hearing aids.

Background noise and interference have been cut to a minimum: lights don't hum, there are no partition walls, and linoleum has been laid instead of carpet because it gives better acoustics.

There are sensory rooms, in both the school and the separate residents' block, which provide a calming environment where pupils can experiment with light and sound.

The rooms are useful, says Mrs MacNeill, if a pupil becomes agitated or frustrated, but they can also be used to teach the children to concentrate and identify patterns which will help them when signing or lip reading.

The school has its own sound chamber where educational audiologist Joe O'Donnell can assess children's hearing, ensure hearing aids are working, and develop programmes to bring on pupils' listening, so that all can "get the best possible access to speech" (the environment is bilingual, with British sign language and English).

There is a swimming pool, a fitness suite, a five-a-side all-weather football pitch, play equipment, a trim trail, a cycle path, a pond and a barbecue area. There is even a greenhouse for the 16- to 19-year-olds in the life skills group, who plan to grow and sell their own vegetables.

Another major benefit, according to Mrs MacNeill, is that the school "flows well" and "has a logic to it".

There is a central hub with shared teaching, sports, dining and administrative facilities which links the two teaching wings: secondary and primarynursery. Different areas are colour-coded to make orientation easier for pupils.

Back in Edinburgh, staff and pupils were spread across three buildings. While headteacher Mary O'Brien concedes it kept you fit, that was the only advantage.

The new building, with its shorter distances between classes and mod cons, also seems to have had a calming effect on pupils. There has been a "remarkable" improvement in behaviour, she says.

There is simply less scope for mischief. In theory, only a third of the Playfair building was in use but, in reality, youngsters looking to skip classes made good use of the remaining two thirds.

The staff - which includes teachers, speech and language therapists, an educational psychologist, an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist and an educational audiologist - also flag up the more compact new building as a huge advantage.

Classroom assistant Elizabeth Simpson is one of the school's 14 deaf members of staff. The distance between classes at the old school was "troublesome", she says. She prefers being able to move quickly from one area to another.

English teacher Pat O'Hanlon, who started teaching at Donaldson's in 1972, finds the new building far more suitable. "The children are very happy in the school. Everything has been planned for them and their needs are being catered for. Before, staff were doing their best but the building did not help."

Speech and language therapist Frances Inglis enthuses about the interactive whiteboards. There are 27 here, compared with three in the old school (one of which did not work). "With smart boards you can be so visual," she says. "The children respond well to pictures and photographs and written texts when they aren't on a piece of paper. Written text can be intimidating for them, because they are used to seeing a lot of words they don't understand. They are more motivated by the smart board."

Links are also being established with the local community. Senior pupils from Linlithgow Academy work in Donaldson's classrooms on Monday afternoons and the school's eco project is linking in with primaries in Linlithgow.

The longer journey to work for staff who live in Edinburgh has led to a few losses, though. Six members of staff decided not to make the move. Mrs MacNeill had feared there would be more. But it is a good sign, she believes, that no one has decided to leave subsequently. "That shows this is something people are happy to make that longer journey for," she says.

The pupils' views about their new surroundings are mixed. Some are delighted with the new school and the facilities. Louise, 15, comes from Newcastle and lives at the school during the week. She loves the library, the swimming pool, the pool tables ... The list is endless. When asked if she misses the old school, she doesn't bother to sign but folds her arms, shakes her head and lets out an emphatic "No".

The boys are less convinced. They left behind a full-size football pitch and are unimpressed with the smaller replacement.

Martyn, 17, describes himself as having grown up at the school. He says: "I like the new building but the old building was bigger and had more green areas to run round in."

Others are taking time to adjust. Andrew, 18, who travels to the school everyday from Fife, thinks it has been worth the expense but admits that he misses the Playfair. "I started when I was very, very wee - about 3 - so of course I miss it. I'd like to go and have another look before it changes into houses."

Younger children, however, appear to be sold on the new building and at break-time they make a bee-line for the colourful, new primary play equipment.

For Neil Donald, head of care, there is no contest. Now all his boarders have their own rooms with en-suite facilities, where only two did previously, and they have access to a kitchen and living area.

They eat meals in small groups in the residence instead of in the main hall, which he found "mildly institutional". And there is a "genuine sense of privacy", he says.

Staff would try their best to protect children's privacy in the past. They would back into residents' rooms, fumble around for the light switch and flick the lights on and off to draw attention to their presence - but it was all a bit of a charade, admits Mr Donald. Now every room has a bell, which produces a sound but also causes a light to flash inside. "The child has more control," he concludes.

He also believes that, while the building is less grand, it is also less intimidating and more "child-friendly".

At the moment, however, there are just 14 students making use of the 24-bedroom residents' block. Similarly, the school has a roll of 69 pupils but room for 120.

Mrs MacNeill would like to see numbers "increase significantly". Local authorities must start treating the school as the first, not the last choice, she says. Too often parents find out about it by default.

"Local authorities should not be frightened to use us. We are a grant-aided school and a national facility they should be proud of."

Frequently children end up at Donaldson's when they are in their teens, having had poor experiences of education, she says. "If local authorities invest in the early years, we can give children the confidence and linguistic skills which will give them a better chance of coping in the mainstream. Instead, a lot of children come here later on in their educational career and sometimes it is difficult to unpick what's gone on in the past."

The school can also help "socialise" deaf and language-impaired children, says Dr John Schneider, the school's educational psychologist. "A common criticism is that there is not enough opportunity for deaf children to meet with their peer group - they can't just pick up the phone. We offer a social opportunity in the residence here."

Inclusion should not just be about inclusion in the "hearing world", argues Mrs MacNeill, but also in the "deaf world".

Every Monday morning at Donaldson's, staff bear witness to a "wonderful" sight, says Mr Donald: children returning to the school after a weekend "with no one to speak to". "Before the taxis have had the chance to stop, they start signing to each other one-handed through the open windows."

Shared placement, when children spend time in a mainstream school and Donaldson's, is, Mrs MacNeill concludes, a "fabulous model".

The best of both worlds, some might argue.

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