Elaine Williams visits a school in south Yorkshire where everyone - from pupils to dinner ladies - is fluent in sign language but only eight children are actually deaf
The playground at Ravenfield primary school seems much like any other. Children play games or gather in groups to laugh and chat. And that little group of girls over there sitting on a wall looks like any other bunch of friends absorbed in each other's company, intent on conversation, gesturing with excitement.
But look closer and their gestures take on a more purposeful quality, their hands working with particular, articulate expression. They are in fact signing to each other, but only one of them is deaf. Natasha Swift, 11, is profoundly deaf but her hearing mates can sign as well as she. They do it without thinking. It is a language with which they are comfortable and fluent.
Look around the playground again and you will notice other children, other groups signing, little hands working in energetic communication. Indeed, all 185 children at this south Yorkshire school sign, though only eight are profoundly deaf. And it's not just the children. At Ravenfield the dinner ladies, the secretary, some of the governors and many of the hearing teachers also sign.
Ravenfield, which lies amidst rolling arable land between Conisbrough and Rotherham, is probably one of the most deaf-aware villages in the country. The deaf children at its primary school are supported by specialist staff and equipment, but for 75 per cent of their schooling they are integrated into the mainstream.
They are only withdrawn for literacy lessons and special support, such as speech therapy. Natasha, for example, shares literacy sessions with Matthew, a Year 5 boy aged nine, in which they use a group hearing aid for amplification.
Sarah Hicking, the school's full-time deaf support teacher who previously worked at Doncaster School for the Deaf, is aided by a part-timer plus one full-time and three part-time child support assistants. This means that whenever deaf children are in class or whatever the school activity, be it assembly or a school concert, there is always a signing interpreter.
But the children themselves sign automatically. They sign when they sing; they sign during plays and drama. Hearing children who arrive in later years are regarded as the odd ones out because they don't sign. "We haven't asked the children to do this," says headteacher Wendy Jones. "They just do it. They've seen people signing since they were in reception and they just pick it up naturally."
Kimberlee Dunning, 11, a friend of Natasha Swift's, says: "It's just natural for us to sign with each other. We've always done it here; it doesn't seem special to us. The other night Natasha came to sleep at my house and when the lights were turned out I got out my torch so we could carry on 'talking'."
Indeed, a group of Year 6 children, all hearing except for Natasha, are so committed to developing their signing that they have become the youngest people in the country to pass an exam in British Sign Language, the first or preferred language for many deaf people. But it wasn't without a fight. At first they were told they had to be at least 12 years old (some of them were only 10 at the time) to take the exam. Undeterred, they wrote to the exam board and explained that they had been signing for seven years, since reception, and saw no reason why they should be debarred. They were not even put off by the fact that they would have to sign in front of two examiners as well as being filmed.
Unable to resist this youthful pressure, the board granted them an exemption and Rotherham education authority, also impressed by their determination, stumped up the hundreds of pounds needed for specialist tuition and exam fees.
Although the children were proficient colloquial signers, they needed help to polish their grammar. BSL has its own grammatical structure, and the children needed to be made aware of its more formal aspects - they had to work on perfecting particular facial expressions and hand shapes, for example.
On the other hand, they had no need of the course of two hours a week for 30 weeks, normally required to reach level 1. Linda Lees-Weir, a learning support assistant at the Doncaster School for the Deaf who is profoundly deaf herself, was brought in to be their tutor and says she was "totally surprised and impressed" by their level of proficiency.
After only 12 weeks they were ready to take the exam. Wendy Jones had also considered taking the exam, learning alongside her pupils, but was told she wasn't good enough to keep up with them and would have to start at a lower level. Linda Lees-Weir, who grew up in a hearing family that didn't sign, knows how easy it is for deaf people to feel isolated in a world that only communicates aurally and orally. For deaf children to grow up in a mainstream school where their hearing peers sign is, she says, "totally marvellous. It means that these deaf children don't feel left out. I think there should be similar schools all over the place."
Joel Norris, 11, decided to take the exam because his parents had already reached BSL level 2 in order to communicate with the deaf children who come to their home - friends of Joel's brother David, 9, and his sister Sarah, 6. Though a hearing family, they now communicate in sign among themselves. "It means we can talk over long distances," says Joel.
Jessica Burke's mother works in a day care centre where she also uses sign language. "We communicate with each other by signing. It's like being able to speak a different language," says Jessica, 11.
Ravenfield pupils also use signing to get the better of their teachers. When teachers require silence they have to demand: "No talking and no signing!" Chloe Chilton, 11, another examinee, says: "It's good in class because when teachers ask you to be quiet you can just carry on signing."
Wendy Jones is thrilled by the dramatic change in the school's culture that has taken place in the five years since the department was established. "I would never have thought five years ago that integration of these children would have been at such a high level as it is," says Ms Jones. "Education is about all manner of things, some of it measurable, some of it not, but the social skills our children have acquired, their innate grasp of equal opportunities issues, their tolerance of difference, is remarkable.
"There's a tremendous amount of goodwill from everyone which makes integration work in the way that it does. Parents, particularly, are very supportive. I often hear them saying things like, 'It's great having these kids here; they give our kids something special'."
Jane Horne, a Year 1 teacher, agrees that hearing children gain by having access to a visual language. "They get that extra input. Sometimes, if they are not totally sure about what I am saying, they will watch the signer for a better understanding."
Kimberlee Dunning and Lindsey Jones, also 11, are sad that they won't be able to use their signing at secondary school. In September they will move on to Maltby comprehensive, where there are no deaf children. They are already discussing the possibility of joining a youth club for deaf children, and Sarah Hicking is looking into possibilities for voluntary work. "It would feel like a waste of time, like we're chucking it all away after all that work, if we don't carry on signing," says Kimberlee.
Lindsey is also concerned that Natasha, who will move on to Wickersley comprehensive, another local secondary option for Ravenfield pupils which has a hearing impaired department, will be lost without her signing friends. However, the girls are helping her develop her speech in preparation: they have taught her to say their names and Kimberley is particularly proud to have taught Natasha to say "fish 'n' chips". And Natasha will be well catered for, according to Sarah Hicking. Some Ravenfield pupils will be going to Wickersley and a support programme is being put in place ready for her arrival.
Meanwhile, Ravenfield will prepare to welcome the next generation of deaf children to its signing community.
"I couldn't do this job unless I felt it was totally beneficial to the deaf children here," says Sarah Hicking. "It means they have access to the curriculum of a normal school in all its diversity, but I think their presence here widens everybody's horizons."