School for deaf is 'best kept secret'

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
It has bespoke new facilities and a proven track record, yet half of Donaldson's places are vacant
It has bespoke new facilities and a proven track record, yet half of Donaldson's places are vacant

The principal of Scotland's school for the deaf has issued a plea to councils to make better use of the new pound;23.5 million facility.

According to Janice MacNeill, parents found out about Donaldson's - which caters for 2- to 19-year-olds who are deaf or have severe speech and language difficulties - by "word of mouth, through other parents or by default". Only rarely did their local authority tell them the school was an option.

But John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, said it was the most "appropriate" provision that mattered. In recent years, the emphasis has been on "more local and inclusive provision", and the idea that children were "best served" as part of the deaf community was changing.

There are only 69 pupils at the school which has a capacity of 120; and just 14 bedrooms out of 24 in the residents' block are filled.

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

Donaldson's recently moved from its home in Edinburgh, where it has been for more than 150 years, to Linlithgow - the first national bespoke school for deaf children.

The school was not appropriate for every deaf child, Mrs MacNeill admitted. However, youngsters who stood to benefit from their facilities often arrived in their teens, following negative experiences in education. Early intervention would be better, she said.

"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."

She added: "We are not in the business of trying to keep children here unless it is appropriate. One of our success criteria is giving pupils the skills to cope and flourish in the mainstream."

The school has considerable expertise on site, claimed Mrs MacNeill, including four speech and language therapists, a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, an educational psychologist and an educational audiologist, who assesses pupils' hearing.

Dr John Schneider, Donaldson's educational psychologist, claimed the school - which offers a bilingual environment recognising British sign language and English equally - is Scotland's best-kept secret.

Not only does it have a wealth of expertise, he said, but it can also help "socialise" deaf children.

"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."

Mrs MacNeill argued that politicians only thought about inclusion in terms of inclusion in the "hearing world", and they often lost sight of the importance of including deaf children in the "deaf world".

She described shared placements, when youngsters divide their time between Donaldson's and mainstream school, as "a fabulous model".

"I want Donaldson's to be the first option, not the last," she added.

Mr Stodter admitted money was a factor when local authorities considered placing pupils in schools like Donaldson's - funding a place there cost just under pound;24,000 per year. But he said there were other "down sides", such as distance from family and friends. It was a balance and councils looked at "the right provision first and then at the cost".

Donaldson's settles in, p12-13.

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