That special bit extra

18th February 2000 at 00:00
We mustn't forget that for many children a mainstream education means being

out of their depth, says Janet Allan.

FEW OF us would argue against the idea that whenever possible children should be educated in mainstream schools and that children with special educational needs should have the right to mainstream education, with adjustment and support.

But the question must go beyond that of just the entitlement of the children and parents to the question of optimum educational provision. That parents and children have choice in educational provision is now fully accepted by society. For children with severe or complex difficulties that choice must be a real one and hence more than one option must be available.

Parents should be encouraged to look at the full range of provision and then make informed choices. It is my experience that many more parents have difficulty in procuring specialist schooling for their children when being offered the cheaper option of mainstreaming than vice versa.

I would like to look at some of the needs of the children who attend or aspire to attend my own school, Donaldson's College for Deaf Children in Edinburgh, which educates a wide range of severely or profoundly deaf children from age three to 18 years.

They require full-time specialist teaching and therapy - not just for a few hours a week as is sometimes the case in mainstream provision. They require education within an environment and ethos which take account of their deafness, allowing time for skilled checking of hearing aids, slower communication and integrated therapy. They require an acoustically appropriate physical environment.

As a group of pupils who communicate through signs they need not only teachers or interpreters who can sign but also they need to interact with, for example, trained school secretaries, lunch ladies and playground assistants if they are to experience a normal range of social and emotional development. They require to have the opportunity of adult deaf role models.

If, however, you were to ask the children themselves what they liked most about being at a school for deaf children they would undoubtedly tell you what they like is having friends like themselves. As sign language users they enjoy communication with each other in their own language. For many, communication everywhere else is very difficult but at school they are on fully equal terms with their peers.

Education has moved a long way in the past 20 years and the increased emphasis on the education of the whole child to include the social and emotional development of our children has enhanced the lives of man.

That holistic education is possible only where children are at ease with their own identity and able to communicate with other children and adults. The Scottish Parliament last week debated the status of British Sign Language in a bid to have it recognised as an official European language. The right to use that language as a channel for education in the widest sense is one we should surely support.

Children who can neither hear nor speak do not experience inclusion in mainstream schools. On the contrary they are usually prone to be lonely, isolated and unable to develop friendships. I leave you with an extract from a recent essay written by one of our pupils who transferred here from well supported integration in mainstream.

"Donaldson's College for the Deaf to me is not just a school where children get to learn but instead, is a school where deaf children get the chance to feel normal and get to communicate with their own kind. I have been a pupil at Donaldson's for about two years and have never regretted going there.

"The main reason I decided to go to Donaldson's was because of my bad experience at a previous mainstream school. That school just didn't work out, as I didn't feel comfortable there, with all of the hearing children chatting on about teenager stuff and I just stood there, unable to really communicate with them.

"I felt left out, but all of that changed when I went to Donaldson's College. I was nervous at first, since I was the new kid, but immediately I felt much happier mixing with deaf people like me. I could now communicate with them fully, as I could use my sign language with them.

"The education at Donaldson's College has been great so far and I have learnt many things which I never knew at my old hearing school.

"One of the best things about Donaldson's is the residence. It's great fun and, to me, it's my second home. The house staff are brilliant and there are even deaf house staff, which is really good because they are very good communicators. It is nice to know that they know what it is like to be

deaf and they understand the deaf culture.

"That is some of the many reasons I enjoy being at Donaldson's College. It really is a brilliant school for deaf children, as they get to learn and have many friends there. The school is far the best, much better than a mainstream school where deaf children are made to feel as if they are different and something is strange about their deafness.

"At Donaldson's, deafness is accepted as normal and, in some ways, I feel proud to be deaf."

Janet Allan is principal of Donaldson's College, Edinburgh.

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