Ann Bradbury looks at what schools can do to stop deaf pupils falling ever further behind their hearing peers
In 2018, deaf children were reported to be achieving more than a whole grade less at GCSE than their hearing peers. Further figures revealed that more than 55 per cent of young deaf people in England did not achieve more than one A-Level by the age of 19. It was a year when students with no SEN were shown to have opened up the biggest attainment gap – almost 25 per cent – over their deaf peers since 2012.
These are startling statistics indeed. But what drives them and can anything be done to close the gap in attainment between young deaf people and their peers?
While deafness brings its own difficulties, it is not a learning disability and should not be treated as such. In principal, there are few, if any, reasons why, with the right support in place and understanding of their needs, a deaf young person could not achieve in line with a hearing child.
Behind the numbers
Many deaf young people across the UK are highly successful both academically and socially. They achieve qualifications, and good ones at that. They go to college and university, and have vocations and careers. They have families, enjoy a wide range of interests and a large network of friends. These are all measures of their success – achieved with the support and dedication of parents and teachers with no small amount of hard work and determination on the part of the young person.
But the numbers at the beginning of this article show that although we do see young deaf people achieving great things, for the majority, their academic attainment is not as close to that of pupils with no hearing impairment as it should, or could, be.
Many things drive these statistics and it is easy to point the finger at funding, which as we all know, is being hit hard in the current climate. However, it’s important we don’t focus on funding as the “be all and end all” of what drives whether a deaf child can or will succeed academically in keeping with their hearing peers; it is just one factor.
Of course, funding is very important and in adequate levels can help young people access that additional or specialist support they need, including dedicated teachers of the deaf, trained teaching assistants, and other specialist support where it’s required, such as speech and language input, auditory equipment and support, note takers, transport or specialist placements in schools and sixth forms.
However, we must not underestimate other factors. Health, mental health, a child’s self-confidence and sense of self, and their environment are all crucial, and the maintenance of a deaf child’s health and mental wellbeing is vital to their learning capacity and capability. They are absolutely intertwined with a young deaf person’s ability to learn. When their physical, mental and social needs are being met, they are more likely to learn at a pace, and to the standards, aligned with hearing young people.
Take as a starting point the social isolation some young deaf people can feel. In a mainstream school setting for example, they may be the only deaf child, or one of only a couple of deaf children. These young people may be taught separately from their mainstream peers, creating greater isolation. Or they may have a teacher or teaching assistant with them all of the time, creating a difference between them and their peers. They may be bullied because of their deafness. They may find it very hard to make friends.
In turn, they may exhibit behaviour which is challenging to the school, as they try to express frustration, finding themselves removed further from classes or from school entirely. They may also be the only deaf person in their family.
All of this, of course, can impact on a young deaf person’s mental health and therefore their learning. Further compounding this may be the young person’s ability to then fully communicate their feelings and needs, which again is detrimental to their mental health and can be another barrier to them receiving the support they need. If they can’t articulate how they are feeling, how can we help them?
From a mental health perspective, it is more difficult for a young deaf person to access the support they need than their peers, which undoubtedly can affect their learning. It can lead to a child disengaging with education, taking time off school or, in severe cases, turning to self-harming and suicidal thoughts or activity – high risk behaviours which may further mean they are also not able to attend school. It goes without saying that these will all impact the young person’s ability to learn, notwithstanding the potential risks to their physical wellbeing.
Supporting mental health
Mental health support and understanding is key. At the outset, all concerned need to recognise that these young people may be more vulnerable to experiencing mental health difficulties, before we look at what we can do to provide appropriate and timely assistance.
School nurses, mental health first aiders and teaching staff all have a vital role to play in identifying early signs in the deaf child that they may be struggling with their mental health. Working with the local deaf child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS), or creating a relationship with these services, is also extremely important, as is supporting families to understand the difficulties their child may be facing.
On a basic level, creating an environment where the child can learn is the first step to helping them have good mental health. They will need a place where they are part of a group of children with whom they can communicate and participate, as well as somewhere where the acoustics are suitable, where they can hear (or see the teacher for lip-reading), and where teachers and other staff are trained to understand their needs. As with all children, they need a place where they can learn, play and feel safe and happy – where they can make friends and foster friendships.
Part of this is ensuring you teach in a way the child can understand; for example, in literacy, phonics are not always suitable for a deaf child, or the best way for them to learn. This leaves them feeling frustrated as their hearing peers move on to the next level; again, this can be detrimental to their mental health and make them more likely to disengage with learning.
Understanding physical health issues
Physical health is also a factor. Learning can be disrupted with physical health difficulties – for example, if a child has to come out of school to have their first, or perhaps second, cochlear implant fitted. There may also be a need for additional time out of school for things like healthcare appointments and check-ups. These are all disruptions not regularly encountered by most of their hearing peers.
Some children who are deaf also have additional physical difficulties which can impact on their learning either due to mobility, discomfort or pain; we all know if we are not comfortable, we are not at our best to concentrate. These are more difficult obstacles to overcome, but not insurmountable. Just being aware of them as factors in a child’s ability to learn can make all the difference. Offering comfortable seating, regular breaks, note takers, phased transitions back to school, outreach and again, having a school nurse who understands the issues, can all help a child stay in school and be ready to learn.
There may be some occasions or activities where a child’s physical health, their implant or other factors might determine what professionals think they are able to participate in. While all activities need to be thoroughly risk-assessed, it’s vital deaf children don’t miss out on the more physical learning experiences that their hearing peers enjoy. PE lessons, football, tennis, swimming and climbing, for example, are all key learning opportunities. Deaf children should not, unless there’s a very good reason, be excluded from these activities. They are great for physical fitness and therefore physical health.
The whole picture
We must never think of the child’s deafness in isolation, or see their inability to hear as being the only thing that can impact on their ability to learn; it is just the starting point for so many other factors which can determine whether a child is ready, willing and able to learn.
Effective multi-disciplinary team working is essential to removing inhibitors from a deaf child’s journey to achievement. Teachers, teaching assistants, speech and language therapists, audiologists, nursing staff, parents and Deaf CAMHS services can all play vital roles in ensuring a child’s mental and physical health are considered to the same extent as their deafness. This is the way to create an environment where children can best succeed, and do so in line with their hearing peers.
I often hear that aspirations are not always as high for deaf children, that they’re not expected to do as well as other children because of their deafness. This has a devastating effect on their self-esteem and affects their ability to learn. We should have the same high expectations for deaf children as we have for all children; if we believe they can succeed, they will believe it too and that really is the first step towards encouraging good mental health and to achievement which bridges the gap.
Ann Bradbury is Headteacher at St John’s Catholic School for the Deaf in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire: