Deaf children are being let down by the education system, with growing numbers of specialist schools closing and too many vulnerable pupils struggling in mainstream settings, according to campaigners.
The Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate, Kent, which was the oldest deaf school still operating in the UK, dating back to 1792, is the latest to close its doors after administrators were called in in December.
The closure comes amid growing concern about poor academic attainment among deaf children, who achieve considerably lower GCSE results than their hearing peers. According to the National Deaf Childrenâ€™s Society (NDCS), 36% of deaf children achieve the governmentâ€™s benchmark for five good GCSEs at A* to C compared with 65% of hearing children with no special educational needs.
Susan Daniels, NDCS chief executive, said the situation was wholly unacceptable. â€œCan you imagine a world where nearly two-thirds of children leave school without getting good GCSEs? Parents would rightly be furious that their child hadnâ€™t been given the right support at school. There would be outrage and calls for urgent action.
â€œBut when it comes to deaf children, this is the reality that we face. This is happening despite the fact that deafness is not in itself a learning disability.â€
The attainment gap between deaf and hearing children without special needs widened from 39% to 42% between 2013 and 2014. Data on attainment among deaf children for 2014-15 will be published by the government in January.
â€œEven if there is a small improvement, it is likely that the majority of deaf children will still be failing to get five good GCSEs, which is totally unacceptable,â€ said Daniels.
â€œOne of the reasons why there is such a wide attainment gap is that no one is held to account for how well deaf children are doing. Local authority specialist education services for deaf children play a vital role for many deaf children and their families.
â€œDespite their importance, there is no external scrutiny of how well they do. There is also no data on how well deaf children in different areas do. This is totally unacceptable. Why should parents of deaf children be given less information about the quality of education that their child receives?â€
The number of schools for the deaf has fallen from 75 in 1982 to 21, with pupil numbers down by 15% in the past five years. According to the NDCS, almost 78% of deaf children are in mainstream education where there is no specialist provision, with 7% in mainstream schools with specialist provision.
â€œIt is reasonable to assume that as technology improves more deaf children are now attending mainstream schools,â€ said Daniels, adding, however, that there would always be some deaf children for whom a special school would be the best way of meeting their needs.
â€œWe do not advocate a particular model of education. We know that high-quality provision exists in all types of schools. We want to see excellent educational provision for deaf children whether that be mainstream or specialist provision.â€
Parents and supporters of the Royal School for Deaf Children in Margate have launched a petition to save the school, which caters for 150 deaf children and young adults, some of whom have complex additional needs. Kimberley Carraraâ€™s 11-year-old daughter, Sasha, is profoundly deaf. â€œWhen Sasha started at the school 18 months ago she had regressed so much that professionals said that developmental progress would be limited.
â€œSasha has now grown into a lovely young lady and is thriving. We moved our family across the country so that Sasha could attend this school. If the school shuts she will not have a school that will meet her needs. We fear for her future.â€
Terry Riley, chair of the British Deaf Association and a former governor of the Margate school, said: â€œThese are children who have been marginalised by society for being unteachable. Yet, through the perseverance and dedication of the staff, parents and family, they had hopes. It is an extremely worrying situation for pupils and their families to see these hopes shattered.â€
Mary Hare school in Newbury, Berkshire, is one of the 21 surviving special schools for the deaf, with 230 students in primary and secondary education, from all over the country, including a small number from overseas.
Like all special schools, Mary Hare has felt the impact of the trend towards greater inclusion, with deaf children increasingly being taught in their local schools. But the cost of placements at special schools is definitely a factor for cash-strapped local authorities, said Peter Gale, the schoolâ€™s principal.
It costs Â£40,000 a year for a residential place at Mary Hare and parents often have to go to a tribunal to get their local authority to fund their childâ€™s place. â€œWhat families tell us is that there are certain barriers to learning in mainstream schools that some deaf children are not able to overcome,â€ said Gale.
A pupil may be the only deaf child in their mainstream school; as well as the difficulties of background noise and large classes, it can be a isolating experience.
A Mary Hare student, Madeleine Molloy, was three years old when she lost her hearing. She doesnâ€™t know why it happened; in the years since, she has accepted her deafness.
Now 15, with a cochlear implant, Maddy is bright, self-assured and articulate â€“ sheâ€™s heading for good GCSE results and A-levels and wants to go on to university to study either law or fashion design. But she didnâ€™t always feel like this.
â€œBefore, I was in a normal mainstream school. For me it wasnâ€™t good. Sometimes they work, sometimes they donâ€™t. Before, I was a deeply unsociable person. I did not have friends. I was not outgoing. I kept myself to myself quite a lot.
â€œThe way they were teaching me â€“ I didnâ€™t hear them. I didnâ€™t understand them. Nobody was explaining or checking on me. Group conversations never worked for me because of the amount of noise.
â€œI felt like I was the dumbest person alive. I wasnâ€™t going to pass my exams.â€
Her parents realised she wasnâ€™t thriving and an audiologist suggested it might be worth looking at a special school for the deaf. â€œI came here for a week and I absolutely fell in love with the school. I felt like I had finally found a place I could just be me. I didnâ€™t have to crawl into my room and sit there and be quiet.â€
Daniels said it is essential that mainstream schools provide effective social and emotional support to deaf children, as well as good peer support.
â€œSpecialist schools play a crucial role in providing a range of education support for deaf children who for a variety of reasons do not thrive in mainstream schools. Local authorities are cutting back and deaf children are not getting the help they need to do well in the future.
â€œWe urge the Department for Education and local authorities to work together to make sure there is still a future for all the deaf children who need specialist provision to thrive.â€