Northern Ireland’s education system lets deaf children fall behind
Deaf children should perform just as well as their peers. Right now, this isn’t happening. Better support would allow children to thrive.
Deafness affects thousands of people in Northern Ireland.
It is a challenge that can be addressed and overcome, with the right support, but local services are under-resourced.
Deafness is not a learning disability and deaf children’s attainment at school should be the same as the general population - but this is far from the case.
In 2019-20, only 52.8% of deaf children sitting their GCSEs achieved good grades (defined as five or more GCSEs with grades A*-C, including English language and maths), compared with 76.2% of young people in general – an attainment gap of 23.4 percentage points (pp).
Those figures are not unusual. In the past decade, the attainment gap has only fallen below 20pp twice, and has reached as high as 34.7pp.
Most deaf children attend mainstream schools, where there is a good chance they will be the only deaf child.
Helen Ferguson, Head of Policy and Influencing NI at National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS), spoke with Scope about how better support is needed to improve outcomes for deaf children.
She said she wants deaf children to have the same aspirations as their peers, and to know that, while deafness presents challenges, it does not have to prevent them from living the life they want to lead – taking a full part in society, having an ambitious career, and more.
“Children’s expectations are being limited unnecessarily. Teachers and even parents have a lot of assumptions in their heads about jobs that deaf young people can and can’t do.
“There are deaf doctors, deaf pilots, deaf people working in construction, there are a whole range of jobs open to deaf people. We need to raise expectations, encourage children to follow their passions and not be bound in by any assumptions.”
Deaf children who get the right support can thrive. Those who do not are more likely to struggle at school, experience mental ill health and have fewer opportunities in employment.
Around 1,700 children in Northern Ireland with permanent hearing loss, and a lot more that will have temporary hearing loss, like glue ear.
Among those dealing with permanent hearing loss, the type and level of deafness can vary considerably. And, even for those whose deafness is of the same type and scale, the way they prefer to overcome this differs from person to person.
This presents challenges for both professionals working with deaf children – such as teachers – and also for loved ones; over 90% of deaf children are born into hearing families.
“It’s often the first time they have encountered deafness so they don’t understand what it means for their child’s prospects and what support they will need. It’s a steep learning curve.
“One of the things we are really keen to do is give families as much information as possible, as early as possible, so they are excited and positive about the opportunities their child has for learning, education and a productive and successful life.
“All our training for families would include other deaf young people or deaf adults who would be able to talk about their own experiences and own journeys and help parents understand that really, with the right support, so much is possible.
“It’s also important to introduce them early to the strong, vibrant deaf culture, which will be new to most parents.”
Some children use sign language, some will lip read. Some will use hearing aids or cochlear implants and some will not, and those who do will often combine those with signing or reading lips.
“There’s an assumption that if a child has a hearing aid or cochlear implant their hearing is ‘fixed’, but it isn’t.
“Their ability to hear and understand what’s going on around them will be improved but hearing will never be the same as a child who doesn’t need hearing aids.
“Their hearing range may be less, particularly with high- or low-pitched sounds, while certain consonants sound similar and good listening conditions are needed to tell the difference.
“Other challenges include concentration fatigue, which parents bring up all the time, because a deaf child may have to try very hard simply to follow what a teacher is saying, and this can be overwhelming. It’s also difficult for deaf children to focus on video or writing and listen to the voice at the same time – there are standard teaching techniques that don’t work for deaf children.”
Most deafness diagnoses come after the newborn hearing screening, although some are picked up later, such as when parents notice issues with their child’s hearing or during the two-year health visit.
During the pandemic, newborn hearing checks have more or less carried on unchanged, which is important because early diagnosis is vital.
“The sooner you get proper communication going with a child, the sooner they can learn language. Lost months or even lost years can cause a significant amount of damage to a child’s ability to communicate. This effects not just education, but emotional and social development as well.
The Education Authority (EA) employs Teachers of the Deaf (ToDs) as part of its sensory service. They are qualified teachers who have specialist training and who support deaf children, their families, and also other professionals involved in a child’s education, including their teachers.
This support is important but services are under pressure and, even though provision is already spread thinly, the number of ToDs is falling while the number of deaf children is on the rise.
In the last 8 years, the number of deaf children is up by 36% while the number of ToDs is down 19%. Over half of all specialist staff working today are due to retire in the next 15 years.
Northern Ireland’s system has some strengths. There is one overarching sensory service within education. It is run by EA and has a consistent approach, which is an advantage over some other parts of the UK.
But the level and availability of the support is not where it should be.
Northern Ireland’s Sign Language Framework was established in 2016 by the Department for Communities (DfC).
The framework committed to support for education through British Sign Language (BSL) and Irish Sign Language (ISL), and was supposed to be followed by a Sign Language Act.
Stormont ran into trouble late in 2016 and ultimately the Executive collapsed for three years. The Assembly returned in early 2020 followed the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which included a commitment to produce a Sign Language Act.
DfC is understood to be making preparations for such an act. In theory, it should have cross-party support and be relatively uncontroversial.
However, if the political instability topples government in NI once more, the act could be kicked down the road once more.
This means, for instance, that the roughly 10% of deaf children that use sign language in their education have no guarantee that their teachers or classroom assistants can communicate with them in their first language.
NDCS has several policy requests that it says would lead to real improvements for local deaf children.
Ms Ferguson said that a child’s early years are vital and, while good support does exist, services are under pressure and need greater resources.
“There are not enough Teachers of the Deaf and, in particular, there are not enough to support children who want to be educated through the medium of sign language.
“Right now, not many children or families make that choice – but that number might increase if it was easier to get that sort of support.”
She said a Sign Language Act would be a tentpole both for improving services and also building confidence in those services and that “there would be a much greater expectation that public services would be delivered with sign language fully supported”.
Improving education is the number one goal, such improvements can only be achieved through greater support, and ToDs are the key to that support.
ToDs train classroom teachers and early years’ workers. They improve communication with deaf children, do 1-to-1 tuition, underpin SEN Statements and arrange specialist technology.
NDCS is calling for:
- a workforce plan to train new Teachers of the Deaf
- a recruitment drive to get more of them into the classroom
- consistent access to services across Northern Ireland, including specialist provision like speech and language therapy or BSL/ISL support
- investment in a long-term plan for deaf education
The organisation recognises that these improvements are challenging. However, it is difficult to look at the outcomes, such as GCSE grades, and not consider this a priority area for government.
“GCSE results are an easy measure to be able to track in terms of attainment of deaf children. But it’s also critical because that’s where the gap is biggest.
“There are very few jobs that don’t require GCSE maths and English. That’s where services really have those long-term impacts.
“One a deaf young person gets beyond their GCSEs the gap tends to close. For instance, deaf children who get to university tend to do well. They have developed coping strategies, they are able to deal with their environment, and there will be some support from the universities.
“What we need is better early years support. Better teacher training. Better transitions at key points, like moving into primary school, and moving from primary to post-primary, which is a massive leap for young people. We need to make sure schools are fully prepared and understand the needs of the children in their classrooms.”
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