Is the standard of English in deaf schools lower than those in mainstream schools?

After Sara Jae left a school for the deaf to finish her education at a mainstream school, she found she felt less frustrated with her studies as there seemed to be more to discover, absorb and learn. Hence why this question (as titled) was raised the other day on our Facebook group by Sara because from her personal experience – which several other members concurred with, their English fared better since choosing to leave schools for the deaf to attend mainstream schools. In mainstream, everyone is naturally pushed by the teachers to meet a standard of their very best whereas in deaf schools, there seems to be a limit that the teachers will try to push deaf students to and then stop.

This led most to agree that it is actually down to the type of support and teaching which is what makes the difference in our English standards which rings true with many people’s personal experiences. Which reinforces Sara’s reasons behind wanting an approved governing body for deaf issues, in the UK. Meanwhile….

The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) has a campaign “Hands up for Help”, to give deaf children a fair chance at school, a report of theirs contains these facts:

  • There are 35,000 deaf children in England.
  • Around 85% are taught in mainstream schools.
  • Deafness is not a learning disability. With the right help, there is no reason why deaf children can’t do as well as other children.
  • Deaf children are underachieving on a very significant scale across England. They are 43% less likely to get five GCSEs, including English and Maths, at grades A* to C, than all children.
  • The help a deaf child gets is determined by where they live, and not what they need.

Their last fact rings alarm bells to us because sources mention the national average reading age is approx. 12/13 and elsewhere, lower. Education, nationally, appears to have become alarmingly more slack.

There was also a study which looked into the reading skills in deaf (oral) children, comparing them with hearing children who have Dyslexia. They are following this up with a similar study, students who use sign language . Here is a summary as stated on their research to practice paper:

Q: What measures can be used to identify dyslexia in oral deaf children? Are deaf children’s reading difficulties similar to the typical dyslexic profile, or do some deaf children display uniquely dyslexic profiles? What are the key factors associated with good and poor reading in this group? What are the implications for interventions with poor deaf readers?


“Literacy difficulties are more widespread among deaf* children than hearing children but reasons for their problems differ. Hearing children are likely to be described as dyslexic and once diagnosed, may benefit from specialist support. However, for deaf children, their hearing difficulties are seen as primary. In this Briefing Paper, we report findings from the first stage of our research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which has focused exclusively on oral deaf children. In the next phase, we will investigate deaf children who use sign language to communicate.

Our analysis identified half of our group of oral deaf children as having reading difficulties. We were able to identify dyslexia sensitive measures and deaf children with dyslexic profiles; however, not all were amongst the poorest readers. Our findings highlight the scale of reading difficulty in oral deaf children and point to an urgent need for specialist intervention to be implemented along the lines currently offered to hearing children with dyslexia.”

*The terms ‘deaf’ and ‘hearing impaired’ are often used with this group. We use the term ‘deaf’ here to refer to individuals with a pre-lingual severe-profound degree of hearing loss, i.e. one that is present at or shortly after birth.

Josh Hillman, of the Nuffield Foundation, said the report “reveals the extent to which the education system is currently failing to address the needs of deaf children with reading difficulties” (as stated on the BBC’s article “Poor reading ‘points to UK schools’ neglect of deaf.’“)

Mary Hare School is the only school in the UK to offer specialist teaching and facilities supporting the full curriculum to deaf children from 4 to 19 years of age. The Ofsted report, January 2014 commented:

Pupils make better progress from Year 7 to Year 11 in English and mathematics than all other pupils nationally who have a statement of special educational needs. Progress in developing oral communication skills is outstanding.”

The grammar structure within British Sign Language (BSL) differs to the structure used in English. BSL for a start has a different sign order to English word order. BSL normally uses topic-comment structure which defines the topic before commenting further on it. However its default word order when topic-comment structure is no longer used due to the topic being established, is OSV : Object, Subject. Verb. Whereas English structure is Subject, Verb, Object. (SVO)

For example:

BSL: Him she loves.

English: She loves him.

There are also “multi channel” signs which is when one sign can mean a whole sentence.

The general consensus amongst the wider community is that deaf people are a bit backwards, that they have learning difficulties. Imagine a completely deaf child trying to learn words and then trying to learn how to write them in an English structure. It is hard – they have never heard it said so they cannot link what they see to sounds. Hence why it is rather confusing for them.

This naturally will contribute to the fundamental differences many struggle with. Seeing how the words & sentence structure are formed in something as simple as a childrens TV program, or even a bog standard ‘continuing drama’ (soap!) can help a child to connect the written words to context and sounds. For some, they think their reading, spelling and vocabulary skills were helped by seeing the subtitles. Why is reading a book with your child encouraged? For many reasons, one of those reasons is so that the child can relate the written word to the sound. Subtitles and captions achieve the same thing yet visually. It is rather unfortunate that cinemas, most TV channels and programmes will not provide them 24/7. It benefits everyone as sadly, it is not just deaf children who may leave school with low literacy skills.

Subtitles are in fact, extremely educational.
Subtitles are in fact, extremely educational.

Differentiation is paramount for any teacher but even more so for a teacher who works with deaf and additional needs children. They prepare lots of different levels of work for any one class. Unfortunately, sometimes there may be cases where teachers will give the whole class the same level of work – this goes in two ways. On one hand – those of higher abilities may suffer a lag in their education, on the other hand – those of lower abilities aren’t able to keep up with the work, causing them to become frustrated.

The logical way forward would be to split the groups – deaf children of ‘normal’ abilities, and then deaf children with additional needs. Unfortunately there aren’t enough deaf children entering deaf education to start with. So those that are, are grouped together regardless of their individual abilities and needs.

Parents’ contribution is vitally important, all too often parents neglect their child’s educational needs. Language is paramount, particularly in the early years. Sometimes it is left to the schools to clean up the mess of children’s minds. It is not the same for all parents of deaf children because most will be brilliantly supportive and work hard to ensure they push their child’s intellectual capabilities. Another downfall would be the teachers themselves (in some cases) who may have the ‘poor deaf child’ approach and spoon feed them answers and so forth, others come in too harsh and the children struggle to grasp what is being taught particularly if the said teacher is unable to sign and the children are predominantly sign language users. With deaf children some would feel they need a steady but sure approach to their education with the aim of pushing them slightly beyond their expected capabilities.

Education in deaf schools can be good but they and the parents have got to get it right from the very start. Recognise when it is appropriate to use BSL or SSE (Signed Supported English). For example, someone worked with a teacher who believed in teaching English with SSE. She respected BSL but when the children entered the English classroom she believed that BSL should be left at the door. She wanted the children to be able to utilise both BSL and English and to be able to fluently move between the two. In the ‘big wide world’ BSL is not predominantly used, English is, so if a person is a fluent sign language user and isn’t confident with their speaking abilities they can take a pen to paper confidently (or email). Yet, if a deaf person is empowered by English and they can write – a hearing person may well think ‘Oh! This person does possess intelligence’.

A hypothesis – what would happen if all deaf children were to enter mainstream schools (which in the long run will cost the councils more money). When some of those children start to struggle and develop behavioural problems they will be placed in deaf schools. The deaf school then gets blamed for their poor education, when in fact they are fighting hard to correct earlier misfortunes. Teachers in mainstream schools will not be adequately equipped to teach deaf children without any hearing or speech. Specialist support workers will be needed. Deaf children will be behind their classmates. On the other hand some of the children were in the deaf schoosl right from the age of 3 until they left and they did excellently – why? Because they received the right education for them consistently all the way through and they had the support of their parents at home, like Asher Woodman-Worrell did and he shared with us, his views:

“I was educated in deaf school all of my life, I believe the part of the problem is that all pupils who do well in mainstream schools tend to stay on, most of mainstream ‘rejects’ tend to get sent to deaf schools however it is difficult to get pupils who struggled in mainstream up to the speed and back at the level that their literacy and numeracy should be. Their confidence, self-belief and behaviour issues also will be massively affected and it will be a slow process to get them confident once again.

This meant the resources are very spread out from getting former mainstream pupils back up to the speed, educating both pupils who were educated in deaf schools all of their life and former mainstream pupils to catch up with whatever level their literacy and numeracy should be at due to delayed language acquisition from their childhood (that is an another subject altogether!) and concentrating on meeting needs of deaf pupils with additional special needs such as cerebral palsy.

I was in a class of 5-7 pupils all with a wide range of ability levels and this placed a restriction on other each’s education as sometimes I would have to wait for others to catch up in Science while a classmate who is good at Maths would have to wait for rest of us to catch up on an exercise. If deaf schools attract more pupils, they would have more funding and they will be able to spend on more staff and resources thus creating more classes for pupils to be in according to their ability level so the pace will be similar for everybody.

This is a common problem for all deaf schools yet Mary Hare School tends to do a bit better than the rest as I believe they are more well off so they are able to spend their resources better and they also used to have entrance exams (I think they do not longer have these now) so they only accept pupils with reasonable ability levels.”

It is always very saddening. to read that funding is the main common relative behind the scenes. The current SEN (Special Education Needs) system will be reformed into the “Education, Health & Care Plan.” This will give parents a new right to buy in specialist special educational needs (SEN) and disabled care for children from 2014, the biggest change to SEN for 30 years. As stated on the press release for the Department of Education:

“For the first time ever, parents will be given the power to control personal budgets for their children with severe, profound or multiple health and learning – meaning they can choose the expert support that is right for their child, instead of local authorities (LAs) being the sole provider.

The biggest reform of SEN for 30 years will also force education, health and social care services to plan services together by law – so when their children are assessed, parents will be assured they will get full provision to address their children’s needs.

Often it is not clear to parents, and to local services, who is responsible for delivering on the statement of special needs. Services such as speech and language therapy may appear in the statement but are funded and commissioned by local health services.

It is important to recognise the child’s ability from very early on both at home and socially as this is the crucial contributing factor in sending them to the appropriate schools as early as possible, in order to maximise their potential – to the best of their abilities. And most importantly, a school that also suits the child’s needs and character.

There are some wonderful teachers out there who thrive to do the very best by their students and we hope they are filled with pride whenever they realise their career choices, helped to mould us into who we are.

Thank you to those who contributed their views on “The Tree House” which helped to make this possible.

Thank you readers, for sparing moments to read this post.  – please feel free to follow us on Twitter @treehouseviews and join our Facebook group by clicking on the link *here.

~ SJ (Sara Jae)

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