Annual Review 2014/15

Informing deaf education policy

A broad and long-running investigation into the educational outcomes of deaf children has influenced government policy.

Head of Moray House School of Education Dr Rowena Arshad (left) with Ms Rachel O’Neill, in the University’s Moray House Library
Head of Moray House School of Education Dr Rowena Arshad (left) with Ms Rachel O’Neill, in the University’s Moray House Library.

Since 1760, when Thomas Braidwood opened the UK’s first school for the deaf in Edinburgh, the city has played an important role in the history of deaf education. By 2005 the work of British Sign Language (BSL) pioneer Dr Mary Brennan had firmly established Moray House School of Education as a leading institute for deaf studies, but her legacy was to be greater than that. 

In 2000 Dr Brennan established Achievements of Deaf Pupils in Scotland, a comprehensive national survey of deaf children’s educational progress and attainment. Funded by the Scottish Executive Education Department and based in the Scottish Sensory Centre in Moray House, the project carried out annual surveys of deaf children in Scottish schools. Reviewing 2,000 pupils over five years, Dr Brennan compiled the largest database of its kind. 

Recently the research baton was taken up, following the sad death of Dr Brennan in 2005, by an Edinburgh team, who obtained a three-year grant from the Nuffield Foundation to analyse and follow up on her findings. 

Led by Ms Rachel O’Neill, lecturer at Moray House, with Professor Marc Marschark of the Rochester Institute of Technology in the US and Moray House colleague Ms Julie Arendt, the team contacted as many of the participants of the original study as they could, through schools, the media and an online questionnaire in both English and BSL, to ask about their school experiences, progression into training, further and higher education, volunteer work and their current activities. The team also contacted the parents of those children still in the school system, to find out about any parental support they had received. 

Parliamentary impact

Their findings were later to be examined by the Scottish Education and Culture Committee, as part of a Scottish Government inquiry into educational attainment gaps. 

“The National Deaf Children’s Society has always been keen that Parliament recognises the achievement gap between deaf and hearing children as something which should narrow,” explains Ms O’Neill. “The Society used our research to push for a parliamentary inquiry, and our findings also fed into that.” 

The team’s results showed that those who had attended a resource base or deaf school had a wide range of communication choices available to them, while those who had attended mainstream schools were very unlikely to use sign language. In a resource base school, deaf children receive intensive support for literacy, spoken language development and signing, while such support is still unusual in mainstream schools, where it’s rare that teachers have BSL skills. 

The National Deaf Children’s Society used our research to push for a parliamentary inquiry, and our findings also fed into that.

Ms Rachel O'Neill

The British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 sees the status of BSL upgraded from a recognised minority language to a language in its own right in Scotland and is likely to lead to commitments from the Scottish Government for more BSL training for teachers. 

For Ms O’Neill there is also a direct need for the range of teaching styles to be widened. 

“To eliminate any linguistic delay we have to ensure that all deaf children aged 0–5 develop a language, whether that be speech, sign or both,” she explains. “These years are crucial language-learning years. If a child fails to develop a means of communication during this time they will have a smaller vocabulary and this makes reading harder, even though there is nothing wrong with the child’s cognitive ability.”

Early intervention 

The importance of early development of a language is further underpinned by the team’s findings that children with mild hearing loss are often overlooked in schools, resulting in academic achievement no different from that of profoundly deaf children. The research points to a need for local authority services for deaf children to build relationships with parents of all deaf children, mild to severe, to encourage the best possible language development in the early years. 

The majority of deaf children develop speech and lip-reading skills, but BSL is also used, by more than 12,500 people in Scotland. Like any language, it is constantly evolving with its own vocabulary and grammar. The BSL Glossary Team at the University’s Scottish Sensory Centre, working with deaf subject experts, have collated and devised more than 1,000 curriculum terms and definitions that are used by signing pupils, teachers and interpreters across the UK. 

Other recommendations put forward in the research team’s report include more targeted and tailored support for parents, better information and knowledge for young deaf people, improved classroom acoustics in all schools and developing enhanced awareness in teachers. 

With Dr Brennan’s legacy research and the ongoing work of Moray House education experts, the spotlight on deaf education for Scottish policymakers has never been brighter. Head of Moray House Dr Rowena Arshad sums up: “If we are serious about inclusion and getting it right for every child, a good place to start is increasing communication and cooperation between parents, teachers, education authorities and researchers to arrest these disparities. The principle has to be about needs and not numbers.”