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A report released this week by the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) shows that deaf children are falling even further behind their hearing peers in school than previously thought.  Figures show that 30.6% of deaf children achieve a grade 5 or above (strong C) in English and maths as compared with almost half (48.3%) of non-SEN children, and less than half of deaf children receive a 4 or above in both subjects as compared to almost three-quarters of other children.  In addition, over twice as many (57%) fail to meet expected levels in reading, writing and maths by the end of primary school than their non-SEN peers. The NDCS analysis suggests that it will take ‘21 years for deaf children to catch up, resulting in an entire generation of deaf children underachieving’.  And it is not just in schools that these inequalities are being seen. Deaf children are only half as likely to attend Russell group universities as their hearing peers.

The Chief Executive of the NDCS, Susan Daniels, states that “The 50,000 deaf children and young people in the UK should have the same aspirations and the same opportunities to thrive and succeed in life as any other children.  But a condition of deafness does not mean the child has a learning disability, so why are deaf children systematically underachieving at school?

There have been systematic cuts to funding and support for children (and adults) with disabilities from 2010 onwards.  An NDCS Report in May 2018 found that approximately £4million had been cut from budgets supporting deaf children in England.  Over one third (44 of 122) of local authorities were cutting specialist educational support for deaf children, resulting in reduced specialist support in schools and teachers for the deaf being made redundant.  Again, in the words of Susan Daniels:

“By not acting, this government is putting the education of too many deaf children at risk, and letting their futures hang in the balance……Despite councils having a legal duty to support deaf children, we are seeing the vital support system that they rely on for their education torn apart”.

And this is part of a larger picture with the Local Governments Authority suggesting the funding shortfall for SEN children could reach £1.6 billion by 2021.

But decisions on funding do not emerge out of the ether – they are shaped by ideology and beliefs about the value of services and/or the people they are being provided for.  Cuts in funding and specialist support are, thus, a symptom of a wider problem that has been highlighted in previous cost of living blogs focusing on the impact of austerity on disabled people, welfare cuts and the false notion of the deserving and undeserving poor, and institutionalised ableism.

As the mother of a deaf child, this is an issue that is close to my heart.  There are clearly many barriers that need to be identified and removed.  Our teachers for the deaf are working shorthanded, often forced to reapply for their own jobs and face increasing workloads across widening geographical areas.  And even with excellent support from SENCOs and teachers for the deaf running regular deaf awareness training, we still encounter attitudinal barriers – from the primary school teaching assistant who said she was surprised to see my son had such a love of reading as she knows deaf children don’t read well, to the languages teacher who still cannot grasp that fact that an aural test played on a tape does not test my son’s aptitude at modern foreign languages but acts as a hearing test which (unsurprisingly) he fails!

The problem does not lie in my child, however. Nor does it lie in a cochlear which does not function as we would expect it to.  The problem, I would argue, lies in the unquestioned assumptions underlying the statistics we use to measure the success of children and schools which presuppose the failure of SEN children, based on fixed ideas of what is valuable to society in terms of education and how it should be measured.  Take as an example, an article in the Telegraph suggesting that schools over-diagnose SEN to cheat the league table system.  An expert in SEN is quoted as saying: “I don’t think it’s very helpful to infer that children behind in their learning have SEN … They are only working below the standards they should be achieving”.  So whilst underperforming SEN children are meeting the standards expected of them, ‘other’ (non-SEN) children are simply underperforming.

The problem also lies in perceptions that are held and can be found in all institutions, about what deaf children, and many other disadvantaged groups, can achieve. Building on Rosenthal & Jacobsen’s (1968) seminal work on the self-fulfilling prophecy in education, (which they termed the ‘Pygmalion effect’) they demonstrated that children live up, or down, to the expectations of their teachers.  It lies in attitudes, opinions, values and the systematic othering and blaming of those perceived to be different.  And it lies in the way these are used as a cynical justification for the decimation of services for the most vulnerable members of our society.

Unless we challenge these attitudes, at the individual, institutional and societal level, whether in relation to deafness, disability, gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality or any other signifier of difference, we cannot remove the barriers or successfully tackle the inequalities that are encapsulated in the NDCS report and which originate from what is commonly now called unconscious biases.