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Deaf children falling behind peers in early years

Published Date: 01 Jun 2023

“We’re failing deaf children” - that’s the blunt conclusion from the National Deaf Children’s Society after it was revealed two-thirds of deaf children in England are already behind their peers by their first year in school.

Deaf children (65%) are almost twice as likely as all children (34%) to complete their first year of school without having achieved a ‘good level of development’, according to recent Government statistics.[1]

For all children the early years is a crucial time, but the charity says this is even more so for deaf children, given the impact deafness can have on language development, communication, and social skills.  

Missed opportunities to spot deafness and provide the support deaf children need can lead to lifelong impacts, according to the charity.  It says a deaf child without good language and communication development in the early years, be it spoken, sign, or a mixture of both, can experience ongoing challenges. They may struggle to listen and follow instructions in the classroom, or miss conversations with their peers, leading to feelings of isolation and a sense of ‘missing out’.

Teachers of the Deaf can help bridge this gap, by providing specialist support to deaf children of all ages once their deafness is identified. They play a vital role in deaf children’s lives, particularly during the critical early years - helping them to thrive socially and developmentally. Yet the number of qualified Teachers of the Deaf across England has fallen to its lowest level on record. There are concerns about a similar pattern in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too. 

Against this backdrop it comes as no surprise that some parents of deaf children feel unsupported, alone and fear for their child’s future. Having access to information and advice is crucial in helping families make tricky decisions about how their child will communicate, which technology they might use and what type of school they’ll attend.

The National Deaf Children’s Society is concerned that many parents say that they don’t know what their deaf child needs or what support they are entitled to, and who to go to get it. Recent figures from the charity indicated that over four in 10 parents across the UK were uncertain about finding their way around healthcare, education and support services to ensure their child gets the support they need.

Bertie Lowe is six months old and is profoundly deaf. His deafness was identified after a newborn hearing screening test at 13 days old. His mum Harriet says:

“Finding out Bertie is deaf has had a huge impact on us as a family. My husband and I knew to expect some level of hearing loss at 13 days, but having it said out loud, my heart shattered. You can't help but fly 15 years into the future and worry about whether your baby will drive, go to mainstream school, go to concerts and enjoy music.

“The audiologist who told us about Bertie’s deafness has been nothing short of amazing. But other than that, it’s been devastating. I don't know how to access support if I need it and as I have two older children to think about as well, I don't know how I would even go about it. At routine GP and vaccination appointments, some staff aren’t even aware of Bertie's deafness so asking for support has felt difficult.

“We have experienced numerous delays and cancelled appointments over the last six months, and I feel repeatedly dismissed by medical professionals.

“Not knowing how best to communicate with our son is heart breaking. I worry daily that he is missing out on so much, not just through verbal communication but through missed opportunities through play.

“We’re still in the early days of learning about Bertie’s deafness and how it will impact him. I’ve found connecting with other parents experiencing the same thing really valuable, but families like ours need so much more support from the very beginning.”

Susan Daniels OBE, Chief Executive of the National Deaf Children’s Society, said: “Deaf children are just as capable as their peers and it’s outrageous that they’re almost twice as likely to be developmentally behind their classmates by their first year of school, because they don’t have the support they need.

“We’re failing deaf children and families, and we must close this gap as quickly as possible. To ensure deaf children get the best start in life, families need first class support during those early years, so they feel empowered to make informed decisions and champion their child.

“Every moment counts, from the time a child’s deafness is identified, to their first day at school and beyond. We won’t rest until every deaf child receives the right support as early as possible.”

[1] (accessed March 2023). Children are defined as having a good level of development if they are at the expected level for the 12 early learning goals within the 5 areas of learning relating to: communication and language; personal, social and emotional development; physical development; literacy; and mathematics.