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Asking the right questions

Photo: It was important for mum Pamela to choose the right school for Jasmine.

Twins Jasmine and Daya both had additional needs, so Pamela knew it would take time and research to find the best school for them.

Sitting across the table from Jasmine’s teacher at parent’s evening, it was an emotional night for mum Pamela. “We were both crying,” Pamela laughs. “She told me Jasmine was doing really well and I just couldn’t believe it.”

Jasmine (5) and her twin sister Daya were born prematurely, and Jasmine was identified as profoundly deaf with multiple additional needs including multisensory impairment.

“All of the developmental milestones were delayed for Jasmine and we slowly learnt more about her additional needs,” Pamela says. “You just keep wondering again and again, ‘How do I accommodate for this?’ I felt completely out of my depth.”

Daya was then diagnosed with an aggressive stage 4 metastatic cancer, neuroblastoma. “I was going to five different hospitals a week for Jasmine already,” Pamela says. “I was trying to do all I could for her and learn more about her deafness; attending National Deaf Children’s Society events, speaking regularly to my Teacher of the Deaf (ToD), and making sure I was there every time she made a sound so she had consistency in response. I could have grieved for a long time but I just got stuck in.” Daya is now in remission after a stem cell transplant and nearly three years of treatment, but still has long-term health issues.

Pamela was also having to think about the future and, in particular, nursery and school placements for the twins. “Before the girls were born, I had them down for a local nursery,” she says. “Obviously things didn’t work out as I expected, so I looked into others. But my local nursery was great from the start. They offered to sign up a staff member to study British Sign Language (BSL) Level 1 and they made it their mission from the beginning to support us completely.”

The girls had a fantastic experience at nursery. “The whole nursery learnt to sign the morning song and still sign it today!” Pamela says.

With the girls’ complicated additional needs, Pamela also decided to start looking for a primary school early. She began her search when the twins were two, visiting a school for the deaf. “At that stage Jasmine was newly implanted and wasn’t talking as much as she is now,” Pamela explains. “She was struggling with walking too. I went to see what the environment was like and was quite overwhelmed. I didn’t know the right questions to ask and what I should be looking for.”

The family decided to apply to the deaf-specialist school, but as time went on they began to doubt their decision. “My ToD asked if I’d considered mainstream schooling for Jasmine,” Pamela says. “Jasmine was speaking a lot more now so the ToD thought she might benefit from an aural environment.

“I spoke to friends with deaf children who had gone to mainstream and a lot said there was some ignorance and discrimination there. But I wanted Jasmine to be in an environment that would support her signing and speaking.

“I began my research by making calls to schools in the local area – this was during the Covid-19 pandemic so I couldn’t visit them. I found that just because a school has previously had a deaf child, it didn’t make it the best. Lots of schools would even try to put me off choosing them and that, while disappointing, helped me to rule them out quickly.”

Pamela would check Google Maps to see the location of the school and consider if it was near a noisy road. She would do online tours of schools, read Ofsted reports and speak to other parents who had children there. “But mostly I based it on my conversation with the special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) at each school,” Pamela says. “I’d ask about how many days a week they worked, what the acoustics and lighting were like, if anyone signs, how set up they were for a child with balance issues, what the playground was like. I also asked about their approach to challenges, which was quite revealing. The answers were all very interesting, but I was mostly asking to get a feel for their attitude.

“In the end I chose a new local school. The SENCO there said ‘yes’ to everything I asked. When I said to her, ‘Do you want to go away and consider if you can accommodate them?’ she said, ‘No, I know I can.’ I wanted a teacher who was supportive and excited to teach my children and here she was.”

Although the girls started school amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the school allowed them, along with their nursery teacher, to come and visit before starting to get familiar with the staff and environment.

“We’ve had teething problems since the girls started but they’ve never worked with a deaf child before and are learning and invested in making the changes needed,” Pamela says. “We have a lot of conversations. For example, I wanted them to start using signing and they’re now sending out weekly signs of the week. Jasmine struggled at first with all the noise and stimulation; the teachers weren’t always using the radio aid and she found it very tiring and was very quiet. Now, working together with the teachers and teaching assistants to make changes, Jasmine’s really grown in confidence.

“My main piece of advice for others looking at schools is not to worry if a school is mainstream or deaf specialist. Find the school that’s right for your specific child. Oh and use the National Deaf Children’s Society’s ‘Choosing a School for Your Deaf Child Checklist’. I didn’t know it existed, but it would have been so useful!”

Autumn 2022 Families magazine