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Isabella’s school transition

Photo: Isabella's story

Isabella, who’s profoundly deaf with one cochlear implant, had started at a deaf school at nursery-age and thrived. But it hadn’t always been so easy.

Reading up on deafness and education, Polly realised the private nursery Isabella attended wasn’t suitable. The couple visited a deaf school and were instantly sold. “BSL was the first language there,” says Polly. “It was perfect for Isabella’s needs. There she was normal, not disabled. The penny dropped – she’d be totally accepted there, fit in naturally, rather than having to try.”

Polly took her to weekly drop-in sessions and applied for a statement of special educational needs (SEN) that would allow her to have a nursery and school place there, but was refused. After a nightmare battle, five days before Tribunal the local authority agreed to assess Isabella and she got a place at two-and-a-half years old.

When she was three, Isabella had a cochlear implant. “The Teacher of the Deaf and audiologist tried persuading us to move her out of deaf school, worried she wouldn’t learn speech. We argued that at home we used speech, so she had both,” says Polly.

Over two years Isabella made good progress, relied on BSL to communicate while she learnt to listen and lip-read at home. By Year 2 she was learning speech so well Polly felt she’d cope at mainstream school. “Her deaf school was brilliant, it was small, did lots of trips for experience-based learning, but it was an hour away; we wanted her to have local friends and to have hearing friends as well as deaf,” says Polly.

“She was going from a school that was knowledgeable about deafness, to one that wasn’t.”

They did a ‘dual placement’ transition, starting with one day a week at mainstream school, when Isabella would have her communication support worker (CSW) with her. By the end of Year 3, she was full-time.

“She was going from a school that was knowledgeable about deafness to one that wasn’t. She kept a full-time CSW; it was important to keep signing to keep up with her hearing peers, especially in noisy halls or groups. Classes were bigger but well managed. We asked for a soundfield system and it took a year to get it.

“Though her listening skills increased, she needed BSL for emotional and mental wellbeing too. She was so well supported by her deaf CSW, usually the onus is on the deaf child to fit in. This had all been put in place, so Isabella was social, gregarious, confident and interested in meeting new people.”

"We felt they didn’t have high expectations."

At secondary transition Polly applied to a local church school but they refused Isabella a place, saying they couldn’t accommodate her needs, including the full-time CSW. Polly challenged the decision but the Tribunal judge upheld it, because of the additional cost of meeting Isabella’s needs at the church school. She was placed at a local mainstream school with a resource unit and a CSW.

“We felt they didn’t have high expectations, their academic achievements weren’t good and it was chaotic,” says Polly. “All our worries came to fruition. Isabella was unhappy, started opting out of things, withdrawing. It wasn’t an environment that we wanted for her.”

They looked at other mainstream schools, but were refused places. Desperate to give Isabella the best outcome, they applied for a place at a local independent school. “Part way into the first term of Year 8, the local authority agreed if we paid the school fees they’d fund an interpreter one day a week,” says Polly. “They’ve small classes and the overall environment is calm and purposeful, conducive to her needs.”

A year on, they’re confident it’s the best available way forward for Isabella. “Ideally she’d be in a school with some other deaf children using BSL,” says Polly. “But she’s doing amazingly well. She was behind but she’s worked hard to catch up. She’s involved with extra-curricular activities and is confident; even playing Lady Macbeth in a school production.

“I think it’s really important for professionals to be working towards a more holistic approach to deaf children in mainstream.” 

Now Polly and Michael face a similar journey with Isabella’s younger sister Rosa (8), who’s severely deaf. Rosa wears hearing aids, has speech and signs. She went to the same deaf school nursery as Isabella and has been at the same mainstream primary school since reception.

“I think it’s really important for professionals to be working towards a more holistic approach to deaf children in mainstream, says Polly. “I think it would serve deaf children and the hearing community better (in terms of awareness, acceptance and understanding) if parents, professionals and the Government could work towards offering both to a really high standard. That’s real inclusion!”