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Siena knows best

Photo: Siena with her siblings

Feeling like she wasn’t being listened to, Siena didn’t enjoy school. Then she moved to mainstream and, though it’s not perfect, she’s a lot happier.

Until Year 8, Siena (15), who is profoundly deaf and wears cochlear implants, attended mainstream schools with attached deaf units.

While the schools were generally deaf aware, she felt isolated from her peers. “At primary school, the teachers were very deaf aware and every year they’d have massive assemblies about being deaf-friendly,” Siena explains. “They’d teach the whole school sign language.

“That was great, but school was still quite difficult; I spent most of my time in the deaf unit. I felt isolated from the rest of the school and it was hard to make hearing friends.”

After turning 11, Siena moved on to a mainstream secondary school, also with a deaf unit. It wasn’t her first choice, but professionals advised it would be the best way for her to learn. “The move was very bumpy,” says Siena. “I became really self conscious about wearing my radio aid, and I didn’t wear it because it reminded me that I was different from everyone else.”

“The separation from mainstream became more apparent and it became difficult for her to build new bonds,” adds Siena’s mum Jodie. “She felt she was being held back from doing all the things she knew she could do. There was a breakdown between her and the support staff; the support they said she needed, she said she didn’t, and they were unwilling to compromise.”

Siena became increasingly frustrated that staff at the school wouldn’t allow her to make her own choices. “I was advised not to take a modern foreign language, even though I really wanted to,” says Siena. “I was put in the bottom set for everything and I knew I didn’t belong in those sets. Although I eventually got moved up, they made me sit right at the front with the support staff so I was separated from my peers.”

From there, things continued to go downhill. Siena felt like she was in a constant battle to be heard. “It affected my friendships and relationships with my parents and siblings,” she says. “I also ended up in trouble which nearly led to an exclusion from school.”

Jodie put the wheels in motion for Siena to make a move, and midway through Year 8, she moved to the local mainstream school. “The interventions we’d put in place hadn’t worked,” Jodie explains. “The set-up was effective for some deaf children but it really wasn’t for Siena and they weren’t willing to adapt. It got to the point where I said her happiness and wellbeing are more important to me than her academic achievement. I shouldn’t have had to choose.”

Before she joined the new school, they contacted Siena to ask what adaptations she needed in the classroom. She had extra support in lessons she struggled with, like maths, and when the other students did language classes, she had one-to-one support. The Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) also did a talk to her form group about deaf awareness.

“It made such a difference to have independence,” Siena says. “I was mostly in charge of my own support which I really liked and appreciated. I was also nervous to make friends, but I had nothing to worry about. Everyone was so welcoming and understanding of my deafness; the first day was one of my best ever days!

“The deaf awareness at my current school is mostly good. I wear my hair up so my cochlear implants remind people to keep being deaf aware. They agreed I didn’t have to wear the radio aid anymore – which was an immense relief for me! I didn’t like the robotic voice and I was much more comfortable learning without it.”

Although Siena is much happier at this school, there are still bumps in the road. “My school is very loud,” says Siena. “Sometimes they teach over the class noise which does make it difficult. There’s a real difference between different teachers – some give me extra resources before or during lessons and others forget I’m even deaf!”

“I can tell she feels much happier,” Jodie adds. “Teenage life is hard, but a level of anxiety got taken away when she moved school. It felt like she could be more like everyone else and it helped develop her as an all-round person.

“There are still things they could improve on. Last year, for example, teachers refused to take their masks down to speak to her, and they wouldn’t record their lessons on Teams. Sometimes learning was really tough for her and there were simple things that could have been done to help.”

Now Siena has completed her GCSEs and is preparing to do A levels. She’s even moving school again. “I really want to do my A-levels at deaf school Mary Hare, if I’m able to get funding, or at a local Sixth Form,” Siena says. “I would be moving schools again, but either way, I’m a bit nervous and excited for the next phase of my life!”

“I would say to any parents worried about their child at school, have confidence that you know your child,” Jodie adds. “Siena’s got developmental verbal dyspraxia too so there’s been lots of people involved in her care. I was young when I had her and conditioned to think that experts, or people who are older, know better. But you’ve brought up your child, you know them best.

“Everyone was very focused on education and attainment, but we were interested in developing a well-rounded happy person who is productive in society.”