My life and times in deaf education

karen simpson at desk
Photography by Jamie Trounce

As she prepares to retire as Head teacher at Frank Barnes School, Karen Simpson shares her thoughts with BDN. She tells us how things have developed and changed during her time in deaf education.

What are your reflections on almost 30 years in Deaf education?

When I first arrived as a young teacher at Frank Barnes School in September 1990, I would never have believed that I would eventually become Head teacher and have the privilege of working with so many delightful deaf children, their families and such a superb team of staff and governors. I look back on the last 26 years with enormous pride and gratitude for having had the opportunity to transform the school into an outstanding place of learning for our whole community. This only became possible through adopting our bilingual philosophy, employing deaf and hearing staff with excellent BSL skills and collaborating with other colleagues in deaf education and research to ensure the highest standards of teaching and learning for our children. Our bilingual ethos has enabled us to focus on how deaf children learn best and to create teaching resources to support them to achieve their full potential e.g. our Literacy Teaching Toolkit and Resource Pack, Family Signing Books and our collaboration with the National Deaf Studies Working Group to create the Deaf Studies Curriculum. I have always asserted that as a school for the deaf, you have to have high expectations for your children’s achievements. There is no reason why a deaf child cannot achieve highly if they have full access to the curriculum taught in a language they can understand fluently and high quality teaching to optimise their learning.

Tell us about your proudest achievements from your time working with deaf children and their families.

When I look back and reflect on all the deaf children I and my teaching staff have taught and the families we have worked with, I feel the legacy of Frank Barnes School lives on through their lives and achievements. We have welcomed deaf children, who have struggled to learn in other educational settings and watched them flourish and thrive in our nurturing bilingual school environment. We have accepted children who have been excluded from other schools and turned them around to become well adjusted and responsible young people. We have ex-pupils who have started at the school at 2 years of age and gone on through their secondary education to complete university degrees, become teachers and teaching assistants, learned professional trades and succeeded in their own fields. With the advance of technology we have also seen our deaf children achieve real fluency in both BSL and spoken English, which is what inspired our work to develop the Language Planning Teacher Toolkit and Guidance for the Department for Education with our colleagues from the University of Leeds, Sign Bilingual Consortium (SBC), BSL coalition & NatSIP. I have families who remember their first visit to Frank Barnes school with huge affection, because they remember feeling they had found a school that really understood their deaf children’s needs, valued them and could release their full potential. I am filled with pride every day when my children tell me about or show me their successes, when I see them taking part in our amazing Deaf Celebration days with deaf children from other schools, performing in our wonderful Christmas shows or dressed up as scientists in their white coats exploring the world about them with magnifying glasses!

karen simpson with students

Can you tell us what the main challenges have been?

As deaf children whose first language is BSL spend the majority of their life at home with their parents and siblings, having access to BSL outside of, as well as in school, is really important for their language development and learning. For many families, learning BSL can be challenging, especially if they are on low incomes and cannot afford the cost of BSL courses locally or live so far from their school for the deaf that they cannot attend their courses. At Frank Barnes School, we have responded to this challenge by becoming a Signature accredited centre and we provide free courses to parents from BSL Level 1 through to Level 6. We also have Family Communication Support Workers that teach BSL in the home to parents and their extended family where possible. Alongside these, as part of our new co-location with Kings Cross Academy, we run BSL courses for their staff, children and their families, which are very popular.

For those of you who have met me, you will know that I feel passionately about the need for deaf schools and services to have access to national pupil performance data in the same way that my Head teacher colleagues in primary and secondary mainstream schools do. The reason I feel so strongly about this is because without this data, it makes it very difficult to benchmark and measure the attainment of deaf children across the UK robustly and to determine how well they are achieving against their hearing peers.

One of the biggest challenges facing schools for the deaf currently lies in the changes to SEN funding arrangements, the introduction of High Needs Block funding and market forces. As a Head teacher I fully understand the need for schools to demonstrate value for money in as much they have to evidence their impact on pupil progress. The impact of this initiative is that Local Authorities are now deciding to educate deaf children locally and are mainly requesting places in schools for the deaf that are out of their borough for deaf children whose needs are more complex and cannot be met in their authority. As a result, schools for the deaf are responding by becoming more inclusive and training their staff to teach children with a broader range of needs. An example of this, is that at Frank Barnes School we have developed a specialism in deaf blindness for a small proportion of our pupils with MSI and our children naturally use hand under hand signing with them to communicate. The benefit of our inclusive practice is that our deaf children are excellent communicators, very well behaved, respectful of difference, kind and compassionate towards others and have a love of learning that helps them achieve their best.

karen simpson teaching in class

What are your views on the future of deaf education?

With all the recent tragic news of historic schools for the deaf such as RSD Margate closing, I feel this is the time when deaf organisations and schools for the deaf need to collaborate and pull together to demonstrate just how much value they add to deaf children’s learning and lives. Primary schools need to give their children the confidence and strong foundations in learning for their success in secondary education. Secondary schools and colleges need to do more to collaborate with business partners to create direct routes into employment. I also think we have moved on from the old debate of speech vs sign. What I have learned over my years of teaching is that all deaf children are unique, they need a strong first language base and personalised learning programmes to help them achieve – it is not a case of one method fits all. Educators need to be flexible, willing to learn new skills, try new methods, share their learning with others and embrace the power of technology to give our deaf children the best education they can. I will always believe that every deaf child, regardless of their level of deafness, should receive a Deaf Studies Curriculum and have the opportunity to learn BSL, whether as a first or second language. Deaf children are so fortunate because they can move between the deaf and hearing communities and find their place in society when they have a strong deaf identity, fluent first language,
close friendship groups and a good education that leads to fulfilling employment.

What are your overall thoughts as you move towards retirement?

I feel confident that now the school has settled in its wonderful new building, with state of the art technology and learning facilities and is co-located with Kings Cross Academy, the future of the school is secure and can provide further generations of deaf children with a wonderful and enriching education to prepare them for secondary education and adult life. I can retire in the knowledge that my governors and staff team will ensure that the school continues to support the deaf, hearing and research community to continually explore ways to improve the quality of education for deaf children at Frank Barnes and in other schools and services that we work in partnership with. I will not lose my contact with deaf education in my retirement. I plan to continue to work with my colleagues in CRIDE to strive to provide reliable and robust comparative data for deaf schools and services to support ongoing school improvement. I will also continue to arrange family learning events for families of deaf children with the British Museum and Camden Family Learning in London (our next Under the Sea Discovery Day is on Saturday 7th May from 12-4pm at the British Museum). I would also like to continue to support the work of the BDA and their partners to develop a BSL Bill for England, then I would feel that my journey is truly complete!