Michael Fahey: Why I knew my deaf school was a good place to be

Posted on January 15, 2016

Charlie’s report about the closure of Margate School for the Deaf made me think back to meeting a lovely lady who had very strong feelings about how deaf children should be educated and made me wonder if the Government realise what is going happen to children who are denied something which helped me so much.

Around 2007, four years after the closure of Birkdale School for the Partially Hearing (and five years before her death in 2012) I received an email from Doreen Woodford, author, historian and advocate for the rights of deaf people in the U.K.

Doreen was writing a book about the history of Deaf Education in Liverpool and Merseyside and was looking to interview deaf/hard of hearing people who had experienced both mainstream and deaf education as children.

After visiting my home and chatting to myself and my wife for a good part of the afternoon Doreen sent me two copies of her book “The Education of the Deaf in Liverpool and on Merseyside.”

Below is how I described life moving from mainstream secondary modern to Birkdale School for the Partially Hearing in 1969.

Up to the age of 12yrs I attended mainstream schools where my deafness created many problems, I found the teachers had no understanding of my impairment whatsoever, I was sat at the back of a low achievers class of between 30/40 rowdy kids…mostly off in a world of my own.

When out in the playground I was known as a loner, very often bullied and getting into fights for no reason. At home I spent my time reading anything I could get hold of and walking my dog. My mum was very aware of my speech problems and coached on a daily basis – as she did with my male siblings who also had hearing impairments.

I could only get into Birkdale when I turned 12yrs old due to the waiting list. My two brothers were also on the list, Stephen, my elder brother, left school before he got in, Christopher, my younger brother started at Parkfield before moving to the big school, he left to go to Mary Hare in later years.

Arriving at Birkdale in 1969, I can just about remember standing (holding back the tears) outside the main door waving to my mum as she left in the taxi to take her back to the train station in Southport.

The first few days were a scary experience as I got used to the routine of a day at the school, very strict and timed events such as getting up and getting ready for breakfast (making my own bed!).

But as time went on this routine had a good effect on the way I saw myself, I was no longer the loner and made friends easier because everyone was in the same boat, and because of the routine, I knew from one day to the next what to expect. I relaxed and began to settle in pretty fast.

Compared to mainstream school, time spent in the classroom at Birkdale was like opening a window in my head and letting the breeze (education) get to my brain, small class sizes (max 12/15 children), headphones where the teacher’s voice came directly through to you, constant one-on-one tuition and hardly any restriction on the teacher’s time.

Although I still had problems with certain subjects (maths), others such as english, art and geography I found I enjoyed them as never before! I do know that children I knew back in mainstream school left school with hardly any qualifications, whereas my lowest mark in any of 9 subjects was grade 3 CSE (for Maths!) and I came away with 2 ‘O’ levels.

Free time was also much more enjoyable as we could run amok on the school fields, play football, tennis, cricket, do some gardening in the allotment or look after the birds in the aviary.

On wet days we would play table tennis, swim in the pool or just chill, watch T.V or read a book. In the later years (14yrs onwards) also out sailing on Marine Lake a couple of times a week. A big thing for me was taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and traveling to the Lake District to take part in rock climbing, canoeing and orienteering.

I think I had an advantage to other children at Birkdale because they had been at the school from their first day and had no experience of being in a mainstream environment, I knew how tough life outside Birkdale could be, I knew that the school was a good place to be.

Mike is a semi-retired fine artist working from his home studio in Lancashire. As a profoundly deaf lip reader, he is just one of a large family with a genetic history of deafness. Mike attended a mainstream school before being transferred to a school for the deaf aged 11. He worked as a landscape gardener for thirty years and married Sara (who is hearing), then attended university as a mature student and gained a BA and MA in Fine Art. He is father to a son (hearing) and daughter (deaf on one side) and is currently preparing for cochlear implant surgery.

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