Charlie Swinbourne: Ahead of tonight’s C4 documentary, how do Deaf people view Mary Hare School?

Posted on December 14, 2017

A new documentary premieres on Channel 4 tonight, called Educating Teens: School of Life and Deaf.

The programme was made at Mary Hare School in Newbury, Berkshire, and follows 15 year old Lewis along with three other deaf pupils, Fae, Mae and Andrew.

We will see the pupils approaching big changes in their lives – as Lewis has a cochlear implant, Andrew applies to be Head Boy and twins Fae and Mae (pictured above) prepare to leave for separate universities.

I’m looking forward to seeing the programme and the journeys of the pupils featured, because although I didn’t attend the school, I have family and friends who did, and the idea of Mary Hare has always been part of my life.

Both my parents went to Mary Hare, and as I grew up, they often spoke fondly of their time there. They both boarded (as many pupils still do today) and, being away from their families, made strong friendships and bonds with fellow pupils at the school which continue to this day.

Harry Potter hadn’t been written at the time, but my parents’ stories of boarding school life, of the teachers, pupils, even the buildings there, often sounded a bit magical, like they’d been written in a book by JK Rowling.

As a child, I would attend the school’s annual sports day and later, my father arranged cricket matches between my team and the school.

So I grew up with a positive perception of the school.

But later on, I realised that the way the school is viewed by deaf people is, as Facebook might say, complicated.

The majority of former pupils of the school I’ve met are proud of being educated there and feel they benefited hugely from attending the school.

Mary Hare is probably the closest a deaf person can get to attending a private school, with small class sizes, the majority of pupils boarding there, highly skilled teachers, and great facilities.

However, when former pupils tell other deaf people that they went to Mary Hare, the response is often not all that positive, to the extent that some even hide the fact that they attended the school.

So I think it’s worth discussing where those mixed, or complicated feelings towards the school come from.

One reason is that the school is perceived as being selective in who it educates, mainly because it used to be a grammar school, with deaf pupils in the past taking an exam which they had to pass in order to get in.

Deaf people who did not pass the exam sometimes talk of how they felt like failures when classmates left their schools to join Mary Hare, which may have bred some resentment, in a similar way to when mainstream school pupils were divided into grammar schools and secondary modern schools.

The school’s previously selective nature has also contributed to a perception of Mary Hare as educating a kind of deaf elite, and of those who went there as being privileged. One friend of mine who went to Mary Hare told me that they were called a ‘snob’ after telling someone that they went to the school and often felt they had to justify why they had gone there.

However, nowadays, the school is no longer a grammar school, and pupils do not have to take an exam in order to attend.

Potential pupils are assessed to determine how suitable the school is for them, but this is not a competitive process, and whether or not a child attends the school will often come down to whether or not their Local Education Authority will agree to fund their place. Many parents of deaf children have fought long battles to get funding and they do not always succeed.

Another reason for some negativity towards the school is that some people in the Deaf community have accused former Mary Hare pupils as mixing more often among themselves than socialising widely in the community. In fairness, I’d say that it is inevitable that former pupils will maintain strong links because of the years they spend together, day and night, while boarding away from their families.

Then there’s the aspect of the school which stands out among all others when many deaf people think about it. This is the fact that since its origins in 1883, the school has educated its pupils using the oral (or auditory) philosophy, which means that British Sign Language is not used in the classroom.

This is a controversial area in the deaf world because of the damage that many deaf people feel has been caused by ‘oralism,’ going back to the decision to ban sign language from deaf education at theMilan educational conference in 1880.

Many deaf people feel that while the oral method works for some, deaf children who cannot adapt to it suffer great harm through language delay and deprivation which may not have occurred (or at least not to the same extent) had they been able to use sign language.

Some deaf people see Mary Hare as representing a kind of beacon for the oral approach, which is a big reason why the way they feel about it is so complicated.

Complicated, because the school is still seen by many deaf people as offering the strongest education for deaf children in this country.

Former pupils who went on to learn sign language and become prominent figures in the deaf community still credit their education at Mary Hare as being a big part of their success. Meanwhile, some deaf people who have criticised the school have gone on to choose to send their own deaf children there.

It seems inevitable that some of the response of deaf people to tonight’s programme will focus on its educational approach, and the school are aware of this. Peter Gale, the school’s Principal, said in a press release yesterday:

As people will see in the programme, we learn through speaking, listening and the written word. Other schools do it through sign language. I think it will be a real shame if reaction to the programme is all about communication choices. These young people and their families have chosen what we do. Others choose something different and that is fine.

It’s important to say here that these days, sign language is openly used at the school, albeit not in lessons. One of the pupils at the school has been seen using signs in a trailer for the programme, and I’ve been told by former pupils at the school that children frequently use sign language outside lessons and often in lessons (among themselves) too.

Whisper it quietly, but I’ve also been told that some teachers have been known to sign discreetly at certain moments too.

The school has many pupils in attendance who have BSL as their first language and are from deaf families. Additionally, many former pupils say that Mary Hare was the place where they discovered the deaf community and their deaf identity, by being around other deaf people for the first time.

For me, while I’m a firm supporter of deaf children being able to use sign language at home and at school, I see great positives in deaf children at the school being able to learn together, receiving specialist teaching, reducing the sense of isolation and of being ‘different’ that can often occur in mainstream settings.

I still remember watching a home video of a weekend at Mary Hare filmed by a former pupil, and seeing just how close all of their friends were. I’ve seen how confident and assured some of the former pupils are, and how some of them have achieved remarkable things in their lives and careers.

Although I’m aware of negative perceptions, I’ve seen the positives of the school – I only have to look at my parents to see that.

So, to conclude, it’s, yep, complicated.

While it’s true that the response to tonight’s programme may focus to some degree on communication methods used at the school, above all I’m looking forward to following the personal stories of the deaf children and young people we will see on screen, going through the kinds of changes and decisions that a great many of us who are deaf will relate to.

Watch the programme, which was made by Flashing Lights Media, at 10pm tonight on Channel 4, and then after that on All 4.

Read more of Charlie’s articles here.

Charlie Swinbourne is a journalist and is the editor of Limping Chicken, and is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter

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