Factors Impacting Educational Attainments of the Deaf in Britain


I myself am registered blind and with hearing loss.

In Britain, education is free and provided by the British government.

Attendance at schools is compulsory; it is upheld by legal sanctions, enforced by the Courts. Education is provided in spoken and verbalised format (mainly English, with Wales also delivering Welsh as part of its curriculum), free of charge, though ultimately paid for by the British taxpayer.

British Sign Language (BSL), was not accepted as a language by the English Parliament in Westminster until March, 2003 and was only accepted as a language by the Scottish Parliament, in Edinburgh in March, 2011.

The 2011 CRIDE report states that in England there at least 34,927 deaf pupils, of who 81% are at mainstream school. This includes only 8% who are in schools with resourced provision – clearly 73% of deaf children in mainstream schools in England do not have access to BSL trained support and are reliant on the spoken and written word.



Although free, compulsory state education is largely taken for granted in Britain today and is regarded by British citizens as a perfectly normal and natural state of affairs, it’s important to remember that free education in Britain is a very recent development in British history.

In Britain, it was not until the 1870 Foster Education Act that the British government accepted responsibility for elementary education. In 1880 school attendance up to the age of ten was made compulsory. In Britain, it was not until 1918 until secondary education clearly defined as the state’s responsibility.

The Fisher Education Act of 1918 made school attendance compulsory up to the age of fourteen. In 1947, the minimum school leaving age was raised to fifteen, and today it stands at sixteen. These developments have been accompanied by a steady expansion of higher education.

Education in Britain is a major growth industry of the last century, but the needs of the deaf and educational provision, has hardly been touched upon in all that time as educational provision is centred almost fully on those deemed “normal” (although we await a definition of “normal” from policy makers).

Under the 1944 Education Act, children with special educational needs were categorised by their disabilities defined in medical terms. As a consequence deaf children were considered to be “uneducable” and deaf pupils tended to be labelled into categories such as “maladjusted” or “educationally sub-normal” and given “special educational treatment” in separate schools.

(source: House of Commons Education and Skills Committee – Special Educational Needs – Third Report of Session 2005-06 –Volume 1)

“Handicapped children” where only granted access to main-stream education in Britain with the implementation of the Education (Handicapped Children) Act of 1970.

However, it was not until the publication of the recommendations of the Warnock Report in 1978 which said “A child will have a special educational need if s/he has a learning difficulty requiring special educational provision. The “learning difficulty” includes not only physical disabilities, but also any kind of learning difficulty experienced by a child, provided that it is significantly greater than that of the majority of children of the same age”, before we saw any real movement.

(source: The report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, chaired by Mary Warnock)


Following the Warnock Report, the Education Act of 1983 stated that education of children with SEN’s (special educational needs), should, wherever possible be carried out in ordinary schools. The position was refined through the 1980’s and 1990’s by a series of Acts, which as Kumsang and Moore suggest reconstructed special education.

(source: Kumsang, M. and Moore, T. (1998) Policy and Practice in the education of deaf children and young people. In (eds) Gregory, S., Knight, P., McCracken, W., Powers, P. and Watson, L. Issues in Deaf Education. London, David Fulton Publishers)

This paper seeks to assess and evaluate contemporary approaches and policy to supporting the deaf to have full educational support with dignity and equality, to feel empowered.

Since speech is an important medium of communication and learning, attainment levels of the deaf in schools is arguably related to this fact.

Theoretical thoughts:

Much of the early work in this area was conducted by sociologist Basil Bernstein. He established two forms of speech patterns which he called the “elaborated” and the “restricted code”. In general, the deaf are limited to the use of “restricted codes” whereas the fully hearing use both codes.

Restricted codes: tend to operate in terms of simplistic meanings and as a consequence they are tied to specific contexts. As so much is taken for granted and relatively little is made explicit, restricted codes are clearly limited to dealing with objects, events and relationships which are familiar to those communicating. The meanings conveyed by the code are thus limited to a particular group; they are bound to a particular social context and are not easily understood by outsiders.

Elaborate codes:  explicitly verbalises many of the meanings which are taken for granted in a restricted code. It clarifies the detail, spells out the relationships and provides the clear explanations missed by restricted codes. As a result its meanings tend not tied to a particular context. In Bernstein’s words, the meanings “are in principle available to all because the principles and operations have been made explicit and so public”. The listener need not be plugged in to the experience and understandings of the speaker since they are spelled out verbally (obviously the deaf cannot hear this).Bernstein uses differences in speech codes to account in part for differences in educational attainment. Firstly, formal education is conducted in terms of an elaborated code.

Bernstein states that “the school is necessarily concerned with the transmission and

development of universalistic orders of meaning”. This places the deaf child at a

disadvantage because he is limited to the restricted code. Secondly, the restricted code, by its very nature, reduces the chances of deaf pupils to successfully acquire some of the skills demanded by the educational system. Bernstein does not dismiss restricted speech patterns as inadequate or substandard: he describes them as having “warmth and vitality”, “simplicity and directness”. However, particularly in his early writings, he does imply that in certain respects, they are inferior to an elaborated code. He suggests than an elaborated code is superior for explicitly differentiating and distinguishing objects and events, for analysing relationships between them, for logically and rationally developing an argument, for making generalisations and handling higher level concepts. Since such skills and operations form an important part of formal education, the limitation of deafness to a restricted code may provide a partial explanation for their relatively low attainment.

(source: Bernstein, B. – “Social Class and Linguistic Development: A Theory of Social Learning” in Floud and Anderson, 1961)

This view receives strong support from some educational psychologists. In particular Martin Deutsch, Carl Bereiter and Siegfried Engelmann, who argue that speech patterns are central to any explanation of educational attainment. Where Bernstein is cautious, they state categorically that a speech pattern of low attainment is inferior in practically every respect to those of higher attainment groups. Thus Bereiter states that the speech of many low attainers  “is not merely an underdeveloped version of standard English, but is basically non-logical mode of expressive behaviour”, (quoted in Labov, 1973, p.25). He argues that it is hopelessly inadequate to meet the requirements of the educational system, particularly with its failure to deal with higher level concepts. Bereiter concludes that the speech patterns of a low standard retard intellectual development, impede progress in school and directly contribute to educational failure.

Genetic and Environmental Theories:

Some argue that intelligence comes from both a child’s genetic make-up and from the environment and class culture in which raised. Environmental factors it can be argued includes class background, house lived in, neighbourhood raised in, size of family, having use of all sensory systems, to having restricted use of sensory systems. Obviously, if this theory is correct, our deaf child is severely disadvantaged, as his sensory impairment is directly affecting the environment in which he is growing up, as although sounds are there, he is not receiving the sound and thus, his environment is distorted from that of a child with full use of all sensory systems. It’s worth looking at research by Arthur Jensen and Hans Eysenck and putting it into the context of a deaf child. They constructed the following kinds of evidence. Studies of twins raised in different families and environments actually achieved very different intelligence scores. Arguably, intelligence scores have been affected by their differing environments. It’s debateable if this is the case, as this research is flawed as it does not provide enough evidence to argue if environments and genetics indeed impacts upon a child’s intelligence.

(source: Eysenck, H. – “Race, Intelligence and Education” (Temple Smith, London, 1971, Jensen, A.R. – “Educational Differences” (Metheun, London, 1973)

In Britain there is a tendency to adopt American ideals and so we need to glimpse at                     America.

In America a large body of statistical evidence indicates that on average, Blacks score some ten to fifteen points below Whites in IQ tests. A strong case for the deaf can be made from these statistics, as it’s clear that environmental factors are accounting for this difference – for example Blacks more likely to live in poverty than Whites, just as our deaf child is more likely to live without speech and sound than our non-deaf child and a successful child is more likely to come from an affluent social class.

Researchers that suggest varying intelligence levels are affected by environmental factors also agree that it’s impossible to access the levels by which intelligence is affected by both genetics and environment. Despite this there is considerable evidence to indicate that environmental factors have an important effect. During the First World War over one million recruits to the US Army were given a series of tests, similar in standard to IQ tests.

On average, Blacks from the northern states scored more highly than both Blacks and Whites from the southern states. In the north a number of factors such as schooling, housing and income were superior to those available to many southerners.

Considering speech and grammar in context, our deaf child has little (if any speech), limited use of grammar and as a direct consequence his command of English is extremely restricted.

Similar tests given by the US Army in World War 2 indicate that the IQ of White recruits had risen on average by nine to twelve points. In fact 83% of the recruits had higher test scores than their First World War counterparts. This was accounted for by a number of environmental factors including higher living standards and longer schooling. Not even the most extreme geneticist argues that this increase in IQ could be explained by a dramatic improvement in the genes for intelligence within the White population. The above evidence suggests that IQ is not fixed or finite thing; rather it is something that can be learned and developed like any other skill. In particular it is sensitive to and responds to changes in the environment. Our deaf child remains trapped inside a noise free environment.

Further research has indicated that a wide range of environmental factors can affect performance in IQ tests. Otto Klineberg summarizes some of these factors, “The successful solution of the problems presented by the tests depends on many factors – the previous experience and education of the person tested, his degree of familiarity with the subject matter of the test, his motivation or desire to obtain a good score, his emotional state, his rapport with his experimenter, his knowledge of the language in which the test is administered and also his physical health and well-being, as well as on the native capacity of the person tested”. Evidence which will be examined in the following section indicates that the relatively low test scores of certain groups (including the deaf), is due, at least in part, to the factors outlined by Klineberg.

It is clearly not possible to estimate the levels of intelligence which is due to genetics and environmental upbringing. To confirm the possibility of genetically based differences in IQ would involve the exposure of large numbers of individuals born into those groups to identical environments.

(source: Klineberg, O. – “Race and IQ” – “Courier” vol 24 no.10, November, 1971)

Christopher Jencks, reached the following conclusion. “There is no way to resolve such disagreement in the foreseeable future. We cannot expose blacks and whites to the same environments, since skin colour itself influences an individual’s environment. Nor can we compare test scores of blacks and whites with identical intellectual genotypes; because we do not know which specific genes influence intellect. As a result, everyone will doubtless continue to believe what his prejudices make him want to believe”.

To put that in context of the deaf person, they are all different, although deaf. They have differing needs, ideas, exposures and thoughts, so we cannot singularise.

(source: Jencks, C. – “Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America” (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1975)



Class and ethnic subcultures and deaf educational attainment:

Various studies have shown that even when intellect is held constant, there are large differences in educational scores between members of different social class groups. The working-class students with the same measured intellect as their middle-class counterparts in education are less successful in the educational system. It has therefore been suggested that class and ethnicity are directly related to academic achievement. It has been put forward that the subcultures, the distinctive norms and values of social classes and ethnic groups, greatly affect performance in education.

The point being made is that a deaf person’s educational attainment is not only hindered by his deafness, but by the class environment into which he is born.

This position was clearly first spelt out in detail by sociologist Herbert H. Hyman in an article entitled, “The Value Systems of Different Classes”. He argues that the value system of the lower classes creates “a self-imposed barrier to an improved position”. Using a wide range of data from opinion polls and surveys conducted by sociologists, Hyman outlines the following differences between working and middle-class value systems. Firstly, he argued that the working class place a lower value on education. They place little importance on formal education as a method of personal advancement; they place little worth in carrying on at school beyond the minimum school leaving age. Secondly, they place a less value on gaining high level jobs. In categorising jobs to aim for, they tend to seek “stability, security and immediate economic benefits’ and don’t like taking risks and self-funding trying to aim for high paid jobs. Jobs on offer to them are restricted and are nearly always just simplistic and basic jobs. Thirdly, contrary to perceived middle class beliefs, it is put forward that the working class don’t believe that they have much chance of improving their status and that for the disabled, the duty lies with the State to provide benefits and support in kind. Maybe this justifies why there’s seemingly little support for the education for their deaf children. Hyman argues that although it is based on a realistic assessment of the situation – they do indeed have less opportunity – the belief itself reduces this opportunity still further. The values Hyman outlines do not characterise all members of the working class – a sizeable minority do not share them. This minority includes many manual workers with white-collar parents, a fact which influences their choice of reference group. They identify more with the middle class and as a result tend to have higher aspirations for their deaf off-springs. In general, however, one can conclude (as suggested by Hyman), he suggests that the working class isn’t interested in education, as to them, it’s not worth the effort and time, and that even if they were interested, they’d meet obstacles in just asking if indeed he/she was interested.

Thus, using Hyman’s suggestions, to summarise, the idea is being forwarded that the working class aren’t bothered.

(source: Hyman, H.H. – “The Value Systems of Different Classes” in Bendix and Lipset, 1967)

Barry Sugarman, sociologist, correlates some elements of middle and working-class     subcultures greatly to different levels of educational achievement. He provides an explanation for differences in attitude and outlook between the two classes, arguing that the nature of manual and non-manual occupations largely accounts for these differences.

(souce: Sugarman, B. – “Social Class, Values and Behaviour in Schools” in Craft, 1970)

Many middle-class occupations provide an opportunity for continuous advancement in income and status. This it can be argued encourages parents of deaf siblings to want the best for their siblings and thus, it encourages them to plan for the future, for example, they invest time, energy and money in training and coaching their deaf sibling in a hope that that child may meet the requirements for higher status jobs. Many white-collar jobs also provide sufficient income for financial investment in the future for the child in the form of investment funds and insurance policies. By comparison working-class jobs reach full earning capacity relatively quickly; they provide fewer promotion prospects and less income for the parent to invest. In addition they are less secure. In Britain, manual workers are more likely to be laid off or made redundant than white-collar workers. I would argue, the absence of a career structure in many working-class jobs means that individual effort has less chance of producing improvements in income that can be invested into their deaf child’s future.

Sugarman suggests that differences in the requirements of differing jobs impact and ultimately generate differences in ideals and outlook. Arguably, since they have less control over the future, less opportunity to improve their position, and less income to invest, manual workers tend to be fatalistic, present-time oriented and concerned with immediate self-gratification.  This leaves their deaf off-spring vulnerable in future life, when they’re no longer earning. Since they are more dependent on joint action to improve wages and working conditions, they tend to emphasise collectivism rather than individualism and as such, they rely upon the State to provide for the deaf off-spring.

Sugarman argues that these attitudes and orientations are an established part of working-class subculture. Pupils from working-class origins will therefore be socialized in terms of them.

(source: Sugarman, B. – “Social Class, Values and Behaviour in Schools” in Craft, 1970)

This may account at least in part, for their low level of educational attainment. Fatalism involves an acceptance of the situation rather than efforts to improve it. As such it will not encourage high achievement in the classroom. Immediate gratification emphasises the enjoyment of pleasures of the moment rather than sacrificed for future reward. As such it will tend to discourage sustained effort for the promise of examination success. It will also tend to encourage early leaving for the immediate rewards of a wage, for benefits packet, adult status and freedom from the discipline of school. Present-time orientation may further reduce the motivation for academic achievement. An emphasis on long-term goals and future planning can encourage the deaf child to remain longer in full-time education by providing a purpose for their stay. Finally collectivism involves loyalty to the group rather than the emphasis on individual achievement which the school system demands. Sugarman therefore concludes that the subculture of pupils from working-class backgrounds places them at a disadvantage in the educational system. This is far more pertinent for a child from a working-class background that is deaf and unsupported external to school.

Before continuing the theme of this section, it’s important to make a number of challenges this belief that a class sub-culture exists. The notion that there is a working class subculture seems to have manifested from observations by those from middle class backgrounds. It’s correct therefore to argue that this shows bias as the observer is basing their facts against their perceived norms. Arguably therefore the behaviour recorded may simply be a response that’s part of everyday normal events in the environment of the working-class. Members of the working are arguably realists rather than fatalistic, they may well want self-gain, but it may be placed at the back of the que as they don’t have the spare capital and thus they live for the day, not for the moment. If they had the spare capital they may well invest in training, etc., it’s thus arguably right to believe that members of the working class share the same norms and values as any other members of society.

Working class choices are not directed by a perceived subculture. It is simply down to everyday life situations which hinder them from aspiring to the perceived “middle-class” norms and values in the same way as members of the middle class. Hyman’s data seems biased as it was obtained from these sources.

Barry Sugarman gave a questionnaire to 540 fourth year boys in four London secondary schools and his conclusions are largely based on data from this source. However, what people say in response to interviews or questionnaires may not provide an accurate indication of how they behave in other situations. As Robert Colquhoun notes in his criticism of Sugarman, it cannot simply be assumed that “a response elicited in a questionnaire situation holds in the context of everyday life situations”.

Thus social class differences in response to interviews and questionnaires may not indicate subcultural differences which direct behaviour in a wide range of contexts. Finally, in a criticism of studies R.H. Turner notes that social class differences reported from interviews and questionnaire data are often slight. Social scientists tend to ignore similarities between classes and emphasize differences. (discussed in Colquhoun, 1976, p.112).

In Conclusion:

The Problem for the State in Providing for the Deaf:

The state relies heavily upon social scientists to guide their policies and thoughts with education and provision for the deaf and we have seen much policy in Britain. Unfortunately though, social scientists, like everyone else, are people of their time. As such their views will tend to reflect those that are current in the wider society. Karabel and Halsey suggest that changing vies in the sociology of education are shaped more by changing times than by the logical march of scientific discipline. They argue this is particularly true of the move from functionalist to Marxian perspectives. Functionalism dominated sociology during the 1950s, 1960, 1980s, and early 1990s, a period of relative stability in Europe. Karabel and Halsey argue that, “Reflecting the spirit of the period in which it came to prominence, functionalist theory, particularly as formulated by American scholars, placed undue emphasis on consensus and equilibrium society”.

(source: Karabel, J. and Halsey, A.H. (eds) – “Power and Ideology in Education” (Oxford University Press, New York, 1977).

These concerns are particularly apparent in Talcott Parsons’s sociology of education. The rise of Marxian perspectives during the late 1960s, 1970’s and late 1990’s and early 2000’s emerged from a period of disruption and dissent. Riots, campus unrest, the New Left, the feminist movement and protests against wars replaced the relative stability of the 1950s. As products of this age, Bowles and Gintis describe themselves as “actively involved in campus political movements” during the late 1960s.

(source: Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. – “Schooling in Capitalist America” (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1976)

Karabel and Halsey argued that Marxism with its critical stance and its emphasis on conflict and radical change reflected the “dominant mood” of the period more closely than its functionalist predecessor.

(source: Karabel, J. and Halsey, A.H. (eds) – “Power and Ideology in Education” (Oxford University Press, New York, 1977).

It’s apparent that there will be forever different debates and policies followed by governments. Just hopefully the deaf (regardless of class), are engaged and consulted with in understandable code and that more educators are provided, trained in BSL.

WORD COUNT: 3,965 words.




Bernstein, B. – “Social Class and Linguistic Development: A Theory of Social Learning” in Floud and Anderson, 1961

Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. – “Schooling in Capitalist America” (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1976)

Colquhorn, R. – “Values, Socialisation and Achievement” in Beck, Jenks, Keddie and Young, 1976

Eysenck, H. – “Race, Intelligence and Education” (Temple Smith, London, 1971)

House of Commons Education and Skills Committee – Special Educational Needs – Third Report of Session 2005-06 –Volume 1

Hyman, H.H. – “The Value Systems of Different Classes” in Bendix and Lipset, 1967

Jencks, C. – “Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America” (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1975)

Jensen, A.R. – “Educational Differences” (Metheun, London, 1973)

Karabel, J. and Halsey, A.H. (eds) – “Power and Ideology in Education” (Oxford University Press, New York, 1977).

Klineberg, O. – “Race and IQ” – “Courier” vol 24 no.10, November, 1971

Kumsang, M. and Moore, T. (1998) Policy and Practice in the education of deaf children and young people. In (eds) Gregory, S., Knight, P., McCracken, W., Powers, P. and Watson, L. Issues in Deaf Education. London, David Fulton Publishers

Labov, W. – “The Logic of Nonstandard English” in Keddie, 1973

Sugarman, B. – “Social Class, Values and Behaviour in Schools” in Craft, 1970


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