£250k bill to send seven gifted deaf pupils to school in England
The Department of Education is spending almost £250,000 a year sending seven academically gifted deaf pupils to a boarding school in England because there is not one grammar school in Northern Ireland with a hearing unit.
It means that any parent who wants a grammar school education for their hearing-impaired child is having to make the heart-wrenching decision to enrol their 11-year-old son or daughter at the Mary Hare School for the Deaf in Newbury, Berkshire, if they pass the entrance exam.
Although the department picks up the average annual cost of £33,000 per pupil, parents are still having to spend thousands of pounds a year on flights and accommodation.
Collette Massey is just one mother who had to make the difficult decision to send her son Michael, who has sensorineural hearing loss, to the specialist school in England.
And while she has no regrets, despite Michael being separated from his parents and two sisters including his twin, she admits at times it is heartbreaking.
Mrs Massey, who teaches in a Co Antrim secondary school, said: "Why should my son be denied a grammar school education just because of his hearing loss? I wanted only the best for him and in my opinion the best was Mary Hare, the National Grammar School for the Deaf.
"It was a huge wrench, breaking up our family, fear of the unknown, worrying if the right decision had been made - and criticism, usually unspoken but still felt, that it was a terrible thing to send your child away.
"That maddened me, sitting in judgment over a situation you are unable to comment on unless you have experienced it."
She added: "I don't deny it has been difficult. There have been episodes of home sickness, but over time they really have lessened and the agony of saying goodbye is long gone.
"You do what's right for your child and we feel we made the right decision sending him to board - he has really blossomed."
A Department of Education spokesperson told the Belfast Telegraph that while there are no grammar schools with hearing units "in order to facilitate the inclusion of pupils with a hearing loss in a range of schools including grammar schools, an appropriate level of support is available".
According to the department, this includes qualified teachers of the deaf in the boards' specialist peripatetic services for the hearing impaired, specialist equipment and "where deemed necessary, a designated level of classroom assistant support".
The spokesperson added: "The department will keep under review the potential to make appropriate provision for hearing impaired pupils within the island of Ireland."