Deafness can be an isolating experience, but a special school in Clapham is helping children to express themselves in many different ways. Eleanor Harding reports. One of the first things you notice about Oak Lodge is the quiet.

Around every corner, pockets of friends are merrily signing to each other over homework or ping pong rules.

I feel left out because I don’t understand, and for the first time I have some comprehension of what it must be like living as a deaf person in a hearing world.

“One of the difficulties for these children is that deafness affects their social and emotional skills,” says Denise Morton, acting principal.

“Their language difficulties don’t allow them to access the normal ways in which hearing people would socially develop.

"Most are in a hearing family and for some communication can be difficult for them at home.

"That's why we spend a lot of time helping them to develop British Sign Language and English.”

At Oak Lodge, teachers understand how isolating deafness can be, so life skills are an important part of the curriculum.

Not only do students learn academic, vocational and domestic skills but they are also taught social and emotional development.

It’s a far cry from 1905, when the school was founded in Nightingale Lane.

Back then no-one used sign language, and “rudeness and impudence” would earn you two strikes of the cane.

With no way of communicating properly with pupils, teachers focused on practical skills such as cookery, needlework and laundry so pupils could earn their way as servants.

These days students take GCSEs and some go on to university.

As well as being deaf, many have other problems which may hamper their learning.

Most find it difficult to achieve to the same standards as in mainstream schools, but do so well from their starting points that Ofsted graded the school outstanding this year.

“We can help them to succeed in the world,” says Mrs Norton.

“We help them to be successful people who can hold down a job and to do that even though they have a communication difficulty.”

Another sign of the times is the high number of refugee children attending Oak Lodge.

Some have never learnt any kind of sign language and have never been able to communicate properly before.

There’s no telling how lonely their world may have been in younger years.

Staff speculate that many deaf refugees end up in the UK because their families know provision is good here.

Indeed, Oak Lodge has living quarters for those who need to board and is the only specialist school for deaf children in south London.

Mrs Morton says: “How well these [refugee] children cope depends on their ability.

"For some children they’ll make very rapid progress and for others it takes longer.

"It really does mean we have to work with the individual.

“It also depends on their family support.

"We provide sign language classes for parents, to help them learn to communicate with their teenage children.”

Art, drama and sports help the children to express themselves in different ways, and in these subjects they can often gain A* at GCSE.

The school prides itself on its community projects with visiting artists - one of which resulted in the attractive mosaic mural outside Nightingale Patisserie.

“The children like to come to school,” concludes Mrs Morton.

“This is a place of safety for them. It’s a place where they can come and be fully understood and a place where we can help them understand this world.”

Oak Lodge facts:

Oak Lodge is a school for deaf students aged 11 to 19 from all over London.

Almost all have additional needs such as emotional, social and behavioural difficulties, autistic spectrum and associated learning difficulties.

There are 72 pupils and 20 borders.

Around 65 per cent of the school is to be rebuilt in 2012 but children will remain on-site during the work.

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