It's 11.30am on a crisp spring morning, and pupils at the Mary Hare School are hard at work. The students sit at their desks - arranged in a horseshoe shape - wearing headphones and watching their French teacher intently.
They could be any class of teenagers. But the group is unusually small. A close observer might also note that the teacher never writes on the board behind her - she always uses an overhead projector and never turns her back on her charges.
Only when they begin to speak do you realise that these youngsters are all profoundly deaf. Mary Hare, near Newbury in Berkshire, is the national grammar school for deaf children - its pupils were either born deaf or lost their hearing, some as a result of diseases such as meningitis.
The specialist tuition at Mary Hare does not come cheap. It costs £24,000 a year for each pupil, paid either by families or, in some cases, a local education authority. But the school believes that it provides exceptional value for money. In a recent "value added" league table, which ranks English schools by the level of improvement in their pupils' attainment, the Mary Hare was beaten only by New College in Worcester, a selective independent boarding school for visually impaired pupils run by the Royal National Institute for the Blind.
Across the UK, about 400 children in each age group are either born deaf or lose their hearing. Mary Hare takes only 30 a year and students must pass a non-verbal reasoning exam to win a place. Most have previously attended a mainstream primary school, but prefer the smaller classes and specialist attention available at Mary Hare. The school uses headphones and microphones, which enable each pupil to hear everything said by other students, and allow teachers to contribute to lessons in a way that would be difficult in a mainstream setting.
Peter, 17, joined Mary Hare five years ago after attending a mainstream primary school and being taught at home for a year. "I didn't have any problems in primary school, but mainstream secondary was really hard," he says. "It was impossible to catch everything that was going on in lessons. Here the teachers are more considerate as they understand the problem, and we have got better equipment."
Special schools across England were the hidden success story of this year's value-added tables. Mary Hare scored 131.2, meaning that on average its pupils gained an impressive 31.2 GCSE points - equivalent to five B grades higher than the average pupil. In these pre-GCSE exams, nearly 30 special schools outperformed Skegness Grammar, England's top-ranked mainstream school. And at GCSE level, 14 special schools did better than the best mainstream institution - Sir John Cass Foundation School in east London.
Although special-school headteachers have welcomed the recognition of their work provided by the value-added tables, they fear that their branch of the education system is under threat. The Government's education strategy, published earlier this month, details plans to teach more children with special needs at mainstream schools. But the document, entitled Removing Barriers to Achievement, insists that special schools will continue to play a role in teaching children with severe needs, working closely with mainstream schools to share expertise and extend learning opportunities for children in both settings.
Tony Shaw, Mary Hare's vice principal, says: "Deaf children not only need to be in the lessons, they also need the chance to express themselves - only then is their knowledge and understanding bolstered. Many children come to us from mainstream primary schools saying they have previously been merely bystanders in the classroom."
The Disability Rights Commission wants to enable every child to attend a mainstream school, but recognises that until there are resources available to make this possible, special schools have a role to play. "We have to think about the kind of society we want to have and there are strong arguments in favour of inclusion," says Neil Crowther, the DRC's policy manager. "But on the other hand, we do not want to sacrifice any child's education just to make a point."Reuse content