After 19 years as head of Windsor Park School and sensory service, Catherine Finestone can’t quite believe she’s retiring from the job she still loves.
What she won’t be doing, however, is retiring from speaking up for the rights of deaf people – a cause she has been devoted to for the past 42 years, since she first trained as a teacher of the deaf.
In that time, she has been in the vanguard of massive changes in deaf education –including the introduction of British Sign Language into classrooms.
“When I first started teaching the deaf, Scotland’s policy was oralism – no signing at all. she explained.
“Education for the deaf was really poor and hearing aids were rubbish – at that time it was like wearing ear plugs.
“Deaf children who couldn’t lipread used to be known as ‘oral failures’!”
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So, Catherine became part of a quiet revolution.
As a trainee teacher of the deaf, she was among the first to use sign language, working with pioneers such as Mary Brennan and Martin Colville to develop the language.
“So, we’ve gone from that to the introduction of the BSL Act in the Scottish Parliament in 42 years – that’s a relatively short time,” said Catherine.
“We’ve also seen amazing improvements in technology, with things like cochlear implants.
“Early identification of deafness is also fabulous now.”
Under her leadership, Windsor Park has changed too. Not long after she took over, pupils with visual impairment were added to her remit.
Now, the school and its outreach service nurtures and educates children and young people – from tiny babies who have just been diagnosed to school leavers.
In recent years, the school was given extra land when Falkirk High School moved site and the result is a beautiful garden area with specialist outdoor exercise equipment, including a trampoline and wheelchair accessible swing.
“The children just love it!” she says.
However, the school she joined as headteacher in 1999 was not in such good shape.
It had just had a “really, really bad inspection” – and she wasn’t given much time to turn things round.
Just six months after taking up her new appointment, the inspectors who returned were surprised and impressed with what they saw.
“They told me they had actually come to close the school, but they saw the changes that had been made,” she said.
The changes included asking for – and being given – better equipment. “We had one BBC computer – and it didn’t even work!” she said.
Nineteen years on, she is still fighting her pupils’ corner and admits it’s difficult to even think about taking it easy.
She is a member of Holyrood’s cross-party group on deafness and several other organisations, always raising the profile of special education.
“I get into every group I can so they don’t forget us!” she said. “We’ve always got to remind them we’re here!
If she allows herself to relax she plans a trip to Australia with husband, Joe, and hopes they can do a bit of travelling.
But she can’t imagine not being involved with deaf people in some way.
“Yes, we’ve come a long way,” she said. “But there is just as much work still to be done!”
Catherine’s long career...
Catherine Finestone’s teaching journey began 45 years ago, when she started at St Michael’s, Moodiesburn. After a short spell working in France and then Switzerland she returned to Scotland to a job at St Bernard’s in Coatbridge.
At that time, the government had ring-fenced funding for deaf education, something she had an interest in. After training at Moray House in Edinburgh, she went on to work in Craighead Special School for five years, then Earnock Deaf Unit for 13, before moving to Falkirk and Windsor Park, where she has been for 19 years. To her great disappointment, a replacement has not yet been found for her role and the job is now being advertised as a secondment in Falkirk.