Should All Schools Teach British Sign Language?

Why aren’t pupils learning how to sign?

Schools say they are inclusive but I’m not so sure. Lots of pupils face barriers and obstacles to their learning and many can get left behind and forgotten. There are more than 48,000 deaf children in the UK but do they get a fair deal in schools?

NB: This blog uses the term “deaf” to refer to all levels and types of hearing loss.

There are about 9 million people in the UK who are deaf or hard of hearing. For many, British Sign Language is their preferred language and chief way of communicating. In 2003, the government acknowledged BSL as an official language yet there are very few schools teaching it. This isn’t just English with hand signs either. BSL is a a rich, diverse and beautiful language with its own grammar and sentence construction.

BSL isn’t a priority for schools because the curriculum is so jam-packed there isn’t any room. Imagine being told that if you are deaf and your first language is BSL: “We pride ourselves on being an inclusive school but we don’t have the time for you.”

Inclusive doesn’t just mean taking part in Sign Language Week or holding an awareness day, box ticked. Inclusive means meeting the needs of learners so they are actually included and don’t hit brick walls. Being a deaf child in a mainstream hearing school is tough going. It might not be a learning disability but the barriers to learning are significant.

The Silent Child

I’ve taught a few profoundly deaf children in a couple of schools and the level of support they received was never enough. Some TA help here and there and a qualified Teacher of the Deaf just an hour a week. I could sign a little and really struggled to meet their needs. The majority of the school population didn’t sign either and they were pretty much on their own.

To understand what it is like to communicate in a hearing world when you are deaf is something hard to grasp. The brilliant film The Silent Child gets to the heart of this and captures the lives of children who do not have proper access to language or education. It aims to contribute in the fight for sign language to be recognised in every school across the world.

This Oscar winning film tells the story of 6 year old Maisie who is profoundly deaf and lives her life in silence until a social worker teaches her how to use BSL, opening up her world.

School Support

Clearly schools could do more and commit to teaching BSL. Saying that there is no room because the curriculum is overcrowded is a bit of a cop-out. Creative timetabling could accommodate this vital language.

The gap in teacher training is huge but a key part of any course or CPD should be to learn BSL otherwise, like me, you will find yourself pretty much on your own. Help is desperately needed if you are a mainstream teacher with so many needs to cater for and Communication Support Workers are like gold dust. As The Ear Foundation report of 2016 recommends,

  • Up-to-date and accessible information for parents and those working with deaf children
  • Training for mainstream teachers to understand deafness and its impact on learning
  • Training for teachers on supporting the individual learning needs of deaf children
  • Resources to support the use of technology and improve classroom acoustics
  • Training to maintain and develop the knowledge and skills of specialist professionals
  • Resources to support pragmatic, higher level language needs

Children who are deaf face enormous challenges. So where do we go for help?

The National Deaf Children’s Society does extremely valuable work and it provides teachers with stacks of information, resources and videos to help. They’ve got support for early years, primary, secondary and post-14. They’ve also got resources for managers, a range of resources to keep deaf children safe from harm or abuse and links to research projects. It’s vision is “a world without barriers for every deaf child” and that would indeed be wonderful.

There are so many things to think about when teaching deaf children in a mainstream setting. However, any effective teaching strategy is effective not only for deaf students but also their hearing peers.

In disarray

Deaf children require specialist support and qualified Teachers of the Deaf. Your average class teacher is not in a position to help as deaf children are a diverse bunch. Investing in specialist Teachers of the Deaf is a must so that parents can get expert advice on childhood deafness. We need qualified staff so that the communication needs of all deaf children and their families are supported and met.

Clearly deaf children are being let down. The National Deaf Children’s Society accused the Government of “woeful complacency” for failing to tackle the funding crisis engulfing deaf children’s education.

A report by the Consortium for Research into Deaf Education says the number of teachers of the deaf has been cut by 14% in the past seven years. At the same time as a 31% increase in the number of children requiring support.

Speaking to The Guardian, Susan Daniels, the chief executive of the National Deaf Children’s Society, warned that underachievement among deaf children was likely to grow and “The evidence couldn’t be clearer. From every angle and at every turn, a whole generation of deaf children will have their futures decimated if the government doesn’t act before it’s too late.

Over twice as many deaf children (57%) fail to meet expected levels in reading, writing and maths by the end of primary school than their non-SEN peers. In addition, figures show that 30.6% of deaf children achieve a grade 5 or above (strong C) in English and maths as compared with almost half (48.3%) of non-SEN children.

The National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS)  is calling on the government to provide additional funds for the education of deaf children. It also wants the government to launch a recruitment drive and a centralised bursary to fund trainee specialist teachers of the deaf.

The NDCS and the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf (BATOD) surveyed 625 Teachers of the Deaf and found that 58% said there was less support available for deaf children now, in comparison to in 2014. The NDCS and BATOD report also found,

The vast majority (85%) of Teachers of the Deaf say their workload has increased since 2014. 87% are working additional hours to keep up with their workload and 96% say they feel stressed in their job role. More than 60% of Teachers of the Deaf are working the equivalent of a whole extra day per week, unpaid, just to catch up.

This is a system in crisis.

A good sign

With the right support deaf children could achieve so much more. There are clearly not enough opportunities for deaf people and that simply isn’t good enough. There may be some good news though.

Thanks to the campaigning efforts of deaf schoolboy Daniel Jillings and his family, a GCSE in BSL could be introduced in the UK before the next general election. We still need to do more to raise the profile of deaf awareness.

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