Government to discourage teaching of sign language in primary schools?

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I’ve blogged about some of my ‘official’ work on the Children, Schools and Families Bill. But I’ve also been doing some extra-curricular ‘unofficial’ lobbying work behind the scenes, trying to get clarification on something quite worrying…

In a nutshell, the Bill proposes a new law whereby schools will have to teach primary school children a language. Looking at the small-print, this is defined in the Bill as a “modern foreign language” and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) will decide later what languages schools will be able to offer in meeting this requirement.

Alarms bell rang when I read this because British Sign Language is, by definition, not a ‘foreign’ language. It’s an official Government bells-on recognised language in this country. So I emailed the civil servants working on the Bill to get to the bottom of this.

The answer? Not good. Schools will not be able to teach British Sign Language and meet this new primary school languages requirement. I was told that there would be nothing to stop them teaching it as a separate subject if they wanted to. But the signal sent to schools will be quite clear – British Sign Language, which is the first language of around 70,000 people in this country, does not have the same status as languages like French or Mandarin in our schools.

I don’t know about you but as a deaf person, I’m quite offended by that.

Malcolm Bruce MP (who signs himself) has written to DCSF for an explanation. Hopefully, this will prompt the Government to think again…

I’ll blog again soon with more news, but leave a comment below if you’re as offended as I am, or have any other thoughts.


21 thoughts on “Government to discourage teaching of sign language in primary schools?

  1. I wouldn’t expect a great deal from mindless bigwigs who think of future foreign commercialism and tourism should take priority over one of our own national languages.
    Afterall you can’t holiday in deafness, its still considered on the medical model..mice are considered mutant if deaf…why educate children if they are researching into cures…
    Might sound extreme this reply, but we still have a long way to go.

    Good luck Ian…

    Stephen ‘gargly’

  2. Have you asked for a equality impact assessment on this decision by DCSF? What did it say?

    And why doesn’t Malcolm Bruce MP table an amendment in parliament?

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    I haven’t seen an equality impact assessment, but that’s a good point and I’ll look for it. I doubt it will say anything about this issue as the Bill team do not appear to have thought about this issue until I raised it recently.

    Amendments are rarely successful without Government support, because of Government Whips, etc. which is why Malcolm Bruce MP has written first to raise / elevate these concerns. There is the option to raise the issue again via an amendment when / if the Bill goes to the House of Lords. Committee stage of the Bill, where most amendments are debated, finished recently and Malcolm was not part of the committee of MPs looking at the Bill. He has written this letter as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness.

    Hope that makes sense!


  4. I wouldn’t expect the DIS to say anything, but that’s half the point. Failure to meet a DED requirement, how are they moving to 2025 agenda, etc. Kind of goes against current govt policy, does it not?

    Inclusion, not being the same as integration, etc.

  5. ..Indeed I’ve linked too from my blog, and I’m sure I won’t be the last…
    You were asking for campaign ideas do well on your own initiative.

    Again good luck with your campaign.

    Stephen ‘gargly’

  6. I’m not deaf myself, so I’m clearly not seeing this from the same point of view as you. But I did go to both primary and secondary schools with Blanche Nevile departments, and was taught some BSL (which I’ve unfortunately mostly forgotten, and keep meaning to refresh and improve on when I get the chance). I’m very glad I had that opportunity, and I’d like every primary school to teach it if possible. But I disagree with this post that it should be included in the languages which would fulfil the mooted new legal requirement.

    BSL is a language of a very different type to English or a modern foreign language. Learning a foreign language, especially at an early age, makes it easier to learn other foreign languages later on, for a range of reasons, and there’s quite a large body of research showing that. I’m not aware of any research – perhaps some should be done – about whether learning BSL gives you the same advantage when it comes to learning other languages. I doubt it does, since it is so very different. Like I say, I think this difference is a reason why it should be taught to every pupil, where possible. But I think it also is a reason why it doesn’t fit in with the intention of this particular requirement.

  7. Most interesting Ian, thanks for alerting us all to this.

    It may be interesting for you to know that deaf kids in a few schools in Norway (regardless of their levels of hearing or speech) learn English through BSL, and there has been a lot of success there with good educational exchanges with Bristol University academic experts.

    Further, I think there is an additional issue of who is actually teaching sign language to kids, although it does not directly relate to the above. All too often I am meeting deaf kids who want to learn sign language (see NDCS Parent Place for a few recent pleas from parents of deaf kids who want to learn sign language) and yet the provision is not there. Yet society are more than happy to know about hearing kids learning sign language at primary schools. Where is the fight/concern for the very kids who need to learn the language?

    In the days of “baby signing” I remember feeling very frustrated in that we had lost focus on deaf kids who needed sign language, there was all this hype around baby signing and deaf organisations/services started (and still do?) providing baby signing classes to hearing parents with hearing babies. While organisations need money to survive, I did not see any evident strategy to use this money to implement provision for deaf toddlers etc.


  8. Hmm – I’m in two minds on this one. My two “god” daughters are taught welsh at school as a mandatory subject, but this doesn’t get the school off the hook of having to teach a “foreign” language as well. Maybe the trick here is to look at the teaching of other “minority but recognised as official UK” languages and ensure parity with those?

    I was angered that my BSL class (in London) receives no subsidy, whereas a friend who is studying welsh at the same college purely for fun only has to pay a quarter of the fees I pay. Why does BSL not get the same recognition?

  9. The government’s intention behind the above bill is for economic reasons – as it was said earlier, you can’t take a holiday in British Sign Language.

    And yes, it goes against the government’s policy of inclusion in that school’s will now be more unlikely to allocate time to whole-class teaching of BSL because their class time has been further restricted by other commitments. It could be said that the government is sacrificing inclusion for economic development but inclusion indirectly has an economic effect, especially for deaf children and adults. By enabling deaf C&YP to be included in their classrooms and society, their education and job prospects will also improve.

    It’s also quite hypocritical that the government removed any commitment to study foriegn languages at GCSE, yet now they are trying to enforce it at the other end in Primary school. Furthermore any languages taught in Primary school is likely to be taught by a generic primary school teacher and therefore quite poorly (hence the need for specialist language teachers, including for BSL).

  10. Another awful example of the Government typically taking things in a literal sense. BSL would be such a useful addition to the skill set of our youngsters. Trying to make a class of 30+ learn a random foreign language that they will probably not continue with at Secondary school seems somewhat pointless.
    Good luck to you with this one Ian, and let’s hope that Malcolm Bruce manages to raise some support within Westminster.

  11. Ian – do you know whether the same ruling applies to Welsh? Or is that given some separate status thet we can argue should also apply to BSL?

  12. I think linking Welsh with BSL is an incorrect way of addressing the issues in communication of the deaf child. It’s a diversion. We know the lip-service (No pun intended), the government gave to BSL recognition didn’t justify the paper it was printed on, it was a sop to some european directive, never legally installed, it wasn’t helped by an incorrect blanket declaration by the BDA, BSL was now on the educational agenda, it STILL Isn’t and STILL resisted. There are more issues than just deaf children’s rights (That’s a debate in itself), there are insistences children can choose how they communicate, there are parental choices, and a system of deaf education that would be fragmented if deaf children/parents were allowed to cherry pick which mode they were taught in. You would be talking basically, and if sufficient numbers were there, of deaf schools again. There are less deaf children now, No new deaf schools coming along, and no BSL curriculum even IF a majority wanted that, or the teachers to do it.

    It’s all art before the horse stuff, first create the means then the rest follows, and current views are, the deaf BSL system mooted has not the support of most PARENTS. Where do deaf activists stand on opposing parents ? They will have to face up to that. To take on parents of deaf children, to overrule them with a new BSL system, I shudder to think they would try that. I read these debates all the time, and they talk as if deaf children and their parents can be seperated entirely in the pursuit of an BSL education, it cannot work without parental consent, and the educational Depts are NOT going to ask unrelated others what THEY think is best for the deaf child.

    Deaf have tried appealing to hearing parents of deaf children to accept an BSL immersion education, they have failed every time. I think the reality has to be faced, unless an private educational system emerges, there is not much chance of the mainstream adopting a BSL education in its entirety, if one does emerge who will pay for it ? The NDCS shows little support for such a venture, they should know.

  13. Wow. I can safely say I’ve never had this many comments to a blog post before. Thanks to everyone for their comments, and for the support and spreading the word via other blogs. To respond to a few of the points raised:

    1) Interplay with Gaelic, Celtic, etc. To be honest, I’m not sure whether Gaelic would be defined as a modern foreign language, but I would guess not. One thing to bear in mind is that this proposed new law applies to England only. I would suspect that the devolved administrations have different systems in place for teaching indigenous languages.

    2) I don’t agree that BSL doesn’t help you learn another language. It has a different grammar, syntax, etc., all of the key components of a language. I remember Michael Gove MP, Conservative lead on education, saying a while back that his knowledge of English improved when he learned sign language as a child. Research from Italy also suggests that learning sign language can improve performance in educational tests and cognitive abilities in hearing children.

    3) Press coverage suggests that the requirement to learn a ‘modern foreign language’ is driven by economic interests. But as Rosie says, there are economic benefits to making BSL more mainstream. Far too many deaf children under achieve and far too many deaf adults don’t have jobs. Given the shortage of interpreters, there are also benefits to hearing people too. We also need to make sure we don’t ignore the social benefits too.

    4) NDCS believes in ‘informed choice’ and encourages parents to consider all the communication options, and to meet with deaf adults. NDCS is producing a new communication guide for parents later in the year. NDCS is also a partner in the I-Sign project to raise the status of sign language in England.

    Please keep your thoughts rolling in. NDCS now has a brief on this, which incorporates some of the points made above. You can download from our website.


  14. Regarding (3) I doubt there are ANY economic benefits to proposing BSL as a curriculum language, how ?

    Regarding (4) The NDCS ‘informed choice’ is just that, but they have no option but to accept choices (Informed or not), of parents, there is no way they can lean on the parents to TAKE other choices. There is no onus on parents to ‘consult’ others on what is best for their children. While it ‘might’ be advisable, again we are faced with who is to offer that advice ?

    Having read parental views and others (!) over the last ten years I have seen little support for an BSL education, and complete reluctance to allow cultural deaf to make demands on children who aren’t theirs. I also read of parents who have listened to cultural views and gone against still, then been attacked as being cruel to their children, this kills off any support for BSL use by default, you just do not approach the issue by attacking parental views, AFTER they have decided its not for them.

    Not a single speech therapist I have met, supported sign language. You’ve guessed it (!) because sign prevents usable SPEECH developing. Their job by definition is to PROMOTE speaking, not signing, even lip-reading teachers opposed BSL. The total medical view is that, and parents are terrified this is the reality, an BSL education ? would that further promote the uselessness of speaking ? it is prompted by an increasing number of BSL classes for HEARING People, demanding learners do not speak.

    Deaf should first perhaps attempt to convince the medical profession sign isn’t a danger to children’s speech development before ‘leaning’ on parents via some sort of emotional blackmail which we have seen in some quarters of the deaf area.

    Rather than shoot the messenger too, accept oral education alongside sign is a parental want, at least that way you allow an ‘in’ for sign. Give parents CREDIT, they aren’t stupid and not ill-informed, as a parent of a disabled child myself, I meet many the same, and NONE of us blindly accept what a GP or Consultant says any more, far from it ! I think in many respects the deaf cannot win this argument, only if the child is their own, even then finding such a system to promote deaf signing and culture via mainstream education is not on is it ? you are going to HAVE to isolate that child again to do it.

    Parents today won’t go for that any more. Deaf culture thrived on isolating deaf in deaf schools, it is little surprise activists want a return to that, but do parents ? I think not.

  15. The National Curriculum has been a disaster. It is just another example of the command and control mentality of civil servants who decide on what can and can’t be taught in schools. We all that a portion of the school curriculum should be centralised, but they’ve taken centralisation to the other extreme.

    Take French, for example, long a ‘protected’ subject in schools. Few of us use it beyond the age of 14. All those French classes, textbooks, homework, staff training for what…? To produce a few skilled graduates in French who go on to use it in business, tourism, etc. That’s fine, but it also to leaves the vast majority of pupils with a defunct language that just never gets used for the simple reason that they have no practical use for it.

    If just a fraction of that majority had been given the opportunity to learn BSL just imagine the positive impact it would have – more public and private sector workers with BSL communication skills, more volunteers, more inclusion, more opportunities for deaf adults to teach, the list goes on. But this doesn’t happen because some deluded civil servants think they know better and hate the idea of local authorities and schools taking delegated decisions.

    Certainly RNID, NDCS, BDA should speak up at the very least… We may not win this particular battle but the point should be made…

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