Update: BSL still not equal in status to other languages, said Government

Image courtesy of http://www.blanchenevile.org.uk

Those with long memories might remember from a previous blog posting that the Government was proposing to introducing new laws which would require primary school children to learn a moderen foreign language. The National Deaf Children’s Society felt that these would discourage schools from teaching British Sign Language (BSL) and didn’t gave BSL the same status as modern foreign languages.

Do you want the good news first? Well, the proposals to make primary school children learn a new language were abandoned by the Government a few weeks back, just before Parliament was dissolved for the general election.

The bad news? The proposals weren’t abandoned because of a change of heart, but to get other new laws through in the short term then available. Judging by correspondence from around the same time, the Government hasn’t really changed its mind on BSL. Warm words aside, the Government is sticking to its definition of languages, not realising that the creation of a definition of languages which excludes BSL is arbitrary and therefore, discriminatory. As well as offensive to those who communicate in BSL. Why is BSL less valuable than Welsh or Mandarin that schools shouldn’t be free to teach it in schools if they want to do so?

Because there is no change of heart, it means that these proposals could return to Parliament, depending on the outcome of the general election. I’m on red alert.

More detail from NDCS on the issue is on their website. In the meantime, what are your views? What are your thoughts on how to make the decision-makers realise that, duh!, BSL should have the same status as other modern foreign languages?


Update: BSL not equal to other languages, says Government

Image courtesy of http://www.blanchenevile.org.uk

A while ago I blogged about how the Children, Schools and Families Bill might discourge primary schools from the option of teaching British Sign Language if they want to. NDCS has been exchanging a lot of emails recently with the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) to try and get to the bottom of this.

The good news is that DCSF officials have been willing to engage with us and respond to our questions, which is much appreciated. The bad news is that I completely disagree with pretty much everything they’ve said on this issue.

Going through the arguments, they’ve used…

DCSF say: BSL is not a “modern foreign language”.

I say: The definition in the Bill of language as a “modern foreign language” is arbitrary. BSL is as ‘foreign’ to the English language as is Welsh, which officials have confirmed would be permissible as a modern foreign language.

DCSF say: They want to exclude ‘dead’ languages, like Latin,

I say: Why not just use the definition “modern languages” then?

DCSF say: The proposed programme of study is to require students to “speak” and “listen” in another language

I say: This is a narrow and arbitrary definition of what learning a language involves. BSL is still a language even though it does not involve speaking or listening. BSL does, however, require students to demonstrate productive and receptive skills – that should be regarded as equally important as ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’. Besides, you don’t need to physically speak or listen to a language to understand it. I got a pretty good grade in my French GCSE and I’m as deaf as a dodo.

DCSF say: The proposed programme of study aims to enable children to develop understanding of everyday life, traditions and cultures in other countries.

I say: Aaaarrrghh! Clearly, DCSF have missed the memo about there being such a thing as a deaf community, with its own everyday life, traditions and cultures. Besides, aren’t there other benefits to BSL being more mainstream, like creating a more inclusive and welcoming society that values disabled people, that are as valuable and as important and learning a new foreign language?

DCSF say: A school can still teach BSL, just not as a modern foreign language.

I say: Schools will have to disapply the curriculum or find extra time within the curriculum to teach it in addition to a modern foreign language. I don’t think primary schools have oodles of time. Besides, we’re missing the key point of principle: that BSL should have the same status as other languages.

The Children, Schools and Families Bill has moved to the Lords, where we’re hoping to get this issue raised there. NDCS has just updated their briefing on this issue – which you can download from their website. And watch this space for more info.

Government to discourage teaching of sign language in primary schools?

Image courtesy of http://www.blanchenevile.org.uk

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.

New sign language project launches

Back in February 2008, Malcolm Bruce MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness in Westminster, asked Gordon Brown during Prime Minister’s Questions about support for sign language users. Fast forward to today and a consortium of deaf organisations were formally launching the I-sign project and celebrating £800,000 of investment from the Department for Children, Schools and Families to undergo work to raise the status of sign language in England.

I think the i-sign project is a really important and innovative project. It’s been going since early this year and brings together various strands of work which different organisations are leading on, including NDCS, BDA, Signature, RNID and others. NDCS is leading on developing a family sign language website to help families of deaf children learn useful signs for engaging with their deaf child. And we’re taking a close interest in the work being undertaken by Signature to develop a qualifications framework for communication support workers. It’s a two year project with ambitions to become self-sustaining. It’s quite refreshing to see different deaf organisations joining forces in this way.

The new Minister for special educational needs, Diana Johnson came along to the event to lend her support and meet some families of deaf children. She was quoted as saying:

“Overcoming the communication barriers experienced by deaf children is key to ensuring they get the best education possible. The Government is committed to providing parents and the school workforce the communication support they need to ensure deaf children fulfil their potential. I am delighted that we are funding such an innovative and exciting project. Developing qualifications for teachers and providing interactive materials for parents to learn sign language will help deaf children communicate effectively both at home and at school.”

And our deaf work experience student, Paul, ended up giving a short speech in front of the Minister about his own experiences growing up as a sign language user. Probably not what he expected when he joined NDCS for the summer – but we like to keep our interns on their toes…

Overall, a good day for deaf children.

Boost for BSL

Well, yesterday was a pretty dismal rainy bank holiday Monday in London. I spent much of the day wondering if the Eurovision results indicated that the prevalance of deafness in Europe was higher than anyone had ever previously suspected. I was badly looking for a silver lining to the clouds.

And I found it in this BBC news article where Lord Adonis announced more help for deaf children whose first language is British Sign Language (BSL). The BBC doesn’t quite give the whole background behind this story – as well as supporting deaf children in the classrooms with more communication support workers, the funding of nearly £1 million for a project on BSL will also help secure more sign language classes aimed at families.

It’s another good news campaign story for the NDCS and other deaf organisations and individuals, as it followed some sustained lobbying to promote BSL in the classroom and family life for all those children for which sign language is the appropriate communication option. It also follows a trip to Downing Street by NDCS and other deaf organisations to harass the big man himself. Here’s the family photo from that day out.

So what next? From my point of view, we now need to make sure the project for which funding has been provided delivers results that really make a difference to deaf children who sign and their families. We also need to make sure that families whose deaf children do not sign also get the communication support they need. And, of course, there are lots of deaf people out there who feel that the best way of raising the status of BSL is to push for a BSL Act that gives greater legal rights to BSL users.

What do you think? As always, grateful for your comments and thoughts.