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.

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Will new pupil and parent guarantees make a difference for deaf children?

A busy week doing campaign work on audiology training, access to exams and British Sign Language in primary schools. In an attempt to try and juggle four things at the same time, I also wrote up a draft National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS) consultation response on the Department for Children, Schools and Families’ proposed new pupil and parent guarantees for schools in England.

The guarantees are basically a write up of existing and new entitlements for children and parents in schools. So, for example, if a child is falling behind, the pupil is “guaranteed” catch up support. The guarantees detail how you can ‘claim’ your entitlements.

Usually when I write consultations responses, I end up saying something lilke: “Hello?! One in five children have a special educational need?! Duh!” in light of the often zero consideration of the needs of children, such as deaf children. But this consultation was refreshingly different – the needs of children with special educational needs or disabilities, and their entitlements, was referenced throughout. It is the first time I can recall seeing a government document about all children really “mainstream” the needs of children who need extra support. My draft consultation response is therefore generally supportive and positive, a new and unsettling experience for me.

As for the policy, people have mixed views on it. The “guarantees” alone won’t guarantee that every deaf child gets the support they need. But they could be a powerful means to an end? Where deaf children are falling behind, parents now have a new mechanism to make a fuss about it and demand they get more help. The proof will be in the pudding but it adds a new weapon to our armoury when battling to get better education for deaf children.

But what do you think? NDCS is inviting views on our draft response so let us know if you agree/disagree, or if there is any key point that we’ve missed. You can read the draft response via the NDCS website. Deadline for comments is the 19th March.

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.

Are social care services meeting the needs of deaf children?

There was a striking story in the papers yesterday about a NSPCC statement that at least 60 children are sexually abused a day. It reminded me of separate statistics suggesting that deaf children are at least twice as likely to be abused than other children – not because they’re deaf, but because the communication barriers that deafness imposes may make it harder for deaf children to say what is happening or because they may be perceived to be an ‘easy target’. Fortunately, it’s still very rare.

NDCS is doing lots of work in the first half of this year over social care services for deaf children – not just to prevent abuse, but to ensure deaf children and their families get the support they need. For example, to get specialist equipment like flashing fire alarms and arrange communication classes for the whole family. Research to be published in late February is expected to show that most don’t, despite the fact that deaf children are recognised in law as “children in need”.

Five years ago, the Government recognised this and recommended that Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards conduct a review of local social care services for every deaf child in their area. To NDCS’s knowledge, to date, none of them have done so. NDCS has had some initial conversations with officials with Department for Children, Schools and Families about how we can make sure these reviews happen, five years on, and hopefully this is something we’ll be working together on. There’s also a couple of consultations NDCS intends to respond to.

If you’ve got a deaf child now, how much contact and support have you had from social care services? Does the support meet your needs? NDCS is looking for examples – good and bad – of how social care services work with families of deaf children. If you’d like to share your experiences in confidence, drop us a line at campaigns@ndcs.org.uk or leave a message below.

New data about deaf children published

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A few weeks back, the Department for Children, Schools and Families published a report with lots of data about children with special educational needs. For a geek like me, it was a dream come true. Pages and pages of spreadsheets and percentages and important footnotes to pore over. Sigh…

Anyhow, the report had its origins in the Special Educational Needs (Information) Act 2008. Sharon Hodgson MP pushed hard for this and NDCS was among a group of charities lobbying hard for it. The Act aims to shine a spotlight on special educational needs in the hope of galvanising Government to take action to improve outcomes. The report brings together lots of information for the first time on children who have been formally recognised as having a special educational need (i.e those who have a formal statement of need or who have been placed at ‘school action plus’ and are getting extra help that way). So it doesn’t include information on all deaf children, and needs to be used with caution, etc. but what information it does have makes for fascinating reading (assuming you’re a geek like me). And also depressing, when you see the full extent of the poorer outcomes that deaf children experience.

A few of the interesting statistics that I’ve picked up so far include…

* In 2009, there were 14,770 deaf children formally identified as needing support. 500 more than last year.

* There are more boys recorded as having a hearing impairment: 7670 boys to 7100 girls.

* More analysis needed but it appears that children from an Asian background are more likely to have a hearing impairment. Of all Asian children with a statement, 7.8% were hearing impaired, compared to 2.5% for white children with a statement.

* The number of deaf children recorded drops dramatically at the age of 16. At age 15, there are 570 children with a hearing impairment with statements, dropping to 240 at age 16. We’re left wondering what happens to these children; whether they leave school, continue in further education with support or cease to receive any support at all.

* 4.9% of deaf children recorded are likely were defined as persistent absentees in 2007-08, compared to 2.4% of children with no identified need. Deaf girls are more likely to be defined as persistent absentees than deaf boys.

And that’s just for starters. Much of the data raises more questions than it answers. But this is not necessarily a bad thing before – the lack of any data before meant that we didn’t know what questions we needed to be asking.

I’m off on holiday next week – don’t worry, I won’t be taking the spreadsheets with me for holiday reading – but am looking forward to looking through the data in more detail and getting a full report on NDCS’s website. In the meantime, what do you think of the data so far? Anything surprising or particularly shocking in there? Anything missing you really want to know?

How the acoustics campaign victory woz won

VictoryWell, it’s been two weeks now since we won the campaign victory on acoustics and the Government announced a package of measures to improve acoustics in new schools. So how did it all happen? Having mused and reflected upon it, here are what I think were the five key ingredients behind the campaign success:

1) Getting good media coverage. We were fortunate that the Times Educational Supplement, which is read avidly by civil servants and Ministers at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, were keen to follow the campaign throughout the year and to keep highlighting the issue with stories popping up in January on the launch of the campaign, May about support from other disability charities and, more recently, in October about a new school with poor acoustics.

2) Getting the message out to MPs and peers. We invested lots of time and effort in making MPs aware of the campaign, encouraging them to sign a parliamentary petition and to write to the Department to demand action. We couldn’t have done this without our supporters taking action and writing to their MP to check they were on board. In total, nearly 600 emails or letters were sent to MPs and the Government on acoustics by our supporters. It helped that we had a simple message that was easy for MPs to understand and get on board, all of which ensured we had a cross-party army of supporters within Parliament…

3) Making sure deaf young people led the way. Of course, one of reasons why so many MPs were keen to support the campaign is that they had attended a parliamentary event we arranged in June and met with a group of deaf young people to hear about their own personal experiences of poor acoustics, and why action is needed. The same group also appeared on the telly on BBC2 programme See Hear to demand action. They made a powerful appeal for action which was difficult for MPs and the Government to ignore.

4) Making sure we developed a strong case for action. Whether it was doing our own survey of local authorities to confirm that too many new schools were being built with poor acoustics or commissioning research from a school in Essex to show the dramatic impact that improved acoustics can have, we were keen to make sure that our briefings to Government were backed up by a compelling set of facts, pointing to a problem that needs to be solved.

5) Negotiations over a possible law change. Having got lots of attention from MPs and peers, several were keen to try and get the law changed to improve acoustics. Baroness Wilkins, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Deafness, tabled an amendment to the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill. We were quite lucky in a way; the Government was already behind schedule on this Bill and were keen to reduce the amount of time spent on debates in the House of Lords. But a good campaign exploits any luck and opportunities that presents itself. And so we entered into a game of brinkmanship and a series of negotiations to agree to a deal whereby the Department agreed to acoustic testing in exchange for the amendment being withdrawn. We ended up getting a good package that surpassed our expectations of what we could realistically achieve.

All in all, a good result for deaf children and lots of lessons to take forward to the next big campaign! I can’t chose but any thoughts on which was the most important factor out of this five?

Campaign victory for deaf children on acoustics!

Happy day!

After months of lobbying and weeks of nail-biting negotiations, the Government has today announced a new package of measures to improve acoustics in new schools. We’ve been calling for a new legal requirement for all new schools to be tested. What we’ve got is:

* A new contractual requirement for all secondary schools to be tested as part of the Government’s Building Schools for the Future programme.
* A new condition of funding – no more money for local authorities for new schools unless they can show that recently built schools are compliant with government standards on acoustics.
* An intention to consult on a legal requirement for all new schools to be tested in the future.

So, in practice, nearly all new schools will end up being tested. We’ve been promised a list of the small number that aren’t captured by the above – so we’ll know their names, and where they live…

Lots of follow up work to do now to spread the word… But come back soon for the insider info on how it all happened.