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British Sign Language

Volume 533: debated on Monday 17 October 2011

13. What his policy is on the inclusion of British sign language as a modern foreign language option at GCSE. (74430)

I understand that an awarding organisation is considering whether to develop and pilot a GCSE in British sign language. It will be for the independent regulator, Ofqual, to consider whether any such qualification meets the appropriate criteria for being recognised as a foreign language GCSE.

I thank the Minister for that answer. As he knows, I have very strong feelings about British sign language, which offers an opportunity for people of all ages to develop their vocabulary and to expand their communication skills, and particularly for young people to develop speech and language skills, including their comprehension. It breaks down barriers for everybody, including those with significant learning disabilities. Action on Hearing Loss runs a campaign called “Read my lips”, which seeks recognition for lip-reading as an essential skill, not a leisure skill, as it is classified at the moment, and proposes that classes should be free for those with hearing loss and those who have family members—

I will indeed, Sir. Will the Minister please update me on progress on reclassifying lip-reading as an essential skill?

The hon. Lady has a long-standing interest in this subject, as I do, given my own hearing loss and my long-standing similar interest in disability issues more generally. I see British sign language as a bridge to learning and a key aid to communication, and I entirely agree that we need to look at ways to support it and to ensure that people old and young can learn to sign. There is an issue about whether we treat it in the way that the hon. Lady suggests, but I am more than happy to meet her to discuss this and see whether we can take it further.

Some deaf children have been successful in learning foreign languages, but while deaf children are behind all children as an average, they do particularly poorly in languages. Given that, and with the Government wanting foreign languages to play a greater part, what plans do they have to ensure that deaf children do not fall further behind?

I have already had meetings with the Royal National Institute for Deaf People on the subject of signing, and, as I said, I am happy to meet the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) on the subject. However, I am not absolutely sure that treating BSL as a foreign language, as the original question suggested, is the best way forward. BSL is a preferred language of many deaf people in the UK, rather than a language of a different nation or culture. Some good qualifications are already in place, but I take the point that we need to examine whether they are effective in achieving the kind of results for deaf children that they deserve so that they can fulfil their potential.