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Schools: British Sign Language

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 22 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to introduce British Sign Language into the school examination curriculum.

My Lords, the Department for Education is working to develop draft GCSE subject content for British Sign Language as soon as possible. This is a complex process and it is important that we take time to get it right. If it proves possible to meet the requirements that apply to all GCSEs, the department will consider whether to make an exception to its general rule and allow a new GCSE to be introduced during this Parliament.

I thank the Minister for that helpful reply, and I declare an interest as the father of a profoundly deaf daughter and as holding an honorary position on a number of charities for deaf people. As the Minister will acknowledge, sign language is the principal language for tens of thousands of people and all those with whom they have relationships. Having a GCSE in it, as an academic subject, will help people understand the communication challenges deaf people face, broaden the number of people who have an understanding of it and provide a pool for the basis of training sign language interpreters, who are the means of bridging the gap between the hearing community and the deaf community.

I note the noble Lord’s interest. The Government fully recognise the benefits that a British Sign Language GCSE would bring to the deaf community. I wish I was in a position to give the noble Lord a more definitive timeline. However, as I have said, the process of developing a new GCSE is complex. Typically, it takes at least two years from the start of a reform process to the first teaching of a new GCSE. In this case, it might take longer, as there has not been a GCSE in BSL previously.

While welcoming the Minister’s answer, I wonder whether he would be willing to have a wider consultation, in which I personally could be involved. He may be aware that only 27,000 of Britain’s 11.5 million deaf people use sign language, and that the remainder need a whole lot more speech therapy, which includes both sorts of communication. The difficulty of sign language is that it does not create sentences, let alone paragraphs and pages, so children using it cannot enter the national curriculum. Investment in speech therapy is surely the way forward, because it enables children and young people to speak and communicate, visually and orally.

I appreciate the detail that my noble friend has given. I would like to add to it, because there are complexities here. For example, GCSEs in other languages require students to demonstrate the four skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening; in BSL there are only two skills: production and reception. We also need to address the question of whether the GCSE would be aimed at students for whom BSL is their first language or at those learning it from scratch. This will have a significant impact on the level of difficulty at which it is pitched.

My Lords, there was a time when deaf children were punished for using sign language in schools. We have come a long way since then, but will the noble Lord comment on the outcomes for deaf children in the current educational system? We know that they are not very good at all, and I urge the Government to reflect on that. I welcome the review they are undertaking, but I hope they are prepared to make this decision, which would be a huge boost to many young deaf people.

The noble Lord is correct in that. Our vision for children with a hearing impairment, or any special educational need, is the same as it is for all children and young people. As the noble Lord will know, schools have to make best endeavours—it is a legal expression—to look after those with special needs; they have a duty to do this. By and large, schools adhere to this, but I am sure that more could be done, and I very much take note of what the noble Lord says.

My Lords, will the Government take into the account that other types of technology are available—for example, text message? That has been very beneficial to the deaf community, both those who use sign language and those who do not. When the Government are devising this curriculum, will they look at how they can use it to interface with the other types of technological support out there? If this is narrowed down to being a traditional GCSE, we will miss an opportunity.

Again, it is helpful to have some expert input. I know that in developing this GCSE—if it goes ahead—work has been done between Signature, the DfE and Ofqual. The SEN code of practice makes it clear that children and young people with special educational needs should be helped to prepare not just for school but for adult life.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, spoke of course with great authority when she highlighted the gulf between the number of people in this country who are deaf or hard of hearing and those who are British Sign Language users. So I welcome what the noble Viscount said about the DfE working to develop subject content for a sign language GCSE.

It is now 16 years since the Labour Government gave British Sign Language official status as a language. The next Labour Government are committed to introducing a British Sign Language Act, which will go a step further and ensure that it is allowed in schools and that, as with other languages, British Sign Language users are able to access education in their first language. This should not be party political issue, so will the noble Viscount undertake to press his party to mirror that commitment to British Sign Language legislation for schools?

I will not be drawn into making any commitment, but I say again that the department takes this extremely seriously. The process is well under way but as I said at the beginning, it is complex. The department reviewed a proposal from the exam board for a BSL GCSE in November 2018. After considering that initial proposal, it confirmed in February 2019 that it would begin the process of developing draft subject content. We think that is the right way forward at present.