Sign of the times
With support from The Freemasons’ Grand Charity, a new GCSE in British Sign Language could open up the education system for deaf young people, writes Glyn Brown
Communication is a major part of what makes life worth living. But it isn’t always easy. Some of us can find it hard to talk to others, to understand them and transmit what we want to tell them. But if you can’t hear, the difficulty can become far more pronounced.
There is currently a groundswell movement to break through the barrier between the hearing and the deaf. But whereas places such as Scotland and Scandinavia are opening up education by teaching and promoting the use – and understanding – of sign language in schools, England and Wales are lagging way behind, which means they are missing out on the potential talent and ability of a huge number of young people.
But someone is taking a stand. Founded in 1982, Durham-based charity Signature is now the leading awarding body for qualifications in deaf and deafblind communication techniques. In a radical move, it has drawn up and is piloting a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL). Preparation has taken years, and the pilot is Signature’s next step in persuading the government that the qualification should be recognised.
The language of change
It was only in 1890 that the British Deaf Association was formed, and began advocating the use of (what was at the time revolutionary) sign language, alongside lip-reading. Suddenly, the deaf were becoming teachers and civil servants, editors and chemists. ‘Once there was a recognised form of communication, people started to realise not only that BSL was a language in its own right, with grammar and syntax, but that these people had just as much to say as hearing people,’ says Signature’s senior policy adviser Dan Sumners. ‘The turning point was when hearing people started to learn BSL and become interpreters.’
With Sweden, Finland and Norway offering sign language as part of the national curriculum, it seems out of step that BSL is currently only taught in deaf schools, community colleges or private organisations in England and Wales. Signature has tried for years to get BSL recognised as a language in its own right. Its first attempt to draft GCSE criteria in 2010 was never used, but the charity was undeterred, assembling a crack team of qualification experts, examiners and BSL teachers to draw up new GCSE content in 2014. ‘They were incredibly passionate, and relentless in making this a rigorous qualification,’ recalls Gillian Marshall-Dyson, Signature’s funding and projects coordinator.
With everything in place by July 2015, the GCSE was then offered to six schools to pilot. ‘The course provides all students with a good working knowledge of BSL,’ says Marshall-Dyson. ‘Not just that – young people love learning it. It’s physical, expressive, a totally new learning curve. They absolutely throw themselves into it.’
Making progress possible
But none of this could have been achieved without financial assistance. Researching funding, Marshall-Dyson noticed that the Freemasons have a great interest in helping children and young people, so an application for funding was submitted in late 2014. ‘On a day very early in 2015 I got into work, switched on my computer and saw an email that said, “We are pleased to be able to award you a grant of £18,000…” I was delighted to receive the news and share it with the rest of the office… In fact, the whole office came to a standstill. And I thought, how wonderful, now we really can forge ahead and bring in a brilliant team to put this groundbreaking qualification together.’
Michael Daws, a trustee of The Freemasons’ Grand Charity, has high expectations: ‘The hope is that this GCSE can take pupils beyond survival skills and into having full conversations with each other in BSL. It could be a transformative experience. But what also struck a chord with me was hearing how learning BSL can sometimes be difficult for shy children because it’s so demonstrative – try putting yourself in a position where you’re using your facial expressions and your body to talk. But learning to overcome that reticence, in a GCSE class, could help with confidence in so many ways.’
Of course, it is early days. As Sumners explains, the GCSE will be tweaked and streamlined during regular meetings of the Signature team and the pilot schools, ‘so we can make the specification as robust as possible’. Above all, the GCSE needs to be recognised by the regulating body Ofqual; only then can it be offered officially, and in all schools.
‘The first aspect of this issue is acknowledging an individual’s human rights. But the second is asking why, if we want the UK to remain strong, we wouldn’t want to use the skills of everyone in this country?’ says Sumners. ‘Someone who’s grown up profoundly deaf has an entirely different view of the world to you or me, and it’s a view that’s not being made use of. It sounds grandiose – but developing this awareness could have ramifications that, at the moment, we can’t even imagine.’
‘Someone who’s grown up profoundly deaf has an entirely different view of the world, and it’s a view that’s not being made use of.’ Dan Sumners
With 11 million people in the UK having some degree of hearing loss, education for the deaf is a key issue
‘Achievement grades in education are much lower for deaf children,’ says Dan Sumners, Signature’s senior policy adviser. ‘In the past, kids either went the deaf school route – learning sign language, which was great for developing the deaf community but constituted a barrier with mainstream society – or down the lip-reading route, where they had to try to speak, even though they couldn’t hear.’
Those who were encouraged to lip-read tend to have a low reading age and can lip-read little better than the rest of us. Gillian Marshall-Dyson, Signature’s funding and projects coordinator, adds, ‘Many schools for the deaf are now being closed, and those children are sent to mainstream schools. They struggle and can’t get the education they need, so they slip behind.’
The best way forward, says Sumners, is a mixture of communication, which is what deaf teens increasingly use. ‘They may have hearing aids or cochlear implants, they may use some sign language and do some lip-reading. For years, the assumption was that the deaf were cognitively challenged, but being deaf just means you can’t hear; it says nothing about the rest of your abilities.’