Today (September 23) marks the first ever International Day of Sign Languages, as declared by the UN. The day will now be marked annually, as part of the International Week of the Deaf. In the UK, campaigns to increase the uptake of British Sign Language (BSL) in schools, including potentially through a GCSE in England, are currently gaining in strength.

BSL was officially recognised by the Government for the first time in 2003, in a statement by the then Work and Pensions Secretary, Andrew Smith, to Parliament, following campaigns by deaf and sign language organisations that stretched back to the 1980s.

Sign Language and hearing loss in the UK

The charity Action on Hearing Loss states that there are 50,000 children with hearing loss in the UK. Around half are born with hearing loss while the other half lose their hearing during childhood. The charity also states that there are 11 million people with hearing loss across the UK, around one in six, and estimates that this will rise to 15.6 million people, or one in five, by 2035, owing to an ageing population.

Action on Hearing Loss estimate that there are at least 24,000 people across the UK who use BSL as their main language. Irish Sign Language is used alongside BSL in Northern Ireland (as well as in the Republic). In Wales, the voluntary organisation Mudiad Meithrin has begun teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children BSL through the medium of Welsh, rather than spoken English.

Teaching British Sign Language in schools

Education policy is devolved, and BSL is not part of any national curriculum in the UK.

Reforms relating to BSL are at different stages in the four countries of the UK:

  • The prospect of placing BSL on the National Curriculum in England has repeatedly been raised in the Westminster Parliament. Recently a petition to Make British Sign Language part of the National Curriculum attracted more than 35,000 signatures, and was debated in Parliament in March 2018. The Government does not currently plan to introduce BSL to the curriculum, although schools may choose to offer it themselves. Academy schools, which make up more than two thirds of secondary schools, are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum.
  • The Scottish Government launched its British Sign Languages (BSL) National Plan 2017-2023 in October 2017. The plan promises that by 2020 an initial suite of awards in BSL will be developed, to form the basis for any future development of BSL qualifications, up to pre-university level.
  • In Wales, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, stated in June 2017 that the ongoing Welsh curriculum reforms included BSL alongside other languages, as part of its broader discussions relating to languages, literacy and communication.
  • In Northern Ireland, both British and Irish Sign Languages are used. A framework for promoting Sign Language in Northern Ireland was published in March 2016, and a consultation on the framework closed in July 2016. However, no further progress has been made following the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017.

A British Sign Language GCSE in England?

Campaigns are underway for the creation of a GCSE in BSL in England, including from Signature, an awarding body for deaf communication qualifications, which is proposing to develop a GCSE programme.

During the March 2018 debate in Parliament, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb set out that the Government did not plan to introduce any new subjects at GCSE level during the current Parliament, although it was open to a BSL GCSE in the longer term. The bar on new qualifications was intended to allow schools a period of stability, following wide-ranging reforms to GCSEs that have taken place in recent years.

However, the Government recently reversed this position. The Schools Minister stated the Government was prepared to make an exception to the broader prohibition and consider proposals for a GCSE in BSL more quickly than previously indicated, opening the door for a GCSE to be introduced ahead of 2022. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, confirmed this in a Westminster Hall debate on deaf children’s services on 13 September 2018.

What next?

The Government’s change of position does not mean that a GCSE qualification will automatically be created or approved. Independent exam boards need to submit prospective GCSEs to Ofqual for accreditation and creation.

During the March 2018 debate on BSL, the Schools Minister drew attention to difficulties that the Government has had in sustaining language provision at GCSE level, stating that the Government had a “huge battle” with the exam boards to retain GCSE provision in less-spoken languages, such as Arabic, Japanese, and Polish.

To become a reality, a GCSE in BSL would need to be created by an independent provider and approved using these processes. Recent reforms to GCSEs have sought to create a demanding standard for approval, with several subjects discontinued. If a GCSE in BSL was established, it would be up to schools to decide whether they offer it to their pupils.

Further reading

Deaf children’s services, House of Commons Library.

General Debate on Deafness and Hearing Loss, House of Commons Library.

Robert Long is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in education.