This House of Commons Library briefing provides an overview of the current rules and recent reforms to relationships and sex education in English schools.
Petition 200000, Make British Sign Language part of the National Curriculum, which is currently open, has at the time of writing received over 27,000 signatures. The petition states:
Around 50,000 people in the UK use British Sign Language, so why is this not taught in schools? There are many children who are born deaf, and we need to give them a better chance at a more integrated future. This is why BSL needs to be taught in schools.
As the petition has received over 10,000 signatures, the Government has responded. The Petitions Committee was not happy with the initial response, and asked the Government for a further response to address the request.
The revised response states:
BSL was recognised as a language in its own right by the UK government in 2003. Whilst it is not a mandatory part of the curriculum, schools are free to teach it if they choose to do so.
We recognise that BSL is a useful tool for deaf people and is the first or preferred language of an estimated 70,000 deaf people in the UK. BSL has been recognised by the government as a language in its own right since March 2003. There are existing accredited BSL qualifications including a Level 1 award, Level 2, 3 and 4 certificates and a Level 6 NVQ certificate. The Level 1 and 2 qualifications, equivalent to GCSE grades A*-G or 9-1, have the highest take up. Schools are free to enter pupils for these awards at any point in their school career. We are also aware that the 2015 Consortium for Research into Deaf Education survey of teachers of the deaf in the UK showed that the vast majority (around 86%) of deaf children use spoken language as their main language in schools.
We have no plans to change the current national curriculum for schools. The national curriculum has been designed to focus on the essential knowledge that must be taught, allowing teachers to take greater control over the wider curriculum in schools and how it is taught. It is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications.
Although education is a devolved matter, British Sign Language is not part of any national curriculum in the UK.
There have been several campaigns and petitions to make BSL part of the curriculum: for instance, Signature, a body which awards deaf communication qualifications in the UK, is both developing and campaigning for the teaching of a sign language GCSE. During the 2015-17 Parliament, petition 178095 on the subject received nearly 35,000 signatures before it was closed due to the election.
The following recent PQ response set out the Government’s position on BSL on the curriculum in England:
Asked by: Peacock, Stephanie | Party: Labour Party
To ask the Secretary of State for Education, pursuant to the Answer of 17 September 2017 to Question 112129, on sign language: GCSE, whether a Level 2 qualification in British Sign Language would be accepted as equivalent to a GCSE for the English Baccalaureate.
Nick Gibb: The Government is committed to the education of all children and young people with special educational needs or a disability, including those with a hearing impairment.
As part of the GCSE reform process, which began in 2011, the Government carried out equality impact assessments at every stage of its review. We expect the reformed GCSEs to remain universal qualifications and therefore accessible for all, with good teaching and applying reasonable adjustments where appropriate. The Government has no current plans to consider new GCSEs.
Qualifications which are not GCSEs or AS levels do not count towards the English Baccalaureate, which is a performance measure for schools.
Westminster Hall debate
A broader debate on Deafness and Hearing Loss, including educational issues, was held in Westminster Hall on 30 November 2017 [see HC Deb 30 Nov 2017 c198-242WH]. Several Members spoke in favour of a BSL GCSE.
Support for BSL classes and the ‘local offer’
The National Deaf Children’s Society (NCDS) website provides information on financial support that may be available in England for BSL classes. As it sets out, under the ongoing reforms relating to special education needs and disability (SEND), local authorities should have a ‘local offer’ in place setting out the services that are available for children and young people locally with SEND, as well as their parents and carers. Free or subsidised BSL classes might be included in this offer; that decision is, however, at the discretion of local authorities.
It is important to note that the development of a local offer is intended to be an ongoing process, with local offers developed and revised over time through regular review and consultation.
Background information on the local offer and SEN support as a whole is available in the relevant Library briefing, Special Educational Needs: support in England, SN07020.
BSL in Scottish schools
The Scottish Government launched its British Sign Languages (BSL) National Plan 2017-2023 on 24 October 2017. This was required by the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015.
The National Plan includes a section on “School Education”. Amongst other things, this promises that Scottish Minister will by 2020:
Work with the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to develop an initial suite of awards in BSL, which will form the basis for any future development of BSL qualifications up to Level 6 of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF).
Instruct Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (SCILT) to lead a programme of work to support BSL learning for hearing pupils. This will include, but will not be limited to:
a) making sure that education authorities and schools know that BSL can be part of the language offer in schools under the 1+2 language policy.
b) Gathering detailed information on where and how BSL is being offered in schools as part of the 1+2 language policy, and update this information regularly.
c) Gathering and sharing examples of good practice in teaching BSL to hearing pupils as part of 1+2, and make sure there is guidance to support this.
Assemble an expert advisory group to support this work. This will include recommendations for a longer term strategy to support the teaching of BSL to hearing pupils, and gathering data to measure progress. This will be led by SCILT, and will report to the Scottish Government by 2020.
A statement on BSL from the Welsh Government on 20th October 2016 noted that the Welsh Government had recognised BSL as a language since January 2004 since when it has “supported training to increase the number of qualified interpreters in Wales, and ensured that legislation, politics and programme across the Welsh Government recognise the importance of accessible communications to everyone”.
With regard to education specifically, this statement said the following:
The Welsh Government is also committed to meeting the educational needs of Deaf learners in order that they may reach their full potential. As part of our Additional Learning Needs (ALN) Transformation Programme, we will shortly be introducing legislation. The Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Bill, which the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language expects to bring forward before Christmas, will create an improved system for children with ALN. The Bill has fairness and equity at its core and aims to ensure all learners are supported to reach their full potential.
Since then, the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 has come into force following Royal Assent on 24 January 2018. This, however, makes no specific provision for BSL in schools.
A recent initiative was launched in January which aims to teach BSL to young children under the age of 4 through the Welsh language. It is run by Mudiad Meithrin, a voluntary early years care organisation, and is funded by the University of Bangor Widening Access Programme. According to a BBC report, this also aims to make signing in Welsh a “modern” language on the Welsh Joint Education Committee’s GCSE, AS, and A2 syllabus. The same BBC report notes, however, that there are concerns about the low number of qualified deaf-signing teachers and that 85% of dead children in Welsh schools do not have SEN provisions.
The latest statement from the Welsh Government was made in June 2017 in response to a WAQ which asked about the introduction of BSL into the curriculum in Wales:
The Area of Learning and Experience relating to Languages, Literacy and Communication is being designed and developed by a group of pioneer schools which includes representation from special schools.
This group has included British Sign Language alongside other languages in its discussion of the Area of Learning and Experience’s scope and boundaries. This development and design is ongoing.
Work on the high-level design of the Areas of Learning and Experience began in January. As part of the pioneer network, special schools are involved in the design and development of the new curriculum, representing the needs of deaf and hearing impaired learners.
Stakeholders are being engaged during the development of the Areas of Learning and Experience. British Sign Language is one of the areas on which the pioneer network will seek advice.
I recognise the importance of ensuring we have an education workforce that is skilled and confident in meeting a wide range of additional learning needs (ALN), including those with hearing impairments. Local authorities (LAs) are responsible for ensuring suitable educational provision for all children. This includes ensuring BSL is available to a child whose needs have been identified as requiring such provision to enable them to access the curriculum.
The Welsh Government has recently announced a £20m package of funding to support implementation of the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Bill and delivery of the wider ALN Transformation Programme. A substantial amount of the £20m will be targeted at workforce development, to ensure practitioners are fully equipped to deliver the new ALN system.
We have engaged with teachers of the deaf and are aware of pressure on LAs, including specialist teacher numbers. In partnership with the WLGA we are collecting data from Heads of Service on specialist workforce issues, including BSL. This data will provide us with the intelligence needed to understand the issues and actions required. […]
The Welsh Government does not collect data on the number of deaf pupils in Wales receiving designated BSL lessons. […]
In Northern Ireland, people who are deaf communicate via Irish Sign Language (ISL) as well as BSL. Both were recognised as languages in March 2004 by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy.
In December 2015, the Northern Ireland Minister for Culture, Carál Ní Chuilín, announced that the Executive would published and consult on a framework for promoting Sign Language in Northern Ireland. This Framework was published subsequently in March 2016.
It includes the following objectives with regard to education:
3 To provide a sustainable supply of Sign Language Teachers, Sign Language Interpreters and Translators
To provide for the continuing education requirements of deaf children and young people from pre-school through to third level education through the medium of ISL/BSL
With regard to BSL and ISL in schools, the Framework proposed the following actions:
3.15 In order to have the same rights, responsibilities, opportunities and quality of life as everyone else, education through the medium of Sign must be provided to users of sign language(s). Children who use Sign as their first language often do not have access to their linguistic medium. It is a matter of urgency that this is addressed. This further requires that adequate training and professionalism of Teachers for the Deaf be provided. The acceptance of Sign as an appropriate language for use in education signifies its value in the wider world.
3.16 No hearing community would tolerate their children being educated solely by those who cannot communicate with or understand their children. Yet Deaf children with normal cognitive ability are expected to function in just this environment. Without continued sign language intervention throughout their education there is a high probability that the deaf child will struggle academically.
3.17 In addition to such intervention for deaf children, sign language can also be introduced to hearing children at primary and secondary school levels. A BSL GCSE is currently being piloted in England which presents the opportunity that it could be added to curriculum in schools in the north of Ireland. The PGCE course for Deaf ISL/BSL Teachers in the University of Ulster presents the ideal opportunity to develop this initiative with schools which have accepted placements of these PGCE student teachers and may choose to specialise in BSL or ISL. Such mainstreaming of sign language in schools would have the dual benefits of improving the academic achievement and life outcomes of deaf students plus creating a potential pool of future tutors of sign language and interpreters which would build a sustainable infrastructure of support for ISL/BSL users.
The consultation on this Framework closed in July 2016, but there has not been any further action.
The Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Bill 2019-20 was introduced by Mike Amesbury MP following the Private Members' Bills Ballot on 9 January 2020. The Bill is supported by the Government.
This briefing has been updated following the release of examination results in summer 2020.