British Sign Language (BSL) is a rich, diverse and beautiful language – as complex and nuanced as any other. It has intonation, expression, humour, horror, sadness, all conveyed through an intricate play between hand shapes, facial expression, lip patterns and subtle shifts in posture and position.
But despite BSL being the first language of an estimated 70,000 people in Britain, deaf people who use it face huge obstacles in their day to day lives.
After deaf young people shared their stories with us and showed their anger at not being able to study sign language at school, we worked with them to create a campaign to get a new GCSE in BSL. It has been an official language in the UK since 2003 and offers the same cultural depth as any language currently taught at GCSE.
We launched a report written by deaf young people showing that 92% of children - both hearing and deaf - thought there should be a GCSE in sign language. We’ve worked with deaf campaigners. MP’s debated it in Parliament. We took families with deaf children to meet Ministers and passionately argue their case. We’ve spoken across the country to the media about why deaf children deserve the right to get a qualification in their first language.
Now, just over a year after launching the #RightToSign campaign, we are one step closer to getting a GCSE in BSL.
After tireless campaigning from thousands of deaf young people, the School’s Minister Nick Gibb has confirmed the Government is now willing to consider the creation of a new GCSE in sign language. On top of this, he has said both the exams regulator Ofqual and the Department for Education will consider any proposals from the exam body Signature, or indeed any other which wants to take this forward.
Ofqual and the Department for Education now need to work together with exam bodies like Signature to develop this BSL GCSE. It must be a rigorous qualification and meet the necessary criteria set by the Government so that it can be rolled out in all of those schools up and down the country which want to teach it.
This isn’t going to be an easy or short process. It will take time for the qualification to be trialled, tested, refined and prepared for roll out. But it is welcome news that the Government is listening to deaf children, and is willing to work with them to make sure they can gain a qualification which recognises an essential, intrinsic part of their identity. It will also allow hearing children to learn a beautiful language and communicate more effectively with British Sign Language users. But on top of this, it will also let children gain a deeper understanding of deaf culture, history and identity.
Today’s success is by no means the end of the road. Too many deaf children fail to achieve their potential at school. Too many local authorities are cutting back on the specialist teachers these children rely on. New research shows that this year alone, a third of councils are cutting £4million from the budgets for deaf children’s services. So while we celebrate the Government heading in the right direction, we still need to be as clear eyed and as hardnosed as ever to make sure no deaf child is let down and left behind.