A GCSE in British sign language could be introduced in the UK following a campaign by a deaf schoolboy.
The government backed down on its decision to delay the introduction of the qualification after 12-year-old Daniel Jillings mounted a legal challenge.
His family’s lawyers argued the lack of a GCSE in sign language (BSL) may be “discriminatory and unlawful”.
The Department for Education initially said that no new GCSEs would be introduced during this parliament.
But following a submission from the legal team at Irwin Mitchell, which represents the family, ministers U-turned and said they would consider making “an exception” to the rule.
In its response to the legal challenge, the government said Education Secretary Damian Hinds would “consider whether to make an exception to his general policy of not introducing new GCSEs in the interests of stability for school and teachers, in respect of BSL only”.
Hinds “looks forward to continuing to work with stakeholders to promote the integration and achievement of deaf pupils,” the letter added.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said: “We will consider any proposals put forward for a GCSE in British sign language.
“As we have made clear previously, any new GCSE would need to meet the rigorous standards set by both the department and Ofqual [the education watchdog].
“If these expectations are met and a British sign language GCSE is ready to be introduced, we will then consider whether to make an exception to our general rule that there should be no new GCSEs in this parliament.”
Alex Rook, public law expert at Irwin Mitchell, said: “Daniel’s family has always maintained that deaf children such as Daniel should be able to achieve a GCSE in BSL – his first language.
“We are delighted that the government has backed down from its original position as, at present, the lack of a BSL GCSE is having a major and unnecessary impact on thousands of children each year.
“It is only right that any qualification should meet rigorous testing criteria set by the Department for Education.
“However, this announcement is a major turning point and hopefully paves the way so children such as Daniel have access to the education they deserve.”
An online crowdfunding appeal raised more than £6,000 towards the legal battle.
Daniel’s mum, Ann Jillings, said the family had been overwhelmed with support since launching the campaign.
She added: “We are not asking for any special treatment, all we want is for Daniel and other deaf children across the country to be given the same opportunities as other pupils.
“We are so pleased that the government finally appears to be recognising how big an issue this is and the announcement is another hurdle cleared. However, it is now important that the department for education acts on its pledge and works with families and sign language charities to develop a BSL GCSE so this issue can be resolved once and for all.”
Steve Haines, director of policy and campaigns at the National Deaf Children’s Society, said: “By no longer blocking the introduction of a GCSE in British Sign Language in this Parliament, the government is sending a powerful signal to deaf children everywhere.
“For so many of these children, being able to learn their first language at school is a vital move towards genuine equality.”
Haines called on ministers to roll out a new qualification as quickly as possible.
“For Daniel Jillings, and for so many of the 45,000 deaf children across the country who want to study a GCSE in British Sign Language, we need a proactive, positive attitude from the government,” he added.
“Anything less is complete dereliction of duty.”