Parliamentary debate on British sign language being a part of the national curriculum

Monday, 5th March 2018, was a historic day for two reasons. Firstly, The Silent Child, a British film featuring a four-year-old profoundly deaf girl who learnt to communicate by sign language, won an Oscar for Best live action Short film.  Secondly, this was the first time that BSL had been used in Parliament; as part of a parliamentary debate on a very important issue affecting the deaf community and families of deaf children – British sign language being a part of the national curriculum.

This was a strong debate with support from all MPs in attendance, who saw it as a consensual debate, with all Ministers pushing for the same thing.

It was unanimous, with Ministers agreeing that BSL should be offered as a part of the national curriculum as a GCSE, with each Minister’s comment describing the reasons for it to happen and the benefits it would offer deaf people in the UK.


Deaf Children are given equal opportunities


Liz Twist, MP for Blaydon, said, “the barrier was taken down in Hollywood last night; now we need to begin working on taking down the barrier in Westminster.” 

This was echoed by other Minister who showed concerns about how Members of Parliament communicate with their deaf constituents, that deaf children were not being given an equal opportunity to education and that despite there being an Equality Act, the Government aren’t taking responsibility for ensuring that this happens within Parliament.

In 2014, 41.3% of deaf children attained five GCSEs at grades A* – C, compared to 69.3% of children with no identified special educational needs.  This is a difference of 22.6% combined with a 14% reduction of teachers of the deaf.


Benefits to both deaf and hearing children


A report written in 2016/2017 by the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Youth Advisory Board and Signature featured 2000 children, 700 deaf children and 1400 hearing children.

Of that 2000 children, 91% would like to learn BSL, 92% stated that schools should offer BSL as part of the national curriculum, and 97% stated that BSL should be taught in schools.

This further supports that offering a BSL GCSE would not only hugely benefit deaf children, who could gain a qualification in their first language, but also hearing children.

Over the past number of years, deaf schools have continued to close, meaning that deaf children are now being taught in mainstream environments. If hearing children were offered the opportunity to learn BSL at school, deaf children would have much better access to their education and peers.

Although the debate was focused on British sign language being a part of the national curriculum, as each MP presented, they each identified a different issue that affected deaf people in society.  This made it very clear what a positive impact having a BSL GCSE would bring.

An example of this was a chronic shortage of BSL interpreters. If there were a GCSE in BSL, more people would be encouraged to continue studying and go through training to become a BSL interpreter, therefore reducing the shortage.

If there were more BSL interpreters, deaf people would have better access to employment with the opportunity of gaining more senior positions.

The more people learn BSL through education, the more access deaf people will have to wider society.


Scotlands view


Carol Monaghan, MP Glasgow North-West, described the work that the Scottish Government have undertaken since the BSL Scotland Bill was passed in 2015.  She explained that the Scottish government looked at how barriers are created and how barriers are removed, and this is underpinning all the work that they are doing.  They have a national strategy; with an aim to become the best place in the world for deaf people to live. They have allocated £1.3 million of public funding to achieve this.  From this bill, they have put together a BSL National Plan for Scotland, which has a total of 70 actions and an aim that by 2020, they will be improving the lives of those who use British Sign Language.

Here’s a link for the BSL National plan:


Some of the activities and projects outlined in the BSL National plan are:

  • Investigate whether teachers and support staff in Scotland hold the SQA BSL qualification
  • Ensuring that parents who use BSL are fully involved in their child’s education
  • Having access to parent’s evenings and school concerts etc.
  • Teaching BSL in schools to hearing children improve deaf children’s access and experience at school, college and right the way through to the workplace.


Terry Riley, Chairman of the BDA, said, “Scottish government National plan is a brilliant example for the UK to follow.

It is clear that with the depth of the BSL National plan, there is more work to be done than just introducing a GCSE in BSL, but this could quite easily be the way to initiate all of these changes being made.

There is an excellent template now for the UK government to follow.  Throughout the debate, MPs were shocked that since BSL was recognised in 2003 as an official language, nothing further has been done to enable deaf people to access society.


A surprise response


Nick Gibb, the Minister of State for School Standards, responded to this petition in a way that shocked all of the Ministers that have been part of the debate.

He detailed a number of reasons why this was just not viable;

  • The national curriculum was reformed in 2014, and the focus was on more of an academic core body of knowledge
  • It would not be worth making BSL a part of the national curriculum.  Academies would not need to follow this anyway
  • MPs want schools to have a period of stability where no new GCSEs and A-levels are introduced
  • Although there was a pilot introduced by Signature, the process for accreditation is lengthy. He also felt it would be challenging for BSL to become a GCSE, as it would require broad and deep subject content.

He stated that schools already have the opportunity to teach BSL level 1 and level 2.  This is already offered by signature and other awarding bodies, and BSL is on the section 96 list of extracurricular studies that schools can offer.  It is one of 13, 200 extracurricular courses that can be offered.

Mr Gibb went on to describe that 93% of deaf children are provided access to mainstream school.  The government doesn’t prescribe how they teach deaf children; the schools need to use their best endeavours to provide access to deaf children.  This includes providing access to CSWs and allowing extra time during exams.


It’s not over


It felt to me like watching this debate happen. A number of MPs believe not only that this should happen but that it is a human right.  Deaf children should be able to access a GCSE in their own language, as hearing people do with English.  Deaf children and deaf adults are currently being denied access to society as a whole, and the Government isn’t committed to taking these issues forward.

In the closing statement, it was clear that this work would be continued by the APPG.  The Minister should expect more questions on this issue, whether that be from the public or other Ministers.

Work needs to be done to ensure equality for deaf people.  Heightening the awareness in Parliament is an excellent first step.

You can watch the whole of the debate here:


See also, Deaf Friendly Schools Guide