BSL in primary schools?
It is well documented and evidenced that learning new skills, especially languages, is easier when we are children, due to the brain’s ability to more easily create new neural pathways when we are young. With that in mind, and with the design and creation of a GCSE in British Sign Language for secondary schools in England making good progress, the curriculum content for which is already being drafted and outlined by the Department for Education and an expert panel, (thanks to the efforts of the Right to Sign campaign and the driven young person Daniel Jillings), is it time to look towards teaching sign language in primary schools, too? Would it be possible? Would it be beneficial? Would it be worth it? As a deafened, mainstream primary school teacher, my experience tells me that the answer to all the above is a resounding ‘absolutely!’
I’m going to take a slightly different approach to formatting with this blog, in that I’m going to view the question of teaching sign language, specifically BSL, in primary schools, through two different lenses: as a primary teacher (professional) and as a deafened adult (personal). To make the identity of each lens clear, I’ll italicise my personal, lived experience and opinion.
Would it be possible?
Yes. Primary teachers have long taught subjects they previously had no knowledge of, content they become masters of as they need and languages they are not fluent in (I, for one, have taught primary school french for 16 years but my vocabulary is strictly limited to the very, very basics – if you abandoned me in France, I’d not last 10 minutes!). BSL could join the Modern Foreign Language options which are taught in primary schools from Year 3 upwards (the exact languages for which are not listed in the National Curriculum, but instead it states that the chosen language for Key Stage 2 should lay the foundations for Key Stage 3, which it absolutely could!)
As long as the curriculum content was planned and structured by deaf people and experts in teaching BSL, as long as primary teachers were given adequate training and support, with access to live or prerecorded sessions with a deaf BSL user or teacher, and as long as there was a balance of teaching BSL signs and grammar alongside teaching about deaf experience and deaf culture, there is no reason primary teachers wouldn’t be as brilliant and competent at teaching BSL as they are every other aspect of the primary national curriculum.
As a teacher who has never had a day’s french training since gaining qualified teacher status in 2007, I can tell you, the key would be making sure that teachers are given adequate support and professional development. Teaching a language you have no knowledge or understanding of makes you feel like a rubbish teacher and utterly silly!
Would it be beneficial?
Firstly, we teach modern foreign languages to children who, in some situations, will never go abroad to use those languages. It is estimated that 25% (1 in 4) of the adult UK population have never travelled outside of the UK. That means that the opportunity or necessity for those people to use the languages taught in primary schools (often French, Spanish or German) will never come. However, there are approximately 12 million adults in the UK living with hearing loss (that’s 1 in 5), and an estimated 87,000 adults who use BSL as their first language, that’s not even including those deaf or deafened adults who use spoken English as their first language and BSL as their second or alternative language. The chance of people in the UK meeting and interacting with a deaf person or a BSL user in their daily life is already high and increasing year on year. Would it be beneficial for more people to know even the basics of how to communicate in BSL? Given that 1 in 5 people in the UK have hearing loss, and this number is rising, more of the population knowing sign language to provide better access and less alienation of the deaf community, can only be a good thing.
Also, deaf children and children with hearing loss, grow up to be deaf adults and adults with hearing loss. If we are working hard to ensure all children feel seen and represented in their school life and education, giving them a sense of connection to their heritage and community, shouldn’t this extend to our deaf and hard-of-hearing children, too? Finding your identity, your community and your space as an adult is much harder than as a child, and often comes with a heavy helping of imposter syndrome. Being taught BSL, being taught about deaf culture and being taught about the deaf community as a child, whether your hearing loss is mild, severe, profound, temporary, permanent or degenerative, will ensure you know your experience is valid and that your space in the community is ready if and when you need or want it.
Finally, BSL, as a visual language, is one which all children can learn together, regardless of whether English is their first language or their proficiency with spoken language. I’ve seen shy, quiet, anxious children who struggle to access other areas of the curriculum because of the language barrier (some for whom english is an additional language or who are new to english, some who have special educational needs, and some who have a hearing loss), beam and honestly glow with happiness and excitement during a BSL lesson, as they can be as successful and fluent as their peers. It is beautiful to be a part of.
Would it be worth it?
Without a doubt.
As a person who sees deaf and hard-of-hearing children flourish when they’re taught about the deaf community and taught the language which could be their own in the future; as a teacher who sees how quickly staff and students pick up, remember and internalise BSL signs and grammar to a conversational point, compared to other languages; and as a deaf adult whose memory is tinged with a hint of melancholy for the inclusion I was never afforded as a hard-of-hearing child, I hope that teaching BSL in primary schools is the next, natural step after bringing in the BSL GCSE.