Rebecca-Anne Withey: How a GCSE in BSL would’ve changed my time at school

Posted on May 2, 2017



When I sat my GCSE’s some fifteen years ago, I remember struggling to pass my French exam. The hearing impaired unit at the mainstream school I attended didn’t approve of me taking a French GCSE (probably due to low expectations) so I wasn’t given any support. Instead my class teacher gave me extra work to take home, one on one tuition and cassettes that I was supposed to listen to.

The tapes didn’t work for me; I couldn’t hear them. And I found the class intimidating and nerve wracking especially when we were asked to stand and read segments of French text. My face would turn blood red as I tried not only to project my voice but get the French pronunciation correct.

In order to take my listening exam my teacher arranged for me to sit the test separately, and to lipread him saying the phrases instead. Talk about pressure.

I managed to (somehow) pass the GCSE but I’ve not retained any of the language skills nor been able to put them to use.

So when I heard about a petition to make BSL a GCSE and part of the national curriculum I was really interested. If BSL was one of the options available when I was at school I know I would’ve jumped at it. And to be completely frank, I think it would have totally changed me.

I went to a bustling mainstream with a unit for the hearing impaired. In my year alone there were around 150 hearing pupils and 4 of us were deaf. In the entire school the unit was made up of around 15-20 students with a hearing loss. It’s not a massive number but it means my classmates were used to seeing support workers, note takers, interpreters and so on.

Yet sign language or deaf awareness were never mentioned to the rest of the school. I witnessed a few deaf students being mocked by their hearing peers for signing and although I was never bullied I remember being told that I “talk weird” and having classmates shout my name to check if I could hear them.

Most of the deaf pupils were taken out of lessons to receive support and tuition in the unit base and that meant they were segregated from a lot of school events. I say “they” because I was never pulled out of a class – although I often wished I was.

It’s not my intention to discuss whether mainstreaming is best for deaf children but I really feel that if BSL was made more accessible and deaf awareness shared amongst my peers that perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so different at school. Having a BSL GCSE would have changed my school experience for sure. How?

1. Well, communication would have been easier for a start. There were so many students and so many teachers that communicating with everyone fluently wasn’t just difficult; it was impossible somedays. By learning sign language my peers would’ve been able to use this language with me and other deaf students every day.  The language barrier between us would have been raised so it wouldn’t be us versus them anymore. I could have gotten to know more pupils and others could have gotten to know me.

2. I reckon it would have given me a lot more confidence if deaf issues and sign language were spoken about during my teenage years. It would have normalised the whole thing, I could have developed a sense of humour about it earlier on and felt more comfortable with who I was. I hated the phonic aid equipment because I felt awkward and unattractive enough compared to my cool, popular year girls. But by having a tutor who was also deaf and shining a light on deaf issues I could have seen a whole other side to being deaf that wasn’t just full of misunderstandings and struggles. I could have even enjoyed the spotlight a little 😉

3. I could have found a deaf role model; something that I never had. I was always fascinated by the term deaf culture and deaf history, but I felt they were out of reach to me. By learning about people such as Dot Miles and other prominent deaf people in history, I could have felt a sense of belonging, of purpose earlier on. I always had aspirations growing up but I approached them with a sense of overcoming my deafness instead of accepting and working with it.

4. My sign language skills would have been more proficient from a younger age. Despite being amongst other deaf students and having support workers in class, we used SSE and my knowledge of BSL as a language was non existent. Your sign language skills depend on what you’re regularly exposed to and it meant that when I came across other deaf people I struggled to follow them and they would “fow” me. (Fow – the BSL for not having a clue what somebody’s said.) But by studying BSL I would have been given access to a language that was not only for people like me but would have opened many doors when it came to meeting others.

5. Instead of struggling through a foreign language I could have excelled at one that was of enormous relevance to me. I could have finally sat through a class, engrossed, excited and for once feeling proud about my deafness. I would have delved into learning BSL and all things related and it would have added so much more enjoyment to my high school experience. I would’ve worked hard at it and who knows, maybe it would have shaped my education path differently.

I can wholeheartedly see BSL as a GCSE being of enormous benefit to our society. When you talk about things (especially when you’re young) it normalises those issues to a degree so it would become not so strange to see people signing or wearing an aid.

With hearing loss being something that affects 1 in 7 people in the UK, you are very likely to bump into someone who is deaf or come across them in your line of work. So BSL would be a GCSE that’s not only extremely useful to the increasing number of deaf students going into mainstream schools but also to the rest of hearing society.

The government have responded to the petition stating that as its a subject that would be difficult to “record” it’s not up for consideration to be part of the national curriculum yet. But Signature are trialling the subject in six schools and will be presenting evidence of its (hopefully) success afterwards.

As something that could shape the school life of deaf generations to come, I will be watching the progress of this with eager eyes.

By Rebecca-Anne Withey. Read more of Rebecca’s articles for us here.

Rebecca-Anne Withey is a freelance writer with a background in Performing Arts & Holistic health. 

She is also profoundly deaf, a sign language user and pretty great lipreader. 

Her holistic practices and qualifications include Mindfulness, Professional Relaxation Therapy, Crystal Therapy and Reiki. 

She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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