Tony Evans: Would a BSL GCSE solve the problems Deaf children face in education?

Posted on October 16, 2017



I’m fascinated by the support given to the introduction of a British Sign Language GCSE.  Has anyone thought about what problem they are trying to solve, and whether this would achieve it?

I was born in Wales in 1969.  Growing up with English speaking parents & siblings, we didn’t speak Welsh or feel the need to speak Welsh.  The Welsh language was in decline and in the 70s/80s, in an attempt to boost the numbers of Welsh speakers, it was made compulsory to attend Welsh language classes until we selected our O-levels.

The language continued to be in decline, so it was made compulsory to sit a Welsh language GCSE. (O-levels and CSEs became GCSEs in the mid/late 80s.)
The problem with this strategy is twofold:
1) You can lead a horse to water, but if you push it’s head into a stream, it might drown!  Students who struggled with Welsh, or languages in general, felt they were ‘wasting’ a GCSE choice and resentment grew.
2) Learning a language to pass exams, is very different from absorbing a language for everyday use, and it would be VERY rare in most parts of Wales for any child to NEED Welsh on an everyday basis. If a speaker can revert to their mother tongue, they will.

The growth of Welsh medium schools (from reception to A-level) is effective in many ways, though not without issues, some of which are based around native Welsh speakers reportedly being ‘held back’ by Welsh learners who don’t get the practise outside of school.

Now, what has all this got to do with Deaf education?  Well, there are many similarities and one HUGE difference.

For children who are Deaf, there is little or no option to revert to a ‘mother tongue’.  BSL isn’t their language of choice, it is a necessity often denied, so the idea that BSL medium schools (or schools for the Deaf) would close down is crazy … right?  Wrong!  Here in Wales, there are a grand total of ZERO schools for the Deaf.

The options are:

1)Send your Deaf child to a mainstream school with some kind of ‘unit’ and support from some staff who can use BSL to various degrees of competency,

2)Ask your education authority’s permission to send your child away to England (Exeter or Newbury typically) to be educated.

Now imagine we treated children who speak Welsh like this! Imagine if you will, that when your child is born, they can learn language, but it’s Welsh, and for some reason, they can not understand or speak English. No one in your family has ever spoken Welsh.
Your 4 yr old child who was born ‘profoundly Welsh’ can go to a local English speaking school, and they’ll have a support worker who passed their Welsh O-level in 1984 to support them.
As they progress, a ‘Teacher of the Welsh’ (TOW) will come in to monitor them as often as once every half term.  The TOW doesn’t actually speak Welsh, but has done many courses about diversification of materials and will use the support worker to interpret.  *Importantly, I am not doubting the skills of such a teacher, simply the policy which doesn’t require them to know both languages.

As good parents do, you look for Welsh classes.  They are available, but are in the evening and cost a fortune.  When you decide that one of you can do the classes, you find they are all full. Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who have ‘always wanted to learn Welsh’, but don’t have any personal reason to do so.  If one of you does manage to get onto a class, the Welsh you learn isn’t the same as the Welsh that the support workers use in school – your partner is now feeling even more left out, because try as you might, you can’t teach them as much as you are taught, and progress is slow!
You look on Youtube and find lots of videos of English speakers who are translating the latest pop songs into Welsh.  Not so helpful.
Your child can only learn Welsh to the level they experience it (second language O-level) so, by the time they are going into Secondary school, there are all sorts of issues.

Would introducing a Welsh GCSE help this situation?

Surely, a campaign to ensure fluent Welsh speakers were supporting children at Foundation stages would help more? That’s where language development happens, right?  That way, your child’s language would develop in the same way as their peers. Alongside plans to help families learn the language that their child needs, and awareness raising in general, I believe this would give those children in a linguistic and cultural minority a better chance, whilst also raising the profile of the language in a professional and useful way.

Tony has been working as an interpreter for more than 25 years. Now based in his home country of Wales, he works in a wide range of domains … & worries about a lack of letters after his name!

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