Opinion

Drop the Latin, Deaf campaigners have been asking about a BSL GCSE ad nauseam

As the UK Government announces plans to open up Latin to more pupils, Liam O’Dell asks: what’s happening with the British Sign Language (BSL) GCSE?

Education secretary Gavin Williamson may well think that he has ‘seized the day’ with his announcement that thousands more students are to learn Latin through a new £4 million programme, but he could have grabbed the opportunity to fast-track progress on a British Sign Language (BSL) GCSE.

While the scheme looks to expand the teaching of Latin to more state secondary schools, Deaf campaigners have been waiting for almost a year now for when they can expect further updates on the BSL GCSE proposals. In September, schools minister Nick Gibb said the development of the qualification had previously been affected by the COVID pandemic, and work has since resumed.

There have been no updates since.

“We know Latin has a reputation as an elitist subject which is only reserved for the privileged few,” Williamson says of the Latin Excellence Programme, “but the subject can bring so many benefits to young people, so I want to put an end to that divide.”

He adds: “Latin can help pupils with learning modern foreign languages, and bring broader benefits to other subjects, including maths and English.”

This move is, of course, down to access. An archaic language reserved for private and independent schools (a British Council survey cited by the Government says it’s taught at Key Stage 3 in 49% of independent schools as opposed to just 2.7% of state schools), moves to unlock it and offer it to schools in disadvantaged areas is absolutely a good thing. My school only provided it as an extracurricular subject.

It’s a stance which is far from uncontroversial, but on the subject of access, access to a language used by an entire community must come before opening up an elitist dialect to those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds – not least because the latter can be encapsulated in the rollout of the former.

Language is the gateway to community cohesion, and when schoolchildren aren’t being afforded the opportunity to learn what is described as “the fourth indigenous language of the UK”, friendships are strained and the chance for pupils to explore a profession which is seeing alarmingly low numbers is eliminated. These issues, I would argue, outweigh the need to liberate an old language which is no longer being used in wider society. This is not to diminish its impact and usefulness – and in an ideal world, the two subjects could be introduced concurrently – but right now, the Department for Education must finish a long-overdue job and bring the BSL GCSE subject content to consultation, before they can even begin to consider the rollout of a Latin programme. The National Deaf Children’s Society is once again having to put pressure on officials to get an answer.

The English benefits that come with learning sign language also stand up to scrutiny. In addition to what BSL can offer for those who are kinaesthetic learners (something which is certainly unique in comparison to the many spoken languages), studies in both the UK and US have demonstrated that the use of sign can aid with the understanding of the English vocabulary. When many other subjects focus on what’s spoken and written, BSL offers a physicality and different method of expression which is rarely seen in the curriculum aside from, say, drama and physical education.

Every so often, a tweet goes viral on Twitter questioning why British Sign Language (BSL) isn’t taught in schools. A Parliament petition occasionally surfaces from time to time asking the same thing. The appetite is clearly there, and arguably, is stronger than that of learning Latin, but this question cannot be left unanswered any longer.

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