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Deaf education

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The provision of deaf education in the United Kingdom is not consistent across the four nations.  In Scotland, deaf education is underpinned by the BSL (Scotland) Act 2015 (, 2015) and its associated national and local plans and in Wales, BSL is part of its new curriculum.  In Northern Ireland and England, however, no legislation or policy exist with regard to the inclusion of BSL in deaf education, although the BSL Act 2022 (, 2022) does bring the Department of Education within its purview, at least in England.  Despite these marked differences at national policy level, there are a number of consistencies: the shortage of qualified teachers of deaf children and young people, the lack of BSL teachers, language attitudes at national and local level and the limited resources available for the teaching of BSL within school curricula.

19 interviews with a total of 21 participants were carried out with Scottish and Welsh Government civil servants, national public body representatives, council officials, college and university representatives, families of deaf children, Teachers of Deaf Children and Young People (ToDs) and third sector employees.

Applying a deaf legal theory lens to the field of deaf education, the aim is to expose the framing, assumptions and cultural orders that determine how deaf children are to be educated and in particular, the influence of medical professionals on ToDs and their employers, the local education authorities.  The following questions are considered: is there is an appetite at government or local authority level for deaf children to be educated in either BSL-medium or bilingual schools?  What attitudes continue to persist towards BSL as a language? What resources are needed to ensure BSL is taught at an appropriate level across the board?

Summary of findings

The interview findings are summarised in diagrammatic format at Figure 1.

Figure 1

The conceptualisation of BSL as a language was clearly dependent on who was interviewed and rested on whether BSL was viewed as a language or as a communication tool for deaf people.  A mixture of deaf and hearing individuals were interviewed, and differing views could be discerned between them, as was the case between top-level and mid- to bottom-level personnel.

At the top-level, that is, government civil servants and national public bodies, attitudes tended to veer towards BSL as a communication tool from mid-level (local authorities) and low-level (ToDs).  Conversely, there was a greater awareness of language policy and the right to language, that is, the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, at top-level, which decreased towards the lower levels, and a greater awareness of language policy among third sector representatives.

At the mid- and low-level, however, there was generally a positive attitude towards BSL, but this was accompanied by ‘trepidation’ and anxiety in ToDs, and lack of awareness in local authorities about the amount of time it takes to learn a language.  It was clear, overall, that those at mid- to low-level tended to frame deaf children according to their audiological status, and that even though health – more specifically audiology – is outside education, it clearly exerts a huge force over the work of ToDs which would explain their attitudes towards BSL.

Gaps in early years provision for deaf children also emerged as an important theme, with recognition that it is this period that is vital for language acquisition.  It was clear that the Welsh third sector playgroup representatives understood the importance of language acquisition in the early years, and one of them was quite easily able to apply this to the case of deaf children and BSL.

Among ToDs, it was quite clear that they did not have any proposals to ensure language acquisition in deaf children between the age of zero and three before they start their formal education.  The work of Mudiad Meithrin, particularly its Cymraeg i Blant scheme, serves as a useful model for encouraging parents to consider early years learning and childcare for their children in bilingual settings.  The link between early years and health services was also made clear.

The final theme identified through the interview stage was the availability or scarcity of resources in both Wales and Scotland for the teaching of BSL and in deaf education.  There is a clear case for putting BSL learning for the families of deaf children on a formal footing.  There is a distinct lack of qualified and/or trained teachers to teach BSL in both Wales and Scotland, compounded by the lack of BSL courses and tailored courses that allow learners to learn BSL in the context of the CfE or CfW.  Much can be learnt from the capacity-building efforts for Gaelic and Welsh in this regard, and there were examples of language learning in schools by way of partnership working with other schools, local authorities and universities and the utilisation of ‘area teachers.’

It was made clear that it is not known how many BSL teachers there are in the UK, which makes workforce planning all the more difficult.  Ideally, deaf people should teach BSL, but as one national public body representative pointed out: there is a capacity issue, and deaf people have non-traditional academic backgrounds and experience which makes it difficult for them to obtain teaching qualifications and meet standards.

There was also some discussion about a ‘centre for excellence’ for BSL.

The ToDs who were interviewed were clear that they were not suitable personnel to teach BSL, although it would be expected that they teach deaf children bilingually.  This means that an upskilling of the ToD profession is needed, as well as an uptake in training and recruitment.

Teaching materials also need to be developed tailored towards the Scottish and Welsh curriculums and appropriate for deaf or hearing children rather than adults.  A clear case was made for a BSL GCSE which one participant thought would trigger more funding and resources to teach BSL to all year groups in schools.  In terms of early years provision, in Wales, leaders and workers are required to have minimum qualifications, within which framework the requirement to learn BSL can be incorporated.  Finally, funding needs to be put in place to achieve all of the above.

Above all, it is argued that the interviews affirmed that ‘questions of language are basically questions of power’ (Chomsky, 1979, p. 191).  In the present case, the power is in the hands of the health and educational professionals which is all-pervading, influencing the language attitudes of ToDs towards BSL in particular.  While it would be foolish to expect this link to be severed completely, it is clear that health and educational professionals need to receive language pedagogy training in relation to BSL as they do in relation to Welsh and Gaelic.


We make 14 recommendations grouped under five headings: early years, language pedagogies, BSL teachers, Teachers of the Deaf and language policy.  These include developing a new profession of BSL therapists to support efforts to develop BSL in deaf children in early years, the development of language pedagogies courses, the commissioning of mapping exercise of BSL teachers, the expansion of undergraduate and postgraduate courses to provide opportunities to develop fluency in BSL, initial teaching training courses that incorporate BSL, and training for qualified teachers, supplementary resources and language sabbaticals for qualified teachers and Teachers of the Deaf.


The revitalisation of Welsh and Gaelic has taken place over the past 50 years in Wales and Scotland. Community-based approaches such as bilingual playgroups could be applied successfully to the revitalisation of BSL. The Scottish and Welsh Governments could do much more to support the inclusion of BSL in deaf education, and adopt a top-down approach in terms of disseminating the idea that BSL is a language to those teaching deaf children on a daily basis.

Chomsky, N. (1979). Language and Responsibility. Hassocks: Harvester Press. (2015). British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015. Accessed 9 October 2022. (2022). British Sign Language Act 2022. Accessed 15 November 2022.
O’Neill, R., & Wilks, R. (2021). The impact of the British Sign Language (Scotland) Act 2015 on deaf education.
Wilks, R. & O’Neill, R. (2022). Deaf Education in Scotland and Wales: Attitudes to British Sign Language in deaf education compared to Gaelic and Welsh.