The UK’s Department for Education has launched a 12-week consultation with teachers, employers and the deaf and hearing communities on the content of the qualification. As part of the GCSE, students will be taught around 1,000 signs and how to use them to communicate effectively with other signers for use in work, social and academic settings.
Campaigners have been calling for a GCSE in BSL, a legally recognised language used by over 150,000 people in the UK, for over a decade.
As well as giving deaf children a qualification in their 'first language', the new GCSE will help to make sign language more 'mainstream'. It could also help to fill the gap created by a shortage of sign language interpreters.
Deaf students in England achieved an entire GCSE grade less than hearing students, according to figures released by the National Deaf Children’s Society. In 2020, 35.1% of deaf children achieved a grade 5 (equivalent to a former high C/low B) in both English and Maths GCSE, compared with 55.8% of hearing children.
A new BSL GCSE would help make education more inclusive, while giving students a vital life skill.
Susan Daniels OBE, Chief Executive of the National Deaf Children’s Society said:
“We’re delighted that a GCSE in British Sign Language (BSL) is now a step closer. It’s only fair and right that BSL users should have the opportunity to achieve a GCSE in their own, legally recognised language.
“There are incredibly high levels of support for a BSL GCSE among both deaf and hearing students, as well as from their parents. Our recent survey also found teachers overwhelmingly believe sign language would be a useful skill for both deaf and hearing students to learn.”
While studying BSL will not be part of the National Curriculum for England, schools will be given the option to teach it. It will depend on schools having teachers who are trained to deliver a BSL GCSE though. Any student, of any age, will be able to take the GCSE, either through their school or college, or entering as a private candidate.
Daniel Jilling, a deaf teenager who has campaigned for a GCSE in BSL for more than four years, described the qualification as “vital”. He said:
“Hopefully a GCSE in BSL will be ready by 2025. I will have finished my A Levels by then, but I will be happy to know deaf students will be able to access an exam in their own language in the future.”
The new BSL GCSE could be launched in the same year as the new Natural History GCSE, which will be introduced by September 2025. The GCSE will build upon topics covered in other subject areas, such as urbanisation in geography and ecosystems in biology, as well as covering global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity and sustainability.