SEND: Why your school should sign up to BSL

How can you make inclusion a key part of your curriculum? One mainstream primary in London has taken the radical step of including British Sign Language – so that every child learns to use it. Headteacher Dani Lang and deaf instructor Tina Kemp explain how it’s benefited deaf and hearing pupils alike
3rd January 2020, 12:04am
Why Your School Should Sign Up To Bsl


SEND: Why your school should sign up to BSL

It’s Tuesday morning and a Year 5 class are doing their daily maths lesson. A child looks confused and puts her hand up, but before the teacher can come over, the boy next to her puts his pencil down and signs “Can I help?”

The girl smiles back at him and signs that she can’t work out the answer and points to the question in her maths book. His quick, nimble fingers sign back to help her overcome her confusion about place value, and then they both pick up their pencils and continue with their work.

All this, without a single audible word uttered. This fluent interaction in British Sign Language (BSL) is common at Brimsdown Primary School in Enfield. We are a mainstream primary in North London with a hearing impairment resource base (HIRBiE). This is not an intervention tool, it’s a teaching tool. HIRBiE runs staff and family signing lessons during the day and after school, and teaches BSL to all children from Nursery to Year 6 in class time.

It works for us and we firmly believe it could - and should - work for you, too.

Admittedly, it has taken us some time to get to this point: HIRBiE has been operating for 13 years in the school but its full integration into the school day has been going on only for the past four years.

HIRBiE was set up because there were (and still are) a number of deaf children and staff at the school, and the leadership firmly believed that every child deserved the right to be treated equally and to receive the same quality of education. However, leaders also felt there was a need to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf people and so took the decision to make BSL a significant part of our school curriculum.

In the beginning, BSL key signs such as “good morning/afternoon”, “please”, “thank you” and “toilet” were taught during 30-minute for key stage 2 and 20-minute weekly timetabled BSL lessons for key stage 1 classes that had HIRBiE children in. Children were encouraged to be confident with developing their use of facial expression and body language because this helps with the clarity of their communication. Highly qualified deaf instructors taught these lessons.

Now early years foundation stage and all KS1 classes have weekly lessons, too, and our deaf instructors have created our own BSL curriculum for the children, so their knowledge and skills of the language are built upon each week. Pupils are taught to communicate with deaf people in BSL on a range of topics that involve simple, everyday language use, and link it to their topic-based learning and other events such as Christmas.

The staff will often use signs for key words and new vocabulary alongside their voice so they are giving children a visual. All teachers will use some key signs, such as “sitting” and “looking”, to supplement spoken language. Where there are deaf pupils or staff, the teacher will do this more often. As a result of this work, the children have started to become proficient in BSL; we hope to soon introduce the level 1 qualification for upper KS2 children.

Some children find learning BSL harder than others, but because it is such a visual language, it supports all our pupils in their learning. We are now at the point where some children will use BSL uninstructed. For example, if they want to interact with their deaf friends or if the classroom is on quiet time and they want to leave to go to the toilet, then they would sign that to their teacher.

It’s not just the children who are learning, though: we also teach parents who wish to use BSL. The “BSL Parent’s Workshop” runs for one morning a week - we get an excellent turnout. It is particularly popular with parents of deaf children. For many of these parents, English is not their first language and they find BSL helps them not only to communicate with their children but also to translate and remember English words for colours, objects and time. Interestingly, we find the same for pupils who have English as a foreign language.

And what about the impact on inclusion? Our deaf children are now independent and more confident. But staff have noticed that all children with special educational needs and disabilities - for example, our autistic pupils - really enjoy and focus on signing because it is a visual language.

Brimsdown will continue to promote BSL because the satisfaction of making our deaf community feel included is amazing, and we believe BSL is an exciting and expressive language that opens many doors.

Dani Lang is headteacher and Tina Kemp is deaf instructor at Brimsdown Primary School in Enfield, North London

This article originally appeared in the 3 January 2019 issue under the headline “Go beyond token gestures to be truly inclusive”

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