You've got to hand it to them

Jean McLeish reports on a pioneering school offering British Sign Language lessons

This must be the quietest class in Scotland - and if you look more closely, you can see why. The children here are all learning British Sign Language (BSL) and Dingwall Academy is the first school in Scotland to offer it as an alternative to the traditional language options.

When the school gave pupils this opportunity, they were overwhelmed by the level of interest. Now their teacher, Margaret Kinsman, is taken aback by the pupils' progress. "It has been awesome," says Mrs Kinsman, who's sitting signing with a group of first-year girls. They watch her closely to make sure they grasp what she's telling them.

Eighty out of 260 pupils applied for 20 places to study BSL during their first year here. Priority was given to children with hearing impairments or who had a deaf or hearing-impaired relative.

Once they've mastered the basics, these first-years will be able to use sign language with deaf and hearing-impaired children who come to this school, to communicate with them in their own language.

"Pupils from all over the area come into Dingwall if they have got a profound or significant hearing loss. They go into mainstream subjects where they are supported by teachers of the deaf or signing auxiliaries," says Mrs Kinsman, head of pupil support at the school's hearing-impaired unit.

One of 10 pupils who attend the unit is Holly Cameron, 14, who signals her approval that BSL is on offer to more pupils. "It's great because a lot of children didn't sign BSL before," Holly signs to Mrs Kinsman, who acts as interpreter. "But now they are and it will be good to communicate with S1 pupils."

BSL is now recognised as a language and was formally recognised by the Scottish Government in March this year. The introduction of Curriculum for Excellence encouraged the school to develop a BSL programme for first- years and propose appropriate modifications to CfE outcomes.

Deaf studies has been on the curriculum here as an option for fifth and sixth-year pupils for about 15 years. There are 10 senior pupils on the course, which includes an SQA module on Deaf Awareness and a module in BSL at Introductory Level and Level 1. Their course was put together by Mrs Kinsman and Sheila Lundberg, the co-ordinator of deaf education for Highland, who also teaches some classes here.

Some of the most enthusiastic BSL pupils have moved on to further study and developed related careers after leaving school. "Several students have gone on to pursue this as a career either in social work, teaching of the deaf, speech and language therapy, early childcare or nursery. There are an incredible number of opportunities," says Mrs Kinsman.

Three pupils have moved on to study interpreting during the past five years and another student is beginning the interpreter's course in Wolverhampton. The only Scottish course, at Heriot-Watt University, is part-time at weekends and students would not qualify for grants.

Teachers here hope these first-years will continue studying BSL, but at the moment there is no exam structure for them to follow.

"There are the old SQA modules, but ideally Sheila and I would like to see it as a full examinable subject, in order for them to move on," says Mrs Kinsman. "It's like a chicken-and-egg situation: the universities will say we don't have candidates who have got the qualifications to do interpreting."

For the moment though, these first-years continue to astonish teachers with the speed of their progress. "There is a visual element to it, as opposed to an auditory learning. Maybe the appeal is the visual pattern of learning, as opposed to the chalk-and-talk style," their teacher suggests.


Emily Goddard, 13, chose to learn BSL at Dingwall Academy to help with her future career plans.

"I chose it because I might want to be a nurse when I'm older and I thought it would come in handy," she says.

It's a quiet and peaceful class and pupils say they enjoy the laid-back atmosphere and that they find the learning fun as well as challenging.

"It was a choice of French, Gaelic or BSL, but only a small number got into this class," says Georgia Campbell, 12, who's working in Emily's group with Mrs Kinsman.

Their friend Adrian Moody is keen to communicate with deaf pupils at their school. "It's different, it's really interesting and it's fun as well. Most people do other languages and this is different so I wanted to have a go at it," says Adrian, 12, who spends three periods a week on BSL.

Leeza Sutherland, 13, is also enjoying the experience. "I liked the idea of learning sign language. I don't think I'd like the other languages."

Headteacher Graham MacKenzie is proud of their achievements. "We are delighted to be in the forefront of helping to develop Curriculum for Excellence through BSL, as well as contributing to our language curricular area. It's innovative and creative."

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