The University of Edinburgh is to create a new undergraduate degree in Primary Education with British Sign Language (BSL) to help tackle a decline in the number of qualified teachers of deaf children. 

Research for/by the National Deaf Children’s Society shows that the number of Teachers of the Deaf (TOD) in Scotland has decreased by 40% in the past decade, with 45% of remaining teachers expected to retire over the next 10 years. In addition, statistics from the Consortium for Research Into Deaf Education found that almost 40% of councils in Scotland did not involve a ToD in the three statutory early years checks. These are regular reviews that assess young children on their development in numerous areas, such as, their hearing, which is where the expertise of a ToD would be crucial for a Deaf child. 

Alison Hendry, the former BSL Development Officer at the University of Edinburgh praised the announcement of the new degree. She said: “I think it is a really positive development because by having the degree, it will allow Deaf people to become Teachers of the Deaf and provide positive role models for young Deaf people coming through the system.”

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The new courses will allow those already fluent in sign language to become a qualified primary school teacher able to specialise in working with deaf children. Graduates will also be able to teach BSL as a separate language.

Students will spend around half their time developing their BSL knowledge and the other half completing their Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programme.

In 2021, research into deaf education in Scotland and Wales further highlighted the lack of teachers that are qualified to teach BSL and how it is being further compounded by the scarcity in available courses. It also discussed the importance of BSL teachers being fluent and/or certified at a certain level. 

The report stated: ‘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.’

In addition, the paper also revealed that in regards to the incorporation of BSL, early years was discovered to be an institutional issue. This links into the ‘very little’ resources available for BSL, which has been labelled as an unique challenge.

Report co-author Rachel O’Neill, who is also a Senior Lecturer in Deaf Education at the University of Edinburgh, explained: “We found that there wasn’t enough resources around BSL and that isn’t just about learning materials, but also about the teachers. So, we think it’s important that there should be BSL teachers available for deaf children from a very young age, who are bilingual in both BSL and English. We noticed in both countries that there isn’t much of that.

“Actually, there’s only 10% of ToDs who are fluent and only 40% of local authorities have a ToD who can sign fluently. So, those are two problems we are trying to address.”

“The degree will help BSL be seen as a legitimate language that can be used in schools and nursery settings. I think it will help raise standards for deaf children and give them more options.”

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Hendry expressed excitement for the degree and highlighted how the BSL Scotland Act (2015) has laid the foundations for this development. 

The Act requires the government to publish a new national plan every six years. The next is expected to be released in autumn 2023 with the consultation process currently underway. 

She said: “It is progress from the BSL Act, but there’s still a long journey to go. We need more ToDs and more people doing sign language. So, I think the degree is a real step forward, especially for young deaf people. Hopefully the degree will raise more awareness of BSL for young deaf children, especially through education to take away a lot of those barriers that we have in place.””

“For me, we are still on the journey for overall accessibility, but when you compare to a few years ago, we have made giant steps. The education system does have to change, but we are on the right path to a brighter future.”