BSL for all


British Sign Language is a language for everyone, says Matthew Kleiner-Mann.

It’s not often that you walk into a primary school classroom and it’s so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.

So when I observed my first ever British Sign Language lesson, the first thing that hit me was the silence. The children were completely absorbed in their learning and their faces were a picture of concentration as they studied the instructor intently.

Afterwards I walked around the corridors of Brimsdown Primary School, the first school in our Trust to introduce BSL, and I could almost feel the inclusivity. It didn’t matter what a pupil’s first language was, or whether they found it difficult to verbally express their feelings or needs, they had found a common language to communicate in.

In one of the early years classrooms, there was a child who didn’t speak or understand English and was becoming frustrated, which led to frequent outbursts. But once she learned basic sign language, she was able to communicate and was much happier. Her experience is one of the many stories I’ve heard from our schools since introducing BSL.

What I’ve learned is that BSL can benefit all pupils. There are around 33,000 deaf children in schools across England, with 84% in mainstream schools. In schools where sign language is taught, deaf pupils feel represented in their school community. They are more included in lessons and can interact better with their friends in the playground too.

It’s a great skill for all.

For hearing children, there are proven academic benefits. Learning BSL can improve vocabulary, memory retention, fine motor skills and self-esteem and has been linked to a higher reading age of up to two years. Many of our schools have a high number of pupils who speak English as an additional language and BSL helps them to communicate with their friends and teachers more easily and therefore feel happier and safer in school.

For children with SEND, BSL is an extremely accessible language to learn. It’s visual, fun and all children can be completely included in lessons. We’ve seen it engage even the most challenging to engage pupils and it’s empowering for those with speech and language difficulties because they can express themselves effectively. This helps to reduce frustration and feelings of isolation.

All pupils start BSL classes from the same point, so we’ve found that children who don’t always participate in class, or who don’t excel in other areas of learning, are enthusiastic and motivated during lessons and become more confident.

Nadi Kus, BSL instructor, leading a group.

For a long time, sign language was banned in education because it was thought to hinder spoken development, but numerous studies have proven that the opposite is true. It can act as a bridge to spoken language and teaches children that communication is a powerful tool and will help them reach the outcome they desire. This has both social and academic benefits for all children.

Seeing how well sign language lessons worked at Brimsdown inspired us to roll BSL out to all fourteen schools in our Trust. The first thing we had to do was recruit because we wanted the lessons to be led by specialist BSL instructors, who could also teach the children about deaf awareness.

Our fantastic BSL manager Tina Kemp, who is based at Brimsdown, has recruited and trained instructors, as well as developing the BSL curriculum. This means we’ve been able to turn our dream into reality and successfully introduce BSL across all our schools this year. Feedback from staff and pupils has been extremely positive.

We’re already seeing exciting developments in secondary education with the proposed introduction of a new BSL GCSE and, long term, I’d love to see BSL on the national primary curriculum too. We’ve already been approached by schools outside our Trust who are interested in introducing it in their own settings.

There are hurdles to overcome because we need more trained BSL instructors and funding to successfully roll the primary curriculum out. But we’ve seen the benefits and we’re excited about a future where sign language becomes an integral part of primary education and helps to make schools inclusive for all.

Matthew Kleiner-Mann
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Matthew Kleiner-Mann is CEO of Ivy Learning Trust, a family of fourteen primary schools in Enfield and Hertfordshire.




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