An update on British Sign Language in Wales

I’ll never forget one particular phone call with a mother of a newborn baby who had just been diagnosed as deaf. Like 90% of families with a deaf child, her family had no previous experience of deafness. Her baby’s diagnosis had come as a huge shock. She broke down in tears and said: “I just want to know that I will be able to talk to my baby.”

Debbie Thomas, Policy and Campaigns Officer Wales, National Deaf Children’s Society.

Being able to develop communication with your baby is something many of us take for granted. And yet it is so fundamental – both in terms of establishing a bond and developing language.

For many families, sign language is one option they would like to pursue to help establish communication with their child. And yet, too many families are struggling to access support to learn to sign. British Sign Language (BSL) courses are often costly or do not cover the type of vocabulary required by a young family.

Earlier this month, I was contacted by the BBC to comment on the story of a Monmouthshire couple who have resorted to fundraising in order to access BSL classes to sign with their daughter.

I was also in touch with Assembly Members, who debated BSL access issues in the Assembly (a video and transcript is available on the Welsh Assembly’s website). During this debate, the Welsh Government promised to review availability of BSL classes across the country. This review is much needed and the National Deaf Children’s Society Cymru will be following its progress closely.

The Education Minister also stated that she’d consider developing a national charter for the delivery of services and resources for deaf children, young people and their families. The National Deaf Children’s Society Cymru has been in touch with the Minister to express our support for such a charter. We feel it could be used to drive forward improved support in a number of ways, including access for families to learn BSL.

Fingers crossed that this review will be the first step to addressing this important issue.

The Debate in the Assembly also covered other BSL issues…

The debate also covered calls to offer a BSL GCSE in Wales; an issue that the National Deaf Children’s Society Cymru has often raised. The Education Minister confirmed the new curriculum would enable schools to opt to teach BSL.

In the meantime, Qualifications Wales (the body responsible for GCSEs on offer in Wales) has expressed willingness to adopt a BSL GCSE developed in England once it becomes available.

The National Deaf Children’s Society is aware that discussions are ongoing in England around developing a BSL GCSE, so we will keep watching this space!

Campaigning: working with professionals in Wales

Debbie Green, Policy & Campaigns Officer Wales

Debbie Thomas, Policy and Campaigns Officer, Wales, National Deaf Children’s Society

Whenever you meet new people, the inevitable conversation starter almost always crops up; “what do you do for a living?” I always take great pride in replying that I work as a campaigner for NDCS Cymru, but there are a lot of misconceptions about what being a campaigner involves.

At a friend’s hen party this weekend, I was asked: “So what does your job involve when you are not cheering and holding a placard?” Well, actually my job hardly involves placards at all!

While placards and demonstrations can be important and effective in some cases, my work is really about positively engaging and working collaboratively with policy makers and professionals. Those working to make new laws or to deliver services for deaf children ultimately want to see new laws and changes to services which are effective and work well. The bulk of my work is about looking at proposed changes and then meeting and working with key decision makers to suggest how these changes could be tweaked to ensure they work for deaf children, young people and their families. I like to think I work with officials rather than against them, pulling out placards and petitions only when raising concerns has not been sufficient and greater action is required.

It is quite fitting that after being asked the placard question, I spent the day with health professionals at a children’s audiology unit. I was part of an audit panel reviewing how the service was meeting standards set by the Welsh Government.

These standards first came into place in 2010 and cover a range of points from waiting times, qualifications and training of audiologists, and ensuring that families receive key information. Every year, audiology sites across Wales are asked to score how well they believe they are meeting each standard and to provide evidence for it. A panel made up of audiology practitioners from other services in Wales and an NDCS representative then review the evidence against the scores given.

For me, this is a great example of how, as a campaigner, you work with and alongside professionals as a critical friend. We support good practice, suggest areas for improvement in the interests of our members, and raise our hands when we feel something is going wrong. Essentially, we have a common aim: to ensure our services for deaf children and their families are up to standard.

Wales: Reform on planning support for learners

Debbie Green, Policy & Campaigns Officer Wales

Debbie Thomas, Policy and Campaigns Officer, Wales, National Deaf Children’s Society

When I first started working for NDCS Cymru in 2008, there were mixed feelings as the Welsh Government vowed to change the way educational support is planned for learners with additional needs.

What we didn’t know then was that the Welsh Government was still a long way off making any change to the law… 8 years down the line and the reforms are still in progress, having been through numerous changes along the way.

Still, there’s the same sense of mixed emotion. There is excitement as we hope to overcome the flaws of the current system. But there’s also concern that the new system could come with a new set of flaws – in particular, a difficulty in accessing assessments by specialist professionals like Teachers of the Deaf.

A brief history…

Lobbying on the reforms has been a long rollercoaster ride with the Welsh Government’s proposed changes taking many twists and turns.

In 2009, I founded a lobbying group with a number of other charities, called TSANA (Third Sector Additional Needs Alliance). Through this group, we’ve given evidence to the Welsh Assembly on their proposals. We’ve also been part of two Welsh Government advisory groups, enabling us to make the needs of deaf learners known.

TSANA and NDCS campaigners lobbied hard against a proposal to restrict the right to appeal to the education tribunal. The proposal would’ve left many deaf learners in Wales unable to seek an independent challenge to important decisions about their educational support. As part of this lobby, more than 100 NDCS supporters wrote to the Welsh Government to call for the restriction to be rejected. It was dropped. Under current proposals, all families will ultimately have the right to appeal against decisions on a learner’s support needs.

While there are many promising aspects to the latest proposals, NDCS Cymru still has serious reservations about how the system will work in practice. The good news is that, after giving evidence with TSANA to the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee, the Committee has urged the Welsh Government to address many of our key concerns and suggestions. We’ve also been part of a Welsh Government advisory group, where we have been able to talk to key officials about these issues.

Where are we now? This is what you should know about the proposed new system:

  • The Welsh Government wants existing Statements and Individual Education Plans (IEPs) to be replaced by an Individual Development Plan (IDP). IDPs will be a legal document setting out a learner’s support needs.
  • IDPs will be available to learners with additional needs aged 0-16, as well as those aged 16-25 in further education.
  • Currently, there are no changes to the law on planning for learner’s support needs. Some local authorities have been offering IDPs instead of Statements. However, IDPs do not currently have the same legal status as a Statement and families remain entitled to request a Statement.
  • Following the election on May 5, a new Welsh Government has been formed. First Minister Carwyn Jones has already identified that additional learning needs will be one of his Government’s first priorities. However, there is still much work for the Assembly to do before we see any changes in law.

What will be our Next Steps?

The Welsh Government will be writing a second draft of the new law and a new Code of Practice (this is the manual for how the new system will work). This is a crucial time for influencing the new system and, among other things,  NDCS Cymru will be calling for:

  • The new Code of Practice to make it clear that deaf learners are eligible for an IDP and the requirement to access specialist professionals, such as Teachers of the Deaf.
  • A standard format for the IDP, containing clear information on a learner’s support needs.
  • More detail on how the new system will work for deaf learners outside of the school setting (i.e. pre-schoolers and those in further education).

Watch this space for more details on how you can get involved in making sure these changes will work for deaf learners – we will need your help!

Read more (www.ndcs.org.uk/IDPWales)