Emma Iliffe (UK)

Emma Iliffe (UK)

Chairperson of ABSLTA: The Association of BSL Teachers and Assessors

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1. What, in your opinion, are the strengths and weaknesses of the current system of BSL teacher training in the UK?

The current system is weak for the simple reason that the majority of the long-established teacher training courses (such as those run by Bristol University, Durham University, University of Central Lancashire, City Lit, specifically run for BSL teachers have now closed. This is due to a combination of the failure of the British government to give legal status to BSL (that would require mandatory provision for BSL classes) plus austerity-driven cuts that has led to higher education budget cuts leading to previous BSL training courses being cut. 

While there are still awarding organisations (such as ABC, the Institute of British Sign Language and Signature) that offer BSL-related courses these do not currently include BSL teacher training with formal government OFQUAL-accredited qualifications that are nationally recognised by HE and FE institutions. 

As a result, prospective BSL teachers are compelled to attend government-recognised teaching training courses that make no specific reference to the unique challenges of teaching BSL, do not include BSL-using lecturers who understand the language, and do not include BSL curricula that students can subsequently teach.  

A large percentage of the current supply of BSL teachers, who qualified in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, is now reaching retirement age which is leading to a shortage of BSL classes to meet local demands. 

Alongside this shortage of formally qualified BSL teachers, we are also aware that some unqualified hearing Communication Support Workers with only basic level 1 or 2 signing skills are teaching BSL courses – this is highly inappropriate and also discriminating against deaf BSL Tutors.

2. Can you give us examples of ‘best practice’ in your country?

The best examples that we can give are historic. At Durham University, in the 1990s, when the School of Deaf Studies there, made specific provision to use deaf BSL using lecturers to teach deaf BSL using students and deliver a rigorous academic and practical BSL curriculum underpinned by both linguistics and teaching practice. London’s City Lit Institute was another centre of excellence in BSL teacher training that offered OFQUAL-accredited teacher qualifications. Sadly, due to retirements, failure to train a new generation of BSL teacher trainers, and the lack of BSL teacher training courses, this academic rigour and knowledge base is in danger of being lost to future generations. 

Another issue is that younger deaf people are frequently discouraged from taking up BSL teacher training due to the fact that rules for claiming benefits can penalise some workers who work part-time at low rates, resulting in some younger deaf people finding it more economical to live off benefits than train as a tutor. 

The resulting vacuum in formally trained and qualified BSL teachers has led to Communication Support Workers and BSL interpreters taking advantage of a gap in the market to deliver BSL courses themselves - which undermines deaf BSL Teachers. 

Given this, there is an urgent need for a mandatory register of qualified and accredited BSL teachers in order to prevent the use of unqualified cowboy BSL teachers.

3. Can you tell us about the accreditation of sign language teachers in the UK?

Ideally, a BSL teacher will have proficiency in BSL up to at least Level 3. After they would then seek a generic teaching qualification at a higher education or skills institute to a minimum Level 3 Award (QCF) to a maximum Level 5 Diploma in Education and Training (QCF)

There are also earlier qualifications with names such as DTLLS, CTLLS, PTLLS or 7407 or stage 3, amongst others.  The qualifications in the FE sector have gone through various periods of reform and these are the earlier versions, which are generally not available now but still have relevance where older BSL teachers are teaching classes.

Unfortunately, as noted above, there is no mandatory register to enforce that sign language teachers are properly accredited. 

4. Can you tell us something about curriculum development in the UK? Are curricula based on the CEFR?

The awarding body Signature is currently responsible for curriculum development for BSL Levels 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 (There is no level 5) and for recruiting the BSL assessors who assess these. 

These levels are based on earlier pre-CEFR standards, using NVQ UK Occupational Language Standards (dating from 2010) at Levels 1, 2, 3,4 and 6.

The Institute of BSL has also produced its own Levels 1, 2 and 3 BSL curriculum and qualifications. However, these are still awaiting formal accreditation by the UK Skills Agency. (http://ibsl.org.uk/qualifications/#intro-to-qualifications).

5.   What, in your opinion, is the way forward for sign language teaching and the training of sign language teachers in the UK and in Europe?

A BSL Act that introduces mandatory funding in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland for a centrally-funded deaf-led UK agency that oversees BSL curriculum development, nationally accredited and recognised teacher training qualifications, assessors and registration of BSL teachers. 

Date of the interview: April 2017