Letter to Ofsted

Dear Ofsted,

Where do I start? I am a deaf BSL user, and until two days ago, I appreciated that Ofsted has a difficult job to do, but I hoped they were doing it competently. Then I saw Ofsted’s online consultation documents for ‘Inspection of adoption support agencies’ and today, I saw the consultation documents for ‘Inspection of local authority voluntary adoption agencies’. Specifically, I refer to the ‘BSL-based symbols’ ‘translation’ of the documents.



I wish to complain – strongly – about these ‘BSL-based’ documents, on several grounds.

British Sign Language is a language in its own right, with a clear grammatical structure, and was formally recognised as a language of the United Kingdom in March 2003. It continues to be the subject of linguistic research, and all of this research verifies that it is a complete language, with all the attendant features.

It is a living, breathing, beautiful language, that relies on movement, handshapes, context, facial expression, eyegaze, non-manual features, etc and has been used to create poetry and translate Shakespeare.

Reducing it to cartoons for the purposes of serious consultation documents – indeed for any purpose – is incredible. The fact that it is a government agency doing so, eight years after the formal recognition of BSL, is stunning. These cartoons are vague, and bear little relation to the signs they represent, and one or two are borderline offensive, for example the pictogram for ‘about’ on page 5 of the ‘BSL-based’ PDF of ‘Inspection of adoption support agencies’ looks like the sign for ‘camp’ or in the hands of less nice people, ‘poof’. The pictogram for ‘should’ on the same page looks like ‘damn’.

I would be very interested to know whose idea it was to reduce a full, complete language to a few drawings, when there are any number of interpreting / translation agencies and freelance BSL interpreters out there who could have translated this document for Ofsted into complete, proper BSL, and the video file of the translation put on the website.

Does Ofsted really have such a low opinion of the mental capacity of children and young people who use BSL as a first language? I refer here to the wide discrepancy between the level of language used in the word document explaining the consultation, which according to the data at the bottom of the first page, is aimed at 0-17 age group, and the ‘BSL-based’ translation, supposedly aimed at the same age group. I can only imagine that the word document was aimed at 0-17 year olds, whilst the ‘BSL-based’ document was aimed at 0-17 months. For the record, deafness is not a learning disability, it is if anything a sensory disability. Deafness has no effect on mental capacity, and I can name several deaf people who hold Ph.Ds, and I myself am currently studying an MA.

The closest analogy I can find for how ridiculous these ‘BSL-based’ documents are would be if I started writing this email completely phonetically.

Fff          Orr         Eks         arm        pul          duh        sss          me         rrr           eye         t              een        ev     err          eee        w            er           d             ll             eye         ke           th           ees         ay           d             u      too        arn         der         sss          tah         nn           dd?

Breaking down a complete sentence into separate little cartoonish blocks that will in and of themselves need explaining when it is possible to have a full and complete BSL translation rendered is self-defeating and unnecessary.

On Makaton.org’s own website, it states:

“Makaton is designed to help hearing people with learning or communication difficulties.  It uses signs and symbols, with speech, in spoken word order.

BSL is the language of the deaf community in the UK.  It is a naturally evolving language, with its own grammar, word order and has regional variations.”

BSL cannot be treated like Makaton, and in fact Sign Languages already have their own recognised system of notation, colloquially called ‘Stokoe Notation’ after the inventor; a phonemic system that records handshapes, orientation of the handshape and direction of movement of the hand/s. The results look rather like WingDings font, and would be completely incomprehensible to those who do not have the appropriate linguistic background. The idea of using these cartoons to express a complex language should have been laughed out of the room.

Furthermore, quite apart from the issues of breaking down a complete sentence into separate cartoons – and I notice that Ofsted has also used picture symbols that bear no relation to any sign whatsoever in their ‘BSL-based’ documents – and the issue of how simple Ofsted apparently believes those who use BSL need information to be, exactly how was a child or young person responding to this document supposed to do so? By simply circling a pictogram or asking an adult to help them write further responses? (page 10) Does this mean that there was no option for those who use BSL to respond in BSL i.e. by way of recording themselves replying in BSL? Or were they to rely on English when, as the document seemingly presumes, English is not their strongest language? Or were they to draw their own cartoons by way of a response? I would be fascinated to know if anyone did in fact use these ‘BSL-based’ documents, and what they thought of them.

In summary, I would like very much to know why Ofsted, a government agency, thought it would be appropriate to use cartoons to express complex concepts and call it ‘BSL-based’, when the results bear little to no relation to BSL at all, and why this approach was chosen over simply having the document translated into BSL.

Was any agency that represents the interests of deaf people such as the British Deaf Association or Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) or any member of the deaf community consulted before these ‘BSL-based’ documents were produced? I would be very surprised, indeed astonished if they were, and if so, please can you let me know who it was?

Thank you for your time in reading this, I look forward  to a reply.


Donna Williams

4 thoughts on “Letter to Ofsted

    1. deaffirefly Post author

      Cheers, will do! Already seen it, it’s great, have put a link to it on ‘Laugh or Cry?’ 🙂


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