Tag Archives: ofsted

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

Laugh or Cry?

Sometimes all we can do is point and laugh.

If we didn’t, we’d weep for the ignorance of those whose job it is (supposedly) to know what they’re talking about.

Yesterday, this came to my attention.

Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, produced a consultation document aimed at children and young people to give them a say in how Ofsted inspects Adoption Support Agencies.

So far, so good.

Then they produced a BSL-based version. Jolly good. Was it a video produced by Remark!, scripted by Ofsted? Was it a video of Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman translating the document to the tune of humming guitars? Was it a video of the consultation document lovingly translated into sign language poetry by yours truly? No.

It was cartoons.

No word of a lie, they attempted to translate the consultation document into cartoons, and called it BSL-based. Look at it.

In case it’s not clear why this is so tragi-comic, let me explain. British Sign Language is a living, breathing language, relying as much on movement as it does on ‘gestures’. Pictures – or cartoons – of signs next to each other don’t really mean much without context – or movement. It’s like writing down a sentence phonetically in the belief that this will help someone to understand it.

Bee     Ess     Ell     Iz     Ay     Bee     Yoo     Tee     Foo     Lah     Nnn     Gwa     Jjj

Thee     sss     Iz     Ahh     Nnn     Eeen     sss     Arr     lll     T

Or you could just SAY it. Get someone to translate the document into proper BSL and tape it. Tape it!

Without movement and context, those cartoons could mean anything. If, as this document apparently presumes, the respondents’ English is not that good, what are the cartoons meant to express? They’re not exactly clear. On page 5, ‘should’ looks like ‘damn’, ‘what’ could be ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘sky’, ‘god’, ‘up’ ‘ travelling’ – all BSL signs that use an index pointed upwards, and the cartoon for ‘about’ looks nothing like ‘about’ and in fact comes perilously close to looking like the sign for ‘camp’ or, in the hands of not-so-nice people, ‘poof’.

Is that what Ofsted is aiming for? Cartoons that look like any sign that uses that handshape, littered with potentially offensive signs? Well, congratulations. Mission accomplished.

I mean, whose idea was this?

Look at the age group they’re aiming for. Bottom of the first page. 0-17. It’s like they’ve assumed that a 17-year-old BSL user will have the same level of understanding as an infant. On behalf of teenage BSL users everywhere, consider me fucking patronised.

Are they sure they don’t mean 0 – 17 months? Compare the level of language in the ‘BSL-based’ document with the word document accompanying it. You’ll see what I mean.

And again with the patronisation on page 10. “If there is anything more you wish to say, please ask an adult to help you.” What was the age group again? 0 – 17?

They’ve clearly allowed for those children and young people with communication and learning difficulties with the Makaton, picture communication symbols and Widgit alternatives, and brilliant. Good for them. Very inclusive. Where they went wrong was thinking they could treat BSL in the same way.

Deafness is not a learning disability. BSL is a beautiful language, highly expressive, a language of poetry and creativity; we just had a Shakespeare play translated into BSL and put on at The Globe for Globe to Globe, the multi-language Shakespeare festival to rave reviews for pity’s sake.


If one is aware enough to put the cartoons in the correct BSL grammatical order, then one should have enough awareness to know that BSL is not just handshapes, it’s movement and eyegaze and facial expression and direction and context.

Whose idea was this?

What was wrong with just making a proper BSL version? Just get someone to sign it properly. That way, you could ensure that BSL users would have a good chance of understanding it, instead of patronising them with cartoons that are vague enough that an adult will probably have to explain the cartoons anyway, defeating the purpose of having the bloody cartoons in the first place. Just… do it properly!

Was it too much effort? Did it cost too much to pay someone to sign it, someone to film it, and put it in a file on their website? Was it just easier to draw some cartoons? Do they really have such a low opinion and expectation of BSL users? Why couldn’t they just have it signed PROPERLY?

I need to stop now. My head is about to explode.


P.S. Let’s all write letters like this one and let them know our views on their ‘consultation document’…