I was quite lucky. I was introduced to the “Deaf world” and British Sign Language (BSL) by a talented teacher with a lived deaf experience and a knack for bringing a bone dry syllabus to life. The cost to me for that first life-changing intervention was five of your Earth pounds. But the giddy days of 2004, when Further Education subsidies were scattered like petals, are now just nostalgia. We could ask:
- With the public sector repeatedly “salami-sliced” since 2010, are people now signing up for beginner BSL classes as much as they did in the past? (Spoiler: no – new learners have been halved since then.)
- What is the BSL training market worth to Signature? (Spoiler: recently, a fairly consistent £1.35 million per year or so, despite the continuous loss of learners.)
- How much does it cost Signature to “regulate” BSL/English interpreters? (Spoiler: pick a number, any number.)
I sent my mechanical goblins hunting. They brought back electric bacon.
Signature’s BSL qualifications
(The source of data for this section is Signature’s unit pass rates.)
Uptake of Signature’s level 1 and 2 BSL exams has declined sharply in the current decade. There were half the candidates in 2014-2015 compared to 2009-2010. The reasons for the slump in lower level BSL courses are going to be complex and, to be fair, beyond any single organisation’s direct control. A good first guess is that it is not a particularly good time for Further Education and the public sector in general, just as the Chicxulub Event was not a particularly good time to enjoy sunbathing.
Some of these “candidates” are people re-taking failed units from previous years or possibly within the same year. About 1 in 7 people appear to take unit 101 and pass it but then don’t go on to attempt 102 or 103. The slope of decline for unit 101 candidates is a loss of 1,385 candidates per year since 2009-10, with a moderately tight linear trend (R² = 0.96). I asked Signature about the numbers of actually completed awards for all their qualifications instead of just unit statistics, but they were not able to respond to me within three weeks of initially acknowledging my request.
Level 2 sees the same kind of decline – about half the people attempting the units from 5 years previously – but with a slightly shallower slope, which might be explained by the pass rates for the harder units, 202 and 203, going up from about 60% to 80%. However the 201 unit seems to have been found harder to pass recently, converging with the other two at the 80% rate. The slope of decline for unit 201 candidates (not passes) works out at at loss of 330 candidates per year with a tight linear trend (R² = 0.99).
Level 3 BSL has been continually tinkered with over the period in question. Three different but overlapping L3 qualifications have been running since 2009 with both taught and evidence-based approaches to learning. Direct comparison between them is therefore fraught, but it does seem that the number of people gaining some form of L3 qualification has not seen the same steady decline as the lower levels. The numbers of people in question, however, are a small fraction of level 1 learners.
One particular difficulty is that Signature mostly report the “pass rates” of NVQ qualifications as 100%. This is an unhelpful statistic for an exam-free qualification where you build and re-build a portfolio of “evidence” until you are assessed as meeting all the learning criteria or the last proton in the universe decays, whichever is the sooner. You cannot fail an NVQ, you can only abandon it. The different exam-based approach of the newer taught qualification is very clear from the published pass rates, which are quoted as 100% until 2013 but then suddenly lurch below 70% for the new taught 321 and 323 units and to a painful 35% for unit 322 (the now-infamous receptive skills assessment). But for all we know, the proportion of people simply walking away from their L3 NVQ portfolios in previous years might have been very similar. This may be a statistic which only Signature’s affiliated “centres” know individually. Nonetheless, a fail rate of two thirds of learners on an expensive self-funded course is cause for concern. Is the problem with the qualification, or with centres’ (lack of) screening of candidates, or with the teaching, or the support for teachers, or all of the above?
As mentioned above, Signature do not provide the numbers of people who achieve full awards, just individual units. My approach to L3 therefore was simply to look at who is passing the receptive skills units, which for L3 has consistently been the lowest statistic. Given that you need all the units to complete the qualification, it therefore stands to reason that the receptive skills unit completions/passes is at least representative of the full awards. Below are the totals for each type of L3 receptive skills unit are shown stacked together as the various qualifications were phased in and out. We see that there is no clear downward trend as there is for the lower levels shown above. The numbers are silent as to why, but if I were forced to guess, I would say that level 3 BSL was not generally taught in FE colleges but most often on the private market, and was never regularly subsidised except through infrequent windfalls such as the I-Sign project and similar small-scale initiatives.
BSL Level 6 NVQ’s uptake appears fairly constant, with an odd spike in the reported numbers for 2013-2014 (several other numbers reported that year were questionable). It will be interesting to look again in a few years or so to see whether or not the current trend of decline in the lower levels will affect future numbers, when the current generation of successful beginners and intermediates are ready to advance.
Statistics are available for the Signature NVQ 6 Interpreting qualification but they make for ugly visualisations and are not shown here. The numbers contain some clear errors and oddities. There was no clear trend. I asked Signature to clarify but, as mentioned above, had no answer within three weeks. All that can be said about the interpreting NVQ is that very roughly, over this whole period, somewhere between about 30-45 people have been completing it per year. Given a growth rate of at least 80 qualified interpreters per year in Signature’s first few years of re-branding (but not since 2014), we could infer that at least as many again were choosing the various Higher Education routes to registered interpreter status instead (very likely more, given drop-out/burn-out).
Looking only at the receptive skills unit passes for each level of qualification (i.e. taking them as proportionately representative of who is achieving the whole qualification), the ratio of people who progress successfully from level to level varies between a fifth and just over a third, resulting in a very approximate ratio of successful level 1 students progressing all the way to complete Signature NVQ interpreter training of something on the scale of 1 in 100 (i.e. not counting those completing the Higher Education interpreting routes). The lowest ratio of passes appears not to be between levels 3 and 6 (where Signature have most recently erected a broadly criticised new “Level 4” programme) but between levels 2 and 3.
Signature’s income from exams and registration
(The sources of data for this section are CACDP/Signature’s annual reports as published by Companies House, and Signature’s irregular NRCPD updates.)
The stark decline in lower level BSL course enrolment does not appear to have substantially affected Signature’s takings from administering BSL qualifications, which for the 2008-2015 period have floated around the £1.35 million mark with fairly small deviations (see below). Annual fees for centre “approvals” and candidates fees per unit have been increased, which will have compensated to some extent: for example, for the BSL 202 unit, the annual centre fee doubled between 2011 and 2016, going from £36 to £75, while candidates went from paying a £40 candidate/unit registration fee to £48 over the same period, a 20% increase (source: Signature, Signature). The higher level qualifications roughly maintained their numbers (see above) and also bring in more income per unit which will have helped very slightly to keep income stable, but then, the lower level qualifications have between 10 and 100 times the number of unit registrations.
This means that given the steady shrinkage of Further Education and its subsidies, it will largely be the learning public who have fronted the increased per-unit costs required to maintain Signature’s fairly steady income (the private centres are also likely to be passing on centre approval costs to learners).
We also see above that income from Signature’s NRCPD registration service for LSPs (the overwhelming majority of whom are trainee and qualified BSL/English interpreters) has steadily increased, more than doubling over this period, but is still only a fraction of Signature’s income from BSL qualifications. Nonetheless income from the register has grown over this period by about £24,000 per year with a very steady linear trend (R² = 0.99).
Things become harder to understand when Signature’s stated expenditure on these activities is subtracted from the income from that same activity, giving an indication of their accounting for the profit and loss of BSL examinations and the register of interpreters. Profits from qualifications are less steady than the pre-expenditure income, but still do not indicate any particular trend. But for some reason, at some point during the year ending July 2012, the declared cost of running the register very suddenly tripled, turning previous small profits into a substantial loss. No detailed explanation for this is given, but the most obvious increase in that year’s organisation-wide unrestricted activity costs is for staffing. Since 2012, the annual reports have painted a picture of Signature subsidising its “NRCPD” service from income generated by other activities, but in reality it is exactly the other way round: the NRCPD service’s activity is being “loaded” with much greater Signature staffing costs than before, as though a proportion of everything every Signature staff member does is suddenly being counted as NRCPD work, which seems difficult to justify from their apparent activity. If instead you took that expenditure away from the cost of examinations income, the picture of health for the BSL examination industry’s steady income would be less inspiring.
More detailed charts of BSL/English interpreter and non-interpreting registration numbers published by Signature are below. The dotted lines indicates a period when Signature did not release any registration updates. Non-interpreter LSP registration is generally on the decline: the rate of interpreter increase has been greatly flattened since early 2014.
- The uptake of Level 1 and 2 BSL qualifications has fallen dramatically in the last five to six years. These are the courses that have historically been found in both FE colleges and private centres. While you might construct some pointed arguments around the detail of what is being done or left undone regarding the promotion of BSL learning, it must be acknowledged that deep political changes to education and the public sector are going to be a major factor, which are not under Signature’s direct control or that of any other individual non-governmental organisation. If only there were some kind of forum or coalition where different “deaf” organisations could work together, some kind of “interface” for the d/Deaf sector with government.
- However despite the great loss of learners, Signature’s income from the BSL market has been more-or-less maintained. It is largely the learning public who have borne the increased cost per unit required to maintain Signature’s income. We should be facing up to the possibility that we are in a negative feedback “death spiral” in BSL learning – qualification fees are increased to maintain income from a dwindling learner base, but those rising fees themselves contribute to putting potential learners off.
- Intermediate and higher levels do not appear to have been affected in the same way, so far.
- Signature brings in about £1.35 million pounds just from administrating BSL examinations. Profits to them on this activity have been between roughly £500,000 to £700,000 over the last seven years.
- As a wild estimate based on back-of-the-envelope calculations, the income (before expenditure) for all UK “centres” delivering Signature BSL training in 2014-2015 could have been anything from £4.5 million to £11 million or beyond. I haven’t shown the back of my envelope here – it would be interesting if someone else could get their calculator out and see if you surface in the same ballpark.
- Signature sharply increased the stated cost of running their NRCPD service at some point in 2011-2012, despite the register providing a steadily increasing income (approximately eight and a half times the national average wage in 2014-2015). It would be tempting to jump to the conclusion that interpreters’ registration fees are effectively being used as another buttress for Signature’s various non-registration activities.
- It must be asked whether any of the above is actually a problem. However, if we were genuinely concerned about BSL’s future or that of BSL/English interpreting as a “profession”, then perhaps we should look not to Signature but to the makers of policy and the holders of purses. We could also ask again some very, very old questions about the wisdom of monopolies: eggs, baskets and so forth. At present, the fate of mainstream interpreter registration/regulation – which some see as the benchmark of BSL/English interpreting professionalism – is tied to the fate of a BSL qualifications charity. If Signature dies, the NRCPD service dies with it. Is the problem “just Signature” or with our definition of professionalism? Small wonder that people have found it necessary to set up an alternative, RBSLI.
- But it is not hearing people and trainee interpreters who have the most pressing need to learn BSL. Roughly nine tenths of deaf children are born to hearing parents and research over the last two decades suggests that with cochlear implants or not, deaf children benefit most from a bilingual and bimodal learning environment. What will be the fate of BSL learning for deaf children and their parents, given this picture of decline? Is it appropriate that this matter is being left to charities? Can they be trusted to act?