From veterans to refugees: City Lit’s silent revolution in deaf education

Long read

For more than a century, London’s City Lit has been a global beacon of hope and empowerment for deaf people. Jessica Hill finds out what makes the college’s approach to deaf education and training so important to the community. 

Helping deaf people in crisis is a proud tradition of adult education college City Lit. Once a haven for soldiers returning from the First World War with bomb-damaged hearing, today its Centre for Deaf Education provides a refuge for around 100 deaf refugees and asylum seekers who have fled turmoil overseas, as well working to support the capital’s wider deaf community.

The centre – the largest of its kind in Europe – is one of very few post-age 16 establishments in England that teach classes using British Sign Language (BSL), so deaf students can learn subjects in their own language. And having a large deaf cohort of over 600 students gives learners the priceless opportunity to mix with their deaf peers both inside and outside the classroom, which they don’t get at mainstream FE colleges.

The college also teaches BSL and lip reading as subjects in their own right, and as the only college in the country offering teacher training courses in those skills, City Lit is vital to the upcoming rollout of a BSL GCSE in schools.

I visited the college, in Holborn, Central London, on its annual Deaf Day, which is thought to be Britain’s biggest event for the deaf community. College principal Mark Malcomson, a BSL user himself, is in a buoyant mood, eager to champion the deaf community which he says is “in the DNA” of college.

Mark Hopkinson head of the Centre for Deaf Education with reporter Jessica Hill and interpreter Charmaine Moss

Costs of coronavirus

He admits the last two years have not been easy for City Lit. The coronavirus pandemic blew a hole in the college’s finances, causing the FE Commissioner to step in with a financial notice to improve due to its ‘inadequate’ financial health in 2022.

Later that year, disaster struck in the form of a ransomware attack which caused a month-long IT outage, with major disruption to online classes and enrolment, and causing around £800,000 in exceptional costs.

But things are looking up. The college reported improved ‘requires improvement’ financial health “two years earlier than anticipated” according to its latest accounts. And in May 2023, the college went from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’ across the board in its first Ofsted inspection for eight years.

Malcomson says: “In usual circumstances [the rating] would have been a significant achievement. However, in the context of the unprecedented and hugely challenging times that the college has recently been through, this result is truly heroic.”

Being lauded by Ofsted improves the college’s prospects for long-term survival, which is vital for the wellbeing of the country’s deaf community.

City Lit students on Deaf Day outside the college

Deaf day ‘summer fete’

Many members of that community are at City Lit for Deaf Day, which Malcomson describes as being like an “enormous summer fete”. Although City Lit is just a stone’s throw from Covent Garden, as I enter the building feels eerily quiet given that it’s bustling with around 4,000 people. All you can hear are footsteps and the odd murmur.

“You’ll probably never see a more diverse community in central London,” says the principal. Some of the cultural differences that can divide people within hearing communities, within spoken English and accent, are absent here.

I’m joined for the afternoon by one of the college’s interpreters, Charmaine, without whom I’m like a foreigner in a new country.

But not everything can be translated easily between languages. Charmaine tells me with a smile how the first time she interpreted for Malcomson, “he talked about the funding for education being like the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads”. That was a tough one for her to communicate.

Mark Hopkinson head of the Centre for Deaf Education with City Lit staff

Hiring deaf teachers

City Lit’s deaf provision is unique in the college world because it employs deaf teachers – five of them full-time teaching English, maths and computing studies, as well as several interpreters and deaf tutors on hourly contracts.

Malcomson says it was “hugely important” to appoint a member of the deaf community to lead the Centre for Deaf Education.

Before Malcomson joined that wasn’t the case and the college had a separate deaf department with its own office and code on the door.

This “reinforced” the feeling of those staff being “separate” to the others, he says. When the team moved to an open-plan office, its deaf staff wanted to be integrated – but with caveats.

It was important their desks were not positioned so other staff had their backs to them, because “if you’re deaf you want to see people coming towards you”.  The deaf education desks were placed right in the centre of the open-plan floor – “fully integrated” – which Malcomson says has been of “huge benefit” to those staff.

To further boost inclusion, the college’s full-time hearing staff are required to take classes in either deaf awareness or BSL in their first six months, so they can communicate with deaf students and staff. Employees see it as an opportunity to explore a different culture.

After starting as a communications executive at the college in November, Daniel Cringean did an eight-week Introduction to BSL course. Before that, he “didn’t know much about the [deaf] community”. “I’ve since fallen in love with the language, it’s so expressive,” he says.

City Lit is “not a bilingual college yet”, although it’s an “aspiration” that Malcomson would “love to get to”.  “But just being able to say hello to your [deaf] colleagues as you walk down the corridor is hugely important,” he says.

Deaf BSL mosaic event during City Lits Deaf Day

Hope for deaf asylum-seekers

Knowing BSL doesn’t mean staff can necessarily communicate easily with all City Lit’s deaf learners. Over 100 are refugees and asylum seekers (an increase from only around 30 in 2022) who are predominantly from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iran, and they use different sign languages.

Even countries that share the same native tongue use different sign languages, with British, Irish and American sign languages all differing. BSL also has regional dialects.

Malcomson shows me a picture of the college’s former head of deaf interpreting, James Fitzgerald, with three other signers interpreting at a conference for the Pope in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. They’re all signing the same word but in different languages.

Those differences make life challenging for City Lit’s deaf asylum-seeker and refugee students. Their journeys to the UK are typically traumatic, and when they arrive, digital translation technologies such as Google Translate which would normally help in communication with immigration officials and other services are of limited benefit.

Malcomson explains that there’s not yet a video app equivalent to Google Translate for sign language speakers.

Such is City Lit’s international reputation for deaf provision that Mark Hopkinson, the head of the Centre for Deaf Education, says some asylum seekers and refugees come to London specifically in the hope of being able to attend the college.

“They target London because they know that we have good access here”.

Vasyl Yarema with reporter Jessica Hill and interpreter Charmaine Moss

One of them is Vasyl Yarema, who came to London from a small town in Ukraine 18 months ago. He’s now completed his level two in BSL, and is currently taking an English course.

He describes deaf education provision in England as “much better” than in Ukraine. “There are lots of things that I can do here, and services that I can access that I can’t in Ukraine where there are lots of barriers for deaf people,” he says.

“There’s definitely a sense there that deaf people are lower status, whereas here in the UK we’re equal.”

BSL is “completely different” to Ukrainian Sign Language, which uses a one-handed alphabet. So Yarema had to learn to communicate with his left hand too when he arrived in the UK, which he at first “really struggled” with.

Yarema tells me that in Ukraine, he worked in a branch of McDonald’s, but adds: “Now, I’m totally open to anything as I’ve got lots of opportunities. But I’ve got to find the time to do all the learning I would like.”

BSL for hearing people

BSL is predominantly taught at the college to hearing people working in education, health, care, the Metropolitan Police or Transport for London.

It’s the only UK college to offer a Certificate in Rehabilitation Work with Deaf People, aimed at those working in the public sector.

Kate Persaud took BSL courses at City Lit two decades ago when she was a carer, initially to help her communicate with some of her deaf clients.

Kate Persaud headteacher of Elmfield School for Deaf Children

Persaud, who is now headteacher of Elmfield School for Deaf Children in Bristol, found that learning the language in a deaf environment was “brilliant”.

She says: “Between lessons, you’re sat talking to deaf adults, who are advocating for what the deaf community is. It’s hugely motivating.”

City Lit has seen a rise in hearing people learning BSL this year. Malcomson believes this is partly because a new GCSE in BSL will be available for schools and colleges from September 2025, which will require a pipeline of teachers to be proficient in the language.

Worryingly the percentage of fully qualified teachers of the deaf is declining, a report by the Consortium for Research into Deaf Education (CRIDE) found, despite the number of deaf children rising.

Malcomson questions whether there will be enough teachers with those skills to teach the GCSE.

Meanwhile, Hopkinson says the biggest challenge the Centre for Deaf Education faces is a nationwide shortage of interpreters, rather than teachers. Most interpreters choose not to specialise in education because they can earn more working in other sectors.

Deaf students can only enrol in the courses City Lit offers to the wider public, in counselling, art and drama, for example, if an interpreter can be found and paid for to accompany them. And that’s expensive, Hopkinson says.

The funding from the government is “not enough” as the same pot has to cover support services for other learning needs and disabilities too.

“We have a lot of deaf people who want to do a counselling or an art course, and we’re happy to give them a place,” Hopkinson adds. “But that then means the funding runs out very quickly.

“We have to pay quite often from our own pocket to ensure the students get the support they need.”

CityLit

Courses for deaf students

Putting on courses specifically for deaf people is therefore more cost efficient for the college than teaching those students in mainstream classes with individual interpreters.

Hopkinson says the classes delivered in BSL are “the best learning strategy” for deaf students, as “it’s better to be taught 100 per cent in your first language”.

Deaf students come from across London for the provision, with some also joining remotely from further afield.

In 2023, the college delivered nearly 5,000 courses in total – 40 per cent of which were online. Malcomson sees its online offering as giving the college a “genuinely national reach”.

Deaf provision beyond City Lit

Elsewhere, deaf education is being impacted by local authority budget cuts.

In Birmingham, deaf students aged 16 to 18 will no longer be able to use council-funded taxis or minibuses to get to their colleges.

Persaud describes post-16 deaf provision outside London as being “not good at all”.

When her pupils in Bristol reach 16 they either attend City of Bristol College, where they can get support from communications support workers, or a residential unit 90 minutes away in Exeter. Bristol Council is currently working with Persaud to set up sixth-form provision at her school, but even then “post-18 specialist provision is missing completely” in the city.

But some new deaf adult provision is springing up.

In March, a residential and learning centre for deaf adults, claiming to be the only one of its kind in the UK, opened in Exmouth in a former convent. Prior to its launch, The Deaf Academy’s 19 to 25 cohort stayed in the same building as younger students, but now they have their own residential and learning space.

There is also the Communication Specialist College Doncaster (CSCD) which provides vocational provision to students whose main barrier to learning is communication and social needs.

Meanwhile, back at City Lit, Malcomson sees City Lit’s deaf provision as a “celebration of what FE does best”.

He says: “It’s a huge part of the college’s heritage and bringing together an incredibly diverse community.”

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