Max (19), who uses British Sign Language (BSL), is thriving in his engineering apprenticeship but difficulty passing his functional skills English was holding him back, so his family campaigned for change…
When Max was 14, he began helping out at a local electrical company in the school holidays. He then did his work experience placement there and at 16 was offered an apprenticeship.
“It made sense. I’d always been interested in engineering so I just thought ‘why not?’ I was really excited about my first day,” remembers Max, who does four days a week at work and one at college. “At college we learn things like engineering principles and health and safety and I have support from an interpreter and a notetaker. At work I do cleaning, electrical installations, rewinding of coils, detailing of parts and connecting wires – some very in-depth jobs.”
“Max and his supervisor John deal with some big motors,” says David, Max’s employer. “They rebuild them completely. On one Max cleaned out the slotting, a difficult job, and he had it absolutely perfect. It’s amazing how he’s got on.”
“John gets on with Max really well,” says Rob. “They’ve never had a problem communicating – they use sign supported English (SSE) and lip-reading.”
But while Max is thriving at work, one aspect of his apprenticeship has been holding him back. The assessment criteria set by the Government required all apprentices to achieve certain levels of maths, English and ICT. The English has proved particularly difficult for Max because his first language is BSL and because he is also dyslexic.
When he finished his Intermediate Apprenticeship he hadn’t achieved the required English functional skills level one. He wasn’t expected to pass it and would be held back indefinitely without any funding to continue his course.
“Sometimes he was near the end of the line and we had to really push him and tell him he could do it,” Rob remembers. Max eventually passed 18 months after his first attempt. “I just scraped it,” he says. “It’s very difficult to translate BSL into English and for it all to make sense.”
Max’s funding restarted and he began his Advanced Apprenticeship, but to complete it he must pass functional skills in English at level two.
“I know people in their twenties who can’t get level two – you can just go on for years with it,” sighs Rob. “So this was the argument that BSL needed to be recognised as equivalent to English.”
“Max’s English is by no means at the same level as his intelligence,” adds mum Heather. “He knows everything he needs to do to pass; it’s just getting it down on paper – it’s so frustrating.”
Max has been fortunate to have lots of support from his parents, both through them helping develop his English and in campaigning for the recognition of BSL. Before Max passed his level one functional skills and faced being unable to continue with his apprenticeship, Rob wrote to the government department then responsible for the funding and to his MP. But it wasn’t until he got other deaf organisations involved that he made progress.
“We contacted the National Deaf Children’s Society, Signature, BATOD (the British Association of Teachers of the Deaf) and ADEPT (Association of Deaf Education Professionals and Trainees) and found out Signature was trying to get BSL formally recognised as a qualification equivalent to GCSE English,” explains Rob. “With these organisations behind me I went back to my MP who was then really supportive. He followed it through and made an agreement for the criteria to change from September 2016.”
While this is good news for deaf young people considering apprenticeships, Max still hasn’t received any written confirmation of how this will affect him and others already doing apprenticeships. He just has to wait and see.
“We hope in the future that Max will develop enough English to do an HNC and that they may be able to assess him in a different way – that with the change in policy not having the English will be less of a problem,” shares Rob. “The change in policy gives deaf young people a chance,” Heather adds.
“If a deaf young person wants to learn a practical skill they need to pester companies,” Rob advises. “See if you can go in for a week and get some experience. If they like you then you stand a good chance of getting somewhere.
“I’m sure Max will finish his apprenticeship, although it might take him a bit longer with the theoretical side. When he qualifies we hope he’ll stay with us and move up,” says David.
“I’d like that,” concludes Max. “It’s a really interesting job and I love it.”