Teachers, researchers and British Sign Language interpreters have joined forces for a major new research network which will seek to understand why deaf pupils are more likely to underperform at school.

Educators and academics hope their collaboration will support new teaching approaches, as well as boost children’s wellbeing and language development.

The partnership, between the University of Exeter, the Deaf Academy in Exmouth in Devon and the University of Central Lancashire, will allow those involved to share theory and practice.

Most deaf children are educated in mainstream schools, using speech.  Although British Sign Language and English is used in some specialist deaf schools, teaching is not often influenced by the fact that we have deaf children bilingual in English and BSL.

The network is coordinated by University of Exeter academics Dr Hannah Anglin-Jaffe, Professor Aureliu Lavric and Professor Dongbo Zhang, staff from The Deaf Academy and Dr Junhui Yang from the University of Central Lancashire.

Dr Anglin-Jaffe said: “We are excited to be working together on this new network, to discuss the practical challenges for deaf children at school.

“Research shows deaf adults working in deaf education in the UK work fluidly between languages, something they call “code switching” or “changing the register”. Many people believe deaf children need more explicit support to switch between English and BSL to be successful in education and in later life.

“Schools can be barriers to this flexible use of language and a bilingual approach – between English and BSL –has fallen out of fashion. This, and the continued inequalities experienced by deaf signers, mean that deaf educators have to negotiate, challenge or accept these hierarchies as they support their deaf learners.

“It is time for change, to ensure the linguistic repertoires of deaf children and adults are given priority and for there to be more support for teachers to use a bilingual approach.”

Professor Zhang, an expert on bilingual children’s literacy learning, said: “It is a well-known, and a disappointing fact, that internationally and nationally, deaf and hard of hearing students’ school achievement lags far behind that of their hearing peers.

“There is a lack of recognition that most deaf children are bilingual. The cognitive, academic, social and political values of sign language are often taken for granted by many.

“The workshop, and network, is a valuable opportunity to share and discuss how deaf and hard of hearing students are bilinguals, how sign language can play an important role in school learning and beyond in their life, and how to support students with bilingual approaches.”

Sylvan Dewing, Principal at the Deaf Academy said: “We too are excited to be part of this new network and to share our experience of working with Deaf children with additional needs. We know there has been little research into Deaf children with additional needs and being part of the network is a fantastic opportunity to showcase our work and explore our approach to bilingualism at the Deaf Academy in Exmouth.”

The network began with an online workshop on 4 July to discuss sign bilingualism, deafness and education. It is supported by an Associate Dean for Research Discretionary Fund of the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter.