T9000 is now three years old, which seems hard to believe. If you’re an old regular or a new reader, I’d like to say thank you very much for your interest or pained tolerance or both. I’ve been sent some really lovely messages over this time and surprisingly little hate mail, so please accept my profuse thanks if I ever caused you to mash your keyboard with rage but you then cooled off and clicked DELETE instead. In return, T9000 promises that you will be among the very last members of all the flesh-species to be cannibalised for parts when the great reckoning comes.
You have to wonder whether those interpreters and agency owners enthusing about the Uber/Airbnb/Etsy model of commerce – “disrupting the market” with a “digital revolution” – have actually ever experienced life as an Uber driver themselves.
The virtual offer
Another academic year has begun, and we’ve finally reached the start of the legal requirement to give deaf and disabled students in Further Education an EHC (Education, Health & Care) Plan rather than the former Statement of Special Educational Need. “Statements” might still be used with existing primary and secondary school students until 2018. It is probably my imagination but things seem even more frantic than usual for this time of year. The service I work for is seeing deaf student enrolment way down at some colleges and surprisingly high at others; some of the colleges themselves still feel a bit like the Marie Celeste for anyone that was working in them five years ago, while others appear to be thriving. “Austerity” continues to nobble course subsidies, all the way down to Level 1.
Regarding the Local Offer (see Day 0 & Day 1), I’ve still seen nothing to indicate that the predicted explosion of choice and personalised services has kicked in for deaf students or their parents and guardians. It was insisted all through the planning and “Pathfinder” stages that the Offer would not just be a “directory”. But in my home borough and its neighbours, in my field, that is precisely what it is: almost completely a list of national charities and local voluntary groups, barely different from typing “deaf [my council]” into Google. The public sector service I work for is listed in its own borough’s Offer, but as far as I’m aware its clients remain only the FE colleges themselves, still the brokers of the funding.
How’s the hangover? After the worst month for British politics in living memory, many things which mattered a year ago now seem entirely insignificant. It is not just the professional interpreter’s theatre but all of society itself which has become “post-factual”: hunches and opinions are permitted to trump evidence and research almost every time. A hairline crack right through the centre of society has opened up into a gaping wound; fear and resentment rule. It feels appropriate that all of this is summed up with a lazy journalist’s portmanteau, “Brexit”, which sounds most like a bowel-loosening breakfast cereal.
All of this has overshadowed Signature’s recent announcements about the future of interpreter professionalism, and no wonder. But in the middle of our shock and bereavement, many of us suddenly appear to be getting what we wanted, for once: a separation of Signature/CACDP and NRCPD. A new Director, with experience of working with the membership at the Chartered Institute of Linguists, has already been appointed to begin work on this change of direction. And as a cherry on the sundae, Jim Edwards, chief exec, has resigned; there are also rumours of other key staff at Signature being made redundant.
It’s only mid-June: more than a month to go until the formal end of the academic year. But Further Education colleges, already sparser than I’ve ever seen them, have definitely stepped down a gear. For a good many students, all the boxes have been ticked; Ofsted have been and gone, leaving in their wake discarded clumps of hair and the ringing, indifferent hum of chemical sedation; the External Verifiers have been propitiated like household gods with offerings of burned portfolio samples. With the exception of one difficult but very rewarding out-of-office-hours assignment, most of my time in classrooms for the next few weeks will be relaxed and sociable. This has been a difficult year but “my” students have mostly done very well. A few have struggled, more with the system and with daily living than with learning.
So it’s time to reflect and review. Recent events have led me to recall that interpreters in education have to work within a broad cast. I believe the next closest public service sign language interpreting arrangement to working in education is that of the “designated” workplace interpreter, as opposed to the freelancer flitting around the region, picking and choosing agency jobs to suit their own agenda. For designated interpreters there is that same sense of continuity and of being embedded in an establishment, of having to accommodate your client’s colleagues and behave in a way that is expected and appreciated by that specific local culture, of not always being able to have things your way. Sailing into an unknown office/classroom and behaving like the lord of the manor, bossing or even bullying the local inhabitants and making inexplicable demands, is ultimately going to reflect badly on your client/student and may jeopardise or permanently alter their standing and progress. But then so will being perpetually meek, a push-over. Like any other micro-culture, colleges and companies are an orchestrated dance of expectations, face-saving manoeuvres, superstitious rituals, and continual pitches and broadcasts to establish status and dominance. It might look on the surface like nothing more than a Level 1 Multiskills course or a Primark decked in plastic and vulgar primaries, but millimetres below the surface these settings are a sixteenth century bal masqué, all lace, illicit love-making and poisoned needles.
Where does an Educational Interpreter mesh with this stepping gyre, these wheels-within-wheels, this brass and wire engine of competition and camaraderie? Who is our primary ally? Who is the engineer of the FE train, to whom should the interpreter turn first for succour?
The answer is obvious. It’s the dinner ladies.
“Character-forming” is a euphemism
It was at about this time last year – early summer 2015 – that the full extent of my failure was finally confirmed. For five months, a suspicion had been growing that the Signature unit I had been persuaded to run, BSI423 “Introduction to Interpreting”, was not only prescriptive and very narrow in scope when it should have been a light and sweeping tour, but was quite literally unassessable as well. Like a painting by numbers kit with all the numbers missing and an unexpected last minute bill for fifty gallons of battleship grey.
Five months went by during which I played voice-mail table tennis, wrote many increasingly strident e-mails and did a lot of rocking back and forth in the corner of the shower crooning “Gov’mint come’n took mah baby” in order to establish that absolutely no-one involved in delivering this brand new course – myself, the centre, the awarding body – had much more than the faintest inkling of how it was actually supposed to be completed. Collectively, we all failed a small group of colleagues who were honestly trying to develop as new interpreters. (Fortunately all of them have great potential and I expect amazing things from them, regardless.)
The final deal-breaker was a suggestion, made to me by a member of staff at the awarding body, that if an assessment wasn’t working out then I might have to “make it up” a bit by asking leading questions. That’s really when I started walking away. I’m still walking.
Why is this kind of thing happening in the first place? First, we should explore what “standards” actually are. At this point you might want to supply your own Bagpuss-like wibbly-wobbly dissolve with a surreal harp scale, indicating that we are phasing into the recall of events from earlier in time or some kind of reverie.
Don’t look at me
Of course. How stupid of me. Despite the fact that as a hearing British person it has been drummed into me since birth to pay forward the simple courtesy of giving people my attention when they speak, and even though it’s an unconscious instinct for everyone who has ever had any vision, hearing or deaf, to scan conversational partners in order to extract additional context from non-verbal channels like facial expression, body language, sweating, eye gaze, capillary dilation, subtle muscular twitches indicating an ongoing battle with severe constipation etc., obviously what I should have been doing all along is to override everything I’ve ever been taught about polite behaviour and completely ignore the speaking person and instead stare with inhumanly clenched fixation at “the deaf person”, who is using a modality of language that is completely beyond my experience, while also pretending for the incomprehensible benefit of some random “interpreter” that I can’t tell that the speech is coming from them. How utterly insensitive of me to not psychically predict a set of arbitrary demands of minimal importance delivered semi-confrontationally by a power-dressing stranger, who unexpectedly invaded my personal space only minutes ago flashing a plastic rectangle that looks about as authoritative as a supermarket loyalty card, who is now farcically telling me to my face that they think they are “invisible” and expecting me not to laugh out loud, all because they have uncritically absorbed a half-baked set of stupid ideas derived from a bunch of Chinese whispers about court interpreting in the 1950s or because they have an arcane fantasy that they are in a suite behind a one-way mirror at an international conference and not in my drab public sector office sitting on my furniture taking up my time.
I’m so sorry, you total nutter.
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 tiny galaxies, are now just grim 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.
I was unable to attend Signature’s statutory regulation meeting in January due to being unexpectedly hospitalised (I’m fine now). While waiting for my belly-button to resume normal service, I did a little bit of reading and uncovered a range of interesting and depressing responses to the statutory regulation struggle in the annals of several other professions. Many of these are the kind of practitioner-focused issues that have so far (to my knowledge) been absent from dialogue. This is a long post so let’s start with the main shakedown and then move on to the sources.
Key issues raised
- Statutory regulation encourages “medical model” approaches to practice which even healthcare professionals may find oppressive, let alone those in occupations which are patently not healthcare.
- Excessive regulation – increased inspection regimes, measurements and managerialism – can lead to increased “reactivity”, a term which describes practitioners feeling a pressure to select “easy wins”, reject more difficult work, abandon more difficult clients and “cover their backs” instead of acting from best professional judgement.
- Campaigns to promote statutory regulation above self-regulation have historically resulted in schisms and increased disunity within various professions. Almost all the campaigns resulted in failure and wasted resources, even for professions between thirty and two hundred times the size of BSL/English interpreting.
- A political will is required to take up the cause of state regulation, which brings with it political scrutiny, which entails unpredictable effects such as sudden reversals of support or unexpected spotlights on bad training/practice. Statutory regulation can stop being statutory at any time should political will or public support be withdrawn: the fight to keep your status may be even more effort than that expended to attain it. The current political will is opposed to statutory regulation even for highly specialist and expert clinical professions taught over and above postgraduate level, let alone social/linguist ones with a mixed bag of vocational qualifications that verify skills instead of teaching them.
- Meta-regulators such as the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) and its predecessor the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) have long asserted that regulation must be based on empirical assessment of “actual harm” and not “possible risk”, i.e. regulation must be proportionate to the problem it is trying to solve. A regulator that creates sledgehammer/nut issues is incompetent.
- Given that absolutely none of above is even acknowledged, let alone addressed, by Signature’s meandering rationale for pursuing statutory regulation, it becomes necessary to ask whether the current governance of their “NRCPD service” is fit for purpose and their personnel are qualified to decide our profession’s future. Who watches the watchers?
- Finally, the concept of principled non-compliance may offer some solutions, or at least traction, to those with doubts and fears about the path ahead, while those who favour statutory regulation have a paradox to resolve.
About a year ago I wrote some bits and pieces about the incoming changes to how support for children and young people with “special educational needs” is funded. I gave an overview of the preceding disability politics background and the potential for a new market where families with Deaf and disabled children will apparently pick their own support from a menu-which-is-not-a-menu (the Local Offer) or elsewhere. I also described how I felt that the professional sphere of BSL/English interpreting has completely failed to engage with what should have been the biggest changes to Deaf Education for thirty years. There’s been no improvement there, that I’m aware of, in the 11 months since: that sphere orbits some other, slower, planet.
What I completely failed to anticipate is the possibility that there will be little or no Further Education (FE) for young Deaf people to go to, whatever their support funding. The irony is that by the time SEN support has completed its reform, perhaps there won’t be anywhere near as much to support with.