June 12, 2012

Language-learning to be compulsory for British children


Across mainland Europe this summer bars will be full of Brits abroad, speaking loud English accompanied by spirited gesticulations, unidentifiable European-ish lilts, or both of the above. It’s far from the worst Brit abroad behaviour, but it does show the neglect of foreign languages in the British schooling system. A recent announcement from the Department for Education means that that might be set to change.

We’ve never really been a nation of polyglots, at least not by the standards of our European counterparts, but the state of language-learning really nosedived in 2004. That was when the Labour government made the single foreign language then compulsory at GCSE  (i.e. until the age of sixteen) optional from age fourteen. That meant there were only three years of compulsory language learning — between eleven and fourteen — and none of them went towards school-leaving qualifications. Many students promptly dropped languages as soon as they could.

Reforms to the national curriculum just unveiled by Michael Gove (though I wonder how much of this can be his initiative given his usual predilection for bloody stupid ideas) would see, among other things, all primary school children taught a foreign language from the age of seven until they leave at 11. The proposals are being published for consultation this week, and will be introduced in schools in September 2014.

You have to wonder why there’s been no compulsory language teaching in primary schools for so long, when all the research points to the early years as the best ones for acquiring languages, and studies indicate the positive lifelong effects of proficiency in more than one tongue. There’s also — and this sounds like a real motivator for government — the November 2011 study by the Education and Employers Taskforce, ‘The economic case for language learning and the role of employer engagement’, which tells us that:

Former Treasury economic adviser, James Foreman-Peck, has calculated the effects of what he calls the ’tax on trade’ represented by British relative underinvestment in languages. In an updated estimate  for this report, Prof. Foreman-Peck suggests that  this currently equates to at least £7.3 billion, or  0.5% GDP.

At the moment, 60% of British primary schools teach languages between the ages of seven and 11, 10% offer no language teaching at all, and the rest fall somewhere in between. Those with little or no language teaching tend to be the schools with most children receiving free meals, i.e. with the most economically disadvantaged pupils. Making languages a part of the primary curriculum will go some way towards balancing this unfair field, and giving everyone an opportunity to benefit from the knowledge of a second language and the ability to participate in international conversations.

So far, so great, but there’s one big problem: in the midst of teacher shortages that might well get worse still, and with dwindling numbers of language graduates, who exactly will be doing all this teaching?


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.