Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.
English isn’t enough
Without the usual grade inflation story, the coverage of A Levels this year has paid far more attention than usual to the subjects chosen by teenagers and noted with a little surprise that modern foreign languages continue to decline. And then the circus moves on.
You can argue until the cows come home about why the UK and England in particular has never really done foreign languages – the after-effects of Empire, being an island nation, being blessed with a tongue which is now the world’s global business tool – but this is going to be a huge handicap for the next generation unless we get our act together, and fast.
For the last few years I’ve worked closely with the English language sector – and boy, has that been an eye-opener. The parents of teenagers from all over the world are willing to invest thousands of pounds in their offspring’s language skills, sending them to study in the UK for months to get up to the standard required for work or university. Even in the face of recession in southern Europe, the figures suggest that parents in Spain and Italy with any cash to spare are sending their children here to get a life skill which may help them into employment in other parts of the world.
In many ways it’s an invisible industry. If you live in a south coast resort, you’ll have noticed the crowds of European teenagers every summer, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Teaching English to international students brought around £2bn into the UK economy in 2008-9, and if you include those on academic courses at colleges and universities, the total is more like 14bn in total. They want to come here, because the reputation of the quality of UK education is so high (perhaps someone should tell our politicians this?), and are willing to pay for the privilege to a degree that this is one of our top five export industries. Take away large numbers of those university students, moreover, and quite a few science, technology, engineering and maths courses would close, with bankrupting of institutions not an impossible prospect either.
Clearly, we’re benefiting from the status of English as a lingua franca, but in some ways that’s as much a blessing as a curse, comforting parents, pupils and politicians that it doesn’t really matter if take-up rates for French, Spanish and German continue to drop because everyone speaks English anyway. What we have failed to notice is that the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, Spanish and everyone else we meet or see on the TV news speaking impeccable English do so on top of their own language, and often one or two more as well. That’s what our children are going to be competing with when it comes to jobs in a global market. And that’s why Gateshead College, for instance, is increasingly adding language skills to some of its apprenticeship programmes.
There have been some odd decisions taken over the years about languages, notably the one allowing teenagers to drop them at 14, which was supposed to be outweighed by starting lessons in primary schools instead. Except the timescale was all wrong, with primary French only arriving long after teenagers had been allowed to ditch the secondary version.
Fast-track GCSEs haven’t helped, either. I know quite a few youngsters with respectable French qualifications but not the foggiest idea of grammar or communication thanks to an exam set-up which concentrated on learning swathes of questions and answers by rote.
If the English Baccalaureate gets schools pushing more 14-year-olds onto language GCSE courses, then Mr Gove’s done a good job – but only as far as it goes. We need to know what’s turning off those teenagers who do take GCSEs but stop there, and why many don’t even want to pursue the subject to that level. Is it perception of the subject itself? The way it’s taught? The current structure of the exams and curriculum? The fact that most students do just three A Levels and find no room for a language specialism (as opposed to the IB where the six subjects must include a language, from scratch if necessary)? Or something else?
It would be useful to have some rudimentary answers to some of these questions (including a look at how languages are taught in some of the jurisdictions we’d like to emulate), and then perhaps come up with some suggestions – fast – on how to capture the interest of more secondary pupils. I’d suggest hiring a well-known polyglot to run the thing. Except, sadly, I can’t think of a single English person who fits that particular bill. Which kind of proves the depth and scale of the problem.
Page published: 20/08/2012