Language Study in Schools



We have all laughed at the linguistic contortions performed by Officer Crabtree and the cast of ‘Allo, ‘Allo but an inability to communicate in a foreign language is no laughing matter when British business has to compete in a global marketplace. Without such an ability the British workforce of tomorrow will be at a serious disadvantage compared to their European counterparts. Indeed they already are as I witnessed last year when an English tour company representative could not make the shuttle driver understand where we needed to go and if I had not helped out who knows if we would not have left without some of the passengers or even have made it to the right hotels! A minor example but in stark contrast to the many resort staff from Eastern Europe who were often proficient in English, German and Spanish.


The number of pupils taking a foreign language at GCSE went down from 80% in 2000 to 40% in 2011 as a direct result of a 2002 decision by Mr. Blair’s Government that it should no longer be compulsory. Free to choose only 23% of State schools make it obligatory compared with 80% in the Independent sector. Ironically, pupils at Mr. Blair’s old school, the exclusive Fettes College, all study at least one to GCSE and most take more so we might ask why he chose to deny others the advantages he had himself enjoyed.


The study of languages at secondary level is compulsory in all European countries except the UK and Ireland and in many, such as Bulgaria and Romania two languages are taken to the age of eighteen whilst about half of pupils in France study two languages. In Luxembourg and parts of Belgium over half study three languages. English, German, Spanish, French and Russian being the most popular. Languages such as Basque, Corsican or Romansh which are only spoken by minorities also feature in the curriculum in some regions.


At least the recently introduced English Baccalaureate offers some hope of reversing the decline in the UK. This requires pupils to gain an A*-C in five core subjects:- English, mathematics, science and a foreign language together with either history or geography. So far four in every ten schools are reporting an increase in numbers taking a foreign language. It is to be hoped that the inclusion of this new measure in league tables will be an incentive for schools to give priority to these disciplines rather than so-called ‘soft subjects’ such as media studies, photography and drama.


At last someone appears to be “listening very carefully” to the needs of business.

First published by the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone in Particular January 2013