‘How will we fare in post-Brexit trade negotiations if no one has studied MFL?’

There are few things so depressing about the current schools system as the precipitous decline in languages, writes this veteran education journalist

Richard Garner

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If one thing that has saddened me over the past couple of weeks, it is that modern foreign languages has been the first core subject to be axed by a major exam board.

For at least two decades I have campaigned, cajoled and done what I can to persuade the powers that be to do more to promote languages in schools.

I think it all started when my brother recounted a holiday he had spent with friends in Germany. He spoke German but one of his chums was having a tussle with a car-park attendant. "Hey, Graham," he said, "come over here and help me – this peasant doesn't speak English."

Whether a German would feel similarly aggrieved if they found that an English car-park attendant couldn't speak their language, I don't know

The exchange seemed to sum up what a certain section of Brits think of "Johnny Foreigner" and it betrays an attitude which will hardly help us survive in the economic world of the 21st century.

I make no bones about it: I thought the decision by Labour to axe compulsory language lessons for 14 to 16-year-olds BEFORE putting effort into promoting the subject in primary school was one of the worst made by the Blair administration in the arena of education.  (It was rivalled by the rejection of the recommendations from the Tomlinson inquiry to set up an overarching diploma for 16 and 18-year-olds.)

I wasn't the only one who thought that. My greatest "scoop" in 36 years of daily education journalism came the day after I published that story when I received a telephone call from the press attache at the German Embassy to say the ambassador would like me to come in and have a word with him. He rang back three times over the next 48 hours to say that the French, Spanish and Italian ambassadors would like to see me too. All were worried about the impact the decision would have on cultural exchanges between UK schools and those in their countries.

The slide in exam entries

Of course, Labour soon committed itself to promoting the subject in primary schools but the result of that decision was to trigger a slide in the number of pupils taking languages as an exam option – at both GCSE and A level. The slide was halted with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate under the Coalition Government but there appears to be little sign of an uptick.

Just 47.6 per cent of all candidates took a GCSE in languages in 2015 – down from 49.1 per cent the previous year and a high point of 85.5 per cent in 1998. That is why I fear the repercussions of the decision by the OCR exam board to stop offering modern foreign languages at GCSE and A level.

The Department for Education called the decision "disappointing" and pointed out that schools could choose from other exam boards offering the subject. OCR linked the decision not to offer the French, German and Spanish GCSEs that were due to be taught from September to the lack of time to get the new qualifications approved by Ofqual.

Whatever the reason, the decision is more than disappointing. Just think if, heaven forfend, we vote in favour of leaving the European Union in the referendum later this month and we end up with an education system where modern foreign languages become even more of a minority subject in schools.

We will not be best-placed to secure the "go it alone" trade deals if we have to spend a large chunk of the time in negotiations explaining that we only speak English and don't understand what our intended partners are saying.

Richard Garner was education editor of The Independent for 12 years, and has been writing about education for more than three decades

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Richard Garner

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