Language skills 'must be a priority for schools as Brexit approaches'

Brexit will mean more speakers of Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German are needed, says report

Eleanor Busby

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Languages should be given the same priority as science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects in schools to help tackle the UK’s “language deficit”, a new report suggests.

Language provision in many schools already “looks increasingly vulnerable”, the British Council report warns, and Brexit could further erode the already “limited language capability” in the country.

The report calls for a “bold new policy” to improve language learning in the UK and says it a “concern” that only just over one in three Britons say they are able to hold a conversation in another language.

The Languages for the Future report says Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German are the languages the UK will need most once the country leaves the European Union.

“Some of the languages we are likely to need most in future have only a marginal place in our education systems,” the report warns.

There was a 9.9 per cent fall in GCSE entries for French this year, compared with last year, with numbers dropping by more than a quarter (down 26.5 per cent) since 2010; while German saw a 13.2 per cent fall compared with last year, and the numbers dropped by more than a third (38 per cent) since 2010.

Official figures have shown a continued drop-off in French and German A-level entries this summer, while the numbers taking Spanish rose slightly. There were increases in entries for a number of other foreign languages, including Arabic, Chinese and Italian.

But despite an increase in entries for some other foreign languages this year – like Mandarin – schools still have concerns about teacher supply.

'Investment is critical'

The report says: “[Schools] are constrained, among other factors, by the availability of qualifications and of teachers. Although GCSE and A-level qualifications exist in 19 foreign languages, teacher-training courses focus almost exclusively on French, Spanish and German.

“Headteachers say their main concern is a plentiful supply of high-quality teachers, and with very few teacher-training routes available for the lesser-taught languages, introducing a new language is a considerable risk.

“These factors explain why it has been difficult for languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Japanese or Arabic to gain a foothold in the system or to achieve a critical mass, despite pockets of intense enthusiasm and good practice.”

The report concludes: “The UK has now reached a critical juncture where investment in upgrading the nation’s language skills is critical.”

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, said: “Languages are invaluable for a generation growing up in an increasingly connected world. If the UK is to be truly global post-Brexit, languages must become a national priority.

“At a time when global connections matter more than ever, it is worrying that the UK is facing a languages deficit. We cannot afford the apathy around the need for languages to continue and must champion these skills.

“If we don’t act to tackle this shortfall, we’re set to lose out both economically and culturally.”

Pippa Morgan, CBI head of education and skills policy, said: "We need to find ways to encourage more students to take up modern languages by showing just how useful it can be to their careers."

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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