Editor's comment

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Any initiative flagged under the banner "National Strategy" needs direction, energy and resources. This is no less true for modern foreign languages than it is for adult basic skills or primary school reading programmes.

However, despite repeated pledges and initiatives from politicians, poor mastery of language remains a peculiarly British embarrassment. Almost 20 years ago, languages were to be at the heart of a new national curriculum.

Ten years ago, an aspiring New Labour party vowed to introduce foreign languages for all in primary schools - to bring the UK into line with all other advanced industrial nations.

In 2002, we had the National Languages Strategy to achieve "a step change in foreign language competence for this country and create an appetite for learning". The Government strategy paper outlined "plans to broaden and enrich the opportunities for language learning at school and beyond".

But what has happened since? Languages are optional from 14, numbers of pupils taking them have plummeted, the dearth of primary language teaching remains a scandal and employers are shunning otherwise highly-skilled monoglot Brits.

Twenty years of neglect by successive governments has left the UK bottom of First World language league tables.. Worse, we lack the pool of talent needed to teach and pass on those essential skills. In consequence, we cannot even find enough people to teach basic English as a second language to migrants and refugees. However, when foreign nationals do have such skills, (as we report on page 1), they leave home-grown talent standing in the dole queues.

While one might decry the lack of employer investment in languages for their staff - particularly in travel, tourism, shipping and the export trade - why should they, given the lack of investment by the state from age five?

Earlier this month, Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham college, called for a post-16 national curriculum and set of learning entitlements. She identified the absolute minimum everyone needs for the 21st century.

Foreign language skills are at the heart of that curriculum. Indeed, vocational language skills should be near top of the list.

This needs a lifelong learning initiative from central government that really is "cradle to grave", not just an under-funded after-thought for unskilled adults. All the pieces are there in the National Learning Strategy spelled out in the 2002 Department for Education and Skills report: Languages for All: Languages for Life. But where is the energy, direction and cash to underpin it?

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