Adult language courses are essential if we want UK exports to grow, says David Sherlock. Joseph Lee reports
The Government has been attacked by the chief inspector of adult education for treating foreign languages as no more important than flower arranging.
Cuts to adult education are likely to harm the UK's economic competitiveness by preventing people from learning new languages, the inspectorate said in a report.
David Sherlock, chief inspector at the Adult Learning Inspectorate, said:
"As long as foreign languages are grouped in the same category as flower arranging and basket weaving there is little hope that the situation will improve.
"We need to do more to value and encourage competence in a foreign language as a vocational skill as well as an enhancement of people's lives.
"Our inability to communicate effectively in languages other than our own poses a risk to our future competitiveness in a global economy."
Although about a million adults are learning languages, the UK is at the bottom of the league table of European countries in terms of the proportion of people who speak a second language.
Earlier studies suggest languages are crucial for economic growth.
A survey of 1,000 exporters in 2003 by the British Chambers of Commerce found that firms which did not emphasise language skills were losing Pounds 50,000-worth of sales a year.
Those which placed the highest value on languages were growing by Pounds 290,000 a year.
Bill Midgley, the chambers' president, said: "It's no good having glossy brochures - it's probably no good having a good product - if you can't even talk their language. You'll fall at the first hurdle."
The report on language courses for adults criticised the lack of opportunities to learn languages as part of vocational training, leaving the under-pressure evening classes as the only option for many people.
It said that there was too little local planning, insufficient co-operation and over-reliance on part-time tutors.
Too many tutors are poorly qualified and students do not receive good advice and guidance, it added.
Colleges' responses to the cuts in adult education had also confused matters, inspectors said. Managers were converting courses which do not lead to qualifications into accredited courses to qualify for funding.
But where that was inappropriate or ignored students' lack of previous experience it was driving students away.
ALI's report follows critical research by the Learning and Skills Development Agency last year, which said the Government had failed to integrate foreign languages into vocational education.
Companies reported errors that cost hundreds of thousands of pounds because of misplaced orders and mistakes by British staff with poor language skills. They were increasingly hiring staff born outside the UK instead.
Bill Rammell, the further and higher education minister, has led the calls for "recreational" courses in languages such as Spanish to lose Government funding.
He has said the Government should not have to pay for the owners of holiday homes to brush up their language skills.
Responding to the report, he was more circumspect. "To compete in the global economy, we must extend our language skills in all age groups," Mr Rammell said.
He said that the 10-year National Languages Strategy will help to ensure that schoolchildren from primary level upwards learn languages, although the ALI report says that, four years on from its launch, major problems remain.
Mr Rammell also claimed that work to improve post-16 language teaching was already having an effect.
The Department for Education and Skills added it remains committed to learning for personal fulfilment, civic participation and community development, with pound;210m allocated for this purpose next year.
Colleges estimate this represents a cut of one million places on adult evening classes, although the department argues that people should be expected to pay for classes where they have the means to do so.
Languages for adults: overcoming the barriers is available from www.ali.gov.uk