New fronts in the battle for minority languages

14th October 2011 at 01:00
Campaign groups press on in their bid for GCSE status

While the number of pupils sitting a mainstream language GCSE is in something close to a full-blown nosedive, minority languages, often taught outside normal school hours, have blossomed. Now two more minorities, both of which have seen their UK populations grow in recent years, have launched a lobbying campaign to encourage exam boards to allow pupils to take a GCSE in their native languages.

Led by two community groups - Somali Youth United and its Albanian counterpart Shpresa - the campaign aims to get at least one of the major exam boards to introduce GCSEs in their languages, in a bid to raise their status.

They point to the fact that thousands of schoolchildren from their communities across the country attend "complementary schools" - community-based, voluntary organisations that offer language and literacy teaching in the evenings or over weekends.

The move is in stark contrast to the rapid decline in the number of pupils studying foreign languages in school. Some 307,386 pupils gained a GCSE in a foreign language in 2011, down from 348,528 last year and 553,566 in 2002.

The campaign was launched after exam boards rejected attempts to get Somali and Albanian recognised as qualifications. Last month, talks between Shpresa and the OCR exam board failed, according to Luljeta Nuzi, project director of the Shpresa programme.

"They said they need a business case, but we need to know what this business case is. How much money do they need?" Ms Nuzi said. She argues that by refusing them GCSEs in their languages, the boards are refusing to recognise children's skills.

An OCR spokesman confirmed that while the board was interested in community and minority languages and was keen to support them, neither Albanian nor Somali was suited to becoming a GCSE. However, the groups plan to push this agenda with a letter-writing campaign.

They have also looked to academia for support and recruited a number of academics to support their argument. Dr Charmian Kenner, lecturer in education studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, is one. Mainstream languages, she said, were being dropped by pupils at the "same time as there are young people ready to develop a (community) language, but don't get a chance".

"It would be great to widen the number of languages in mainstream schools," Dr Kenner added. "This should be supported. Exam boards should enter dialogue with these groups. I would recommend that the Government puts in funding to the complementary schools."

Another academic who has backed the community groups is Dr Raymonde Sneddon, research fellow at the University of East London. "We need to extend the range of GCSEs (in languages) children can take," he said. "Around 55 languages are taught in complementary schools around the country. Being able to take a GCSE (in their home language) is beneficial, including to businesses.

"I don't feel this should be based on commercial principles," Dr Sneddon added.

But none of this support, nor the energy of the campaigners, has influenced the stance of OCR, which insists that there are other, more suitable directions to take. "As a not-for-profit organisation with an education mission, OCR is always happy to talk to interested parties about new qualifications," a spokesman said.

"Between them, the GCSE awarding bodies protect and promote a large number of minority languages, all of which are subsidised by other qualifications. (But) because GCSE is not always the right model to follow, especially in languages, OCR also produces the Asset programme.

"It is called Asset because we regard these languages as assets to the United Kingdom. Somali is an Asset language. Albanian could be considered for Asset were discussions conducted on the basis of openness, mutual respect and partnership."

A Department for Education spokesman insisted that it was a matter for the individual exam boards to decide what they offered.

That is indeed the case - but unless they do a fast about-turn on Albanian and Somali, the boards had better get used to hearing from these passionate campaigners.

Estimated population resident in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics

55k - Somali residents

14k - Albanian residents.

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