According to a feature on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme Today this morning, there’s some good news and some bad news for foreign language learning in the UK. In 2004, the Labour government took a lamentable decision to make the learning of foreign languages at GCSE level optional rather than compulsory. This policy signalled a rapid downturn in the take-up of what was already unfashionable in UK schools. Language teaching was always the poor cousin of more traditional subjects.
Amongst other things, this decline in skills - the news item went on to say - had led to under-representation of Britons working in EU institutions. Despite the fact that the UK’s share of the overall EU population amounts to 12%, only 5% of the workforce in the European Parliament and Commission is British. The argument goes that the smaller the representation, the less influence you are likely to have at a European level. The report did not go on to contend that there was a causal link between these inadequate language skills and the under-representation, but it’s fair to say that the inference was clear
When interviewed, Michael Shackleton, who runs the European Parliament Information Office in London, had this to say: “People like me are coming to retirement and its very clear there are not enough people to take our places. I think it matters at all levels of the institutions not just at the highest levels - having people from British backgrounds adds to the mix, it's really important if you want to influence what is going on. The balance of the use of language has been in favour of English, but to understand what people are thinking about you also have to get a sense of them and how they see the world.”
So much for the bad news. Now for the good, although this needs “qualification”.
The news item reported that the coalition government is aiming to reverse the trend, though its efforts have fallen well short of making foreign language learning compulsory again at secondary schools. The instrument that aims to drive language learning forward and reverse a trend that has seen the proportion of students taking language GCSEs has fallen from 61% in 2005 to 44% in 2010 is called the English Baccalaureate.
However, the EBacc, dreamed up by Tory education minister Michael Gove, is not a qualification, but simply a performance measure. With the EBacc, pupils can gain recognition by securing a satisfactory grade or better across a core of academic subjects at GCSE level – English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language. Supposedly, the theory is that, because it’s a performance measure, schools that want to achieve higher standards (= better stats) will start introducing the EBacc, and in turn this will lead to a higher take-up of languages. The number of pupils gaining the EBacc will be included in schools’ league tables data, and demand for language teachers will increase, as institutions move to boost baccalaureate subjects.
It remains to be seen what the increased take-up of languages will be. At this stage the jury must still be out: any evidence of a systemic upturn can only be anecdotal thus far. Cynics on the left argue that the EBacc, as a performance tool, is too strongly oriented towards traditionally academic (rather than vocational) subjects. The contention is that it is simply an instrument that will be used to knock schools doing good work (in other subjects) in poorer neighbourhoods and to show that they are failing, whilst schools that churn out academically gifted university material will prosper.
It's a shame really. Language learning is overarching and shouldn’t be categorised as being either academic or vocational. It is actually both. After all, languages can be used, on a higher plane, as a means whereby different societies and cultures can be better understood, and from a more prosaic point of view, as a way of furthering business with overseas partners.