Learning a new language should be compulsory for pupils up to the age of 16, according to a new report highlighting the UK’s recent abysmal record of encouraging young people to study languages other than English.
The report published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) cites an EU-wide survey showing that only 32% of young people in the UK say they can read or write in more than one language, compared to 79% of their peers. in France and more than 90% in Germany.
The report calls for the reversal of the government’s 2004 decision to drop compulsory study of languages at the fourth key stage – when pupils take GCSE exams in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – which which led to a sharp drop in the number of people in England. study languages in colleges and universities.
It also recommends that the government start subsidizing language teaching in universities, “in light of declining enrollments and the growing vulnerability of less taught languages”, for strategic and cultural reasons.
“It was a big mistake to remove compulsory foreign languages from the GCSE,” said Megan Bowler, the report’s author. “Rather than continuing to portray languages as not suitable for everyone, we need to include a wider range of students learning through a variety of qualifications suited to different needs.
“Given the shortage of language skills in the labor market, we should preserve higher education language courses, especially those involving less widely taught languages, and prioritize out-of-school language learning opportunities .”
Less than half of all pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take a GCSE foreign language exam, down from three in four in 2002, when education was compulsory. The report notes that German GCSE entries have fallen by 67% since 2002, while French entries have fallen by 62%.
The British Academy said it supports the report’s recommendations, which align with many of its own concerns.
“With Brexit fast approaching, we need linguists more than ever. Languages are essential for effective trade, diplomacy and soft power, for social cohesion, social mobility and educational attainment, all of which will be essential to the future success of the UK,” said Neil Kenny, Head of Languages at the British Academy.
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said making foreign languages optional at the GCSE was one of the worst educational policy mistakes in recent memory, and reinstating them was “no brainer”.
“In terms of speaking foreign languages [the British] have never been good. But now the level has gone from low to terrible,” Hillman said.
The report suggests that GCSEs in England should be supplemented by alternative, less academic qualifications, including one for the use of professional languages and another for the study of community languages, available until the end of year six.
A symptom of the decline has been a shortage of teachers, with the report recommending that language teachers be added to the Home Office’s shortage occupations list, to help recruit teaching staff from overseas. Currently, only Mandarin teachers are on the list.
The report notes that the devolved school systems of Wales and Scotland have been more successful in encouraging the study of languages than that of England, particularly in primary schools.