Building a multilingual future for modern Britain – Government intervenes to protect community languages

27 Jul 2015

Bernardette Holmes, Speak to the Future Campaign Director, writes about this recent campaign focus. To read up on the background of this campaign, click here (page opens in new tab

Speak to the Future together with other organisations and community groups has been tireless in recent months, expressing national concern over the impending removal of accreditation of a number of community and lesser-taught languages at GCSE and A Level.  We are all relieved and reassured by the School Reform Minister, Nick Gibb’s statement published on 22 July 2015 that the Government is fully committed to ‘taking action to work with the boards and Ofqual to make sure as wide a range of language subjects as possible continue to be taught in the classroom.’  The Minister also emphasised the central importance of all languages to Britain’s future, affirming that ‘in an outward-facing country such as Britain, it is important that we have high-quality qualifications not just in French, German and Spanish but also in languages such as Polish, Urdu, Arabic, Bengali, Gujarati and Turkish.’ 

All stakeholders will applaud the Government for taking swift action to intervene in this situation and to seek solutions which will secure the future of community languages teaching and accreditation in our schools. These steps demonstrate that the Government is responsive to the concerns of the languages community, and is respectful of the clear value of investing in the linguistic skills of so many of our young people.  At the current time, 14.3 per cent of children in state-funded secondary schools and 18.7 per cent of children in state-funded primary schools speak a first language known or believed to be other than English. In other words, these children are born with a bilingual advantage, which we must recognise and develop.

In a world that is hyper-connected and culturally and linguistically diverse, every language and culture contribute to building a stronger and more cohesive society, better equipped to face the economic, environmental, social and political challenges that inevitably lie ahead for all of us.  What happens in our classrooms really matters: the languages we value; the values we nurture; the cultures we mediate. An outward-facing Britain begins with an outward-facing classroom and an outward-facing education system.

Of course, behind the rhetoric resides the real work, which we must begin now.  This welcome statement of intent offers an opportunity for the languages community to work together with government and with the awarding bodies to find the best solution to the accreditation issues that we face for lesser taught languages.  Initially, the government is prepared to relax the timetable for implementing GCSE and A Level reform by one year; ‘to avoid any gap in provision in certain languages the government will, where necessary, extend the timetable for awarding organisations to continue with existing qualifications until September 2018.’  In effect this means that there is a period of one year to resolve some pretty intractable problems.

We have been told by the awarding organisations that the key issues they face in sustaining accreditation across the range of languages included in the current offer are systemic, long-term and wide-ranging.

  • The first challenge is improving low take-up. While there should be a growing demand for accreditation in a wider range of languages, the take-up overall is low and in pure market terms, this means that the product costs cannot be sustained.
  • The second challenge is finding teachers and assessors with relevant experience and expertise to develop, monitor and assess the new language qualifications, which are more demanding than before and will require high quality teacher input.
  • The third challenge relates to the status and instrumental value of the qualifications in a home language. Will home languages count in the performance tables at GCSE? Will they enjoy a status equal to that of any other language at A Level with regard to university entrance requirements?

These matters must be resolved from the outset of any new development.  We know from recent history with ASSET languages that without these essential elements in place, any new scheme is likely to falter.

We can help this process.  The first action must be to drive up demand for the existing qualifications. Whether we are in mainstream or supplementary schools, we must try to encourage as many young people as possible to enter the GCSE and A Levels in all modern languages and, in particular, in the languages under threat.  We must build professional capacity and give full support to the NRCSE (National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education), working with supplementary schools across the country. We must be strong advocates of bilingualism, stating the cognitive, cultural and economic case for the value of bilingualism.

Speak to the Future will remain active and will be in contact with all partners to ensure that communication is clear, and that messages reach the right people at the right time.

Please put Friday 16th October 2015 Language Show Live at Olympia, London into your diaries as S2F together with NRCSE will be in conference debating the future of community languages in Britain. Join us! Working together – many languages, one voice – we can and will make a difference!

Bernardette Holmes MBE
Campaign Director, Speak to the Future

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