Leading article: Languages need help

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The Independent Online

It is good news that the Government has responded to the crisis over language teaching in schools with a £115m initiative to boost the number of pupils taking languages.

It is good news that the Government has responded to the crisis over language teaching in schools with a £115m initiative to boost the number of pupils taking languages. The money will be used to train 6,000 primary school teachers so that ministers can meet their pledge of offering every seven-year-old the chance of learning a modern foreign language by the end of the decade. It will also be used to increase the number of schools specialising in languages from the current level of 211 to a new target of 400. Money will be spent on encouraging every school in the country to twin with one abroad.

Announcing the windfall, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said it was the biggest cash injection that languages had received. It is, and it is welcome for that. The Government needs to go further, however. It is all very well for ministers to promote language learning in primary schools, but languages will still be optional after the age of 14. The drive to get more primary-aged children to learn a foreign language may mean that more of them take French, Spanish or Gujerati at secondary level. But it is no guarantee in itself of reversing the trend which has seen two-thirds of state schools dropping languages for 14- to 16-year-olds.

The former chief inspector of schools, Mike Tomlinson, included an imaginative proposal to boost the take-up of languages in his final report. He suggested that languages should be a compulsory element of vocational qualifications such as leisure and tourism, and that students would only qualify for a distinction award in their intermediate diploma (which was to have been the equivalent of GCSE level) if they could show breadth of study, in other words learning a language. These ideas were ditched when the Government announced its response to Tomlinson last month. But in her evidence to the select committee on education, Kelly said that employers could always ask for compulsory language study to be a part of the proposed leisure and tourism vocational diploma - and they would be granted their request. It would be more refreshing, however, if the Government decided for itself that language learning was important for individuals and the nation. That would show some vision. As it is, ministers are washing their hands of the problem and leaving it to employers to decide what qualifications should look like.

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