Comment: Languages need to be a priority for the pupils' and the nation's sake

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The Independent Online

The employment outlook for young people is looking grim as this country struggles to create jobs and opportunities in the aftermath of the recession.

Employers want people who are internationally aware and confident about working across different cultures. Increasingly too, they want people with language skills and they are finding them not amongst our own home grown talent but in young people from other parts of Europe and beyond. If we want to give our young people the best possible chance to succeed, we need to make sure that they have had a strong grounding in foreign languages at school.

That’s why we were delighted when the Government announced last year that languages are to become a statutory part of the primary curriculum from 2011. But if you are 14 or 15 you are more likely than not to have given up on languages. Most schools now have fewer than half their pupils studying a language after 14.

Of course, we’ve known for some time that there has been a huge drop out from languages since they were made optional post 14. This was put down to pupils’ disaffection with the subject. Teenagers were supposedly turned off languages by uninspiring course content and teaching.. Now teachers are saying that it is not pupil attitudes that are the problem but the system of ever-widening option choices, a scrabble for good grades and performance table pressures on schools which prevent higher take up.

We urgently need to fix this before a whole generation of children is left with a gaping hole in their education – one which will leave them disadvantaged in life. Languages need to be made more of a priority, they are strategically important to us as a nation – for our economy, our security and the role we aspire to play on the international stage. We will work with government, headteachers, universities and employers to build more incentives into the system. We want schools to be able to embrace languages as a subject which fulfils their high level educational objectives and pupils to be able to choose to do a language without fear of dropping a precious grade.

We could do this through the points system, through ‘light touch’ compulsion which gives languages a higher status in the curriculum and in the new diplomas or through university entrance requirements. What is important is that we act now before too many young people find that decisions made in the short term about giving up on languages have long term consequences for them and for the country as a whole.

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