Leading article: The insularity of our national curriculum

Share
Related Topics

It was another record year for GCSE results, with congratulations due to all concerned. Particularly welcome was the large rise in pupils taking individual sciences. That is a highly positive sign and one which, it must be hoped, will lead to more students taking science to A-level and beyond. But there was also a black spot in these results, as there has been for several years.

While maths and science now appear to be on the rebound, the figures for foreign languages offer no such cheer. Entries for French and German are down again, as are entries for languages overall. It is true that more pupils are taking languages such as Mandarin, Polish and Portuguese that have not been staples of the school curriculum, but the interest in foreign languages generally, and the opportunity to learn them – two strands which are mutually reinforcing – remain in serious decline. Of the languages traditionally taught in schools, only Spanish has shown a slight increase.

Optimists argue that the fall in take-up of languages generally is slowing. But the numbers now taking a language to GCSE at all are so comparatively small that there is not, realistically, much further to fall. In most state schools in England, only a minority now attain an A* to C grade in even one foreign language. Compared with almost any other European country, this is nothing short of a disgrace.

Some will be tempted to blame what they see as the insular outlook of young people in this country. But that would be not only unjust but quite wrong. In many ways, today's younger generation is more internationally aware than any before. No; most of the blame must be placed squarely on the last government for making foreign languages optional after 14, before the supposed quid pro quo – foreign language teaching in primary schools – was anything like in place. Nor has the new Government given any hint of wanting to reinstate compulsory language study to GCSE.

Making languages optional at 14 has had several consequences, each as predictable as it is regrettable. The first was to signal that an acquaintance with even one foreign language was a luxury rather than a necessity. The second was to reinforce the impression that languages were difficult, and so to be avoided, by pupils and schools concerned about scores and league tables. And the third was to encourage schools to scale down language teaching and divert resources elsewhere.

There was a fourth result, too, which was to widen the gap between state and independent schools. While languages slid down the pecking order in state schools, they retained their place in the independent sector. Hence the conclusion that those educated at state schools now risk being locked out of senior jobs in business, where a foreign language is deemed an asset.

It can, of course, be hard for schools to convince pupils that a foreign language is worth working at, given the currency of English around the world. And ministers have argued that multicultural Britain has a relatively large bi- and tri-lingual population whose skills are under-recognised and under-used. It is true that the country is not as monolingual as it seems. But those skills should be treated as a bonus, not an excuse for schools to abandon language teaching for the rest.

The point is that if schools do not introduce pupils to foreign languages, who will? Nor should the value of a foreign language, even to a native English-speaker, be in doubt. Unusually, we now have a senior member of the British Government who is multilingual. One glimpse at the reception accorded to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, when he speaks to foreign counterparts in their own language should suffice to show the transformational effect. A foreign language is an asset; it is high time we recognised this and set language teaching far higher up our national scale of priorities.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Benedict Cumberbatch attends a special screening of his latest film The Imitation Game  

Benedict Cumberbatch race row: What's the actual difference between 'coloured' and 'person of colour'?

Matthew Norman
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore