A recent report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) suggests that learning a foreign language should be compulsory for students up to the age of 16.

The report, published in January this year, cites an EU-wide survey showing that just 32% of young people in the UK are able to read or write in more than one language. This is compared to 79% of young people in France and more than 90% in Germany.

In light of the report’s findings, Hepi has called for an overturning of the UK government’s decision to drop the compulsory study of languages at key stage four, made in 2004. This has led to a significant decline in the number of students going on to study languages at college and university.

It was a big mistake to scrap compulsory foreign languages at GCSE.

Megan BowlerAuthor of Hepi report

Hepi is also recommending that the government should subsidise the teaching of languages at universities, to support lesser taught languages for ‘strategic and cultural reasons’.

Megan Bowler, author of the report, said: “It was a big mistake to scrap compulsory foreign languages at GCSE.

“Rather than continuing to present languages as not suitable for everyone, we need to include a broader range of pupils learning through a variety of qualifications geared to different needs.

“Given the shortage of language skills in the workforce, we should safeguard higher education language courses, particularly those involving less widely-taught languages, and prioritise extra-curricular language learning opportunities.”

Since language lessons have been no longer compulsory fewer than half of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sit a GCSE foreign language exam. This is compared with three in four students in 2002 – when studying was compulsory.

German GCSE entries in particular have dropped by 67%, while French entries have dropped by 62%.

Hepi director Nick Hill says that making foreign languages optional at GCSE was ‘one of the worst education policy blunders’ in recent memory.

“In terms of speaking foreign languages, the British have never been good. But now the level has gone from low to dire,” he said.

The British Academy said it shares many of Hepi’s concerns outlined in its report.

Neil Kenny, British Academy languages lead said: “With Brexit just around the corner, we need linguists more than ever. Languages are vital for effective trade, diplomacy and soft power, for social cohesion, social mobility and educational attainment – all of which will be essential to the UK’s future success.

Another symptom of the decline in foreign language study has been a shortage of teachers. The report has recommended that language teachers be added to the Home Office’s shortage occupation list, to help recruit teaching staff from overseas. Currently, only Mandarin teachers are on the list.

The report also suggested that GCSEs in England be supplemented by less academic alternative qualifications, which would include one for vocational use and another for the study of community languages. Both would be available up to the end of sixth form.

During their research, Hepi also found that the devolved school systems in Wales and Scotland have had more success than England in encouraging the study of languages, particularly in primary schools.

Students with Mandarin teacher

Image credit: British Council

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