Why is the UK Lacking Language Skills?

MODERN languages teaching is in crisis in large parts of England, with the study of French, German and Spanish on the verge of dying out in many areas.

More than two in three children are leaving schools in some counties without a foreign language GCSE. In towns and cities across the North such as Blackpool, Hull, Barnsley and Gateshead only a handful of pupils are achieving the grades that they need to study languages at A level and beyond.

The collapse of language courses is in danger of becoming endemic for a great number of English schoolchildren, according to data obtained by The Times.

The situation is worst in the North East, where only 15.8 per cent of language GCSEs awarded last year were A* or A grades, half the national average. But all around the country children are rejecting languages, with French the worst affected.

Failing to achieve an A*-C grade in a foreign language at GCSE can badly damage a pupil’s chances of getting into some of the country’s best universities. This year University College London will become the first university in England to bar all applicants who do not have a GCSE in a modern language.

“We believe that knowledge of a modern foreign language and the possession of intercultural skills are an integral part of a 21st-century education,” a spokesman for the university said.

The “language-skills deficit” is also hobbling Britain’s influence in Europe, where it is “severely underrepresented” in the EU civil service, according to EPSO, the service’s personnel arm. James Fothergill, the head of education and skills policy at the Confederation of British Industry, said that the organisation was “concerned” at the figures.

Entries for French in English schools have dropped by 59 per cent since 2001, from 347,000 to 141,800, while even Spanish and Italian — subjects that have remained relatively healthy in recent years — lost ground last year. The uptake of German has also dropped by more than half in the past decade and, for the first time, it has fallen behind Spanish.

The one silver lining has been the rapid growth of minority languages such as Russian and Urdu, although the figures are still relatively small.

The national results show that only 38.6 per cent of pupils in state schools took a language GCSE last year, but some areas in the North and West had much lower figures. In Hull one in seven pupils sat French and fewer than one in ten children achieved “good” GCSEs of C-grade or above in the language. There were just six French A*s in the whole city.

These figures are in stark comparison with the London Borough of Barnet, where there were more top grades in French — 181 A*s and 250 As — than the total number of candidates for the same exam in Hull.

Vanessa Harvey-Samuel, the head of services for localities and learning in Hull, said that the numbers had fallen off since the Government made languages an optional part of the GCSE curriculum in 2004.

• A third of leading companies could not find enough graduates to meet their requirements last year, despite record numbers chasing every post. Eighty-three university leavers competed for every graduate vacancy on average but one employer said that, from 1,000 applications, it would usually be able to find just six good graduates. The report, from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, also suggested that companies were viewing school leavers more favourably. One accountancy firm said that it had found that “some school leavers were stronger than graduates, so we converted some positions”.


Taken from The Times: 27.01.12