UK plc held back
The decline in language learning is holding back both young people and UK plc as a whole. The report highlights consistently high employer demand for people with foreign language skills, whether conversational or fluent. Language ability gives young people an edge in securing jobs across a wide range of sectors and professional levels.
This year’s exam results confirmed a continuing alarming decline in pupil enrolments in modern foreign languages qualifications especially at A level. A comprehensive survey by the European Commission in 2006 confirmed that the UK has the worst language skills in Europe. Beginning in the 1990s, decline became more rapid after 2004 when language learning at Key Stage 4 (KS4) or GCSE level became an optional, rather than compulsory, subject of study.
While language proficiency is in demand across the economy, it has a specific relevance to the UK’s trade performance. The UK exports disproportionately to English speaking countries, and a lack of language ability is a major reason for this.
And it is not just our economic welfare which is suffering. Social immobility is reinforced because the opportunity to study languages has become heavily determined by the social characteristics of a pupil’s school. In 2010, less than 10% of schools with the highest proportion of Free School Meals (a key indicator of deprivation) made languages compulsory. This compares with 50% of schools with the lowest level of Free School Meals.
Former Treasury Economic Adviser, Professor Foreman-Peck, of Cardiff University, estimates the costs to the UK economy of under-investment in languages relative to other countries as “the equivalent of between a 3% – 7% tax on British exports. Since exports are about one quarter of GDP, the impact is substantial. At stake in 2009 was a minimum of Ã‚Â£7.3 billion. It would be worth spending up to this sum on improving language skills if the outlay brought British proficiency to the world average by reducing language-induced trade costs”.
Brian Lightman, general secretary the Association of School and College Lecturers (ASCL) “This paper sets out a compelling case for young people to learn languages and describes convincingly the benefits to employers. Schools and colleges now need employers to bring their voices into the classroom to communicate this argument to young people and their parents. I am very pleased to lend ASCL’s full support to this important work and urge employers to join in.”
Roland Rudd, Senior Partner at Finsbury says: “Business knows that linguistic ability is important; it boosts employment prospects and is inextricably linked to our success as an exporter of goods and services. Employers are ready to encourage their staff to work with schools to get this message across which is why I welcome the Inspiring the Future initiative which connects language teachers and employee volunteers in a simple yet enormously effective way.”
There is hope that the tide can be turned.
The campaign for languages
Through Speak to the future – the campaign for languages – professional associations, businesses and individuals are joining forces to make the case to the government, to the media and to the general public. The initiative, which is funded by the British Academy, will get the message out in 2012 and beyond about the value of languages by supporting events, projects and a social media campaign.
Careers and role of employers
In 2010, the Government announced that languages would form part of the English Baccalaureate. This may encourage some schools to place greater focus on languages, but there are broader issues. One major barrier to uptake at 14 and 16 is the information gap that exists between young people’s perceptions (often assuming that languages are irrelevant to their future) and the reality in the labour market. This is a key reason why employers can do so much good by working with teachers to bring learning to life and demonstrate its value in the workplace. Employers of all sizes and sectors need to work with state schools and colleges to promote language learning before the decline in terminal.
Only half of young people receive advice on careers directly from employers whilst they are at school or college.
How employers can work with schools
Inspiring the Future is a new free way for people who use languages at work to volunteer to share real life experiences with young people at state schools and colleges. Inspiring the Future allows teachers to connect with people locally who are well placed to talk to pupils about how choices made at school can affect their future lives. It’s an opportunity for employee volunteers to talk about how they use languages in their job and encourage young people to see the wide range of jobs where languages are important.