Anyone following mass media and social media cannot have failed to notice the recent high pressure storm around language learning and teaching in schools. First came the BBC investigation, published 27th February, showing sharp drops in German and French being studied in schools. Branwen Jeffreys, Education Editor, reported that the BBC analysis showed drops of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday 4th March reiterated the message and broadcast the call from Baroness Coussins, Co-Chair of the APPG for Modern Languages, for a national recovery programme to address the urgent need to rescue language learning in Britain’s schools:
“A group of MPs and peers say that schools need to teach languages to pupils from age 5 to 18 if they are to reverse what they call a disastrous decline in language skills.”*
‘Disaster’ was also the subject of Eleanor Busby, Education Correspondent for The Independent: “Britain’s dwindling language skills are a disaster for the country and needs action, MPs warn
‘We need language skills to become the norm – not the exception’”
Current political uncertainties have heightened awareness of the impending crisis in language learning and pressure to take concerted action has been building up for some time. Writing in The Guardian on Friday 1st March, David Cannadine, President of the British Academy with the backing of all the national academies, called on the government to implement a national strategy for languages saying:
“Brexit Britain cannot afford to be laissez-faire about its languages crisis”
The question is not so much ‘What is happening?’ but rather ‘What can be done to reverse the decline?
Cannadine’s article offers a suggestion in its title: “National academies urge Government to develop national languages strategy”.
The British Academy, backed by the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, has issued a call for action directed at government but also business, policymakers and social organisations.
Cannadine, believes that “Languages must be the wind in global Britain’s sails.”
Neil Kenny, Languages Lead at the British Academy is of the opinion that: “We need a genuinely joined-up national strategy for languages”
Catriona Seth, Fellow of the British Academy pointed out that: “We are a multilingual nation. We need to do all we can to value and nurture existing skills but also to ensure everyone in the United Kingdom, whatever their background or age, has access to opportunities to develop their knowledge and acquire new languages.”
Every child should have the right to learn a new language from the age of seven and make substantial progress, irrespective of their personal circumstances or the location of where they live. Achieving equity in language learning from the age of seven and developing a pedagogic approach which connects literacy in English, the new language being taught and any other languages spoken by children have been the long-held principles, forming the foundation of the RiPL Network. It is these core principles which inspired the RiPL Network to hold a Primary Languages Policy Summit, drawing together major stakeholders to discuss these and other key issues surrounding primary languages in England.
The Summit was held under the Chatham House Rule on Friday 23rd November 2018 at the British Academy. Key players in policy making and leading practitioners and academics from across the country discussed briefing papers circulated beforehand, position statements and presentations of current and best practice. The views and contributions of all the Summit participants were taken into account in elaborating a strategy to overcome some of the challenges currently faced by primary schools in delivering the statutory requirement for languages.
The resultant RiPL White Paper puts forward realistic recommendations to support the full implementation of primary languages policy. The recommendations are a call to action that involves many different decision makers, including teachers, school leaders, academics, professional associations, non-government organisations, as well as needing the support of central government.
Well, as the saying goes, “It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good!” As the storm settles, all stakeholders must press forward to make sure that positive change comes about.
*To listen again go to the Sounds playback section for Radio 4, Today programme broadcast Monday 4th March from 6-9 am. The reference occurs from 1:36:22-1:36:29. (I.e. broadcast at 07.36 and 22 seconds).
Bernardette Holmes MBE Co-Chair RIPL