Preparing younger learners for life in post-Brexit Britain
Bernardette Holmes MBE, Co-Chair Research in Primary Languages Network
31st January 2020
11:PM 23:00 Greenwich Mean Time on Friday, 31st January 2020 marks the moment when the United Kingdom formally ends its membership of the European Union, severing a relationship that has been in place for 47 years. The historic significance of this event and its ongoing ramifications will affect everyone in every part of the country, irrespective of affiliations to either side of the Brexit debate, which continues to divide public opinion in all four corners of the UK. As educators, and linguists, now more than ever, we must ask ourselves how we can best prepare younger learners for life in post-Brexit Britain, and question the role of languages within that remit.
While no-one would suggest that the purposes of education, particularly in primary schools, should be subservient to the needs of the economy, it is equally important that education, alongside politicians and employers, plays its part in responding to the challenges of the modern world and provides opportunities for young people to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will equip them to address those challenges and build a better future.
The importance of access to high quality languages education for primary pupils is still contested within education circles and in broader society. It has become clear that the implementation of primary languages is not a priority for the current government, and the emphasis given to STEM subjects in the secondary sector and in society worldwide has contributed to an ongoing decline in uptake of modern languages at Key Stage 4. There is no question that we need to develop expertise in STEM subjects, but equally, there is a view, steadily building momentum across civil society, acknowledging that young people will need to develop soft skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity, and that it is these essentially human skills which will give them the advantage over automation and artificial intelligence.
Employers are calling for a broad and balanced curriculum, and educational provision which develops character, defined as resilience, the ability to make decisions, to work collaboratively and show empathy. It is in developing these areas that modern languages and intercultural education can play a vital role. Plainly, there is a growing case to be made that to address global challenges, we need young people with expertise in STEM subjects AND languages.
It seems logical that languages education should increase in importance in post-Brexit Britain in both primary and secondary schools. It also seems logical that employers have a valuable contribution to make in shaping attitudes towards languages education and demonstrating through lived experience the value of language skills, cultural agility and international experience.
In post-Brexit Britain, there could be fresh opportunities to redefine the role and position of languages in the curriculum and thereby increase the status of the subject and bring about a long-awaited societal change in attitudes towards language learning: but, note the use of the conditional ‘could be’. What can we do now to promote such opportunities? How can we strengthen the provision of languages in primary schools? How can employers help to raise the status of primary languages for the future?
One of the first and most positive actions that primary schools could take is to encourage and support increased participation from employers and school governors (who are often local employers) in the daily life of the school. We know from research that employer engagement in the primary curriculum can have a long-term impact on learners’ attitudes towards specific subjects. Learners who hear from employers about how language skills or cultural awareness have helped them carry out their work with reference to real life situations, are more likely to think positively about languages and begin to develop a greater sense of the relevance of language skills to their own lives. Findings from longitudinal studies have shown a relationship between children’s attitudes towards careers as seven-year-olds and what happens to them later in life (Mann, Kashefpakdel and Iredale 2017). “Children rule things out and rule things in at a young age? – Is it relevant to me? Do people like me do science? Do particular subjects have a meaning for me?” Mann 2017.
Now is the time for those questions to relate to languages as well as science: Do people like me do languages? Employer engagement through school visits, competitions and projects involving languages and cultures can contribute to creating a culture where languages have a higher profile and greater status. Employers can bring languages to life, showing what being able to speak another language or languages, and being aware of other ways of being and thinking, and comfortable in moving within and between diverse cultures, can mean in real life and in the working world. Employer engagement can support the taught curriculum and bring the additional value of authentic experience to the classroom, helping children make sense of what they are learning and why.
Languages and cultural education, if taught well, help children develop a clearer perspective on the world. Isn’t that just what we need right now?
Primary Futures: connecting life and learning in UK primary education Dr Anthony Mann, Dr Elnaz Kashefpakdel and Steve Iredale Occasional Research Paper 12 May 2017
Education and Learning for the Modern World: CBI/Pearson 2019 Education and Skills Survey report
The Global Learner Survey, Pearson, September 2019
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