Monday 17 March 2008

Should languages really be compulsory up to GCSE?

Tim Hames repeats the Times line - I assume it is he who has written the impassioned leaders over the years - that the removal of compulsory languages from the curriculum for 14-16 year-olds is a national disaster. But his argument rests on several false assumptions. For a start, there was little use in the majority of young people learning rudimentary French, the language of choice in most schools. Spanish or Mandarin, both of which are growing in popularity, are far more important for business purposes. Second, languages should be taught primarily in primary school: by 14 it is often too late, so the government is right to shift compulsion from 11-16 to 7-14, though it is a fair point that it might have done this before removing compulsion. But third, if we want better linguists, we do need to focus on the best language students, and they will learn better with those who want to learn; they are the ones who should be incentivised to study languages at university, so long as we are confident there is the genuine demand for them. When Estelle Morris dropped compulsion, she did so because 15-20% of pupils were not doing languages anyway, and her hope was that the numbers dropping it legally would be of similar proportions. No school is prevented from making or keeping languages compulsory; I am a fan of the IB, which makes languages a compulsory component. With the proposals of the Dearing Review, it is to be hoped that more schools and universities will encourage more students to learn languages. But let's not get carried away: requiring every 15 year-old to do languages will not make them linguists nor will it address our languages deficit; getting it right at seven might just do so.

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