By Drew Nicol
Britain’s education system is failing thousands of young people every year by neglecting to emphasise the importance of learning a foreign language, according to the British Council.
The British Council’s ‘Languages for the Future’ report conclusively states that “it is a widely held – if not undisputed – view that the UK is lacking in the necessary language skills for the future”.
The report claims that the increasing numbers of British graduates will struggle to compete in a global market without having at least a basic grasp of one of the ‘top ten’ languages, judged to be Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese.
John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, argues: “If we don’t act to tackle this shortfall, we’ll lose out economically and culturally. Languages aren’t just an academic issue – they are a practical route to opportunity for the UK in business, culture and all our lives.”
This year’s CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey has revealed that 70 per cent of UK Businesses put a serious emphasis on foreign language skills, but only 44 per cent of GSCE students took a foreign language option this year. This dramatic shortfall of linguistic talent is severely hampering the competitiveness of Britain’s young professionals in the global job market. Britain’s graduates are finding themselves poorly equipped to compete when faced with the reality that they are coming up against foreign graduates with equivalent degrees who are also bilingual, or even trilingual.
The British Council has voiced concerns over findings that “British employers regularly express dissatisfaction with school and college leavers’ skills in languages. In a 2013 survey of businesses by the Confederation of British Industry only 36 per cent were satisfied with their employees’ language skills, compared with 93 per cent who were satisfied or very satisfied with school and college leavers’ skills in the use of IT.”
Increasing trade between the UK, China and the Middle East has resulted in a growing number of banks and other businesses being based in the UK, requiring their employees to have a foundation in either Mandarin or Arabic. Young people currently entering the jobs market with a qualification in these languages will have a huge advantage over the majority of their competitors. Despite this obvious incentive the languages report has cited a dismally low number of young people in school or further education with efficient language skills.
The British Council found that: “The achievement of pupils in England in the European Survey on Language Competences was poorer than that of pupils from any other country taking part. In fact, 30 per cent of 15 year olds about to take their GCSE exams did not achieve any measurable level at all in the language they were studying.”
“Languages now make up only 3.8 per cent of all subject entries, meaning that fewer than one in every 26 students learns a language beyond a basic level. French and German entries fell by ten per cent and 11 per cent respectively, following on from five per cent and seven per cent declines in 2012/11”
Mr Worne also stresses the importance of languages, even for those planning on working within the UK: “Given that Japanese car manufacturers, Chinese infrastructure developers and French utility companies all make huge contributions in the UK, you do not need to cross the equator or even the English Channel to find situations and jobs where even a little Chinese, Japanese, or French can be a real career enhancer.”
The current government is increasingly looking to create closer trade links with developing Eastern superpowers such as China. However, there is a total lack of infrastructure within the British education system to support these efforts, with evidence suggesting we are not equipped with the necessary skills to cope in a global economy.
The Languages for the Future report has highlighted huge deficiencies in the way we educate young people in Britain. The Government must act now to empower future generations with the ability to compete against their European and Asian peers. The consequences of ignoring warning signs such as the one offered by the British Council could cripple Britain’s economy in years to come.