I have recently been reading a few articles about the dwindling take-up of Modern Foreign Languages in schools and other teaching establishments. Topics of note include how the number of students taking up a language GCSE has dropped, how Swansea University is considering restructuring its whole language department (with a likely impact on its MA in Translation Studies) and reducing staff numbers, and how a scheme to encourage primary school pupils to start a foreign language has been scrapped. All this is mostly due to political decisions, lack of funding, the recession and ongoing budget cuts.

In my opinion, Tony Blair’s Labour government made an unfortunate decision in 2004 to do away with the compulsory study of modern languages from the age of 14, at a time when exporting companies were already having difficulty recruiting staff with good language skills. To illustrate this point: from 2004 to 2006 I prepared for a PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate of Education) whilst working for BLS. Towards the end of the course I had to present a topical discussion seminar which I entitled “Crisis in Post-16 Foreign Language Training”. The debate I led was underpinned by two pieces of evidence:

–       A 2004 survey by the British Chambers of Commerce entitled “The Impact of Foreign Languages on British Business: 20% of British exporters know they are losing overseas business through their inability to overcome language and cultural differences”;

–       An article in the Times Education Supplement, dated 23 February 2006, which stated that “British job seekers are losing out to less skilled staff from overseas because of their appalling foreign language skills. […] Employers in some of the fastest-growing industries say they have to reject home-grown students – regardless of other skills – because they cannot communicate in the client’s language.”

Since then no improvement has been made, as demonstrated by the latest figures showing a decline in the number of 14 to 16-year-old students studying a foreign language, from 73% in 2004 to 44% in 2008. In 2001, 10.4% of all GCSE entries were a language subject; this had dropped to just 6.9% by 2008.

Such examples are endless, and disheartening for the language industry, not just from an educational point of view, but professionally too. Is it all doom and gloom though? Not quite…

BLS is a recognised centre for vocational qualifications. In 2006 several of our students prepared for and passed the Certificate of Business Language Competence (CBLC) at different levels, in French or German. Entries later slowed but the CBLCs are now being replaced with full language National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and we hope to encourage some of our clients in that direction, so that they can gain a work-based qualification. Last year was a pilot year for these new NVQs in schools, so children could choose between standard language GCSEs or a more vocationally-focused qualification. Results have been very encouraging, staff and pupils praising the NVQ structure, for its “user-friendly assessment methods and work-related context – developing business skills and competence” (CILT Cymru news magazine, issue 25 – www.ciltcymru.org.uk).

This is encouraging news for British industries.

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