Non-compulsory languages – the government decision that has done most to harm social mobility in the UK

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August 22, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith


10 years ago a decision was made that destroyed the life chances of many a bright student. In a move that by itself probably set back social mobility further than almost any educational decision, it was decided by the Labour government of the time that a foreign language should no longer be compulsory at GCSE. At the time the reasoning stated for it was that it was about to be introduced at primary school, so there was no need to make it compulsory. But there was suspicion then that the real reason was that pupils were not understanding the value of languages, finding them hard, and to achieve the continual rise in grades that Labour were after at the time it would be ‘easier’ not to make languages compulsory.

Fast forward to now and think about looking at two CVs as an employer. Both have the same GCSE grades, both same A-level grades, even the same university grades. But one candidate speaks a foreign language to GCSE level and the other doesn’t. Many businesses in this country deal with customers and business partners abroad, so a language means something to employers. Given languages are still compulsory in most independent schools but not in state schools is it any surprise that this will be a major factor in a lack of social mobility in this country?

But let’s forget for a moment about the type of job you can get or how much money you can earn, learning a language is important for us as citizens of the world. I only studied French and Spanish to GCSE level but they have come in extremely useful for making myself understood in a variety of countries, but also for reading signs and information and for being able to understand what is going on around me. I have been to places where no one speaks English, and the fact that so many of our population simply wouldn’t be able to function there because of a government decision that was made I suspect to improve reported results more than anything else is scandalous.

In fact, Estelle Morris, who was Education Secretary at the time and was suspected to be very much in the pocket of the education profession, admitted it was actually part of an anti-truancy drive. Labour had made a commitment in 1997 to reduce truancy by a third, and Headteachers were reporting that they were having trouble getting those truants back unless the classroom was made more “flexible”, which translated into languages becoming non-compulsory. Achieving that truancy target was all well and good, but Morris admits that she just didn’t realise that “all and sundry would just drop languages”.

Well, they did, and we are poorer as a country for it. What’s more, it is the poorer pupils who suffer from it most. Michael Gove put languages into the Ebacc to give schools a ‘nudge’ that they were important, but this isn’t enough. Learning a language should be a right, not a privilege.

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