Why is the government ripping into language learning?

It's culturally insulting that only classical and modern language GCSEs count towards Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate.

In the middle of a recession, this country is about to decimate a rich resource. Locked in some of our poorest communities, this resource is completely sustainable and promises to boost export growth. Over one million young people in state schools already speak part of another language at home – Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese and Urdu to name but a few. But instead of investing in this talent, the government is about to rip up qualifications in some twenty languages.

Yesterday I went to see how this was affecting Archbishop Lanfranc school, situated in a make shift part of Croydon somewhere between suburbia and an industrial site. Walk in off the busy main road and you're in a concrete playground with paint chipping off the walls and cracked windows. Despite the chronic underinvestment, the atmosphere is great. Kids of every colour walk and laugh in navy uniforms, and red geraniums wave between the cracks. Talent is allowed to flourish when it is brought into the light.

Nisha Chauhan, 14, is one of the students here. Her Dad is Kenyan Asian, but they don’t speak Gujarati at home because her Mum was born and bred in Luton and doesn’t speak a word. Her grandparents still speak it, but they’re getting old and Nisha is the only granddaughter out of nine that will carry it on. Without her language classes after school on Thursdays, it would quickly fade away.

“My grandparents are really proud,” she tells me with striking earnesty and big brown eyes, “Being able to learn, read and write in your own language is something you should be proud of. It’s an extra qualification that takes you somewhere. It expands what you know.”

The problem is that Nisha might be the last generation to access these classes. Cuts to the OCR exam board mean that they are axing the qualification in many community languages, known as the Asset programme. This programme was set up to provide a recognised qualification below GCSE and build skills. It created an incentive for schools to teach more lanugages and for community and Saturday schools to spring up after class. Now twenty out of twenty five examinations are facing the axe including Hindi, Cantonese and Tamil.

Without Asset, it will be impossible to get any qualifications in a host of languages including Swedish, Yoruba and Somali. For others there will still be a GCSE option, but many young people are not at a high enough standard to be entered, so talent will be left undeveloped.

Kausar Ali, co-ordinator of community languages at Archbishop Lanfranc school who has been teaching Urdu for over twenty years, says learning will cease, teachers will be sacked, investment in teaching resources will be wasted and languages may go silent.

“If the language exam isn’t there, we can’t keep the teachers. I don’t know yet how many we’d lose. Teaching and learning will go down… and as a school we’ll lose the UCAS points… the community are very angry.”

Nor does this make economic sense. The government’s 2010 report into sustainable growth stressed the need to increase international trade, investment and exports to get us back to growth. Increasingly we’re told that we need to look beyond Europe to make that happen. A recent CBI report has said that if we’re serious about winning back our competitive edge, we desperately need to invest in multilingualism. At present just 4 per cent of our A level entries are in languages.

It’s complacent to think that the rest of the world will learn English and talk to us on our terms. We have to reach out to other markets, and anyone who has seen the vibrant Turkish and Asian shops spring up on our high streets knows that our ethnic minority communities can help us achieve that. Some 113,000 children already speak Punjabi in this country, 85,000 speak Bengali and 15,000 speak Yoruba according to the department for education. But we have to get those languages accredited and up to business standard to be able to make use of them. Otherwise they risk slipping into the shadows.

Michael Gove’s new English Baccalaureate recognises the importance of languages, but only classical and modern language GCSEs count towards the new qualification. This isn’t just culturally insulting, it’s economically senseless. What kind of message does it send to say a language is not worth accrediting? Why should Latin count and Cantonese not? Why should we learn Italian, when so many more speak Hindi and India is growing so much faster? In essence we’re saying some languages are worthless, when in truth they’re all gold dust.

Teaching these languages also helps social inclusion, because it lets ethnic minority children know that they have something special to offer this country. Praneetha Yogeswaran, 15, moved over to the UK just a few years ago with her mother when her Dad passed away. She was under-confident and spoke little English, but her weekly Tamil classes after school spurred her on. The assembly certificates and the extra exam points made her feel it was worth sticking to her wider studies.

“My friends talk about it and say it’s a good thing and that it will offer me better chances with jobs,” says Praneetha, “They say I’m lucky.”

It’s a given that all British students should learn English as a priority. But Praneetha’s brother’s extra qualification in Tamil helped get him the UCAS points he needed to go to university. Now Praneetha hopes her Tamil exam will help fulfill her dream of studying accountancy at university. This isn’t about ethnic communities becoming more introverted; it’s about plugging them into the mainstream. Sadly her little sister might not have that chance. At eight-years-old she loves her Tamil classes, but she won’t be able to get the recognised reward for them.

Back in class Ms Ali looks worried. Over 40 students in her school are taking Asset languages every year, along with several thousand more across the UK. Although OCA say they will announce their final decision later this month, there is no formal consultation going on. Several thousand people have already signed a petition run by the campaigning group Speak to the Future to stop the cuts, and now students have started back after the summer, it will be easier to co-ordinate protests. If this decision isn’t reversed, we will be tearing up a truly British asset.

The 25 languages offered by OCR in the Asset scheme are: Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Cornish, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Panjabi, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swedish, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Welsh and Yoruba

Only French, German, Spanish, Italian and Mandarin will stay.

Language learning under the cosh. Photograph, Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.