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

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.