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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage