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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser