Advice for Labour on languages

December 16th, 2014 by

Last week the Languages Alliance, a grouping of organisations and individuals with an interest in language teaching, held a meeting at Portcullis House which Tristram Hunt MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, was due to attend. Because of unexpected business in the House, he was unfortunately unable to be present, but members of the group, including myself, representing Speak to the Future, presented a briefing note[1] to his Parliamentary Assistant.

Here, in my own words, are what I see as the 5 key pieces of advice for Labour on languages as it goes forward into the 2015 General Election:

  1. Take the credit for previous policy successes. The leadership shown by the previous Labour administration with its National Languages Strategy laid the groundwork for the Coalition’s introduction of compulsory language learning in primary schools. This would not have been possible without the vision, curriculum development and training and support networks put in place by Labour. Specialist Language Colleges were another policy success for Labour, and these schools commonly retain a commitment to high quality language teaching, despite the discontinuation of ear-marked funding. Labour also supported the development of new qualifications in languages whose discontinuation is widely regretted by language teachers.
  2. Don’t underestimate the risk of further decline. Michael Gove has achieved a ‘quick win’ in boosting uptake for languages with his E-Bacc policy, but all the signs are that the measure will be increasingly ignored by schools. Languages could be side lined in both primary and secondary schools if all schools are given the freedom to diverge from the national curriculum, because they are seen as hard to tackle by both pupils and school leaders. A future Labour government could find itself presiding once again over a disastrous fall in numbers taking languages.
  3. Make a commitment to languages for the forgotten 50%. Participation in language learning correlates strongly with social advantage and has become associated only with a highly academic curriculum. But in a globally interconnected world, all students, not just the 50% who will go to university, should have the opportunity to gain practical language skills and an understanding of the international context of their trade or profession. The Labour Party should recognise languages alongside STEM subjects as essential within the skills, knowledge and attributes to be successful in a modern competitive world. Language study should be integrated within Labour’s plans for the Tech Bac.
  4. Support long-term improvements through continuity and consensus. Languages require a long-term commitment to learn, and neither teachers nor learners benefit from short term changes to policy. Training teachers to provide effective language teaching in primary schools across the country, supporting secondary schools to be able to build on this, developing appropriate and reliable accreditation which encourages learners to go further, all take time deliver results. Business and educational leaders alike want to see a consensus across political parties on improving the UK’s record in language learning, and an understanding of the scale of the task, not short term political point-scoring. This is advice for all parties, not just Labour.
  5. Recognise all languages as equally valuable. As an English-speaking nation, we need – and already embrace – a multiplicity of other languages.  Every additional language provides intellectual, cultural and economic benefits to those who learn it. Language learning needs advocacy from politicians and we would like to hear you speak up for all languages not just those traditionally taught in schools, or those regarded as economically useful.


[1] Many thanks to Steven Fawkes, Hilary Foottit and Terry Lamb for organising the meeting and drafting the briefing note

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