Why we need our community languages exams
March 16th, 2015 by Teresa Tinsley
Back in 2013 my colleague Kate Board and I undertook some research for the British Council investigating which languages the UK will need most in the next 20 years, and why. We took into consideration not just trade and the potential for UK exports, but whether cultural and strategic ties were likely to expand or need strengthening. We made the point that our country already has a rich asset in the pool of speakers of different languages amongst its population. Children whose parents speak Turkish, Arabic or Chinese are in a position to make much more rapid progress with those languages than those whose only contact with the new language is in the classroom.
For over 20 years, the education system has recognised this important fact by providing a range of languages at GCSE and A level (and even more through the Asset Languages scheme, which was withdrawn in 2013). But as exams become tools for measuring school performance rather than accrediting what individuals can do, the rationale for offering a wide range of languages is melting away. The exam board AQA has announced that it will be withdrawing A levels in Bengali, Hebrew, Panjabi and Persian after 2018 and OCR plans to do the same with GCSE and A levels in Dutch, Gujarati, Persian, Portuguese and Turkish.
Languages such as Bengali, Panjabi and Persian tend not to be taught in mainstream schools, but in supplementary classes which take place after school hours and at weekends. Children often put in many hours learning to read and write a language with which they may have varying degrees of familiarity, but if they gain a GCSE or an A level, policymakers, university admissions officers or the public at large are all too quick to believe that they have somehow ‘cheated’ the system by being able to gain a qualification with very little effort.
As exam boards, clearly under financial pressure, pull away from developing the new wave of GCSEs and A levels in languages that only have very small entry figures, it is easy to see why policymakers may be wary of getting involved. The matter looks to have all too much in common with that hottest of hot potatoes – immigration. But let’s be clear, we are not talking about exams for people who do not speak English, but of the benefit of other languages in addition to English to our whole economy and society, as well as to the individual concerned.
If we lose the ability to accredit the language skills available to us as a nation, then we send a baleful message to the next generation that languages other than English are not worth bothering with. This would be a shocking waste which we would surely come to regret. Imagine, twenty years down the line, a humanitarian or political crisis crucial to British interests and suddenly we’ll be desperate for speakers of Persian or Gujarati. As the global economy develops, we’ll be kicking ourselves for undermining our home-grown resource of Turkish speakers. We’ll suddenly wake up to the fact that our competence in major world languages like Portuguese (more than 200 million speakers) and Bengali (189 million speakers) has dwindled to nothing and we’ll be asking ourselves why we didn’t have more foresight.
Getting rid of these exams doesn’t just cut off opportunities for ‘background speakers’ of the languages concerned, but for all of us. If there is no Portuguese A level, there’s no credit available to me from studying it in an evening class. If there is no GCSE in Dutch or Polish, there’s no point in schools or colleges starting to teach the subject, even if they would like to. It is a poor state of affairs, for a country that prides itself on its global connectedness and that won the 2012 Olympic Games on the back of its capital’s inbuilt multilingualism.
The withdrawal of this range of languages looks like creating some striking anomalies. From 2018, it looks like we will continue to have exams in Greek* but not Turkish, in Arabic* but not Hebrew, in Russian but not Polish – a language more widely spoken in the United Kingdom than either Welsh or Gaelic.
Whatever the colour – or combination of colours – of the new education team installed in the DfE after 7 May, I hope they will they display the courage and the political leadership to take a long-term strategic look at managing our future language requirements, and the opportunities for UK citizens to learn and receive accreditation in the full range of languages that our country needs.
* Since I wrote this Pearson/Edexcel have announced they will be discontinuing A levels in Arabic, Greek, Japanese and Urdu