Making the case for continued central support for languages in UK education, September 2009

News summary

This document has been prepared by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) and the National Centre for Languages (CILT).


The overall policy of government ( Your child, your schools, our future: building a 21st century schools system ) is to delegate funding for education as far as possible to schools, colleges and local authorities. This paper sets out the reasons why government should retain substantial support and services at national level for languages which are strategically important to the UK in all the following domains: economic, social, political, cultural, and educational

Why is support needed at national level?

  1. The agenda at schools level tends to focus on success in the short term, i.e. published inspection reports and league tables which may increase competition between subjects and between languages available1.
  2. UK language capacity cannot adequately be maintained if led by market forces at school level where more general local priorities may conflict with specific national needs2
  3. The range and diversity of language needs, whether needed by the individual or needed by the nation, is broad. For one school, or group of schools, to cater adequately for that spread, without external support, is a daunting challenge. Music, PE and Sport are supported at national level3 so that learners have access to the individual discipline of their choice, and so that the nation has access to a balanced population educated across the full range of the country’s needs.
  4. The pedagogy required for effective language learning is fundamentally different from that used to teach other subjects. The specialist support required including access to research and resources is most effectively and efficiently provided from a central source
  1. From the White Paper, para. 22: “... centrally driven support programmes have played an important role in recent years in challenging performance, in training teachers and in spreading effective practice.”

The gains made through these programmes have yet to be well embedded in Languages to ensure that “...teaching is more effective than ever before and knowledge about effective practice widely shared.” Research evidence suggests that as yet, good practice around the country is patchy and vulnerable: national support is needed to continue to improve consistency and quality.

Why is national involvement needed to promote wider access to language study?

  • With decreasing levels of take up, there has been a trend to elitism which is marked in both secondary and higher education4.5
  • Information and encouragement at national level is needed to inform the choices of individual students, less privileged groups and boys. National campaigns such as Routes into Languages, Languages Work and Business Language Champions have been shown to have a positive impact on take-up of languages, supporting social integration and providing opportunities for able linguists. These schemes need to operate nationally a) for consistency for all concerned, b) for reasons of cost-effectiveness, and c) for ease of direct dialogue with the national bodies that help make them possible (national careers support, national HEI coordination, national/multinational private sector employers, etc.)

What are the strategic reasons for providing national support?

  • Monolingual British graduates are losing out to multilingual EU graduates eager to work in the UK and Britain’s economic competitiveness and influence is being damaged as a consequence. Leaving England’s language development to individual learning choice and market forces at local level will not address this challenge

Why are national initiatives and infrastructures needed?

State involvement and national infrastructures are needed to

  • Remedy language deficits nationally
  • Derive maximum benefit from national initiatives to improve the volume and quality of the country’s languages capacity
  • Ensure consistent and equitable access to high quality support and development for education in languages
  • Provide school improvement support programmes on a scale and of a quality and consistency to halt the decline in numbers of language learners
  • Inform and deliver government policy objectives and ensure even, equitable access and coverage across the country
  • Harness language activity in supplementary schools and put it on a firm footing within the state system, to capitalise on this country’s “hidden” pool of language talent

Kathryn Board, Anne Davidson Lund, Teresa Tinsley (CILT)

Michael Kelly, Liz Hudswell, Vicky Wright (LLAS)

Addendum to point 4:

There is already commitment to the Open School for Languages and to the JISC Humbox6 project. Continued investment in the national management and brokering of high quality e-learning and digital content for the schools, 16-19 and HE sectors would be consistent with the recommendation made by Prof Sir Ron Cooke in his report on e-learning7 for the current HE Framework Review. CETL’s and Subject Centres exist for Languages and for Education: development of languages pedagogy demands dedicated expertise from both disciplines and with knowledge of the schools and skills sectors. Building on existing established national infrastructure and effective practice could provide this.


1 See qualitative comment p. 2 in Languages in secondary schools (PDF 128KB)

2 The market failure was clearly articulated in Doughty, H., (2005) Critical Perspectives on Modern Languages in Scottish Further Education 2000-2002. Doctoral Thesis, University of Stirling.

3 Department for Children, Schools and Families: 21st Century Schools Whitepaper para. 22 & 4.12.

The proportion of all pupils taking languages at GCSE has been decreasing in recent years. 78% of all pupils were taking a language in 2001, 68% in 2004, 59% in 2005, 51% in 2006, 46% in 2007 and then the recent drop to 44% in 2008

5 Analysis of UCAS data shows that 23% of acceptances to language degree courses come from students who have attended independent schools, compared with less than 9% averaged across all subjects.

6 The LLAS Subject Centre is leading on the Humbox project which is part of a wider Open Educational Resources initiatives funded by the JISC to encourage HE teachers to publish excellent teaching and learning resources openly on the web.

7“a new approach to virtual education based on a corpus of open learning content: ... a core of open access learning resources organised in a coherent way to support on-line and blended learning by all higher education institutions and to make it more widely available in non-HE environments ... national centres of excellence to provide quality control, essential updating, skills training, and research and development in educational technology, e-pedagogy ...”.