Widening Participation focus group report

Author: John Canning


The Subject Centre convened a focus group on 1st November 2004, to discuss Widening Participation in Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, and how the Subject Centre may help practitioners in their activities. This report is a brief overview of some of the issues and viewpoints that emerged from the group. If you have any comments and/or questions concerning WP, please contact John Canning llas@soton.ac.uk

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Table of contents

In attendance

Annie Bannerman (Aston University), John Canning (LLAS), Tim Connell (City University), Michael Derham (University of Northumbria at Newcastle), Alison Dickens (LLAS), Angela Gallagher-Brett (LLAS), Bob Gould (University of Portsmouth), Terry King (University College, London), David Newton (CILT), Graham Webb (Leeds Metropolitan University).

Generic issues

Participants felt there was a lot of confusion about the meaning of WP. Recent comments from Kim Howells that institutions would not necessarily face financial penalties for failing to reach participation benchmarks has added to this confusion. The institutions represented in the focus group primarily saw recruitment rather than fair access as their primary concern.


The group viewed employability outcomes of language learning very positively. The statistics collected by Keith Marshall for a number of years have always provided encouragement to those teaching on languages courses. However, there are some outstanding issues relating to the value of languages to business and the extent to which recruiters feel they need speakers of other languages (rather than just the skills that languages provide). There is also a concern about the competition UK language graduates face from native speakers. More research in this area would be helpful. It was suggested that students are generally well prepared for the workplace, but many have difficulties in articulating their skills and attributes. Work experience is valuable in this regard.


The removal of compulsory languages in Key Stage 4 has often been cited as a concern, but the transition from GCSE to A level is particularly difficult for students. There is a lack of understanding about differences between school and university study and often students are not made aware of what a particular HE course entails.

Those involved in schools outreach were particularly targeting years 8 and 9- students about to choose their GCSE options. Whilst language learning in primary schools is welcomed, participants expressed concern about who would be teaching languages in primary schools, especially if the decline in the number of A-level entries leads to a fall of suitably qualified candidates. There is also a problem with timescale and it will be a long while before the outcomes of these initiatives would be known- the pressures of recruitment are short term.

A discussion took place about changes in Higher Education over the past 40 years and notably the decline of the 11 plus. There is evidence emerging that languages are reverting to the position of being a subject mainly taught in selective and independent schools.

Regional impact

Initiatives such as AimHigher have a strongly regional focus. Joined up thinking can be difficult as so many agencies are involved. For example schools (in England) are funded by the Local Education Authority (LEA), Further Education Colleges by the Learning Skills Council (LSC), and HEIs by HEFCE. Participants had varied experiences with Regional Development Auuthorities. With regard to languages there are examples of good practice in some UK cities- Luton, Brighton and Sheffield were given as examples, but the London Development Authority, whilst acknowledging that languages are an important issue has no formal languages policy. Regional languages networks have produced some good reports, but their recommendations have not always been well received by businesses.

Teaching and learning

It was widely agreed that the changing climate of HE was impacting on teaching and learning. Concerns about maintaining standards were expressed and one participant has observed that facilitating the retention of lower achieving students leads to boredom amongst higher achievers.

Some institutions no longer teach languages as a single subject but in conjunction with degrees in subjects such as Business and Marketing in response to changing student demands.

The concern was expressed that many institutions are not proving training in translation and interpreting at a standard acceptable to the EU- this means that UK graduates may be missing out on jobs with EU.

Caution was advised against making the rationales for language learning too utilitarian as this may take away from enjoyment and the cultural and intellectual aspects of language learning.

Adult Education

Continuing demands for language learning amongst adults continues to be a source of hope and some institutions have very successful partnerships providing language tuition for local businesses. There are issues with accreditation and some institutions are reluctant to accredit beginners' courses at level 1. However non-accreditation leads to loss of funding for otherwise successful courses. Another important obstacle has been concerns about progression. Whereas a lot of adult students are studying at beginners' level, there is less demand for higher-level language courses than is desirable. Partnerships with business have meant that institutions are able to provide tailor-made courses that meet the needs of individual businesses and are not constrained by the demands of public examinations such as GCSE and A-Level.

Teaching staff

Whilst participants recognised the benefits of being involved in recruitment and admissions, concerns were expressed about this being another burden on teachers in Higher Education. The introduction of variable fees could lead to students seeing more contact time with staff as an entitlement at the same time that more research output is expected of staff, especially in research-led universities. Concern was expressed that teaching could increasingly become the preserve of staff on short-term contracts and postgraduate students because of the pressures of the RAE- this would clearly have implications for the quality of the student experience.


It was agreed that efforts to make known the personal and employability rationales of language learning must continue. This message needs to go out not only to schools and employers, but also to parents and careers services. It is important that approaches to promoting languages amongst young people are not patronising and it was felt that some initiatives failed to understand the needs of working class' potential students.

Recommendations for LLAS

The Subject Centre will discuss an appropriate plan of action. We are currently seeking further funding for developing our employability work and for Widening Participation and the outcomes of these bids will impact on our strategy. Possible courses of actions for LLAS include...

  • Joined up thinking about education sectors. How can schools/ FE and HE coordinate their approaches to promoting LLAS subjects rather than through ad hoc liaison as at present?
  • The impact of variable tuition fees on the year abroad.
  • Share good practice across regions.
  • Investigating the transferability of credits for lifelong learning and use of the languages ladder with regard to WP.
  • Careers Services need more information of what languages can offer. Not everyone is convinced that languages are necessary for business.
  • Pursuing connections with language colleges.