A Future for Languages in Schools

On Friday 3 July 2015, the London Centre for Languages and Cultures hosted a colloquium, entitled “A Future for Languages in Schools?” at Pembroke College Oxford. Convening over seventy people from the world of language education in the UK – from schools, universities, government, and from language and cultural organisations – the colloquium sought to address some of the most pressing problems currently facing MFL as a subject and, through open, cross-sector dialogue, to find solutions to what amounts to something of a crisis.

The day comprised keynote speeches by Peter Horrocks (Vice-Chancellor of The Open University and former Director of the BBC World Service) and Oliver Miles (Former British Ambassador to Libya, Luxembourg and Greece); a scene-setting presentation from Kathryn Board and Teresa Tinsley, authors of the 2014-15 Language Trends Survey; and a panel presentation by various London Schools Excellence Fund projects introduced by Munira Mirza, Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture at the Greater London Authority. At the core of the day’s proceedings, however, were three parallel working groups, each led by an expert in the respective field, focusing on the key areas of Schools, Universities, and Policy. Each delegate sat on one of these three groups, discussing in-depth some of the challenges faced, and aiming to come up with a series of action points and recommendations. Findings from each group were then brought together in the final plenary session, from which an overarching set of headline observations and recommendations was formulated.

A full version of the Report produced after the Colloquium is available for download here.

A summary of the key recommendations from the final plenary session is as follows:

  •  The principal recommendation is that a working group be taken forward from the colloquium, representing all interested sectors, in order to develop its findings and present them to policy-makers
  • There needs to be a coherent pathway from primary, to secondary, to higher education, with mutual understanding of what is happening at each level, and greater amounts of cooperation and sharing of resources and expertise
  • Curriculum time for languages in schools needs to be increased, and the institutional status of MFL as a subject made more central in schools (and indeed in universities). This is dependent on a range of factors, not least a greater recognition of the cultural and economic benefits of languages, and the provision of adequate support and resources from government
  • Language curricula need to be reconsidered, and greater investigation made into the motivations of students at all levels. It is essential to avoid false dichotomies between languages (or humanities more generally) and STEM
  • More support is needed for lesser-taught and community languages (both ‘formal’ – in terms of official examinations – and ‘informal’ support). These languages offer a range of benefits which are invaluable but not always immediately evident or predictable
  • Finally, the principle that languages in schools must be available to all, not just the most academically able, needs to be reaffirmed