Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Are we giving our students the right information to help them study abroad?

Studies and statistics[1] often suggest that UK students are more inward looking than their European counterparts, and that our numbers for outward mobility are much lower than the rest of the continent. A recent study by the British Council of over 10,000 students in the UK and US explores the reasons for this comparative lack of mobility and gives us some food for thought when formulating strategies to increase outward student mobility from the UK.

With US and UK universities featuring heavily in the world’s top ranking institutions, there are obvious reasons why students may want to stay at home to study. But students are clearly not making their decision on rankings alone. The desire to explore other cultures (66% of US students) and live overseas (44% of UK students) also factors in the decision-making process, which could explain why seven of the top ten study abroad destinations are in non-English speaking countries. While the British Academy’s recent State of the Nation report for languages suggests we are in a ‘vicious circle of monolingualism’, the British Council’s research indicates that it’s not the lack of language ability that is preventing our students from studying overseas, as 82% of the UK students who were considering studying abroad said they felt confident in a foreign language. US students are more likely to quote language skills as a barrier to studying abroad.

Nonetheless, US students are more likely to consider studying overseas than UK students. In both groups, those that do consider study abroad are most likely to consider it in an English speaking country. UK students favour the US as their preferred study abroad destination (29%) while 22% of US students would prefer to study in the UK. It’s unlikely that confidence in a foreign language is a factor for these individuals.

Cost is another obvious motivation, with 53% and 72% of UK and US students respectively naming this as a factor in their decision-making. Surprisingly, only 27% of UK students who responded blamed increased tuition fees as a reason for deciding to study abroad.

The research suggests that the most significant barrier is the lack of information. Respondents suggest that there is a real gap in the resources available to them in this area, with 30% of students in the UK reporting that they had to work really hard to find any information. The inability to source the information they need means that many students lack the confidence to make the leap and study abroad. Only 24% of UK students, and just 22% of their US counterparts, felt they had the information to make a decision. The type of information they might need to make a decision included data on financial support, language requirements and the application process for overseas study programmes. In this new era of student choice, this perceived information gap is a real concern for educational institutions.

Given that language take-up is diminishing in the UK[2] and the recent Eurobarometer survey into second language ability[3] indicates that the majority of UK students lack confidence in a second language, it would be useful to explore the demographics of the research respondents in greater detail. The research also includes some information linking study abroad to aspiration, which could benefit from further investigation.

Despite raising some new questions, there are nevertheless some interesting data in this fascinating report. It highlights several areas for development in terms of advice and guidance for students considering overseas education. More importantly, it confirms that we still have some work to do to stimulate outward mobility in the wider UK student population.

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/education/erasmus/doc/stat/table1.pdf
[2] http://www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation/our_research/evidence_for_government/national_policy_reforms/language_trends_survey.aspx
[3] http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

New evidence of the demand for languages in the labour market

With National Careers Week approaching, many organisations are preparing events and activities to promote careers guidance and job opportunities. For those who are preparing a talk or an event related to languages, a newly published report from the British Academy can provide them with fresh evidence of the career benefits of speaking or learning a second language.

Languages: the State of the Nation, published on February 14 2012, outlines the demand for languages in the UK. It also looks at the UK’s current capacity for language skills and highlights some potentially worrying gaps in supply. The report concludes that there is significant evidence that UK is experiencing a ‘growing deficit in foreign language skills’. More specifically, research indicates that there is a considerable demand for languages that cannot be readily accessed in the UK education system. This indicates that the gap between supply and demand is likely to continue, if not widen, in the near future.

The employer research and labour market intelligence that figures in the report shows that there is a need for a wide range of languages at all levels of the workforce and in most sectors. About half of the jobs reviewed for the research requested French, Spanish or German, demonstrating that the languages we teach are by no means as useless as the various media stories about learning Mandarin instead of French would have us believe. Scandinavian languages were also commonly requested. In fact, over 96% of job advertisements reviewed by the research requested skills in a European language. Nevertheless, the range of languages requested by employers in the research indicates that we should add more languages to our educational portfolio and, more importantly, develop and hone the existing language skills of UK schoolchildren.

From a careers perspective, there is some compelling evidence. Labour market intelligence shows that the Finance, IT, Education, Marketing/PR and Media sectors advertised the highest number of roles requiring or preferring language skills. Data taken from National Employers Skills Surveys highlights the percentage of vacancies that remain unfilled due to lack of language skills, including 27% of administrative and clerical roles in 2011. And it’s not just business and the corporate world that require language skills - the report notes that the public sector also advertised for varied language skills.

With the qualitative and quantitative evidence that the State of the Nation report provides, careers guidance professionals, parents and other individuals that influence the decisions of young people at options time and other points throughout their education will be able to offer new and relevant data with regard to languages and language learning. During National Careers Week, if you’re wondering why or how to promote languages?’, why not start with the British Academy’s latest evidence?

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Exciting new guide for student entrepreneurs out now

Last night I was lucky to attend the launch of the Higher Education Academy's new guide for students who are learning a language or studying abroad, and who might want to start their own business.

Authored by Lizzie Fane, founder of the innovative and hugely successful ThirdYearAbroad.com, the Languages and Entrepreneurship report is exactly the sort of thing you wish was about when you were a student. Full of inspiring case studies across a range of careers and languages, and written in a clear and engaging style by someone who started her own business from an idea she had on her own year abroad, it's sure to generate a lot of interest from undergraduates.

Available to download from the HEA website, every careers department should have a copy

Friday, 22 June 2012

Auf Wiedersehn Pet

In the 1980s, this country witnessed high levels of unemployment, particularly in certain areas of the country. The North East, where I come from, suffered hugely and many were forced to migrate south or overseas to find work to feed their family. Those who had a trade were able to find more opportunities, but it wasn’t easy, particularly if they did not have language skills.

Two reports have been published recently which raise concerns about the language skills, and consequently the mobility, of British young people.

 A couple of weeks ago, the CBI Education and Skills survey reported that one in five companies is concerned that weaknesses in foreign language proficiency has led to lost business opportunities. Worse still, they cannot be certain that they have lost business because of it. Businesses need to know where their weaknesses are so they can address them, but lack on language skills often means that they are unable to identify whether it is this very same skills gap that cost them the contract. The survey shows that only 31% of employers are happy with the language skills of school leavers.

Yesterday, the EU published the results of its first survey on language competences, and the news was not positive for UK employers looking for language skills to maximise their business opportunities. Only 9% of students in England can use their second language independently, compared to 82% of students in Sweden. Students in England came bottom of the table for overall language proficiency in their first and second foreign language, with the significant majority not progressing beyond basic knowledge (78% and 86% respectively in the first and second foreign language).

Nevertheless the EU report shows that achievement in English as a second language is very good in the rest of Europe, meaning that at least UK employers in future may be able to recruit overseas for employees to meet their language needs. But what impact does this have on the job prospects of UK students?

The government's announcement of compulsory language education from age 7 through to Key Stage 3 is a welcome one. But employers do not recruit staff at the end of Key Stage 3. They recruit school leavers two, three, even five years later. How have they progressed in a foreign language in that time? How many students are not choosing languages at GCSE and A level? How many are not given the opportunity to study a language? This year's Language Trends survey, published by CfBT, reports that numbers are still very vulnerable in these qualifications, and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, or Ebacc, may not be enough of a ‘carrot’ to encourage enough students to choose a language. The Ebacc almost certainly will not have a major impact on numbers taking a language at A level. Students who do not see the value of language skills for work or higher education, or do not enjoy the subject, will drop it as soon as they can.

The CBI report that 72% of businesses they surveyed value foreign language skills in their employees. Yet somehow we are not translating this evidence into our education policy. Dropping a language at 14 will not develop the level of language skill an employer is looking for, so they will be forced to look elsewhere for those skills, most probably to our European counterparts who are progressing very well in English as a second or third language. We face high levels of youth unemployment, but have put our youth in a position where only a minority are in a position to compete for the widest range of jobs. Why can’t we do more to ensure they can compete on the European market?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The good, the bad and the ugly

The latest Language Trends research has now been published by CfBT and was launched last night at the House of Lords. This valuable annual research contains mixed news for language learning in schools.

The 'good' is that more schools now have pupils learning a language in Year 10. In 2011/12, 51% of maintained schools have 50% or more pupils studying a language,  up from 36% in the previous school year. The research also reports that 60% of maintained schools in the middle quintile for attainment and 45% of those in the second-lowest quintile have 50% or more pupils studying a language in Year 10. This is up markedly from 23% and 19% respectively in the previous school year.

As CfBT reports, this is positive sign that the gap in uptake of languages between different school types and different pupil characteristics is beginning to close.

It appears that the introduction of the EBacc is having an impact on this increase in take-up. Interestingly, the report states that 46% of schools surveyed have not made changes in response to the introduction of the EBacc. Factors in this decision include a satisfactory level of uptake of languages, uncertainty around the value of the EBacc or a concern that the EBacc is contrary to an ethos of free subject choice. 

The 'bad' is a continued level of concern around the GCSE and A Level examinations. There is widespread criticism of controlled assessment, with schools reporting it as 'demotivating for students' and 'a test of pupils' ability to memorise'. There is also concern about an 'unstimulating' syllabus at GCSE level. Teachers are keen to move away from qualifications with a rote learning approach, and to a qualification that allows them to raise standards in language teaching and learning. Teachers also report that pupils are put off by 'the sudden increase in difficulty between GCSE and A Level', and by how difficult it is to obtain the highest marks in languages in comparison to other subjects.

This brings us to the ugly - the barriers to language teaching and learning. At Key Stage 4, performance tables now only allow for language learning via GCSE to count, preventing pupils from studying languages using more stimulating qualifications or even gaining a qualification in less widely taught languages.

Universities still value languages as an entry subject, yet teachers report  take-up post-16 is being threatened by inconsistent marking in comparison other subjects and the difficulty in obtaining an A* grade required by so many universities for entry.

The other barrier reported in the survey is curriculum time: time available for languages is the change most requested by teachers. They are concerned by the number of lessons and teaching hours available for languages, as it prevents pupils from making in-depth progress with their language learning due to the lack of practice time available.

The research shows there is positive news for languages, with take-up increasing at GCSE. But take-up post-16 is still vulnerable, and curriculum time and examination structures still pose a problem for teachers in English schools. Language Trends 2011 shows we still have a lot of work to do to raise awareness of these issues and campaign for greater support for the subject and its teaching in the National Curriculum Review.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Worthless qualifications, or worthless measures?

Yesterday’s announcement on the exclusion of the majority of vocational qualifications from performance tables made a big splash in the press. Examples of ‘easy-to-achieve’ qualifications leapt upon by university-educated journalists included a BTEC in fish husbandry and a Diploma in horse care. No mention of the fact that employers may value these qualifications or, that if you are a kid growing up in Newmarket or Lambourn, our two principal horse racing centres, then actually that Diploma in horse care might be a pretty fantastic qualification to have.
It’s easy to write off ‘non-academic qualifications’ as easier to achieve. This instantly devalues all the effort students put in to achieve these qualifications in the first place. And of course, I do share concerns about not preparing the individual for the future. That kid from Newmarket may work in horse racing for a while, but circumstances may mean a change of job or career, so basic education does need to provide for essential numeracy and literacy.
But who is Alison Wolf or Michael Gove to say that the Diploma in Horse Care does not provide essential numeracy and literacy. They are making an assumption about all of these qualifications, that they do not develop these basic skills. But it’s not the case. And there are plenty of students who follow the GCSE route and still leave school without these basic skills.  The Government still hold up GCSEs as a gold standard, when employers frequently criticise the skills of those with 9 or 10 of these.
What we have moved to now is a model where schools are not measured on the achievement or the progress of their students. They are measured on their GCSE results, and preferably GCSE results in five subjects. All this model will achieve is that many more schools will get an unjustifiably bad reputation, or ‘fail’, when actually they may be developing well-rounded and confident individuals for the world beyond school, individuals who are able to apply the skills they have used in whatever job they are able to find.   
It’s not the qualifications that are the problem, it’s the performance tables. Measures are important, but the only subjects that should be measured are maths and English - literacy and numeracy - and the rest should be down to the school and its strategy to deliver an education to its pupils. Education is about learning, not about meeting a target set by Government. Let schools educate, don’t force them to jump through artificially created hoops.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Turning a negative into a positive

So Michael Gove wants to make it easier to sack bad teachers. At first glance, this is an excellent idea that any sensible person would support. But when I start to delve into the definition of bad teachers, I start to worry. Whatever your views on unions, or employment law, everyone can agree it’s imperative that ‘bad’ is measured objectively.

Performance management is all about setting goals to and benchmark and develop an individual’s performance at work. Modern HR methods use SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timebound) targets. For a teacher, a target might be to increase the numbers achieving A* to C in their particular subject, or to run a school project or school trip that improves learner achievement or personal development. It may be to increase the numbers going onto A level. These are all SMART targets that would be acceptable to include in a performance management review.

But if they don’t do this, does this make them ‘bad’? What is the definition of a bad teacher? Bad GCSE grades? Inability to control students? Gross misconduct? The first can be affected by a number of factors, of which teaching is just one. The second can be improved upon with training and professional development. And gross misconduct already carries its own penalties. I still can’t see enough detail in the plan to reassure me that this proposal will not lead to unfair dismissal cases. And what about all the non-teachers that are encouraged to lead the education of children in free schools. How will they be assessed and disciplined?

What concerns me most of all is the Government’s critical line on teachers. Repeated headlines about bad teaching, underperforming schools and a failing education system repeatedly undermines teachers doing an extremely difficult job. The suggestion that someone can come in off the street and teach successfully without training or experience in a free school is even more worrying. Parents and students read the Internet, read newspapers and the frequent use of negative adjectives with regard to teachers and schools is working its way into their subconscious. The best thing Michael Gove and his colleagues could do is start using some positive and encouraging language about our educators. This would give them confidence and encourage them, allowing them to concentrate on the job in hand – education.