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?