When I talk about a skills deficit that, according to estimates, is costing the UK economy 3.5% of GDP every year and is seen as a barrier to career success by 74% of UK business leaders, people often assume I am talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).
Actually, no – the knowledge vacuum in question is in Languages.
Even as Britain struggles to renegotiate its relationship in the economic and political world order, in or out of the EU, Modern Language-learning in schools remains an area which rarely attracts comment and stands pretty low on the national educational agenda. This seems to me to be recklessly short-sighted, overlooking the extent to which our culture is already characterised by diversity and multilingualism, and ignoring the warning signs indicating that a comparative skills gap among UK graduates will materially harm their employment prospects in the coming years.
Language-learning is about developing the cultural awareness that opens the way for a more sophisticated understanding of other ways of doing things.
The stats make worrying reading. Only a third of Britons report that they are able to hold a conversation in another language. A 2016 review of language teaching in English secondary schools found that a mere 34% of pupils obtain a good GCSE in a foreign language, and less than five per cent do so in more than one language. As language learning in schools and universities continues to shrink – with French and German A Level declining by 17% and 12% respectively in the past six years, the situation is unlikely to improve for the next generation.
Many people seem to be assuming that the problem will disappear after Brexit. After all, they say, many of our trading partners are Anglophone (such as, the USA) and (American) English is the lingua franca of the global economy. This overlooks the reality that, whatever Brexit brings, Britain will increasingly turn more outwards towards non-European markets and, hence, into more difficult territories for business in countries, such as Russia and China, where the linguistic scales are even more drastically balanced against monolingual Britons than in European countries.
Professor Bianco of the University of Melbourne has put it in a nutshell: There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one of them is not knowing English; and the other one of them is knowing only English.
British education policy seems to be relying on the reality of the first to ignore the truth of the second. Many young people in non-English-speaking countries are going to great lengths to acquire skills in English. Those who do will have a significant advantage over British workers in global workplaces and boardrooms. Language-learning is about more than mastering a single language. It is about commanding the skills for language acquisition, which can be transferred to other languages in the future. It is also, and crucially, about developing the cultural awareness that opens the way for a more sophisticated understanding of other ways of doing things. With 39% of employers surveyed in 2017 expressing dissatisfaction with the global cultural awareness of UK graduates (up by 9% in just one year), it is clear that this, in itself, is a vital transferable skill, which is indispensable in international business negotiations. It should be part of the armoury of any ambitious professional leaving education today.
Building that global outlook is an imperative that Oxford High is tackling with energy and imagination. Already, we celebrate the extraordinary diversity of our school community. This week, in our Languages Festival, we will celebrate the one third of OHS students who are bilingual (with 8% being multilingual), hearing more about the 34 languages spoken (from Arabic to Urdu via Hungarian and Japanese).
Building global cultural awareness begins in the Prep, with our new Global Studies programme. Devised and led by Mrs Coolin, the course provides a weekly lesson where girls build skills and knowledge about different cultures from around the world, discovering the cultural dress, food, language and music of a chosen country or region. Underpinned throughout is a focus on critical engagement with global issues and questions, while learning the skills and some language to express thoughts and ideas.
In the Senior School, a menu of six Modern Languages, including Mandarin and Russian, to choose from (plus the two Classical Languages, of course) provides an enticing range of linguistic possibilities, augmented by an ambitious programme of exchanges and cultural visits to a rich selection of destinations (Sicily, for example, at half term). Every day, our Newseum brings headline news and cultural insights from across the world – and in all the modern languages studied – to our fingertips.
Whatever Brexit brings, we know that the future for our students will not be defined by national borders. That is why we are encouraging and equipping them to develop a global outlook to match their expanding horizons.