Announced by schools minister Nick Gibb, the program will be backed by £4.8m over the next four years and will start this autumn.
“This program will give teachers the expertise and support they need to teach pupils key languages such as Spanish, French and German – languages that businesses say they want from their employees,” Gibb said in a statement.
“Studying foreign languages… is vital if the UK is to maintain a competitive edge on the international stage”
“The knowledge pupils will gain in this subject at GCSE and A level will help deliver the skilled workforce we need and build a Britain that is fit for the future.”
The Centre of Excellence will work with nine ‘hubs’, led by nine schools across England which will introduce and support the program, based on the recommendations made in the Teaching Schools Council’s Modern Foreign Language Pedagogy Review.
The nine schools selected have achievied “consistently high exam results,” Gibb told iNews, and their specialist teachers will share best practices and resources with other schools in the area to drive improvement at GCSE level.
In an interview, Gibb explained that the program aims to encourage more students to take up languages to GCSE level. The overall proportion of students taking a language up to GCSE level has been falling, a British Council survey showed, especially in state schools in disadvantaged areas.
When asked why the government is not making it compulsory for students to take up a language at GCSE, he responded the government has chosen “a different route,” encouraging students to take up the English Baccalaureate. The EBacc subject combination includes a compulsory language.
The government’s ambition is to see 90% of pupils choosing the EBacc by 2025.
The announcement was backed also by the Confederation of British Industries. It conducted a survey in collaboration with Pearson which found the majority of businesses consider foreign language proficiency as an important skill for their employees.
“Studying foreign languages, developing cultural awareness and understanding global business is vital if the UK is to maintain a competitive edge on the international stage,” Matthew Fell, CBI UK’s policy director said, adding that businesses can play their part by supporting language training whenever possible.
Stakeholders and commentators have widely welcomed the announcement.
“Languages need to be championed and treated as a national priority”
Commenting on the launch of the program, linguist and professor David Crystal told The PIE News it was “about time too.” He added that he hoped the initiative will not be restricted to Latin-alphabet languages.
“Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Arabic need as much (if not more) attention, especially in a post-Brexit world,” he said.
The British Council schools adviser Vicky Gough said that the program comes at a crucial time for the UK.
“At a time when it is more important than ever that the UK forges new relationships around the world, languages need to be championed and treated as a national priority,” she said.
Commenting on the program structure, Maria Norton, author of ‘A Language-Rich Future for the UK’ in Languages After Brexit: How the UK speaks to the world, highlighted the need for stakeholder engagement.
“The political will to support a community of language teachers with a structure for the sharing of resources is most welcome,” she said.
“The shortage of MFL teachers is serious”
“The engagement with stakeholders such as headteachers is vital, as is consideration of pupil and parent communications to engender their support.”
But the National Education Union drew attention to the problem of teacher shortages, which could potentially jeopardise the program.
“We should be alarmed by the decline in take-up in MFL subjects, particularly Spanish, French and German,” NEU assistant general secretary Ros McNeil said in a statement.
“However, hubs on their own won’t be enough to keep and develop the community of MFL teachers needed, or address why these language subjects are in decline. The shortage of MFL teachers is serious and is [creating] long term problems.”