Time for the West to Wake Up to the Opportunities of the East - Graham Watson MEP

October 8, 2008 3:08 PM

LEAs, business, regional leaders and the government must all work together to do more to help deliver emerging world languages in our schools - that's the message that will come out of a regional Chinese Teaching conference to take place at the University of Exeter on Friday 17th October.

With a groundswell of interest in China further to this summer's Olympic Games, the Chinese Teaching Conference will consider how best to capitalise on the enthusiasm demonstrated in many secondary schools and primaries looking to foster links that look further afield than in the past. And it will consider why investing time and resources in languages like Chinese is beneficial not just to pupils but to business and industry too.

From business leaders and language specialists, the advice is clear: 'English is not enough' and with current trends in languages provision 'young people from the UK are at a growing disadvantage in the recruitment market.' (Nuffield Languages Inquiry, 2000). In 2006, the 'Wake Up to China' report (Hay Group/Economist) issued the warning that with trade and commerce expected to grow exponentially with China, business in this country would be held back by the lack of language skills demonstrated by the future workforce.

But although there has been a marginal rise in those taking GCSEs in world languages, such as Chinese and Arabic, according to findings published by the DCSF only 10-13% of all secondary schools in England are providing some Mandarin teaching. Whereas up to a third of independent schools offer some Chinese, only 7-8% of maintained schools offer an equivalent.

Coupled with this, in 2004 the decision by the government to stop it from being compulsory to study a language post 14 has had a knock-on effect on language provisions generally in schools. As this summer's GCSE results demonstrate, the number of pupils opting to study languages has slumped by up to a third in the past four years.

According to regional MEP Graham Watson, a current student of Mandarin chinese who is hosting the Conference at the University of Exeter, policy makers, business and education providers must combine their efforts to shake up the system to better reflect the importance of the East and the importance of learning languages like Chinese.

"I have been a long-term campaigner for better provision for Chinese in our schools precisely because I believe that without investing in it our children will be at a disadvantage when they come to enter the world of work.

Last year I established the 'Broadening Horizons' scheme in conjunction with the Taiwanese Executive to bring to five schools in my constituency trained Chinese teaching assistants, having found that very few schools in the South West offered Chinese to pupils.

This year the scheme will almost double in size, which demonstrates the interest in this kind of initiative. What we need now is for all stakeholders to get behind adding Chinese onto our schools' agendas."

The 'Broadening Horizons' scheme, which Graham Watson MEP established last year, provides a teaching assistant to schools keen to introduce Mandarin but previously held back by budgetary constraints. In return for providing accommodation, food and covering basic administration costs, the schools get an assistant for between 8 and 12 hours per week to work with pupils of all ages, feeder primary schools, and where demand is such, the wider community too.

For Graham Roff, Headteacher at Huish Episcopi School in Somerset which hosted an assistant last year and will do so again for this academic year:

"Our assistant, Hsu-Ling Chung will be working with our students to introduce them to aspects of Mandarin Chinese language and culture.

This will build upon the foundations laid last school year. We strongly believe that in a world in which improved communications are shrinking distances, the growing importance of Taiwan and China means that these studies are very important to our students."

The participating schools involved in the 'Broadening Horizons' scheme 2008-2009 are: Hayle Community School (Cornwall), Penrice Community College (Cornwall), Pilton Community College (Devon), The Sir John Colfox (Dorset), Kingsmead Community School (Somerset), Huish Episcopi School (Somerset) and The Sir Bernard Lovell School (Oldham Common, Bristol),The John Bentley School (Wiltshire) and The Cotswold School (Gloucestershire).