Richard Cairns - Britain hamstrung by poor language skills
The Telegraph, 18 Sep 2014
The roots of the trade deficit crisis lie not in the board room but in the classroom, says headmaster Richard Cairns; too few of us speak another language
Richard Cairns is the Headmaster of Brighton College
By Richard Cairns
Our deteriorating trade position has prompted the CBI to talk in alarmed tones about the balance of world economic growth tilting away from developed, mature nations towards emerging high-potential competitors. The Prime Minister has led ever larger trade missions to India and China. But the trade deficit gets ever wider.
Why? Because unlike Germany, the exporting powerhouse of Europe, whole swathes of British business lack the capability and confidence to sell abroad.
Three out of five mid-sized home-grown companies don’t trade internationally and only one in ten have incorporated into their vision the notion of selling abroad in the next five years.
Whitehall meetings have been convened, industry leaders consulted and action plans drawn up to combat this, but the roots of this crisis lie not in the board room but in the classroom.
Firstly, Britain has woefully inadequate technical training. Too many youngsters are being pushed through traditional GCSE programmes which ill-prepares them for future careers as craftsmen, technicians and engineers.
This in turn has created a desperate skills shortage that stifles British business and forces firms to look overseas for skilled workers. There is some hope on the horizon here, with Kenneth Baker's visionary University Technical Colleges, but there are, as yet, too few of these to make a substantial difference.
Secondly, those responsible for marketing British goods are hamstrung by a chronic inability to communicate. Too few of us speak another language.
The British Council study, Language Trends 2013/14, found that although language teaching is now compulsory from the age of 7 (thanks to Michael Gove), many primary school language teachers do not feel confident of their own grasp of the language.
What’s more, when children move up to secondary school at 11, the study found there was woefully inconsistent communication regarding what has been learnt so far for secondary teachers to build upon.
Furthermore, when children are struggling at secondary school, language lessons are the first to be sacrificed in order to make time for extra literacy and numeracy. What message does this convey? This problem is exacerbated by the emergence of China. Whereas once we could rely on the Germans, the Dutch and the Swedes to communicate with us in the English they are taught so well, now we are dealing with a country where English is far less established.
That is one reason why I made Mandarin compulsory at Brighton College in 2006. Now we have dozens of English youngsters pursuing GCSE Mandarin, with every child from the age of 4 studying the subject.
Incredibly, no other independent school and only one other state school has made it a core part of the curriculum. Another opportunity lost.
As a nation, we face serious problems in the future if we continue to buy more abroad than we sell. Mr Cameron is to be applauded for taking British business leaders on his travels. But this is just scratching at the surface.
If we are serious about restoring Britain's status as a great trading power, we must urgently address the major flaws in our education system that mean we have too few people with the skills to make things and too few with the skills to sell things. A major rethink is required.
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