Modern languages have taken a bit of a battering in our schools lately but Pat Howarth, principal of Hummersknott Academy in Darlington argues that acquiring a second language is a great asset in life and can help young people find a good job.
Learning a foreign language has never been a better option as opportunities open up across the globe with businesses and organisations requiring recruits who are able to speak more than their Mother Tongue. Knowledge of a foreign language can lead to exciting career opportunities that those without an extra language have little chance of accessing.
With our background as a Specialist Language College, many of our students go on to study a foreign language at university. And yet the number of young people studying a foreign language has been in serious decline - some might call it 'free-fall' - in the UK over the past decade. The number of teenagers taking French, for instance, declined by five per cent this year to 12,511, with numbers plummeting by a third overall since 2000.
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Just 4,773 sixth-formers took A-level German, figures show, a 7.6 per cent drop in a year and down by almost half in just over a decade. Spanish entries were down by 3.4 per cent - to 7,351 - although numbers are up by around a third overall since the turn of the millennium.
This trend is being reversed as the number of students studying languages at GCSE has begun to increase. This is in part due to the introduction of the English Baccalaureate which includes a language alongside English, Maths, Science and a Humanity subject. In addition, a language will become a compulsory part of the Primary Key Stage 2 curriculum from September 2014.
The move comes in response to growing concerns that the UK is falling behind in language learning league tables. If we are going to turn around the decline in modern languages, employers, universities and the government must send out the message that foreign language skills equal employment opportunities.
What's crucially important, and something we are keen to progress with here at Hummersknott, is the focus on transferring linguistic skills at an even earlier age. A European Commission study has revealed the earlier a person starts learning a language the more proficient they will be.
Our own focus comes in part from our partnerships with primary schools such as Skerne Park Academy, which is our new Sponsor Academy. Plans are in hand to introduce languages from reception class. This is good news indeed for increased proficiency in languages at secondary school level.
Our strong background as a Specialist Language College means that we are well placed to continue this linguistic tradition. This proactive approach to language learning has had a positive outcome in terms of academic achievement. In 2012, we reported our best ever results in the broadest range of languages we have ever offered. Despite the national fall in core subject grades, the proportion of students achieving A* to C in subjects - including languages - was the highest ever last year.
Countries now visited by Hummersknott Academy students range from Germany and France to China and Russia, and we are also in the process of developing link schools in Spain and Italy. As well as exchange trips, Hummersknott encourages cultural experiences focusing on key dates such as Chinese New Year. Exchange trips to Russia and China are particularly popular as students also take part in international conferences with other students from across Europe.
The school is also fortunate to have its own Confucius Classroom, a recognised centre for promoting Mandarin Language and Chinese Culture. The Confucius Classroom at Hummersknott is funded and supported by the Confucius Institute. The Confucius Institute is a non-profit-making organisation devoted to promoting the understanding of Chinese language and culture throughout the world. The Country Garden School, Guangdong, is Hummersknott's partner in China. Two Chinese teachers are currently on an exchange trip at the school, helping to improve our students' learning and understanding of the Chinese language and culture.
The school's background as a Specialist Language College, Confucius Classroom and international links programme add a positive dimension to all curriculum areas and help to raise students' aspirations. This prepares them better for working and living in an increasingly competitive, global economy. All students have the opportunity to go on at least one visit abroad. The recent exchange trips to China have proven to have had significant cultural and linguistic benefits to the many students who have taken part in them.
One such student Alice Kavanagh, 16, explained: "As I had already been to China I had a pretty good idea of what it was like. The school hadn't changed much, they'd had a few modifications on facilities but other than that it was exactly the same as when I had been almost four years prior."
What needs to be highlighted to young people now is the attractiveness to future employers of good grades in modern languages. As language learning is about to be made compulsory again in classrooms throughout the UK, the battle for hearts as well as minds should now start in earnest. Learning a foreign language will not be viewed as a 'chore' if the wealth of opportunities both in and beyond school are set out from the start.