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Landmark report reveals high number of FE colleges do not offer languages

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Severe underinvestment leading to the emergence of geographic ‘cold spots’ threatens the state of language learning in UK Further Education (FE), according to new research published today by the British Academy.

The report, conducted by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast, sounds a stark warning about the state of language provision in UK Further Education, which is defined as any study after secondary education that is not part of higher education and not part of a secondary school with an in-house sixth-form programme.  

“Languages Provision in Further Education” is the first study of its kind to examine the extent of the provision and uptake of languages in the FE sector in the UK, determining trends in that provision over the past 20 years.  

The report highlights that there are substantial number of FE colleges with no languages provision and a widespread lack of clear progression pathways through appropriate vocational qualifications. This contributes to creating breaks in the pipeline, with ‘cold spots’ for languages in FE created in the north, east and southwest of England. To counter worrying trends, the report makes a number of recommendations for intervention including:  

  • Increase co-operation between colleges and sectors: There is untapped potential for languages education to forge a link between schools, FE colleges and higher education, enabling a more diverse community of learners to engage with post-compulsory education. 
  • Develop a unifying voice for languages in FE: Modelled on the related Strategic Committee for Languages in Higher Education, a collaboration between the British Academy and the University Council of Modern Languages launched in 2021, a Strategic Committee for Languages in FE could act as a single, unifying voice. 
  • Improve and expand qualifications in Further Education: The UK is potentially a linguistic powerhouse, with many languages spoken across different communities. Together with a review of qualifications, strategic investment in languages other than French and Spanish could provide employment for people in the UK. 
  • Research Languages Provision in FE: On the basis of this research it is possible to provide insight into language provision in FE across four jurisdictions and make recommendations. However, more in-depth and longer-term research projects would allow for more detailed evidence and enable further recommendations. 

The British Academy’s languages programme monitors trends in languages education provision and mobilises expertise to inform debate about languages in education and society. Along with other voices in UK Higher and Secondary Education, the Academy continues its call for a National Languages Strategy to meet the UK’s education and skills needs for the 21st century. 

“Languages Provision in Further Education” draws upon multiple primary and secondary sources and includes a systematic style review of existing literature, analysis of National Statistics on languages uptake, a survey of FE staff, a survey of FE students, and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders.  

Professor Neil Kenny FBA, Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy, said:

“The findings released today highlight worrying trends in language learning provision throughout Further Education in the UK. Without appropriate action, we risk entrenching regional disparities. The UK has the potential to do far better with language learning. The British Academy and others have shown the multiple benefits of language learning—economic, cultural, societal, cognitive—and how to achieve them. Further Education has a particular contribution to make, including through the vocational language skills and the intercultural agility needed by sectors ranging from trade to tourism. Governments across the UK should now pro-actively support Further Education in playing that role, including through regional networks linking FE languages provision to local universities and businesses.” 

Dr Ian Collen, Senior Lecturer in Modern Languages Education (PGCE) at Queen’s University Belfast and one of the report’s authors, said:  

“Our research evidence indicates sustained inequality in language provision over the past twenty years in UK further education. Our researchers have met passionate language learners and tutors in the FE sector, but their voices have rarely been heard. The dearth of research shows how little is known about the sector. There is an urgent need for a forward-looking strategy to rebuild language provision, not only for the UK’s economic benefit but also to enable greater social cohesion and intercultural understanding within and beyond our frontiers.”  

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