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Headmaster's Blog

Why learning languages matters

Those of us working in, or with children in, education are used to hearing about the importance of the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. As a science teacher I appreciate how valuable these subjects are, as learning experiences in themselves and for the opportunities they present both to individual students and to employers looking for a skilled and talented workforce.

With that said, my careers as a teacher and outside of education have convinced me of the value and life-enriching potential of a broad curriculum. Studying a range of subjects allows students to gain a balance of knowledge and also a broader set of skills – such as communication, analysis, teamwork and creative thinking – which are equally as important as knowledge in ensuring future fulfillment for all our young people.

We are told that nationally the number of pupils studying a foreign language at GCSE level has fallen from around three-quarters of all students in 2002 to just 40% today. While only Maths, English and Science are compulsory at GCSE level, I would argue that languages have something very special to offer and should not be overlooked. For many years learning a language was effectively a compulsory part of the school curriculum. However, changes to National Curriculum requirements and other pressures in many of our schools, have led to the current very disappointing and concerning take-up in foreign language education in secondary education nationally.

Why ‘very disappointing’? A good education will inspire children to think outside their current experiences and to embrace the unfamiliar and unknown. Languages offer this inspiration. Embedded within studying a language is the opportunity to gain an appreciation and an understanding of a culture beyond our own. Languages stretch the imagination and the world view of children as they learn, developing core skills of communication and empathy alongside their knowledge and understanding of the language itself. 

Beyond school, knowledge of another language opens up doors to new opportunities. It gives the ability to live or work in another country, and to interact with other nationalities and cultures. These are fundamental entitlements for our children in the ‘Global Village’ that is the world today while developing empathy for, and an appreciation of, diverse cultures has never been more important. 

For these reasons, I remain clear that languages deserve to be viewed as an equally important part of the menu of learning as English and STEM subjects at our schools. That so many children choose not to pursue them up to GCSE level is something I would like to see addressed with the same energy and passion that goes into encouraging our children into STEM.

Rod MacKinnon
Headmaster, Bristol Grammar School