Foreign language skills in the Capital

MQT on 2015-03-25
Session date: 
March 25, 2015
Question By: 
Tony Arbour
GLA Conservatives
Asked Of: 
The Mayor


A recent report suggests that low levels of language skills costs the UK economy £59bn every year. Can the Mayor let us know if he intends to pursue any foreign language initiatives, as part of his Education remit, to help London make the most out of its trade links?


Answer for Foreign language skills in the Capital

Answer for Foreign language skills in the Capital

Answered By: 
The Mayor

Boris Johnson (Mayor of London):  Thanks very much, Tony.  Foreign language skills are absolutely vital for our economy.  As you rightly point out, there was a study recently showing that the absence of foreign language skills costs the UK economy about £59 billion a year.  What we are doing to support languages in London is funding 11 language projects through the London Schools Excellence Fund.  We are teaching Mandarin, for instance, in partnership with the Qatar Foundation and the British Council.  We are piloting the teaching of Arabic in London schools.  Actually, we are seeing an increase in London schools in the number of pupils at General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) level taking languages.  The highest proportion of pupils taking a language at GCSE is in London.  They are increasing at nine out of ten local authorities.  We are seeing an increase in foreign languages in schools.


The problem basically began when it was decided under the Labour Government that there would no longer be a requirement for a foreign language at the age of 14.  That led to roughly a halving of the number of people learning a foreign language in our schools.  That has been catastrophic.


Tony Arbour AM:  Thank you for that, Mr Mayor.  Clearly, something is happening.  Probably Londoners do not realise within this global figure how much it is actually costing London, what you describe as a catastrophic mistake.  Last year, extrapolating the figures that you have already used, it cost London just under £7 billion, which is the equivalent of 65,000 jobs.


In your response to a previous question, you said that there is not sufficient political terror when it comes to dealing with Network Rail.  It may be that in your final year here you can unleash your political terror to seek a reversal of the decision to stop compulsory language at 14.  It is astonishing to me - and I suspect to most people - that when foreigners come to ‑‑


Boris Johnson (Mayor of London):  I think Michael Gove [MP, former Secretary of State for Education]  did bring it back, didn’t he, from memory?


Tony Arbour AM:  Indeed.  When foreigners come to this country, they speak perfect English.  For example, I have been astonishingly impressed by the lucidity of the Finance Minister for Greece, who comes here and puts most of us to shame with the quality of his English.


Boris Johnson (Mayor of London):  Yes.  He is better at English than he is at economics!


Tony Arbour AM:  That sums up the modern-day Greeks.  Mr Mayor, through your influence on education and the Education Panel here, can I ask that you actively seek the reinstatement of compulsory language teaching in this country, particularly in London schools, certainly to the compulsory school-leaving age?


Boris Johnson (Mayor of London):  I am going to have to check this because it does not seem to be here in my brief, but my memory is that Michael Gove brought it back.  I am going to have come back to you about that.


Tony Arbour AM:  It is currently 7 to 14.  In most of Europe, it is 5 to 16.


Boris Johnson (Mayor of London):  OK.  I am very pro the study of foreign languages and, as I say, we are encouraging it.  I am also, I have to say, very pro the study of English by everybody who comes here and who lives here.  There are communities in London where people are spending several generations without actually learning to speak English fluently.  It is a huge shame and a huge pity for them.  They are lacking a vital tool to engage with our economy and to empower themselves.  I want to see everybody in London and everybody who comes to London speaking English.  I love foreign languages.  Additionally, they should speak foreign languages, too.  However, English has to be a priority.