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Languages At Eton

21st December 2010

Katharine Birbalsingh asks why any sane parent would want to send a son to Eton.

The answer is all about aspiration and ambition, of course. Not everyone's cup of tea, plus an option available only to a few lucky parents.

But it's worth mentioning that Eton is a towering if not unique success where teaching and learning languages are concerned.

Try this lot: Latin, Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. I think that a few more can be offered as well. And Eton boys sign up to do them - dozens are learning Russian, very few of them Russian boys wanting a cheap A-level.

The Labour Government in one of the most far-reachingly stupid policy moves in our whole history removed a key requirement that all pupils at English state schools need to learn at least one language to GCSE level. This has led to a plummet in children learning any foreign languages:

Across the country just 30% are leaving secondary school with a good grade for a language GCSE.

But figures compiled by the Guardian suggest this 30% is largely dominated by private schools. Nearly 100 schools are putting fewer than ten pupils in for languages meaning their results do not register. Furthermore, in 60 schools not one pupil got a good grade in a GCSE language.

Of another 60 schools where 100% of pupils got a language GCSE, only seven were state schools and all of those were selective.

OK, Google translator is good and getting better. Maybe in a few years' time you'll be able to talk on the telephone to someone in China and get a decent computerised translation delivered to and fro almost instantaneously.

But that's just not the same as acquiring the intellectual and philosophical discipline of learning another language. Well done Eton for keeping up world-class standards in this area. 

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