This article was first published on Progress Online, 27 June 2012.
Britain likes to think of itself as a global nation. It had the first global empire, and became the first global state. The UK’s economists and politicians were vital in setting up both the IMF and World Bank, and Britain has shared with the world many pioneers, from Sir Alfred Mond, founder of ICI to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who have done much to define the world of both the last century and the new.
The need to remain engaged in the world to maintain good standards of living has remained crucial in Labour thinking for decades. As Denis Healey stated in 1952, international engagement for the UK is ‘particularly attractive to British socialists since every element of it is consonant with the socialist tradition’ – the tradition of creating cooperation and dynamism to improve the lives of our younger generations.
It is deeply worrying, therefore, that there are still many portions of Britain that don’t share the globalist spirit that Britain engendered, with too many contemporary British students lacking the skills needed to compete in an international world of work .
Like it or not, the new domestic workplace has become firmly international, like the Olympics. The 100m dash for jobs in London contains sprinters not just from the UK, but from Germany, China, Brazil, India, Russia and countless other countries. More and more people are seeking their own version of the gold medal against global competition! As Fareed Zakaria, columnist for Time magazine has said ‘a Nebraskan sporting goods store could source from China, sell to Europe, and have its checkbooks balanced in Bangalore.’
While the students of our European neighbours are keen travellers who can often speak excellent English, our students have taken a backward step in learning foreign languages: French is showing the largest overall decrease, with entries down 13.2 per cent from 2010 and down 28.8 per cent over the past five years. German is also down by 13.2 per cent from last year and entries for Spanish fell by 2.5 per cent from 2010.
Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, summed up the British crisis of insularity: ‘In the run-up to the Olympics, and despite being more multicultural than ever in our history, Great Britain is rapidly becoming little Britain.’ He went on to lament: ‘Our record in language learning is uniquely bad in the developed world. We cannot simply assume the rest of the world will learn English to accommodate us.’
Lord Mandelson sent the UK a timely warning in his memoirs when he stated that globalisation is ‘now increasingly shaped by… the emergence of China, India and Brazil and other developing economies’, having hitherto been driven by Western countries and their preferences.
Far from being optional, foreign languages need to be mandatory in our education curriculum, with students being provided with a wide choice to match an ever changing world – obvious candidates being increasingly relevant languages like Portuguese, Mandarin and Cantonese, alongside the old European favourites. Learning these languages won’t just provide students with a taste of the outside world, but be fun, nourishing exercises in and of themselves. While the coalition government has taken an appropriate step to make language learning compulsory from the age of seven, it’s Labour’s task to make sure that such a skill is sustained amongst our most disaffected and vulnerable youth, who have been sorely lacking in skills for years.
The UK needs to tap into this shifting kaleidoscope, adapting as is appropriate. Ideally Labour should make the case for all British state schools in the long run to be associated with a school from a BRIC nation as well as the usual exchange nations of the USA and Europe.
This has already been established with our universities, such as York, Oxford, Nottingham and the LSE, but if we are to live up to our promise to achieve the potential of every pupil, we need to have resourceful relationships with overseas schools, creating a mutually beneficial partnership and understanding between cultures while engineering human and social capital.
The option of subsidised overseas education for state school pupils for a year, or two should be included as well. If the purpose of British public schools was to equip the elite for empire, then an overseas education programme should today offer every pupil the ability to be a truly international citizen.
As a starting point, all schools in the UK should introduce subsidised summer placements abroad for their students, which would have a dual emphasis on work experience and volunteering in equal measure.
This scheme would be open to all students, encouraging positive competition and increasing their sense of independence and ambition in their personal and professional lives. As more and more schools seek Academy status with greater control over funding, partnerships and progress over the school, this should be an integral investment for the future prospects of our young.
As social democrats, it is our duty to uplift our society’s most vulnerable. If the power of globalisation can unleash the forces of the BRIC nations, it can save our young from the trappings of despair and low ambition. This is well and truly Labour’s global moment.
Prem Goyal is vice-chair of Bermondsey and Old Southwark Labour party