Educational achievement in England has been in a downward spiral, of late, and the British Education Secretary, Michael Gove, addressed the problem by instituting a new national curriculum. One of the new requirements, however, looks like it may have dire consequences for Jewish schools in England.
As part of the new national curriculum, British schoolchildren will be required to take a foreign language, starting at age seven.
Foreign languages had been compulsory in England, but in 2004, students were permitted to drop the second language once they reached age 14. When that happened, the percentage of students taking competence examinations at age 14 – 16 (the Graduate Certifiate of Secondary Educations, or GCSEs) in languages dropped from 75 percent in 2002, to just 43 percent in 2010.
The foreign language choices offered to British students to meet their national requirement will be French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Latin and Greek.
But this new requirement may have a devastating impact on the Jewish day schools of England, because Hebrew is not one of the officially recognized languages for purposes of satisfying the new foreign language requirement. Jewish schools already have a heavy course load because of their Jewish studies classes in addition to the required secular classes. Many Jewish school educators believe it might prove impossible to continue their programs if they are compelled to require another foreign language, in addition to Hebrew.
According to England’s Jewish Chronicle:
Board [of Deputies] senior vice-president Laura Marks said the government proposals could be “extremely detrimental to our community’s identity, as language — including modern and classical Hebrew — is a vital ingredient to understanding our faith and culture”. She urged the government “to reject the idea of stipulating just a narrow range of languages”.
However, it is not true, as it has been portrayed in some media accounts, that Hebrew specifically has been stripped from its standing as an “official language” in the UK. There is and has been only one official language in England – English. Arabic is also not offered as one of the recognized languages for purposes of satisfying the school language requirement.
The new national curriculum will not be put into place until the fall of 2014. Therefore, it is possible that an accommodation will be made for various schools which have language requirements as part of their own curriculum, to be granted waivers. Another option could be for the government to expand the list of languages, competence in which will satisfy the national curriculum foreign language requirement.