I remember the day I graduated from the Armenian school. My classmates and I were about 16 at the time. Pulling on our untucked white shirts, we moved through a room echoing with applause at the community-rented West London High School to collect our certificates. Later, in a ceremonial twist, we insisted on performing a rap-metal song about the Armenian Genocide that we had written ourselves (“The Armo geno / 90 years ago / You think I’m lying, my brother?”)
Video footage I’m still not quite ready to share shows us furiously thumping guitars as our rather traditional teachers clapped, grimacing at the distortion. They would probably have preferred the traditional “sewing dance” we had been performed at the end of each previous summer term. They probably would have preferred it in Armenian as well.
Confused expressions of heritage such as this unfold on trestle tables in dusty church halls and half-used classrooms, at weekends and after school, across Britain. Supermarket-brand orange squash, quiz nights, raffles and home-cooked national dishes donated by parents fuel often voluntary efforts, with shoestring budgets, to keep the cultures of diaspora communities alive.
There is no official national database, but around 3,000 ‘further schools’ operate in England, many of which teach so-called ‘heritage languages’ to children from the diaspora or from religious minorities.
I remember feeling great solidarity with my ‘English school’ classmates who also had to endure a few extra hours of lessons each week – whether it was Gujurati Saturday School or Catholic confirmation classes.
Last year, however, there was a “calamitous decline” in the number of students achieving community language qualifications, according to a new report called “Silenced Voices” by think tank Global Future.
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As the pandemic disrupted exams, these students were forgotten. Their access to qualifications after years of study disappeared overnight. Although community schools provide all education, students often register to take exams at their mainstream schools. Last year, many of them failed to provide accreditation, predicted grades or proctoring as Covid-19 caused exams to be cancelled.
“We told me [by my mainstream school] it was not possible because of Covid, and there was nothing they could do about it,” said Ria Isiksil, an 18-year-old Turkish student from east London quoted in the Global Future report. “All that learning was useless! It made me feel bad. I had spent years learning and weeks revising and it was for nothing.
Isiksil was predicted an A*, but had no alternative, and a teacher said that a Turkish A level “wouldn’t make any difference to my UCAS form anyway”.
Enrollment at A level for languages ranging from Chinese, Bengali and Gujarati to Polish, Greek and Turkish fell by 41% and GCSE by 28% last year. A-level enrollments in Gujurati have fallen by 96%, and a ‘Brexit effect’ has also been seen in the decline of some European languages (A-level entries in Polish have fallen by 54%; GCSEs by 48%) .
Over 12,000 fewer pupils achieved a qualification in their home language in 2020 compared to the previous year. For context, the adoption of so-called modern languages has remained stable during this period; there was even a 1% increase in Spanish qualifications, according to analysis by Global Future.
This blind spot is significant: 4.2 million people in the UK speak a language other than English at home, according to the latest census in 2011.
At the Arabic-language Peace School in Brent, north-west London, which caters to around 120 children every Saturday, 14 pupils were due to take their GCSEs in Arabic last year – and none got a grade.
Fatima Khaled, who has run the school and taught Arabic for 19 years, told me that her students “were very sad and angry – why weren’t our languages considered?
For exam season this year, the government has agreed to offer grants of £200 per entry to exam centres, to enable private candidates – such as community language students – to receive a grade. Industry players hope this will prevent qualifications from falling as they did last year.
Nevertheless, some of the damage has already been done. Khaled tells me that only two of his pupils have registered for GCSEs so far this year. She believes the problem is part of a wider trend of ‘discrimination’ against community languages in mainstream education and government. Other factors also come into play, including rising rental costs for school premises.
“Monolingualism is taking over the curriculum,” says Khaled. “The way they see these languages – they call them ‘minority’, ‘extra’, ‘after-school clubs’. While French and German are called “modern languages”.
“Psychologically, it plays into the state of mind of our learners; they begin to consider their languages as useless, that English suffices.
I have already written in the new statesman about my gratitude as an adult for my long days at Armenian Sunday School, even though I didn’t enjoy them at the time as a restless teenager.
I’ve realized over the years that knowing another language is useful not only academically (bilingual students are supposed to be better at math and English if they maintain a high fluency in their home language), but also culturally. As Khaled warns: “We are going to lose this young generation, they are going to lose their identity, their roots.
This connection to my family history has enriched my life in all sorts of ways: maintaining contact with my loved ones scattered around the world; develop a deeper understanding of Armenia’s turbulent history; to feel closer to my father after his death through the facts and fables I had learned; laugh at my partner’s Lancastrian twang in Armenian when I teach him a phrase.
If Britain sees its post-Brexit future as one of international openness and new business partnerships, it makes no sense to undermine the future of its plethora of diaspora communities – especially since there is a “state of crisis” in language learning in English schools in general, in the words of the British Council.
Overall, despite the rise in Spanish, languages are down to A level. In 2019, foreign language learning was at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium. At worst in England, GCSE take-up of ‘modern languages’ fell by 30-50% between 2013 and 2019.
A dark irony of monolingual Britain is that for years the supply for people learning English as a second language has dwindled. English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) has been chronically underfunded since the austerity cuts launched a decade ago: a reduction in real terms of 60% between 2010 and 2016.
“If we really want to build a ‘global Britain’, we need to stop neglecting community languages. With the right engagement, they could be a driving force for our economy as well as for social justice,” says Rowenna Davis, a London-based secondary school teacher who authored the “Silenced Voices” report.
“Instead of fearing that students studying these languages are somehow ‘isolated’ from British culture, we should nurture and celebrate their talent as part of what makes Britain great.”