Guest blog: A comment about the likely end of the British Council Assistantship programme

In addition to sending us a report about his first weeks as a teaching assistant in Saxony (see previous post), Eliot – an LSS student currently on placement in Germany – also has a comment to make about the current suspension of recruitment of candidates in England and Wales for the Language Assistants programme (recruitment is suspended for now and students across the country are awaiting a decision from the Department for Education). Here’s what he has to say:


“When I am asked ‘why do you study a language?’, I reply with the answer that it’s an opportunity to learn another culture and do something I would otherwise be incapable of doing. Although this is slightly cliché, the general gist of it is accurate. The Assistantship is a brilliant way of doing this for a number of reasons: 1) you experience language at first hand in a lively social environment; 2) you are working in an environment where you are in direct contact with native speakers; and 3) you get the opportunity to live in ‘obscure’ places, where you may otherwise never find an opportunity of employment. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!

So why am I listing these reasons? Because I was alarmed at the news that I could be part of the last group of students to be offered this opportunity. The CSR’s cutting of 30% of the British Council’s annual budget resulted in the subsequent suspension of this programme (as posted in an earlier blog and on the Independent website). I see this as not just an issue in relation to economic cuts but as a cultural incision which could critically hinder the development of language students in England and Wales.

The worst part is that this cut is not even the beginning of the problems facing modern languages in the UK. The problem is too many people, and that by no means means everybody, seem to think that, because we in the UK speak the lingua franca of the twenty first century, we have no need to speak foreign languages. However, I am ardently opposed to this viewpoint and see the decision by the chancellor, George Osbourne, to cut the British Council Assistantship programme, something on which I am enrolled, as a serious threat to the existence of language learning in the UK more generally. I am going to briefly talk about my experience of language learning in the UK and about my reasons for doing an assistantship and then discuss why I think it is simply vital that this cut is fought to the bitter end. It may not be housing or work benefits, but it is a mainstay for language students.

As a secondary school pupil I was amongst the first year group to have the chance to drop modern language learning altogether before GCSE, something I, even then, could appreciate as a slightly degenerative move. I was by no stretch of the imagination the most talented linguist in my class, but I always knew I wanted to keep languages up. I was denied the chance to take French at GCSE because of a lack of numbers but still had German, so I wasn’t particularly bothered. The style of teaching and the lack of knowledge of the benefits of languages, however, failed to stimulate interest and this, in turn, resulted in me being just one of 4 students in my entire year of 300 to take a modern language at A-level. Of us 4, only 2 completed the course and of us 2 I was only one to achieve a grade at C or above.

 Learning languages is about interaction, something I craved as a pupil at GCSE and A-level, and assistants are a massive part of that as they (we) provide a link to the culture as well as the language. The lack of such a presence motivated me personally to want to make it onto a language course at university and, more notably, to become a teaching assistant. The contrast between this gloomy situation (which I’m aware was extreme, yet not isolated) and the German schools, where everyone learns English to varying degrees and ‘in practice’ is only allowed to speak English in the classroom, startled me and I feel something has to change! After all, we Brits are Europeans even if the Sun would lead us to believe the sun never sets on our now defunct empire and that World War Two ended yesterday. This is not just a matter of economic cuts, and I realise that we can’t all avoid the Tory axe, but it is a matter of stepping further in the wrong direction! It is a crying shame.

So, the point I am making is that this is the tip of the iceberg and, all emotive language aside, I would hope other assistants, past and present, would feel a similar level of disappointment at this news. I truly hope this programme can be rescued… It really is worth it!”

Student rage over government cuts

Student protests about the latest government cuts got out of control yesterday.

Thousands of students (an estimated number of 50,000) went to London to show their outrage about the government’s plans of raising tuition fees up to £10,000 a year.

In the beginning, the protest was peaceful but got out of hand when several protestors stormed Milbank Tower, the Conservatives’ party headquarters in Central London. The crowd destroyed the foyer’s windows and occupied parts of the building so that police had to evacuate it.

All in all, officials seemed to be unable to cope with the students’ resistance and it took them hours to control the situation.

Several protesters have been arrested and taken into custody.

The protest was the first reaction to the cuts announced by the government a few weeks ago.

What do you think about the protest and reactions? Is violence a necessary means to show your anger or do peaceful protests have to be enough?

Read more about Wednesday’s actions and watch a short news clip at Tagesschau.

British Council Assistantship Programme may become victim of spending cuts!

An unexpected – and potentially very damaging – consequence of the recent budget cuts to education has recently come to light: the Department for Education has suspended recruitment for the British Council Assistantship programme for 2011-12, which means that it is likely none of this year’s Second-Year students and those who come after them will be able to spend their Year Abroad teaching at German / French / Spanish schools. At Aston University alone, this would mean that about one third of Year Abroad placements would be lost.

An article in the Independent from Oct 23 explains that the “British Council, which runs the programme, was forced to suspend next year’s selection process following George Osborne’s budget cuts”. (Find the complete article here.)

In fact, as the British Council website says:

“Recruitment is not open for candidates in England and Wales (undergraduates studying languages at a university in England or Wales or independent applicants living in England or Wales). The Language Assistants programme is managed for England and Wales by the British Council on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE). As the programme is funded by the DfE, it is subject to the current government review of all public spending and at this stage we are unable to open recruitment for English Language Assistant placements in 2011-12. As soon as we are advised of the outcome by DfE, we will update the guidance on this site. Please return to this page to check on progress in due course.”

Academics from around the country are warning that the suspension of the British Council Assistantship programme could have disastrous effects for both the undergraduate student experience, since many modern language students spend their compulsive Year Abroad teaching at primary or secondary schools abroad, and for the future of modern language teaching in the UK, which was already hugely affected by the previous government’s decision to no longer require a modern foreign language at A-level and is now under threat by further cuts in education spending. Not all language students who spend their year teaching make teaching their career, but a good deal of them do go on to study for the Postgraduate Certificate in Primary or Secondary Education (PGCE), and for them, their experience of teaching abroad is invaluable as a basis for their later professional career. Among those who spent a year teaching abroad as part of the programme are former language assistants Fiona Bruce, Rory Bremner and J.K. Rowling.

If you want to support those who call for the DfE to reinstate the programme, there are various ways of voicing your support:

Please contact the DfE Public Enquiry Unit

Telephone: 0870 000 2288
Fax: 01928 794 248

You could also contact your MP or write to your MEP.

It has also been suggested that people (e.g. former language assistants or teachers who cooperate with schools abroad) should use their contacts with German/Austrian schools to ask them to send letters of support of the Assistantship scheme to the Department for Education or the British Council. They should fax their letter to the DfE Public Enquiry Unit at: +44-1928 794 248.

We have asked our students to comment on this worrying new development – so watch this space and leave your own comments!

RIP Loki Schmidt

Germany has reacted with great sadness to the death of Hannelore Schmidt, wife of Helmut Schmidt, who was Federal Chancellor from 1974 to1982 and has remained a major public figure after leaving office. His wife was almost as popular as Helmut himself and will be sorely missed.

Loki and Helmut Schmidt in 1982

Yesterday, Loki – as Hannelore was fondly called by her husband and the rest of the nation – died in her sleep at the age of 91.

She was married to Helmut for over 60 years, they met while still at school and Loki sacrificed her dream of becoming a scientist in order to put Helmut through university. For many years she worked as a biology teacher and throughout her life had a keen interest in botany and nature conservation. Two plants were named in her honour, the puya loki-schmidtiae and the pitcairnia loki-schmidtiae.

Over decades the Schmidts were seen as the perfect couple in German politics, admired equally for their quiet dedication to each other and for their commitment to German political life and civil society alike. It’s difficult to see how their place can be taken by somebody new in the near future.

Read more about this:

In English

In German

Click here to watch a short video about Loki and the reactions to her death