Language assistants in schools: more important now than ever before?

    Published: 11 September 2017

    The Herts for Languages blog is back!  Our first post of the year examines the origins and impact of the language assistant programme and looks at how we can help schools to assure their future provision.


    With the squeeze on budgets growing ever tighter, many schools have had to make difficult choices in deciding whether to continue to employ the services of a language assistant (LA) for the new academic year.  In Hertfordshire (and other areas of the UK) this has meant that – for the first time – language departments with a long-standing history of LA provision will not be hosting an assistant this year.  A decision like this is not made lightly.  It does, however, raise the question of whether a language assistant is simply an optional ‘extra’, or something that goes to the heart of inclusion and social mobility in our schools?

    Every year, language assistants in UK schools come from 15 countries around the world as part of a reciprocal arrangement which also sees around 2,500 LAs from the UK support the teaching of English in other countries.  Each one is taking part in a programme that traces its heritage back to 1905 and an exchange programme which allowed graduates from France and the United Kingdom to cross the channel to teach their respective languages in schools.

    Language assistants traditionally work in the classroom with teachers or on their own with small groups.  They spend up to a year helping students improve their confidence with foreign languages but an important, and often undervalued, part of their role is to increase students’ cultural awareness.

    In October 2015, the Cambridge Public Policy Strategic Research Initiative (SRI) published The Value of Languages, a report of a workshop held in Cambridge to illustrate the strategic value of languages, discuss current deficiencies in UK language policy and put forward proposals to address them.  The report contains a case-study, The Value-Added Recruit, in which Bernardette Holmes MBE, Principal Investigator on the Born Global research project talks about the importance of cultural agility (defined as the ability to work in multilingual and culturally diverse teams and developed by international experience abroad).

    Findings from the research show that executive recruiters regard cultural agility as an essential attribute for graduates hoping to work for global organisations.  The very personification of cultural agility, language assistants are excellent role-models for students and are key in helping schools to shape the ‘culturally agile’ students of the future.  It is important also to remember that, for some students, working with a language assistant will be their first (and perhaps only) experience of working closely with a native speaker and someone with a different set of cultural experiences to their own.  In a fast-moving and ever-changing world, the cultural responsiveness, cognitive flexibility and linguistic competences developed through the study of languages in schools are some of the most socially-mobilising skills that we can give our students.

    Last year, the Herts for Languages team wrote an article for the British Council’s Voices magazine on how UK schools can benefit from language assistants.  Help and advice for schools thinking about employing a language assistant can be found on the British Council website.  What you may not know is that the British Council also has a scheme for primary language assistants.

    The British Council encourages a flexible approach to hosting language assistants to help schools with costs.  A secondary school can share a language assistant with up to three nearby schools (including primary schools).  Primary schools participating in the French language assistant programme can share LAs with up to six other primaries.  For schools interested in hosting a Chinese language assistant, these costs are separate and include additional funding support.  Information about Chinese language assistant grants can be found here.

    The Languages team at Herts for Learning is continuing its support of LAs across Hertfordshire and beyond with our language assistant induction programme on Monday 9 October.  This in-school, value-for-money, one-day training programme will help language departments to get maximum impact from their language assistants.  For further information, contact .

    For instant updates on training and events, follow @herts_languages and @HertsPLQM or like our Facebook page @HertsforLanguages.

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