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June 2017 Blog Archive

What on earth is the Common European Framework?

Posted by Frank Preiss, on 29 June 2017. Comments: 0

This story neatly illustrates two undesirable features of the ignorance that infects so much of the current debate about Europe.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL) is a project not of the 28-member European Union (EU), but of the much older 47-member Council of Europe (CoE). Sadly, too few people know the difference.

Wikipedia gives a good account of the CoE. Here it is only worth emphasising how important the British influence has been in promoting democracy, human rights and cross-border understanding. It was founded in 1949 as a result of ideas first suggested by Winston Churchill in the middle of World War II. British law and lawyers have been influential in many of the Council's most important initiatives such as the European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Court of Justice, which Brexiteers are now so anxious to leave.

The CEFRL is not at first sight one of the most important CoE initiatives, but that's misleading. Its founding author was John Trim, a Cambridge linguist, who had created the world-renowned Cambridge Proficiency syllabus. Trim later became director of a CoE languages division in Strasbourg where in 1971 he set up the 'Threshhold Programme' to establish common standards of proficiency in the major European languages. In line with CoE core ideals the intention was to facilitate and improve trade, culture and mutual understanding between all the peoples of Europe.

However the CEFRL has since acquired a special importance within the European Union, with its total commitment to free movement of its peoples.

For free movement to work in employment, employers need recognised qualifications of language competence at least as much as of any other skills. Everywhere in the EU, and in many other countries, the 6 levels of attainment identified by the CEFRL have become those recognised qualifications.

But not in the UK. It seems that the common confusion of the CoE with the EU and the fact that the UK speaks English have combined to downgrade the importance of those common standards when applied to other European languages. As a result, a German employer interviewing a Spanish candidate can see at a glance what level of German or English the candidate can offer, but on an English candidate's CV he will see 'A-Level grade B' or something similarly unhelpful.

Language teaching in the UK is in precipitous decline. When we questionnaired some language teachers a few years ago, we were astonished to find that most either didn't know of the CEFRL, or thought it of no importance.

Ignorance of such elementary pitfalls in our education system makes our future in or out of Europe much worse. There are already parts of India where the CEFRL has become the recognised languages standard.

In this, as in so many other matters, we need to set aside the 'British exception'. Of course we will have to integrate the CEFRL into all our GCSE and A-Level national language exams. In the meantime everyone wanting to enrol in a language class should insist that it conforms to CEFRL levels and provides for relevant qualifications. It's another important way to cooperate with our European partners to make a better future for our people, especially for our children.


The treacherous campaign for Brexit

Posted by Frank Preiss, on 20 June 2017. Comments: 0

The arguments against Brexit are very complicated. But this is about the future of our country for decades to come so I urge everyone to read this article by Professor A C Grayling: stopping Brexit

Professor Grayling wrote his article back in January. In the meantime the negotiations with the EU have started, and the early signs give little cause for optimism. Brexit must be stopped, but first we must scotch some pernicious myths still being repeated by Brexiteers.

The first myth is that a democratic majority of the British people voted to leave the EU and the referendum can't be reversed. They didn't, and it can. 17.4 million, 37.5% of the electorate, voted Leave and while that's definitely the larger share, it's not a majority, especially not for a referendum in which the blind led the blind.

Second, voters accepted that 'Brexit means Brexit' and, it is claimed, they understood that meant leaving the single market and the customs union. But it is already apparent that very many didn't. Everyone who does business with Europe now knows that leaving these two institutions would enormously damage the British economy. As Philip Hammond now says, no one voted to make themselves or Britain poorer.

The third, related, myth is that the UK has a choice between a 'soft' Brexit and a 'hard' Brexit. In fact, as we've seen on the very first day of negotiations, we don't have a choice at all.

We decided to leave the EU, and no doubt will win some bargaining points in the negotiations, but we won't get concessions on any of the EU's core principles. Some Brexiteers want to frighten us with their own 'project of fear', by saying the Europeans are determined to punish Britain. There isn't an iota of evidence for that. But, unsurprisingly, the Europeans believe in the principles of the EU, and they will not let Britain or any other member weaken them.

It only takes a moment to realise that there can be no 'good deal' with the EU after Brexit, if that means terms better in any way than those we have now as members.

Parliament will apparently vote on the terms of the final 'deal' negotiated by David Davis. What is not generally understood is that even on March 30th 2019 the British people will not know what the deal means. Yes, we may have 'taken back control' of our land and sea borders, and of our law courts, but we will have no idea what we can make of this 'sovereignty', nor how it will bring the slightest improvement to our daily lives. Our MPs will be asked to judge the eventual 'deal' entirely on the basis of faint hopes of wonderful new deals far in the future.

This kind of talk is deceitful to the point of treachery. Contrary to another Brexiteers' myth, the EU does not prevent the UK from trading around the world, just as it has never prevented the Germans, the French or the Spanish. Far from it. Even without the much hyped up trade deals, 30 years of the single market have made EU countries very attractive trading partners for all those countries Brexiteers seem so sure of winning over. A straw in the wind is the announcement this week by the US that it's ready to start trade talks with the EU this year. For the US Britain inside the EU is a more important ally and partner than outside.

Any more open-minded leaver can surely see that the same is true for most prospective trade partners. Indeed, the mere prospect of Brexit has already visibly reduced the UK's attraction for some of the countries the Brexiteers hope will become trading partners and inward investors.

There never was the remotest possibility that the UK could get a better deal with the EU after leaving than we had within it.

As for the rest of the world, the Brexit gang cannot point to a single deal or trading association between two or more nations anywhere in the world better than those patiently negotiated by the EU on behalf of us all over so many years.

The days when Britain could 'punch above its weight' are over.

The Brexiteers' jingoistic talk of 'sovereignty' and 'control' is alienating our European and international partners day by day. All this will take years to repair.

The damage done by Brexit was widely predicted before the referundum and clearly visible a few weeks after. The Pound fell, some big companies started planning to move parts of their businesses to locations inside the EU, and the EU financial authorities quite naturally began planning to move the hugely lucrative eurozone business away from London and back to the eurozone.

The Brexit campaign's focus on immigration has been especially unproductive. It has inevitably stoked some ugly nationalism, rising xenophobia and a belated realisation that the "low 10s of thousands" policy is immensely dangerous for the UK economy. Here too, the damage is already visible. Immigration is falling, and Europeans are leaving, or not coming at all. From fruit pickers to nurses, our hospitals and farms are already finding it very difficult to replace them.

Much of this is common knowledge. In the end, what is unforgiveable is that the leaders of the pro-leave campaign - Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan, Nigel Farrage, Ian Duncan Smith, Gisela Stuart, Andrea Leadson, Jacob Rees-Mogg -to name just a few of the more obviously guilty - are openly willing to submit the UK to the very possible break-up of the Union, and submit millions of UK and European citizens to many years of unsettling and unnecessary economic decline, in pursuit of a vision of Britain's role in the world which became out-of-date at the time of Suez half a century ago.

Theresa May could have a last chance for a favourable place in UK history. Before the referendum she was a remainer, if, like many of us, she thought the EU far from perfect. Her damascene conversion can only be understood as disgraceful political opportunism. From outside it looks more and more as though she doesn't have the courage of any convictions.

A majority of MPs, and an overwhelming majority of the House of Lords, are said to be in favour of remaining in the EU. Our unsatisfactory unwritten constitution means the UK's future is threatened by a weak Tory government in thrall to factions of politically backward right-wingers who have always obstructed the Europe project.

Is it too much to hope that Mrs May can assert herself, get rid of poor advisers and squabbling ministers, drop the meaningless Brexit rhetoric, and for once put the country before the Tory party?

In this dream she would assemble, Macron-like, a coalition of talents from the 'wide centre' that forms the real majority of British politics. She would go on TV and the social media to explain that she now sees that Brexit is not the answer to our problems, but would make them far harder to deal with. The government would declare again, as it did for the 2016 referendum, its strong preference for staying in the EU. It would apply to postpone or revoke Article 50 and, relieved of any more pointless and hugely time-consuming negotiations, would instead focus on dealing with the many urgent domestic problems, from housing and building regulations to education and child poverty, that the EU did not cause and has even helped to overcome. Who now likes shamefully to remember how much the EU has poured into Britain's poorest regions?

The government would meanwhile try to rebuild British influence in the EU. It would use the mechanisms already in place, not to neuter the EU, as our ignoble MEP Nigel Farage and his shameful gang have always done, but to work for constructive reforms, knowing that we would have many friends and allies for this throughout the 27 other countries.

On this programme this sadly fictional government would then give us a meaningful vote: to let Brexit take its course, or to revoke Article 50 and remain in the imperfect EU we know for another generation, to give us back confidence in our future.

The quality of debate before the 2016 referendum was abysmal on both sides; it bore no comparison to that in 1975. Another referendum now would not have the same problem. This time no one will take the result for granted; no one need be uninformed.

Dream or no dream, we can't accept that Britain should be diminished and marginalised by damaging and inconsistent policies rooted in a mythical past. Brexit must be stopped now.


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