Thursday 07 July 2022
  • Schools unlikely to meet Government’s EBacc target for many pupils learning a language.
  • Spanish will overtake French as the most popular language at GCSE by 2026 if current trends continue.
  • The amount of time devoted to languages in different primary schools across the country varies, with some pupils receiving less than 30 minutes per week. 
  • Significant decline in international activities at primary and state secondary schools, such as partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects and hosting a language assistant. 
  • 2022 has seen the biggest ever response rate to Language Trends.

The new Language Trends 2022 report surveyed teachers at more than 1500 primary, secondary and independent schools across England.

Now marking its twentieth edition, Language Trends is an annual survey of primary and secondary schools in England, designed to gather information about language teaching and learning. This year’s report saw the biggest ever response rate; teachers have lots to say about languages.

Primary schools’ findings

Four out of five responding primary schools have been teaching languages for more than five years. This represents a two per cent increase on 2021 and a five per cent increase on 2019. In most of these schools, pupils make progress in one foreign language. 

The data revealed a lot of variation in the amount of time devoted to languages in primary schools across the country, with some pupils receiving less than 30 minutes teaching per week. The ideal conditions are a minimum of one hour per week, delivered by a teacher with degree-level proficiency in the language. 

Nearly 100 per cent of responding schools (93 per cent) allocate a set time each week for language learning; the remainder teach through collapsible timetable days or on a more ad hoc basis. In practice, in one in four schools, weekly language teaching does not happen. because of an array of issues including:

  • Split teacher time between year groups e.g., Year 6 have languages for half of the year and Year 5 have languages for the other half of the year.
  • Ongoing staffing issues within schools.
  • Extra-curricular activities mean that languages are usually the first subject to be dropped.

French continues to be the most taught language at primary level, enjoying slight growth since 2021, and is significantly ahead of Spanish. The report also notes that this trend is not replicated at A-Level.

Secondary and independent school findings

The government is currently on track to meet all its EBacc targets, except for languages. As part of the National Curriculum Framework, it is compulsory for children aged 7 – 14 to study a language.

EBacc, encourages all pupils to study a GCSE in English language, English literature, mathematics, the sciences, a language (ancient or modern) and geography or history. 

The aim behind the EBacc is to keep young people’s options open for further study and their future careers. 

The government’s ambition is to see 75% of pupils studying the EBacc subject combination at GCSE by 2022, for award of qualifications in 2024; and 90% by 2025, for award of qualifications in 2027.

International engagement has weakened

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a significant reduction in international activities in schools with opportunities more widespread in the independent sector. These include not only trips abroad but activities such as partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects and hosting a language assistant. 

Previous Language Trends reports have found that international engagement opportunities for pupils and teachers have been decreasing since 2018. This is starkly illustrated in the tables below. 

Nearly 70 per cent of surveyed primary schools reported that they have had no international engagement in the last year. The trend in all school types is that an increasing number of schools are reporting no international engagement at both primary and secondary level. 

45 per cent of state secondary schools reported no international activities within their school (compared to 38 per cent in 2021). At independent schools just 18 per cent reported no international activities (up 7 per cent in 2021). 

International engagement at schools gives pupils a ‘real life’ opportunity to use the languages they are learning, which can help with motivation, introduces them to a different culture, and can have a long-lasting impact on their lives.

Pre-pandemic and before the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, international engagement in schools was reasonably healthy. Teachers who took part in this year’s survey stated that they would be open to connecting with local university students, making or reigniting links with schools abroad, or using the British Council’s International School Award as a framework through which to quality assure the international dimension.

International engagement in primary schools

  2018 2019  2020 2021 2022 
The school has one or more partner schools abroad  35% 27% 19%  18% 19%
Involvement in international projects  22%  16%  10%  8%  10% 
Host a language assistant  5%  5%  3%  2%  2% 
None  26%  21%  61%  64%  67% 

International engagement in state secondary and independent schools

  State Schools   Independent Schools  
  2018 2021 2022 2018 2021 2022
 The school has one or more partner schools abroad  31% 31%  30%  41% 42% 48% 
We host language assistants  23%  21% 21% 50%  69%  61% 
Joint curriculum projects 10%  8%  6%  17%  11%  13% 
None 11%  38%  45%  3%  11%  18% 

Table 18: International engagement in state secondary and independent schools

Spanish is now the most popular A-level language in England

Official exam data shows that, for the third year running Spanish, with more than 8000 entries, is the most popular language at A-level, replacing the long-standing tradition of French being in the top spot. Spanish will also overtake French as the most popular language at GCSE by 2026 if current trends continue.

German has once again declined slightly, and entries for other modern languages plummeted in 2020, a trend most likely due to students at Saturday schools and in community learning settings not being awarded a grade for their work during the Covid-19 pandemic. These entries are showing signs of recovery but remain far below pre-pandemic levels.

Vicky Gough, British Council Schools Adviser, said: “Our survey highlights the impact that Covid-19 still has on the teaching and learning of languages and shows that the past couple of years have been extremely challenging for schools. It is vital that schools prioritise language learning and re-establish connections with national and international schools and universities. The benefits of having language skills and some knowledge of other cultures cannot be overstated, particularly as the UK renegotiates its place on the world stage.”

Dr Ian Collen, Language Trends Survey 2022 author, said: “As England recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, there are further opportunities in every school to connect with the world, both to continually improve teaching and learning in languages, and to allow young people to better understand their place in a global community.”

Notes to Editor

For more information and interviews please contact Beatrice Cole, Senior Media and External Relations Manager  

Available for interview:

  • Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser, British Council.
  • Dr Ian Collen, Language Trends 2022 author, Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (NICILT).

Download the report: Language Trends England 2022

Language Trends 2022 is published today (Thursday 7 July 2022). There will be a free online panel event at 17.00 BST on Thursday 7 July in which Dr Ian Collen, the report author, will discuss the headline findings. To register for this event, please sign up here.

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We support peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide. We do this through our work in arts and culture, education and the English language. We work with people in over 200 countries and territories and are on the ground in more than 100 countries. In 2021-22 we reached 650 million people.