- Language teaching was suspended at one in five primary schools in January 2021 due to Covid-19.
- Two in five pupils in Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) at state secondary schools did not engage with language learning during the first national lockdown, leading to time lost to language learning for a lot of pupils.
- 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.
- Whilst French is the most popular language at primary, Key Stage 3 and GCSE, Spanish is the most popular A-level language for the second year in a row.
- 98 per cent of teachers ‘much better prepared’ for online teaching in 2021 than in 2020.
- Increase in resourcing and opportunities for online, language-specific Continuing Professional Development – in-service training for teachers to improve their skills and knowledge.
Covid-19 has had a ‘negative impact’ on language learning at schools in England, according to a new British Council report published today (Thursday 8 July 2021).
The Language Trends 2021 report surveyed teachers at more than 1500 primary, secondary and independent schools across England. The report, which has been published annually by the British Council for nearly twenty years, gathers information about language teaching and learning in England.
This year’s report found that the impact of Covid-19 caused significant disruption to language learning, particularly during the first national lockdown from 23 March to late June 2020. Language teaching was discontinued at more than half (53 per cent) of primary schools in England during this period.
For the 47 per cent of primary schools which did continue to teach languages during this period, only 5 per cent taught live lessons using video conferencing tools such as Zoom. By the time of data collection in January and February 2021, one in five primary schools continued to suspend language teaching
The report found a worrying and clear social divide in the impact of Covid-19 on language learning, with schools in deprived areas feeling the effects more acutely. 71 per cent of state schools in the most deprived areas reported a ‘big negative impact’ on language learning and 52 per cent of state schools in the most affluent areas reported the same. Just 16 per cent of independent schools reported a ‘big negative impact’.
At state secondary schools, one in three Key Stage 3 pupils did not have regular access to the internet and two in five pupils did not engage with language learning during the first national lockdown. In contrast, just one in twenty pupils at independent schools did not have regular internet access and one in ten pupils did not engage with language learning during the same period.
There were some signs of improvement during the third national lockdown in January 2021, when the number of pupils without regular internet access halved to an average of one in six. The number of pupils not engaging in language learning decreased to one in five. Teachers were also more confident, with nearly all (98 per cent) reporting that they felt much better prepared for online teaching in 2021 than in 2020.
However, data collected as part of a large-scale pupil survey for Language Trends Northern Ireland 2021 revealed that 54 per cent of Year 8 pupils there said that learning languages online was more difficult. With speaking and listening an essential and interactive part of language learning, it is likely that disadvantaged pupils at schools in England, who are less likely to have access to the tech required to participate in online lessons, will have been pushed even further behind their more advantaged peers.
Previous Language Trends reports have found that international engagement opportunities for pupils and teachers have been decreasing since 2018. This year’s report found that the pandemic has contributed to the continued and significant reduction in international opportunities. These include not only trips abroad but activities such as partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects and hosting a language assistant.
Concerningly, 64 per cent of primary schools and 38 per cent of state secondary schools reported no international activities within their school (compared to 46 per cent and 11 per cent respectively in 2018). At independent schools just 11 per cent reported no international activities (up from 3 per cent in 2018). Furthermore, very few virtual international activities have been initiated or maintained.
International experiences give 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. British Council research in 2014 found that nearly two thirds (62 per cent) of language students at university had been inspired to study a language degree because of an international exchange trip whilst at school.
For now, French remains the most popular language studied at primary, Key Stage 3 and GCSE. At Key Stage 3, French is taught by 91 per cent of responding state schools and 92 per cent of responding independent schools, followed by Spanish in 74 per cent and 89 per cent of state and independent schools respectively. German provision is particularly patchy across the country, offered by 70 per cent of independent schools but just 36 per cent of state schools – a noticeable decline since 2018.
Exams in the summer of 2020 were cancelled because of Covid-19, with grades awarded based on pupils’ centre assessment grade or calculated grade, whichever was higher. For the first time, Spanish attracted over 100,000 GCSE entries – almost double the 2005 statistic – and was the most popular A-level language for the second year in a row. If current trends continue, the report predicts that Spanish is likely to overtake French as the most popular GCSE language by 2026.
Of concern is the dramatic decline in entries for Other Modern Languages (that is, languages other than French, German, Irish, Spanish and Welsh) at GCSE and A-level. This is likely due to students at Saturday schools and in community learning settings not being awarded a grade as their schools were not able to provide a grade under the arrangements made for exams in summer 2020.
Many language teachers reported that they cannot wait to get back to face-to-face teaching in the classroom, but despite the barriers they have faced over the past year it is encouraging to see how swiftly they pivoted to remote learning during the national lockdowns. Nearly all reported feeling better prepared to provide online lessons during 2021. It is clear from the survey that teachers have worked incredibly hard during the pandemic.
Resourcing and opportunities have increased for online, language-specific Continuing Professional Development (CPD) – that is, in-service training for teachers to build their skills and knowledge. 32 per cent of primary teachers, 60 per cent of teachers in independent schools and 67 per cent of teachers in state schools have taken part in online CPD during the past year.
The Covid-19 pandemic has facilitated an upsurge in teachers accessing webinars, and many teachers report having taken part in upskilling courses delivered online by universities, Ofsted, the Primary Languages Network, Language Angels and neighbouring secondary schools.
Vicky Gough, British Council Schools Adviser, said: “The past year has been extremely challenging for schools and these findings highlight the significant impact of Covid-19 on the teaching and learning of languages. As education begins to recover from the pandemic, it’s essential that schools prioritise language learning and look to build back international opportunities and connections. The benefits of having language skills and some understanding of other cultures cannot be overstated, particularly as the UK renegotiates its place on the world stage.”
Dr Ian Collen, Language Trends 2021 Author, said: “The most disadvantaged pupils are the most likely to have been negatively affected by the impact of Covid-19, experiencing greater disruption to their language learning and fewer international opportunities. Looking to the future, schools should consider giving more curriculum time to languages, as well as more opportunities to use languages in real life such as visits abroad.”
- Language Trends 2021 is published today (Thursday 8 July 2021). There will be a free online panel event at 16:00 in which Dr Ian Collen, the report author, will discuss the headline findings. To join this event, please visit: https://www.britishcouncil.org/education/schools/education-exchange-digital-events/language-trends
- To read the full report, please visit: https://www.britishcouncil.org/research-policy-insight/research-reports/language-trends-2021
- The British Council is the UK’s cultural relations organisation, creating opportunities for people globally to connect and engage with each other through the arts, education and the English language. For more information on language opportunities, please visit: https://www.britishcouncil.org/school-resources/languages