- The British Council’s Language Trends Survey 2018 reveals a widening gap in pupils’ access to study foreign languages: uptake is disproportionately lower at state schools in more disadvantaged areas
- Teachers report that the introduction of new, more rigorous GCSEs means lower ability pupils less likely to take a language
- French and German student numbers continue to fall at A Level while Spanish soars for post-16 study and could become England’s main modern language in secondary schools within the next decade
Pupils in poorer areas in England are more likely than their peers to be missing out on the chance to learn a foreign language as they progress through school, says a new report from the British Council.
The Language Trends Survey 2018 found that schools in the most disadvantaged circumstances – with the highest proportion of pupil eligibility for free school meals – are over three times more likely to have low participation at GCSE level and no plans for this to improve, when compared with schools with a pupil cohort in the most affluent circumstances.
On the ground, this translates to a widening gap between those schools that are prioritising languages and those where uptake is low and showing little sign of improvement.
As part of the Government’s policy to encourage uptake of language subjects it has set a target for 75% of pupils to obtain the English Baccalaureate by 2022, which requires a good GCSE in a language. Many schools are making progress in line with this target, with the number of state schools where at least three-quarters of pupils learn a language at GCSE level increasing in the last year from 24% to 29%, while 82% of independent schools have more than three quarters of their year 10 pupils taking a language.
However, at the other end of the spectrum, the number of state schools where only up to a quarter of pupils study languages at GCSE – and have no plans for this to improve - has risen from 19% to 23% in the last year, and it is these schools that are three times more likely to be in the most disadvantaged circumstances.
The survey also found that schools in the most disadvantaged circumstances are more than twice as likely to dedicate less teaching time to languages at Key Stage 3 level, the last phase of schooling where these subjects are still compulsory for all 11 to 14 year olds.
Analysis of examination data found that overall across England the number of pupils taking a GCSE in a modern language subject fell from 49% to 47%, with a third (33%) of all students obtaining a grade C or above.
This year’s report also reveals that while there appears to be consensus that the introduction of the more rigorous GCSEs may create better linguists, the new exams may put off lower ability pupils from taking language subjects. 68% of state schools and 49% of independent schools said that lower ability students were less likely to take a languages GCSE than previously.
Other key findings in the report include:
- Boys are far less likely to take a language than girls. At A Level, 63% of candidates are female and 37% male, while the split at GCSE is 56% and 44%.
- Uptake of French and German at GCSE and A Level has dramatically fallen over the last two decades while there has been a significant rise for Spanish. These trends have continued this year, with French and German both falling to a new low of 8,300 and 3,300 entries respectively at A Level, while Spanish has risen to 7,600 entries. The report predicts that based on current trends, Spanish will overtake French as England’s most widely taught modern language at A Level by 2020 and at GCSE by 2025.
- A perception that languages are less important than other subjects has emerged, with just over a third (34%) of state secondary schools reporting that there has been a negative impact on student motivation or parental attitudes towards learning languages as a consequence of the decision to leave the European Union.
- In primary schools the national picture is relatively consistent with last year. Around 80% of schools allocate on average 30 minutes to an hour per week for language learning, although teachers report that this is often irregular or eroded by other priorities.
Report author Teresa Tinsley said: “The research shows that there is a growing rift between schools where languages are valued and developed imaginatively as part of a stimulating curriculum and those which are struggling to overcome disadvantage and a growth in negative attitudes. These schools will need support and encouragement if all pupils across the board are to enjoy the enriching experience of learning a language.”
Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council, said: “The opportunity to learn a language should be open to everyone, regardless of what kind of school they attend. Learning a foreign language can open doors, not only by helping us understand other cultures but also providing vital skills much sought after by employers.
“At a time when it is more important than ever that the UK forges new relationships around the world, languages need to be championed and treated as a national priority so that young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to live and work in a global economy.”
The Language Trends Survey 2018 is the latest in a series of annual research exercises which started in 2002, charting the health of language teaching and learning in schools in England. This year’s research is based on an online survey completed by teachers in over 650 state secondary schools, over 690 state primary schools and over 130 independent secondary schools across the country.