Monday 27 January 2020


New report reveals stark gender gap in foreign languages

  • Girls are more than twice as likely as boys to achieve a pass in GCSE languages; 
  • Just 38 per cent of boys sat GCSE languages in 2018, compared to half (50 per cent) of all girls; 
  • The gap is so pronounced that gender is a stronger predictor of success in languages than a pupil’s level of disadvantage; 
  • Take-up rates and performance of boys in languages under the spotlight in new report by EPI, commissioned by the British Council;
  • Report also examines those schools where boys are bucking the trends, and considers what they are doing to boost participation and performance;
  • Successful schools highlight inclusive language learning for all abilities as reason behind increased male uptake. 

A new report from the British Council highlights the methods of schools who are trying to close the stark gender gap in language learning by tackling boys’ underperformance.

The report, produced by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that boys’ entry and performance in GCSE languages is persistently lower than girls, with a pupil’s gender a stronger predictor of outcomes than a pupil’s level of disadvantage: a girl from a poorer background is more likely to outperform a boy from a more affluent background.  

Boys studying modern foreign languages at GCSE in schools in England was commissioned to investigate the latest trends in the entry and attainment levels of boys, and examine what schools are doing to tackle the growing gender divide.

This comes as overall entries into languages have undergone a significant decline in recent years. In contrast with all other subjects in the government’s ‘EBacc’ group of core academic subjects, such as maths, sciences and English, foreign languages have seen an increasingly low rate of entries.  

To investigate this, researchers used the national pupil database to identify schools which should theoretically have below average language outcomes based on their characteristics, but where boys were in practice beating the odds, by performing well. 

They then examined the practices of these individual schools to find out what measures they were taking to improve the take up of languages, particularly among boys.

One approach identified by schools bucking the trends included more inclusive policies towards foreign languages, which promoted learning of the subject for all abilities and backgrounds. 

British Council Schools Advisor Vicky Gough said: “By learning a foreign language, pupils develop skills to work with other cultures and people. These skills are essential for the UK’s future in an increasingly interconnected world. 

“Everyone should have the opportunity to learn a language and we are determined to break down the image of foreign languages being something only bright or well-off pupils should take.”

Bobbie Mills, report author and Senior Researcher at the Education Policy Institute, said: 

"Foreign languages stand out among the government’s core EBacc group as the only subject with a large gender divide. Boys trail girls on entries into GCSE languages, while those that do take up the subject remain far behind on performance”.  

“The government has set an ambitious target of 75 per cent of pupils studying the EBacc by 2022. If it intends to make any progress towards this goal, it must urgently clarify how it intends to address the huge gender gap in languages. There is no evidence that current initiatives to improve foreign language entries will narrow this divide”. 

Other the recommendations put forward by Education Policy Institute include:

• The need for more study into the benefits of language learning for young people with a focus on cross-curricular benefits and its role in improving literacy and numeracy;

• That Ofqual should continue to address the difficulty of the assessment of language GCSEs to enable more inclusive language learning for all abilities. It should monitor the impact of its recent intervention to adjust French and German grading, and consider whether similar adjustments are needed for other languages. 

Notes to Editor

The report uses two measurements for disadvantaged pupils. The analysis showing being male as a greater indicator of low performance and take up relates to the ‘ever 6’ definition of disadvantage, referring to pupils who have been eligible for free school meals in the last six years, not the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI). 

About the Education Policy Institute 

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) is an independent, impartial, and evidence-based research institute that promotes high quality education outcomes, regardless of social background. We achieve this through data-led analysis, innovative research and high-profile events. Find out more about our work at

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We work with over 100 countries in the fields of arts and culture, English language, education and civil society. Last year we reached over 75 million people directly and 758 million people overall including online, broadcasts and publications. We make a positive contribution to the countries we work with – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust. Founded in 1934 we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body. We receive 15 per cent core funding grant from the UK government.

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