Lost for words

MAy 2016

The latest Language Trends survey paints a worrying picture of foreign language learning in English schools. This is bad news for the UK.

With English increasingly becoming the world's lingua franca, does it really matter that our young people learn other languages? Previous research by the British Council has demonstrated that English is indeed a huge asset for the UK. But it has also shown that capacity in other languages are extremely important for the UK's future prosperity and global influence, identifying the foreign languages that are the most important for the country (see Chart below). 

The reality is that, as the world becomes increasingly connected, it is no longer enough to rely on English alone

The reality is that, as the world becomes increasingly connected, it is no longer enough to rely on English alone. The UK’s current lack of language skills has been estimated to be holding back the country's international trade performance at a cost of almost £50 billion a year, at a time when the UK’s trade deficit was almost £100bn in 2015 – the highest since records began. With this in mind, far more young people should be learning languages in order to boost their own job prospects and help the UK stay competitive on the world stage. 

More than that, understanding another language is an important basis for understanding another culture - and an open mind and international outlook have never been more important for the UK's place in the world. The study of a language places students in the privileged position of being able to reflect on their own society from new perspectives and to compare and contrast diverse views of the world, improving their own employment prospects and bringing benefits to society as a whole.

Worrying Trends

Yet teachers are expressing ‘deep concerns’ about the current state of language learning in schools in England, according to a new report. 

The Language Trends Survey 2016 (commissioned by the British Council and Education Development Trust) is the 14th in a series of annual research exercises. The series aims to chart the state of language teaching and learning in schools in England. 

The 2016 survey identifies numerous challenges currently facing language teaching - and highlights that teachers and school leaders see the exam system as one of the principal barriers preventing its successful development.

In the last year the number of pupils taking a language GCSE fell to around half the number of those taking one in Maths. The number of French exams taken fell by 6.2% compared with 2014, with a 9.8% drop in German and a 2.4% fall in Spanish. 

Entries for A-level French have declined overall by around a third, and those for German by nearly half

A-level numbers have also continued to decline. Since the first Language Trends Survey was published in 2002, entries for A-level French have declined overall by around a third, and those for German by nearly half. Post-16 uptake is noted as a particular concern, with some state schools even suggesting that the small numbers of students opting to take languages at A-level means that the subjects are no longer financially viable.

The proportion of pupils sitting a GCSE in a language also varies widely across the country, with 64% in Inner London compared to just 42% in the North East. The best opportunities to study languages are still associated with high-performing schools and those with low indices of socio-economic deprivation. Recent years have seen rises in the numbers of students studying Mandarin Chinese, but this is frequently associated with independent schools.

Furthermore, schools do not appear to be preparing for big increases in the numbers of pupils taking languages at GCSE as a result of the recent proposal that at least 90% of pupils take the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which includes a language as one of its elements. The previous rise in GCSE entries following the introduction of the EBacc as a performance measure also appears to have levelled off: just 27% of state schools report that the EBacc in this form has had a lasting impact. In addition, teachers are not confident that the new A-level exams will reverse the downward trend – indeed many fear it might make the situation worse.

The report does highlight positive developments, predominantly at primary level. Almost half of primary schools (42%) have increased the resources available for languages. In fact, all primary schools surveyed now provide language teaching, and just over a third say they now have access to specialist language teaching expertise within their school. Yet the findings also suggest that the quality and consistency of provision is not always seen as providing a worthwhile level of knowledge for pupils when they arrive at secondary school.

Teachers’ reports of harsh and inconsistent marking of language exams, Ofqual’s recent finding that languages are more difficult compared to other subjects, and the continued prioritisation of maths and science, are all cited as creating a ‘deeply demotivating’ situation for pupils and teachers. 

So, what can be done to ensure that we are able to help young people in the UK achieve their linguistic ambitions? How can the downward trend be reversed?

The recent curriculum reforms introduced by the Department For Education now mean that - in theory - pupils should have eight years of compulsory language learning from Year 4 to GCSE level.  These welcome changes are just starting to work through the system and will need time to embed. 

But languages policy cannot just be a matter for the Department For Education. It must be guided by UK national priorities. There is much work to be done to combat negative perceptions about languages across the country and low morale among teachers. Languages need champions and role models across government and employers, as well as in the education sector. Parents, schools, employers, and government can all play their part. 

There may be a long journey ahead to get language learning in English schools back on track. But the evidence suggests it is an important journey to make.

Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser, British Council