Survey reveals ‘difficult climate’ for languages in schools

Wednesday 18 March 2015
  • 99 per cent of primary schools surveyed are now teaching languages - the challenge now is to develop quality;
  • Take up of language GCSEs remains low and is extremely varied with entries being highest in London and lowest in North East England;
  • Attracting enough pupils to study a language post-16 is seen as the ‘most widespread challenge’ for language teachers;
  • Prioritisation of maths and science, the growing trend of excluding pupils from language study and performance measure pressures are amongst the key factors adversely affecting languages in secondary schools.

Language learning is facing a ‘difficult climate’ in schools as take up at GCSE and A-Level remain low, according to a new report from the CfBT Education Trust and the British Council.

The Language Trends Survey 2014/15, now in its thirteenth year, indicates that whilst the recent introduction of compulsory foreign language lessons in primary schools has had an immediate and positive effect – 99 per cent of primary schools surveyed are now teaching languages and 38 per cent have increased available resources for language teaching – challenges, particularly at secondary level, remain.

In spite of calls for a greater knowledge of language skills from the CBI*, there is a widely held belief that languages are not as important as maths and science subjects. This perception, along with pressures associated with performance measures and assessment systems, is amongst the factors adversely affecting student language numbers. Higher take up of language GCSEs, closely associated with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2012, has now slowed and attracting enough pupils to study a language post-16 is recognised amongst those surveyed as the ‘most widespread challenge’ currently faced by language teachers across the country.

GCSE entries also vary dramatically by region and local authority with Middlesborough in the North East of England seeing just over a quarter of pupils taking a language at GCSE whilst nearly three quarters do so in Barnet in London. Nine of the ten local authorities with the highest proportions of pupils taking a language at GCSE are in fact in London. 

There is a growing trend in both the state and independent sectors, but particularly in state secondary schools, to exclude or excuse pupils from the study of a language for a variety of reasons such as for extra tuition in literacy and numeracy. This ‘disapplication’ of pupils in key stage 3, and of restricting access to language study at key stage 4, is associated with socio-economic disadvantage - the most economically-deprived category of schools are excluding 17 per cent of pupils from language study in key stage 3 and 44 per cent are excluding some pupils at key stage 4. 

The report highlights some positive developments including the fact that almost half of primary schools are introducing pupils in Key Stage 1 to a language even though this is not a statutory requirement. Spanish continues to be the only language to ‘buck the trend’ in terms of take up with an increase in the number of students at both GCSE and A-Level and there is also a modest rise, albeit from a low base, in the number of schools offering Mandarin Chinese – the language of the world’s second biggest economy and one recognised as crucial to the UK’s long-term competitiveness.

Co-author of the report Teresa Tinsley, said: “It’s great to see how warmly primary schools are embracing statutory language teaching, making sure that discovering the delight of new languages and cultures is firmly anchored into everything that children learn in primary schools. But our survey shows that secondary teachers are under increasing pressure with exams and performance measures that don’t work well for languages. We need to give both teachers and pupils more credit for tackling languages and focus on the long term benefits of being able to speak another language.”

Tony McAleavy, Director of Research and Development at CfBT, added: “This survey goes from strength to strength - again highlighting both successes and challenges in the teaching of languages in England. The future for languages is precarious and pupils are increasingly not being given the opportunities and encouragement needed to stick with language learning. There is some really good news too though. Structural changes have been a call to action for primary schools and the survey offers insight into the need for a focus on the quality of provision that needs to follow. And case studies, included for the first time, give real examples about how schools are reacting to the challenges they face and keeping language alive for their pupils.”

Ciarán Devane, Chief Executive at the British Council, commented: “Languages matter to the UK’s future prosperity. With our current lack of language skills said to be holding back the UK’s international trade performance at a cost of almost £50 billion a year**, it’s not enough to rely on English alone. We need far more of our young people to learn languages in order to boost their own job prospects and to ensure the UK stays competitive on the world stage.

“Whilst it’s fantastic to see primary schools introducing our youngest learners to the benefits of language learning and lesser-taught options like Mandarin Chinese starting to take a more prominent position on the languages ladder, the best future for the UK would see many more young people embracing language study. Language learning in schools is not doomed but much like we have seen with STEM subjects in the past, it will require a combined and concerted effort to give language learning back the respect and prominence it deserves within society as a whole. No-one ever says that they regret having learned a language.”

The Language Trends Survey 2014/15 is the 13th in a series of annual research exercises, charting the health of language teaching and learning in schools in England. The research is based on an online survey completed by teachers in over 500 state secondary schools, over 600 state primary schools and over 120 independent secondary schools across the country. This year, case studies from both primary and secondary schools have been included for the first time to provide a more detailed picture of what is happening on the ground in a wide variety of settings and locations.

Other key findings highlighted in the 2014/15 report were:

  • French is overwhelmingly the language most frequently taught in schools followed by German and Spanish - only Spanish is expanding, but more slowly than the rate of decline for French and German. French is declining more rapidly in the independent sector than in state schools.
  • The report shows that primary and secondary schools in both the independent and state sectors are only able to provide limited continuity when it comes to language teaching with just over half of independent schools and less than a third of state schools surveyed able to offer pupils the same language they studied at primary school at secondary level.
  • GCSE is the highest level of linguistic ability amongst staff in 31 per cent of primary schools – a seven per cent increase on last year’s survey.
  • There is concern amongst secondary teachers about the wide variation in quality of provision of language teaching at key stage 2 including whether many primary schools have the ability to deliver what they regard as a worthwhile level of language knowledge that pupils can apply to their studies in secondary school. 

Notes to Editor

* The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2014 indicated that nearly two-thirds of firms identified a need for foreign language skills, which is likely to increase as ambitious firms look to break into new fast-growing markets. 

**Independent research carried out on behalf of UK Trade & Investment by Professor James Foreman-Peck in 2014 shows that poor language skills and a lack of cultural understanding are holding back the UK’s trade performance at an estimated cost of £48 billion a year. The report shows that without the relevant language and culture skills, UK businesses are lacking the necessary market understanding to effectively engage and maximise trade opportunities, particularly in fast emerging economies like BRIC. The ‘Anglophone temptation’ to only enter into English-speaking markets also means that the UK is not realising its full potential in terms of export growth in non-common language markets. Small to medium-size exporters are especially affected in being unable to employ the language specialists brought in by global companies.

For more information on the British Council, or to arrange interviews, contact Kristen McNicoll in the British Council Press Office on 0207 389 4967 / 07731 987 561 or kristen.mcnicoll@britishcouncil.org

For more information on the CfBT Education Trust, contact Susan Nisbet on 07967 733 927 or SNisbet@cfbt.com

The Language Trends Survey 2014/15 will be available to download from Wednesday 18 March at: http://www.britishcouncil.org/education/schools or http://www.cfbt.com/Research/Research-library/2015/r-language-trends-2015

About the Language Trends Survey 2014/15

Language Trends 2014/15 is the latest in a series of annual reports started in 2002 which chart the health of language teaching in English schools. Traditionally based on a nationwide survey of a large sample of secondary schools, in 2012 the research was extended to include primary as well as secondary schools. The 2014/15 survey also included both primary and secondary schools. The report provides a comprehensive and current picture of language provision in English schools.

About CfBT Education Trust

CfBT Education Trust is a leading global education consultancy and services provider. We provide outstanding, sustainable education solutions and, in partnership with schools and governments as well as public and private organisations, we transform the lives of learners for millions of children and young people worldwide.

CfBT is a registered charity and any surpluses generated from our work are invested into our publicly available programme of educational research.

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We create international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and build trust between them worldwide.

We work in more than 100 countries and our 8,000 staff – including 2,000 teachers – work with thousands of professionals and policy makers and millions of young people every year by teaching English, sharing the arts and delivering education and society programmes.

We are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter. A core publicly-funded grant provides 20 per cent of our turnover which last year was £864 million. The rest of our revenues are earned from services which customers around the world pay for, such as English classes and taking UK examinations, and also through education and development contracts and from partnerships with public and private organisations. All our work is in pursuit of our charitable purpose and supports prosperity and security for the UK and globally.

For more information, please visit: www.britishcouncil.org. You can also keep in touch with the British Council through http://twitter.com/britishcouncil and http://blog.britishcouncil.org