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British Council.

July 2019

The latest edition of the British Council’s flagship Language Trends series reveals worrying signs of decline and growing socio-economic division in language teaching in schools. Insight considers the evidence and implications.

Worrying Trends in Language Learning

Teachers believe that tough exams are discouraging pupils from learning languages, according to a new British Council survey. There is also evidence of a growing social divide when it comes to children learning foreign languages and having international experiences.

The annual Language Trends report is a survey of more than 1,600 teachers at primary and secondary schools across England, designed to chart the state of language teaching and learning in schools. The 2019 research responds to an ongoing concern about the level of participation in language learning since the subject was removed from the compulsory curriculum in 2004.

The report shows that the most disadvantaged pupils continue to be far less likely than their peers to study languages at GCSE. Very few state secondary schools offer the option for pupils to study a language other than French, German, or Spanish. Independent schools do cater for a much wider range of languages, including in a growing number of cases Mandarin; but unless more state schools follow suit, this raises the risk of a growing social divide in terms of opportunities for learning other languages. Revisions to the syllabus in the past three years have had a disproportionate impact on lower attaining pupils, with 84% of state schools (70% of independent schools) saying these pupils are now less likely to take a language than three years ago. At schools where less than 25% of the cohort takes a language GCSE, there are statistically higher levels of the pupil premium government grant, and higher levels of pupils receiving free school meals

Lead researcher for Language Trends, Teresa Tinsley, commented: “The report paints a picture of language learning in England becoming increasingly segregated along both socio-economic and academic lines. Pupils from poorer backgrounds and those who are less academically inclined are much less likely than their peers to acquire any substantial language skills or access foreign cultures in any significant way. We all know the pressures schools are under, but these inequalities are not good for our society or the future of our country.”

The research also reveals that there has been an overall reduction of 19% in the number of entries for GCSE languages since 2014, with both French and German seeing a decline of 30% (although Spanish has remained more stable with a 2% decline over the same period). At A-level, all three languages saw a decline in entries between 2017 and 2018, with German down 16%, French 7%, and Spanish 3%.

French remains the most commonly taught language in English secondary schools, although previous British Council surveys have revealed a steep decline in numbers taking French and German at A-level over the last two decades and a significant rise in Spanish. Several factors lie behind these steep declines.

A large majority of teachers (71% at state secondary schools and 64% at independent schools) told the Language Trends Survey 2019 that they were concerned about the content of language exams. Many teachers also expressed concern with the way exams are marked and graded. They felt that students were being deterred from taking language subjects, because these were perceived as hard subjects in which to achieve good exam results.

Teachers also noted an impact on parental attitudes, with some parents actively discouraging their children from learning European languages

Two in five teachers say that the implications of Brexit pose a major challenge to providing high-quality language teaching. 25% of teachers at state secondary schools and 15% at independent schools reported a negative impact on pupils’ motivation to learn a European language, whilst a further third of teachers (36% at state schools and 30% at independent schools) reported that pupils had mixed attitudes towards languages as a result of Brexit. Teachers also noted an impact on parental attitudes, with some parents actively discouraging their children from learning European languages.

In terms of the supply of language teachers, the report found the majority of secondary schools depend on EU citizens to help staff their language departments. As a result of declining language uptake in recent years, home-grown language teachers are in short supply, and 67% of state schools and 79% of independent schools employ one or more staff who are EU citizens. Around one quarter of independent schools and one third of state schools report difficulties recruiting language staff. 

The report also reveals declining levels of international engagement in primary and secondary schools, with half of all primary schools offering pupils no international activity at all. The proportion of state secondary schools offering international experience has decreased by up to 5% since last year, with just one quarter of state schools offering pupil exchanges abroad, compared to 48% of independent schools. At the same time, teachers at both state and independent schools were concerned with the lack of opportunities for pupils to practice using languages outside the classroom.

Appreciating the Wider World

The state of language teaching in the UK has much wider implications in terms of the UK’s prosperity and influence. A growing body of evidence supports the idea that shared language is an important driver of attraction and willingness to trade and do business. For example, Egger and Lassmann (2012) found that, on average, having a common language increases trade flows by 44%. Language is about more than simple communication – it is about deeper cultural understanding and the increased trust that engenders. 

If the UK is to pursue a genuine global future after Brexit, its policymakers and educational organisations will have to work hard to transform the international engagement of its young people. Increasing their familiarity with the languages and cultures of other countries will be an important start

As one measure to help address these issues, the British Council is aiming to work with partners in the UK and overseas towards an ambition that every British school child has some international experience, such as an exchange visit or a skype contact with a partner school overseas. The organisation manages a range of programmes to enable teachers and pupils to bring the world into the classroom, for example the new international school exchanges programme funded by the DfE is providing £2.5m of funding for pupils to participate in exchanges. If the UK is to pursue a genuine global future after Brexit, its policymakers and educational organisations will have to work hard to transform the international engagement of its young people. Increasing their familiarity with the languages and cultures of other countries will be an important start.

It is important that all British school children have the chance to learn a language, but as this report shows, teachers state that many pupils – particularly the most disadvantaged – are being put off by the difficulty of exams and a sense that languages just aren’t for them. Coupled with a decline in the international experiences offered at primary and secondary schools, these findings paint an alarming picture. It is necessary to give all our young people more opportunities to learn about and engage with different cultures, and that no-one is left behind. Languages open up many doors – not only are they a valuable skill, highly sought after by employers - they also allow for a deeper understanding and appreciation of the wider world. Policymakers should think carefully about what can be done to support language learning in the future.

Vicky Gough, Schools Advisor, Education and Society, British Council

See also