By Janice Carruthers

21 May 2019 - 14:32

Multicoloured school lockers
'Based on the survey results, 65 per cent of teachers and pupils feel that language exams are difficult compared with other subjects.' Photo ©

moren hsu used under licence and adapted from the original.

A new report into languages in Northern Ireland shows a 19 per cent drop in uptake at GCSE level over the last eight years. Janice Carruthers, professor at Queen's University Belfast and member of the report's advisory board, shares the findings. 

Only 55 per cent of primary schools who responded to the Language Trends Northern Ireland report offer some form of language teaching. That number drops to 33 per cent when we exclude voluntary and after-school language provision.

The Language Trends report follows the discontinuation of the Primary Modern Languages Programme in Northern Ireland. 

Why is languages uptake in schools in Northern Ireland declining?

Based on the survey results, 65 per cent of teachers and pupils feel that language exams are difficult compared with other subjects. Fifty-five per cent of survey respondents perceive that it is harder to achieve a high grade in languages, compared with other subjects. Ofqual is investigating grading at GCSE in England, and we need an urgent review of grading in Northern Ireland.

More than half of respondents mentioned that a lack of positive messaging about the value of languages is part of the problem.

How can the benefits of languages be better articulated to schools?

We can make better use of evidence. For example, the Confederation of British Industry's Education and Skills reports (the latest is Educating for the Modern World, 2018) give evidence of employers’ demand for language graduates.

So do reports like the British Academy’s Born Global (2014) and Cambridge University’s The Value of Languages (2015). Their data and case studies can help inform young people about job opportunities for people with language skills, when they are making subject choices.

What are the differences between language learning in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK?

The challenges I have mentioned are similar across the UK: perceptions of difficulty and severe grading, and a lack of clear and positive messages about the value of languages.

Unlike Scotland, Wales and England, we don't have a specific initiative or policy to support languages. Other parts of the UK have the ‘1+2’ policy in Scotland, the Global Futures strategy in Wales, the Centre of Excellence in England (with regional hubs), and the Department for Education's mentoring programme in the Sheffield area.

The four main languages taught in Northern Ireland are French, German, Irish and Spanish. The fall in numbers in French is steep and German has also seen a significant decline. Spanish language uptake is growing at GCSE and Irish has a relatively steady uptake (when population rises and falls are taken into consideration), but we cannot be complacent. In my experience, teachers of Irish are also supportive of foreign languages, and often teach Irish alongside a foreign language. 

How can Northern Ireland improve language provision in schools?

Ideally, this would take the form of a clear language policy for Northern Ireland, similar to the Scottish 1+2 model, with funding to roll it out across our educational system.

At the least, we need a strategy that is backed by the devolved government and which sponsors these initiatives:

  1. A clear message from our devolved government about the importance of languages for our economy, including tourism and inward investment. 
  2. An urgent review of grading at GCSE and A level in languages to remove barriers to language learning. 
  3. Better co-operation across sectors, especially between schools and universities, through a scheme such as ambassadors or mentoring.

I believe that the need for strong language skills in the Northern Ireland workforce, to strengthen our links around the globe, is obvious. But we need the devolved government to act before it is too late.

Read the Language Trends Northern Ireland report

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