By Teresa Tinsley

27 January 2020 - 09:48

Three boys sitting in a classroom
'We found two leading factors in exceptional participation and outcomes for boys in these schools.' Photo ©

Sam Balye used under licence and adapted from the original.

Girls are more than twice as likely to achieve a good grade in languages, but some schools are bucking this trend. Dr Teresa Tinsley, co-author of a new report, tells us the two things these schools have in common. 

In UK schools, girls are more than twice as likely as boys to learn a language at General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) level, and to achieve top grades. The gender bias is particularly noticeable in French and Spanish. 

If we find schools where boys are doing better than expected, and understand what they do differently, could we improve language take-up and grades more widely?

Last year, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) took the first steps toward finding out. They identified 37 English state secondary schools which are ‘beating the odds’ in terms of boys and languages.

These schools are not necessarily top of the table in language take-up or achievement. But they are doing more than 10 percent better than expected compared to schools working in similar circumstances.

What makes a school beat the odds in boys' language learning?

We found two leading factors in exceptional participation and outcomes for boys in these schools:

  • school policies which include some form of compulsion to study languages at GCSE
  • teaching approaches which provide effective, motivating lessons and a language-rich environment for pupils.

Two thirds of the schools in the study make language learning compulsory in some way. Four other schools strongly advise at least some groups of pupils to take a language.

The leading factor in these policies is the EBacc, a measure of school performance. The EBacc requires pupils to obtain a good pass in a language at GCSE.

Most odds-beating schools offer support to learners who are lower-attaining, disadvantaged or have special educational needs or disabilities. 

Teachers in the odds-beating schools bring a wide variety of techniques to their teaching. They emphasise speaking and interaction as opposed to what they describe as ‘old-fashioned’ approaches. These include writing and vocabulary-learning.

They teach grammar systematically, but avoid learning rules out of context. They say that the use of humour, rewards, and an element of competition tend to be particularly effective with boys.

There is also some evidence that odds-beating schools have more effective careers advice for languages than other schools. For example, dedicated staff arrange language-related careers visits.

Why are some schools beating the odds in language learning and gender?

Our part in the research was to look for factors in these schools that make them odds-beating.

We asked if it is connected with the languages these schools offer. Uptake for German and Mandarin at GCSE is less gender-biased than for the Romance languages, including French, Italian and Spanish. 

We also asked:

Is the structure of the curriculum – timetabling or the way options for GCSE are organised – a factor?

What role do senior management policies, or strong leadership on languages or gender equality play, in a local authority or multi-academy trust?

Do the odds-beating schools have more male language teachers? Or do they give their male pupils access to male linguist role models?

Do these schools favour approaches or methodologies that are particularly successful with boys? Are there practices which they avoid?

Are odds-beating schools exceptionally good at promoting future opportunities with languages? Do they have extra-curricular opportunities that capture the joy of language learning?

What are the pupils' family background, or their experience of learning a language in primary school? 

The research contradicts widely held assumptions about boys and language learning

We found no evidence to suggest that any particular language is more or less motivating for boys. However, most of schools we looked at offer pupils the chance to learn, or at least try out, more than one language at Key Stage 3.

There is no indication that the odds-beating schools employ more male teaching staff than other schools, or that they provide pupils male role models who speak multiple languages.

Few of the schools deliberately try to achieve gender balance or overcome gender stereotypes, in languages or any other subject.

Parental influence is low. It may, in fact, be negative towards languages. Also, pupils’ experience of language learning in primary school does not appear significant.

Family background is a factor in a minority of schools, and specifically connected with pupils who have English as an additional language.

Read the full report Boys studying modern foreign languages at GCSE in schools in England

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