By Ian Collen

29 June 2020 - 08:00

Pupils in a classroom
'Language teachers are as passionate as ever. Policymakers need to capitalise on this.' Photo ©

Mat Wright

The annual Language Trends survey examines teachers' views of language teaching in schools in England. Its author, Ian Collen, explains some of this year’s findings, including teachers' main challenges, innovation in the classroom and Spanish as the new most popular language at A level. 

Language learning may be in a state of crisis in England. How can we improve uptake? 

This year’s survey gathered results from almost one thousand schools across England. Teachers’ frustrations are evident in the data. Lack of national strategy for language learning at all stages of education, and recent changes such as the return to three linear A levels for most pupils, discourage language learning. 

We need change at system level to turn the tide on England’s poor participation in language learning.

Lack of an implementation framework is holding back primary languages

Most of the 608 primary schools which responded to the survey are teaching a language as part of curriculum time. 

The survey invitation was sent to a sample of 6000 primary schools. The response rate was 10.1 per cent, which may mean schools not teaching a language chose not to respond. 

French remains the most popular language in primary schools, but Spanish is growing. Yet, there are inconsistencies in pupils’ experiences. Fifty per cent of primary schools teach languages for less than 45 minutes per week, while others teach for up to two hours per week. In other schools, there is no set time per week, and delivery is ad hoc throughout the year. 

Teachers want more guidance on: 

  • how much time to spend on language teaching
  • what content to teach 
  • subject-specific professional development 
  • research-informed resources.

The lack of an implementation framework to make languages a statutory part of the Key Stage 2 curriculum is hampering progress in embedding languages in England’s primary schools. 

International engagement is decreasing

Sixty per cent of responding primary schools have no opportunities for international engagement. Since 2018, the number of primary schools employing a Foreign Language Assistant has halved. 

One teacher summed up her experience: 

As a teacher with a busy job and subject leadership responsibility for languages in a school with little money, I don’t have the time, energy or resources in an average week to countenance more twinning links or hosting visits alongside the day-to-day demands of teaching.

International engagement varies in the state secondary sector. Schools with lower free school meals eligibility are more likely to offer a wider variety of international engagement opportunities. In the independent secondary sector, the international dimension is even more varied and embedded at whole-school level. 

Transition from primary to secondary is underdeveloped

The statutory languages curriculum in England covers ages seven to 14. A staggering 56 per cent of primary schools report they have no contact with neighbouring secondary schools in relation to language learning. 

Where schools do cooperate, the most popular form of collaboration is exchanging information informally. There is little evidence of collaborative planning or sharing of best practice. 

Secondary teachers understand the need to collaborate with primary colleagues. But their comments suggest that the lack of a coherent and properly funded framework for the Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3 transition in languages is holding back progress. 

Just 3.5 per cent of secondary teachers say that pupils in Year 7 continue with the same language learned at primary school. Year 7 classes start everything from scratch, due to the inconsistent experience of primary school pupils. 

There is disparity in language uptake at GCSE in all-boys and all-girls schools versus mixed schools

Almost half of responding state secondary teachers in mixed schools report that there is at least some bias towards girls in the uptake of languages at GCSE. The average uptake in Year 10 is 51 per cent. 

In all-girls schools, the average is 74 per cent; in all-boys schools the average is 71 per cent. 

This disparity can partly be explained; a higher proportion of single-sex schools makes GCSE languages compulsory. However, we need more research into trends in boys’ modern foreign language learning to better understand this phenomenon.

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Spanish is now the most popular language at A level 

For the first time since A levels began, Spanish has overtaken French as the most learned language at A level. 

In comparison to other languages, more students choose to continue with Spanish beyond GCSE. Yet, Spanish has grown from a relatively low base uptake of the language. 

Overall languages are down at A level

In 2000, French had almost double the number of Spanish entries at A level today. 

Languages are in crisis; marginal gains in Spanish over the past few years do not make up for the huge losses in French. We also know from other data sets, including UCAS application figures, that the growth in Spanish at A level is not translated into growth in Spanish at Higher Education. 

Recent changes – students studying three linear A levels and the demise of the AS level – have reduced numbers at A level even further. The independent sector, where languages were traditionally secure, is now reporting concerns in pupil uptake beyond age 16. 

It’s a challenge to provide high-quality language teaching 

We gave teachers in state and independent secondary schools fourteen options as to the challenges of language teaching. The top three reported challenges are: 

  • nature and content of external exams
  • marking and grading of external exams
  • global English.

One teacher commented: 

The content of the specification means that pupils’ life experiences are not taken into account e.g. many students cannot talk about work, voluntary work or charity work in their own language never mind the target language.

The option ‘global English’ was included for the first time in 2020. I didn’t anticipate that it would be one of the top three challenges. Young people’s impression that ‘everyone speaks English’ could be detrimental to the uptake of foreign languages, judging from teachers’ qualitative comments. One teacher said: 

Students perceive languages as too difficult or often say that they don't see the value of languages when everyone in the world speaks English!

Finally, there is some good news… 

We gave space on the survey for teachers to share next practice. 

There is some really innovative teaching and learning going on throughout the school system. For example: 

  • a French café for parents in one primary school
  • revamping learning in a secondary school to focus on cultural and linguistic knowledge across the whole-school curriculum.

Language teachers are as passionate as ever. Policymakers need to capitalise on this enthusiasm through: 

  • a robust implementation framework for primary languages
  • a comprehensive primary to post-primary transition
  • an awareness campaign in England, with a social justice lens, to inform young people and parents/carers that languages can open doors. 

Read the Language Trends Survey 2020. 

Ian Collen is lecturer in modern languages education and author of the Language Trends report. Follow him on Twitter at @NICILT.

Join Ian for the Language Trends survey 2020 webinar on 6 July at 16.00 (UK time)

The Language Trends Survey 2020 is the latest in a series of annual reports by the British Council, started in 2002, which chart the health of language teaching in English schools. 

This year’s research is based on an online survey completed between early March to mid-April by teachers in 608 primary schools and 320 secondary schools, of which 271 were state-funded and 49 independent. 

The data collection phase coincided with Covid-19, which led to all schools in England being closed on 20 March 2020, and resulted in fewer responses to the survey than in previous years.

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