By Various authors

18 July 2022 - 09:31

School children learning arabic language in a classroom

British Council’s annual Language Trends Report examines teachers' views of language teaching and learning in schools in England.

The reports from 2020 and 2021 revealed the pandemic caused significant disruption to pupils’ language learning in schools – from declining international activities to one in five primary schools completely suspending language learning!

This year’s Language Trends Report saw the biggest-ever response rate, with more than 1600 primary, secondary and independent schools taking part in the survey. So what do the teachers have to say about the status of language learning in England’ schools?

The amount of time devoted to languages in different primary schools varies

The data revealed a lot of variation in the amount of time devoted to languages in primary schools across the country, with some pupils receiving less than 30 minutes of teaching per week. The ideal conditions are a minimum of one hour per week, delivered by a teacher with degree-level proficiency in the language. 

Nearly 100 per cent of responding schools (93 per cent) allocate a set time each week for language learning; the remainder teach through collapsible timetable days or on a more ad hoc basis. In a quarter of schools, weekly language teaching does not happen because of an array of issues like split teacher time between year groups or ongoing staffing issues within schools. Extra-curricular activities can mean that languages are usually the first subject to be dropped.

At primary level, French continues to be the most taught language enjoying slight growth since 2021 and is significantly ahead of Spanish. The report notes that this trend is not replicated at A-Level.

Schools are unlikely to meet Government’s EBacc target for many pupils learning a language

The government is currently on track to meet all its EBacc targets, except for languages. As part of the National Curriculum Framework, it is compulsory for children aged 7-14 years to study a language.

EBacc encourages all pupils to study a GCSE in English language – English literature, mathematics, the sciences, a language (ancient or modern) and geography or history. 

The aim behind the EBacc is to keep young people’s options open for further study and their future careers. 

The government’s ambition is to see 75% of pupils studying the EBacc subject combination at GCSE by 2022, for award of qualifications in 2024; and 90% by 2025, for award of qualifications in 2027.

International engagement at schools has significantly weakened

The pandemic has resulted in a significant reduction in international activities in schools with opportunities more widespread in the independent sector. These include not only trips abroad but activities such as partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects and hosting a language assistant. 

Previous Language Trends reports have found that international engagement opportunities for pupils and teachers have been decreasing since 2018. 

Nearly 70 per cent of surveyed primary schools reported that they have had no international engagement in the last year. The trend in all school types is that a growing number of schools are reporting no international engagement at both primary and secondary level. 

45 per cent of state secondary schools reported no international activities within their school (compared to 11 per cent reporting no international activities in 2018). At independent schools 11 per cent reported no international activities (up from 3% in 2018). 

Pre-pandemic and before the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, international engagement in schools was reasonably healthy. Teachers who took part in this year’s survey stated that they would be open to connecting with local university students, making or reigniting links with schools abroad, or using the British Council’s International School Award as a framework through which to quality assure the international dimension.

International engagement at schools gives pupils a ‘real life’ opportunity to use the languages they are learning, which can help with motivation, introduces them to a different culture, and can have a long-lasting, positive impact on their lives.

Spanish is now the most popular A-level language in England

Official exam data shows that for the third year running Spanish, with more than 8000 entries, is the most popular language at A-level, replacing the long-standing tradition of French being in the top spot. Spanish will also overtake French as the most popular language at GCSE by 2026 if current trends continue.

German has once again declined slightly, and entries for other modern languages plummeted in 2020, a trend most likely due to students at Saturday schools and in community learning settings not being awarded a grade for their work during the Covid-19 pandemic. These entries are showing signs of recovery but remain far below pre-pandemic levels.

In conclusion

As education begins to recover from the pandemic, it’s essential that schools prioritise language learning and look to build back international connections and opportunities.

Responding teachers are passionate about the transformative impact they are having on pupils in their classrooms. By working together, government, policy makers, subject associations, school leaders and teachers can improve the future of language learning for children and all young people.