By Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser, British Council

08 July 2021 - 09:30

Stack of books with multicoloured covers
'Language teaching was suspended at one in five primary schools in January 2021 due to Covid-19 and the effect has been felt more acutely in deprived areas.' Photo ©

Kimberley Farmer used under licence and adapted from the original.

The Language Trends survey gathers information each year from teachers about language teaching and learning in primary and secondary schools in England. It started nearly twenty years ago.

It assesses the impact of policy measures in relation to languages. It analyses strengths and weaknesses based on quantitative evidence and on views expressed by teachers.

This year 1,511 schools took part (compared to 928 schools in 2020), of which 756 were primary. 

The effect of Covid-19 in England’s schools

Almost all (98 per cent) of teachers reported that they felt much better prepared for online teaching in 2021 than in 2020. 

The 2020-21 school year has been very challenging for school and for pupils and their parents. And teachers worked hard to adapt.

Language teachers, like other teachers, had to rethink priorities and means of delivery quickly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and measures to manage the pandemic. 

It isn’t surprising therefore that some of the findings in our 2021 survey relate to the pandemic.

  • Language teaching was suspended at one in five primary schools in January 2021 due to Covid-19 and the impact has been felt more acutely in deprived areas.
  • Teachers in state secondary schools report that two in five pupils in Key Stage 3 (lower secondary) did not engage with language learning during the first national lockdown, leading to time lost to language learning for a lot of pupils. 

Speaking and listening are an essential, interactive part of language learning. Disadvantaged pupils, less likely to have access to technology to participate in online lessons, have most likely been pushed even further behind their more advantaged peers.

Pupils are taking part in fewer international activities

In previous Language Trends reports, we found that international engagement opportunities for pupils and teachers have been decreasing since 2018. 

Covid-19 has contributed to continued, significant reduction in international opportunities. These include not only visits abroad but activities like working with a partner school abroad, involvement in international projects and hosting a language assistant. 

This years survey found that  64 per cent of responding primary schools and 38 per cent of state secondary schools have no international activities within their school, a huge increase on previous years. 

Dr Ian Collen, Language Trends 2021 author, said: 

‘The most disadvantaged pupils are most likely to have been negatively affected by the impact of Covid-19, experiencing greater disruption to their language learning and fewer international opportunities. Looking to the future, schools should consider giving more curriculum time to languages, as well as more opportunities to use languages in real life such as visits abroad.’

Spanish, French, German and other modern languages

Spanish is the most popular A level language for the second year in a row. French is the most popular language at  Primary, Key Stage 3 and GCSE.

French remains the most popular language studied at primary, lower secondary and GCSE. At Key Stage 3 (lower secondary), 91 per cent of responding state schools and 92 per cent of responding independent schools teach French. 

This is followed by Spanish in 74 per cent and 89 per cent of state and independent schools respectively. 

German provision is particularly patchy across the country. The language is offered by 70 per cent of independent schools but just 36 per cent of state schools – a noticeable decline since 2018.

Exams in the summer of 2020 were cancelled because of Covid-19, with grades awarded based on pupils’ centre assessment grade or calculated grade, whichever was higher. 

For the first time, Spanish attracted over 100,000 GCSE entries – almost double the 2005 statistic. It was the most popular A-level language for the second year in a row. 

If current trends continue, Spanish is likely to overtake French as the most popular GCSE language by 2026.

In 2020 there was a dramatic decline in entries for Other Modern Languages (languages other than French, German and Spanish) at GCSE and A-level. This is likely due to students at Saturday schools and in community learning settings not being awarded a grade. Their schools were not able to provide a grade under the arrangements made for exams in summer 2020.  

Language teachers in the virtual and face-to-face classroom

Many teachers reported that they cannot wait to get back to face-to-face teaching in the classroom. Despite the barriers they have faced over the past year it is encouraging to see how they pivoted to remote learning during the national lockdowns.

More teachers have also taken the opportunity to access language-specific continuing professional development, with 32 per cent reporting that they made use of online learning opportunities. That’s an increase on the 2020 figure of 28 per cent. 

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. 

The benefits of having language skills and some understanding of other cultures cannot be overstated, particularly as the UK renegotiates its place on the world stage.

Read Language Trends 2021

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