By Teresa Tinsley, Kathryn Board

24 March 2014 - 16:59

There is still much to be done for language learning in English schools. Graphics: Shutterstock
There is still much to be done for language learning in English schools. ©

Graphics: Shutterstock

Language learning is about to become compulsory in English primary schools, and last summer's exam figures for languages suggest new trends. Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board, authors of the annual British Council and CfBT-funded Language Trends survey of primary and secondary schools, provide insights into the state of language teaching and learning in English schools.

First, the positive: responses from primary schools show that 95 per cent are already teaching a language, and 42 per cent are doing so throughout all four years of Key Stage 2 (ages 7 to 11), and say they are already fully meeting the requirements of the new national curriculum, which will come into effect in September 2014. In secondary schools, the increase in numbers taking a language beyond the compulsory phase – students can drop the subject at 14 – appears to be a continuing trend. The government will be pleased with the success of its English Baccalaureate policy (a measure of school performance) in driving up the numbers taking a language to GCSE. 48 per cent of the cohort now do so, compared to 40 per cent in 2010.

However, the findings from teachers responding to the survey show that there is still much to be done before language learning in English schools can be given a clean bill of health. The report identifies four crucial issues in need of urgent attention:

1. Need for additional language training among primary school teachers

In primary schools, there is still a huge gap in subject knowledge amongst the many generalist class teachers who bear the main responsibility for language teaching. In around a quarter of schools, GCSE is the highest language qualification held by any member of staff. One comment sums up the situation in many schools: ‘Teachers are confident on common topics – introducing yourself, birthdays, colours – but less so when it comes to writing complete sentences’. There is clearly a need for additional training, but schools report a reduction in the number of opportunities available for professional development in languages, and pressures of time and resources.

2. Disconnection between primary and secondary schools

The point of transition between primary and secondary schools is another weakness and threatens the success of the aspiration for the introduction of a language in primary schools to raise standards in language learning. There is a low – and even declining – level of co-operation between primary and secondary schools on language issues, with 46 per cent of primary schools having no contact at all with language specialists in their local secondary schools. Secondary schools, meanwhile, are overwhelmed by having to cope with pupils arriving from large numbers of feeder primary schools, all with different experiences of language learning and of variable quality. Despite some very good instances of co-operation at local level, the picture nationally is one of disconnection between primary and secondary schools, with very few pupils assured of being able to continue with the same language – only 27 per cent of schools can give this assurance. Again, there are pressures of time and resources on schools, and some central leadership is necessary to ensure that schools make providing continuity in language learning from primary to secondary a greater priority.

3. Language learning becoming more 'elitist'

In secondary schools generally, an important issue is the growing trend to exclude certain pupils or groups of pupils from language learning. The English Baccalaureate has concentrated minds on those pupils deemed capable of obtaining a GCSE in a language, but those who struggle with English or require additional support in maths are increasingly taken out of language classes. 27 per cent of schools ‘disapply’ children from languages in Key Stage 3, and 30 per cent do not offer all pupils the option of taking a language in Key Stage 4, as they are required to do. The overwhelming focus on GCSE results in schools, even from the beginning of Key Stage 3, means that language learning is becoming more elitist, not less. The English Baccaulaureate has successfully made the case that a language is an essential part of an academic curriculum, but it provides no answer to the question of the place that language learning should have in the education of those who may not go to university.

4. Languages still not seen as valuable in the same way as maths and science

The fourth issue we identify in the report relates to what we see as a ‘crisis’ in language learning post-16. This is potentially the most serious of all the issues described here as it has a much more immediate impact on the supply of language skills entering the workforce. Summer 2013 A-level results showed that entries for French had declined by nine per cent and German by ten per cent in just one year. This was disguised in part by the increase in numbers for Spanish and other languages. However, further analysis shows that the latter is largely accounted for not by a diversification of the languages taught in schools but by entries from native speakers or those who have been learning home or community languages outside of school. Respondents say that the crisis in the learning of traditional A-level language subjects is due to the comparative difficulty of achieving a high grade compared with other subjects, and the unpredictability of marking compared with maths and science subjects. The impact of this is being felt particularly in the independent sector, which contributes disproportionately to the numbers doing A-level languages and to university applications for language degrees. And despite many recent public statements and reports by business organisations on the importance of language skills for UK exports, they are still not seen as valuable in the same way that maths and science subjects are. As one respondent comments: ‘Languages are perceived as a difficult option and not an obvious choice for future career prospects’.

None of the four challenges above have an easy solution. But, as a nation, we are diminished educationally, culturally and economically, and the good intentions of the government will fail, unless we meet these challenges with vigour and a long-term vision.

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