By Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser, British Council

03 July 2019 - 08:00

Young man walking in a school hallway
'Since 2014, there has been a 19 per cent reduction in the number of entries for GCSE languages.' Photo ©

chuttersnap used under licence and adapted from the original.

The Language Trends Survey 2019 is the latest in a series of annual reports that chart the health of language teaching in schools in England. The British Council's Vicky Gough summarises its findings. 

This year’s research is based on an online survey completed between January and March by teachers in 776 state primary schools, 715 state secondary schools and 130 independent secondary schools across England.

Exams are becoming more difficult, and that deters pupils 

A large majority of teachers (71 per cent at state secondary schools and 64 per cent at independent schools) were concerned about the nature and content of language exams.

One year on from the UK government’s introduction of the new and more rigorous GCSEs and A-levels, their comments were mainly about the increased difficulty of these exams, and how this deters students from opting for languages. Teachers also commented on the impact increased difficulty has on school incentives to provide access to languages, especially when schools feel pressure to get results, and when achieving a good grade in a language is seen as harder than in other subjects. One teacher said:

I really like the new GCSE and A level specs but I think it is very difficult to get the higher grades in comparison to other subjects.

Many teachers also expressed concern with the way exams are marked and graded:

Many able linguists feel their chances of reaching the top grades are far greater elsewhere in the curriculum. Harsh and inconsistent marking from the exam boards has also knocked down numbers.

Teachers say difficult exams are deterring pupils from learning a language

Some teachers identified perceived difficulty of language exams as one of the reasons for the continuing decline in exam entry numbers. Since 2014, there has been a 19 per cent reduction in the number of entries for GCSE languages.

Both French and German had a decline of 30 per cent, but Spanish has remained more stable with just a two per cent decline over the same period. At A-level, all three languages saw a decline in entries between 2017 and 2018, with German down 16 per cent, French seven per cent, and Spanish three per cent.

Socio-economically disadvantaged pupils are less likely to learn a language

The most disadvantaged pupils continue to be far less likely than their peers to study languages at GCSE, continuing the trend identified in earlier surveys. At schools where less than 25 per cent of the cohort takes a language GCSE, there are statistically higher levels of the pupil premium government grant, higher levels of pupils receiving free school meals, and lower Attainment 8 scores.

The introduction of the new GCSE over the last three years has had a disproportionate impact on lower-attaining pupils. Eighty-four per cent of state schools (70 per cent of independent schools) say that these pupils are now less likely to take a language than before.

Brexit threatens to widen existing socio-economic and academic divisions

Two in five teachers say the implications of Brexit pose a major challenge to providing high-quality language teaching, in both pupil motivation and teacher supply.

Twenty-five per cent of teachers at state secondary schools and 15 per cent at independent schools reported a negative impact on pupils’ motivation to learn a European language or languages in general.

In terms of teacher supply, the report found that the majority of secondary schools depend on EU27 citizens to staff their language departments as home-grown language teachers are in short supply. 

International engagement in primary and secondary schools is declining

Half of all primary schools offered pupils no international activity at all. The number of state secondary schools offering international experience has decreased by up to five per cent since last year. Just one quarter of state schools offered pupil exchanges abroad, compared to 48 per cent of independent schools.

Teachers at both state and independent schools were concerned about the lack of opportunities for pupils to practise using languages outside the classroom.

Read the Language Trends Survey 2019.

Schools in England can apply for funding for international exchanges

You might also be interested in