The British Council's 2018 Language Trends survey of schools in England responds to concern about how few students are learning languages. Researcher Teresa Tinsley summarises its findings.
England faces a challenge – to achieve the high quality, extensive language education that is common in most developed countries. But in a world where the English language dominates, the point of learning other languages is not always evident to pupils, parents or school leaders.
The latest exam statistics for England show that this challenge is becoming more acute.
How has uptake of languages at GCSE level changed?
The most telling exam figures are those for GCSEs – exams taken by pupils at the end of compulsory education, when they are aged 16. In 2002, around three quarters of pupils studied a language other than English as part of these qualifications. Two years later, the government stopped making languages compulsory at GCSE, and by 2011, participation had declined to just 40 per cent. This climbed back up to 49 per cent in 2014, after the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, which measured schools on the proportion of pupils who took a combination of mathematics, English, sciences and humanities, including a modern or ancient language.
However, the latest figures show that this proportion of 16 year olds studying a language has dropped back to 47 per cent. Those figures also show that the proportion varies by geography (above average in London and below average everywhere outside south-east England) and gender (more girls than boys choose to take a language). In schools that select pupils by ability, over three-quarters of students learn a language. But that proportion falls to just 15 per cent in other types of school.
To what extent are pupils over 16 participating in language learning?
Past the age of 16, patterns of language study are undergoing big changes. While overall numbers appear stable, French, still the first foreign language taught in English schools, has lost nearly a third of its numbers since 2005. German is down by 37 per cent. In contrast, numbers for Spanish and other languages have seen substantial increases.
What effect have the new GCSEs and A Levels had on language uptake?
From September 2017, the government introduced new exams at GCSE and A level – exams taken after two years of study, after the age of 16. These were intended to be more rigorous and boost standards of language competence.
Teachers report that this has happened. However, they also say that because the new language exams are more difficult and require a lot of learning in a relatively short space of time, fewer students are choosing to try them. More than two thirds of state schools say that lower-ability pupils are now less likely to take a language at GCSE level. One respondent commented that ‘the new GCSE will make better linguists, but this is only true for the few higher-attaining pupils’. In short, language learning in English schools is becoming skewed towards higher ability pupils.
The reforms to post-16 exams mean that, instead of taking an intermediate exam (AS) at age 17, pupils must now prepare for the full A level exam over two years. Most schools have responded by withdrawing AS exams. This has reduced the number of subjects typically studied post-16 from four to three. This is because pupils generally studied four AS and three A levels, when they were separate qualifications.
Native speakers and heritage learners (who have a connection to a language through their family or culture of origin) make up a sizeable chunk of candidates in both independent and state schools. These students often study for the exams outside school time, or as an extra subject. While it is positive that these pupils, who already have access to another language outside school, are able to gain a qualification, their addition to the figures conceals a crisis in traditional language learning post-16.
What effect does economic advantage/disadvantage have on language learning at school?
The Language Trends survey also showed economic inequalities in access to language learning. Schools which take in larger proportions of pupils who are eligible for free school meals (an indicator of poverty), tend to timetable languages for fewer hours per week during the compulsory phase. They also tend to allow pupils to drop languages after only two years, and have lower participation rates at GCSE level. Fee-paying schools have a higher uptake of languages, offer a more diverse range of languages, and provide more opportunities for international experience compared to those in the state sector.
What effect has Brexit had on language learning in schools in England?
More than two thirds of schools in the state sector, and 78 per cent of fee-paying schools, currently employ teachers without UK citizenship who are citizens of other EU countries. Schools report negative impacts on staffing, and fears about future recruitment and retention of language teachers.
But the most significant impact of Brexit reported by schools was in relation to attitudes towards language learning. Just over a third of state schools reported that leaving the EU is having a negative impact on student motivation and/or parental attitudes towards language learning.
In contrast, some teachers reported that senior management in their school had become more supportive of language learning since the Brexit vote, since they realised that it would become more important for the UK to maintain good international relations. Schools which reported negative shifts in attitudes were more likely to have lower language attainment, and have medium to high levels of pupils eligible for free school meals.
The responses show the challenge of overcoming the social and cultural divide that the Brexit vote revealed. Unless we can achieve greater equity in language learning, so students from all backgrounds can benefit from the rich opportunities that learning a language offers, this divide may become even wider.
Read the 2018 Language Trends survey.