By Teresa Tinsley, Kathryn Board

14 June 2017 - 21:07

'As it redefines its relationship with Europe and countries across the world, the UK needs linguists more than ever. Image (c) John Sting, licensed under non-exclusive copyright and adapted from the original.
'As it redefines its relationship with Europe and countries across the world, the UK needs linguists more than ever. Image ©

John Sting, licensed under non-exclusive copyright and adapted from the original.

The annual Language Trends survey examines language-teaching in schools in England. Its authors, Kathyrn Board OBE and Teresa Tinsley, explain some of the findings.

It’s not so very long ago that learning languages at secondary school in England brought with it the excitement and trepidation of school trips abroad. Overseas trips offered a first taste of speaking a new language in another country. It also offered the opportunity to stay with a host family and experience a different culture in a way that was impossible back home.

Each new school year saw the arrival of a foreign language assistant, carrying a suitcase of realia (real-life objects and materials, to be used as teaching aids) from their home country. With a foreign language assistant, you could try out your language skills on a real native speaker. Many linguists can happily recount moments when such experiences triggered their lifelong love of languages.

This year’s Language Trends research into English schools shows just how much this picture of language-learning is changing. Although at primary school level, languages are becoming firmly embedded in the curriculum, there are still problems with the consistency of teaching quality from one school to another. There are also a number of challenges at secondary level, including the fact that exam statistics show a widening gap between those studying languages in the north and south of the country.

Analysing the responses of 856 secondary school teachers working in many different settings across England, we were able to identify the main challenges and their effect on language-teaching in schools.

It's become harder to organise school trips abroad

In recent years, stricter health and safety legislation has made the administration of overseas school trips more complex. The official guidelines, which interpret the child protection measures issued by the UK government's Disclosure and Barring Service (formerly the Criminal Records Bureau), are proving fatal to many long-standing successful school exchanges. As a result, links are coming swiftly to an end.

In the words of one teacher:

‘We have been told that we may no longer run our very well-established school exchanges to France and Germany due to changes in the safeguarding recommendations. The exchange visits have been taking place for six years and have been very successful - it is a tragedy.’

Teachers also commented on a change of culture becoming evident in the attitudes of parents and pupils towards school exchanges:

‘Exchanges don't happen - parents don't want children staying in unknown houses.’

And while some schools are turning to social media so pupils can engage with their peers abroad, many teachers think that this is no substitute for visiting the country and talking to native speakers in person.

Fewer state schools can afford to hire language assistants

This year’s survey looked at foreign language assistants and their usefulness to language teachers in secondary schools. Teachers said they particularly valued the contribution made by language assistants to pupils’ oral and listening skills, their confidence as language learners and their cultural knowledge.

However, in spite of these benefits, the number of language assistants employed by schools is shrinking rapidly. This is particularly true in the state sector, where only a third of survey respondents now employ a language assistant.

Teachers in state schools say that the main reason for this decline is funding. However, the picture is rather different in the independent sector, where 73 per cent of private schools employ a language assistant.

Fewer chances to experience a language 

The decline in the use of language assistants, coupled with the end of many school exchanges and overseas visits, means that pupils’ learning of a new language is increasingly confined to the classroom.

The priceless opportunity to experience the language firsthand, to ‘have a go’ and see a culture at close quarters is being lost. Such lost opportunities may further reduce the numbers of young people who are motivated to study languages beyond the point at which they are mandatory.

It could become harder to find language teachers

In 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union and redefine its relationships with EU member countries and the rest of the world. This decision also has major implications for the teaching of languages in England.

This year’s Language Trends research looked at the impact of the referendum vote on teachers and pupils. Three areas of concern emerged: teacher supply and retention, pupils' attitudes towards language-learning, and access to EU funding and programmes.

It is thought that around 35 per cent of language teachers in England are nationals of other EU countries. Qualitative evidence from our survey shows that the UK’s decision to leave the EU is a cause for concern for schools, in terms of their ability to attract and keep enough qualified language teachers.

Here are two examples of teachers' comments:

‘We employ quite a lot of EU nationals and some are considering leaving to go back to Europe. This would be detrimental for staff recruitment and finding candidates who can teach A-level.’

‘It has created a lot of uncertainly amongst staff who are from continental Europe. It has sent a message that undermines the value of learning a language, and it has made pupils worry that previous Erasmus programmes and opportunities for working and studying abroad will be taken away.’

If this source of teachers is restricted once the UK leaves the EU, a new source will need to be found, as the UK does not have enough 'home-grown' language students and teacher trainees to fill the gap.

How pupils' attitudes have been affected

When it comes to pupils' attitudes, 80 per cent of the schools we surveyed said they had not yet seen any changes following the referendum outcome.

But the 20 per cent who have, feel overwhelmingly that the impact has been negative. They report that both pupils and their parents question the merits of continuing to learn the three major European languages: French, Spanish and German.

Fears about loss of EU funding

Many teachers and pupils, in particular those in Key Stages 4 and 5 (upper secondary), are also worried about future access to EU funding and training programmes. At a time when public money for professional development is tight, EU programmes provide a lifeline.

Talented young linguists considering studying languages at university are questioning whether there will be employment opportunities with European companies in future. They want to know whether they will be able to access programmes like Erasmus +, which, for example, give young linguists the chance to study in a European university.

Languages may become a niche subject

The combined effect of reduced funding to schools, insular attitudes and fewer opportunities for international engagement mean that, if nothing is done, the study of languages beyond a basic level will become a niche subject studied only by a minority.

However, as it redefines its relationship with Europe and countries across the world, the UK needs linguists more than ever.

What can be done to change things?

The government has made languages compulsory in primary schools. It is also considering putting pressure on schools to ensure that an increasing number of pupils achieve the EBacc (English Baccalaureate), a set of qualifications that includes a good GCSE in a language.

These measures, together with action to encourage more students to study a language past the age of 16, must be tackled with urgency. The ability to speak and understand other languages can help the UK smooth relationships with its neighbours, as well as make new friends beyond the English-speaking world.

Read the full Language Trends survey, published today by the British Council. 

The research is based on an online survey completed by teachers in more than 700 state secondary schools, more than 720 state primary schools and more than 140 independent secondary schools across England. 

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