Fewer school students in England are choosing to study languages past the age of 16. Kathryn Board and Teresa Tinsley, authors of the Language Trends survey, explain what's causing the downward trend.
The number of young people studying A-level languages is declining
Languages have never been the choice of the majority when it comes to A-levels. Ever since the 1990s, the number of young people in England choosing a language as part of their sixth-form studies has been going down. However, since 2012, the rate of decline has sped up, with French dropping by 17 per cent and German by 12 per cent over a period of just two years. According to the recently published 2014–15 Language Trends report, as many as two thirds of teachers (65 per cent from the state sector and 66 per cent in the independent sector) find persuading young people to study a language beyond GCSE challenging. That makes this issue the single biggest professional challenge that language teachers in England currently face.
So why do so many students decide not to continue studying a language after GCSE? A closer look reveals a complex picture of many inter-related factors.
Students need top A-level grades for successful university applications
As students come to the end of their GCSE courses and embark on two years of intensive work towards A-level examinations, they are acutely aware of the fact that the choices they make about A-levels, and the quality of the grades they get in the examinations, will have a huge impact on their success at getting a much-prized place at university.
With stiff competition for university places, and universities able to select the most able students, it is perhaps inevitable that ambitious and talented students are influenced in their A-level study decisions not only by the subjects that are most directly relevant to what they wish to study at university, but also by the subjects that are most likely to reward them with the highest grades. A-level examinations in languages have earned a reputation not only for being more difficult than other subjects, but also for being harshly and inconsistently marked. Both students and teachers have also long complained about the huge jump in performance expectations between GCSE and A-level languages. The unpredictability of A-level grades is a serious deterrent to students who are focussed on doing everything they can to increase their chances of achieving top grades to secure university places.
Languages are losing the competition with other subjects
The hugely successful campaign by government, industry and academics to raise the profile of subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) for study purposes and eventual careers, is also contributing to the decline in interest in languages, which are increasingly seen as neither useful nor important. The most able students are frequently encouraged to study all three science subjects as well as mathematics at A-level, to assure them of a place at a top university and, later, a lucrative and successful career. Teachers report that the majority of students who aspire to study at university see the greatest likelihood of success in studying a combination of subjects such as English and history, or maths and science, accompanied by an easier subject – languages as a subject of study are just seen as too difficult and too unpredictable. The role of languages in improving someone’s employability in a globalised labour market, or helping them with international postgraduate research and travel, is rarely understood.
Young people are being dissuaded from studying languages because of misconceptions
So why don’t parents, career advisers and others with influence over young people simply correct the misconceptions? First of all, many adults themselves had negative experiences of learning languages when they were at school and often perpetuate the view of languages as difficult and unnecessary. School leaders are also required to do everything possible to ensure that their school is well-placed in the national performance tables, which draw on a range of data, including the results of public examinations, and to try to achieve as many successful university applications as possible. Given these pressures, it is understandable that students may be encouraged to opt for A-level subjects that will not only ensure success for the student, but also position the school well in those all-important performance tables.
Statements from government, industry and others about national competitiveness, the need to grow the economy and to develop the security and well-being of all our citizens, rarely, if ever, mention linguistic competence as a valued skill. There is little incentive for students to continue learning languages alongside other important academic subjects.
Schools struggle to make A-level language classes financially viable
Quite apart from the pressures of performance tables intended to push schools to raise levels of attainment and standards, schools have also been hard-hit by funding cuts. These have forced school leaders to make some really difficult decisions, including those about subjects that attract fewer students at A-level.
The Language Trends report this year provides comments from many teachers who are witnessing the cessation of languages at A-level because they are unable to attract the minimum number of students (usually between eight and ten) required at which a course is financially viable. Some schools have decided to reduce the range of languages they offer in school, e.g., ceasing to offer German and instead only offering Spanish to students throughout secondary school in order to try to get sufficient students in Year 12 to form at least one group of language A-level students. Other schools have formed alliances or consortia with other nearby schools to try to offer a choice of languages between them, but this can mean that students wanting to study a particular language may have to travel a considerable distance each week to get to their class – something which, in turn, is likely to reduce the number of students opting for that subject.
Teachers fear the new two-year linear A-level courses in development will further discourage language students
A number of teachers completing this year’s Language Trends survey say the two-year linear A-level course currently being developed will further damage A-level languages. One language teacher described feeling 'as though we have reached the point of no return .....languages will die out as state school subjects within the next five to ten years.' The new course will mean that students have to commit to a full two years from the very beginning of Year 12, rather than working first towards the AS-level examination at the end of Year 12, and then deciding if they want to continue to take the full A2 A-level examination at the end of Year 13. Teachers fear that this will discourage yet more students from continuing with the study of a language in sixth form, as the risk of final grades not being what they need to be is simply too great.
Any one of the difficulties set out here would be a challenge for those dedicated to the teaching of languages or committed to promoting the value of languages. Taken together, the challenges point to a real crisis. Fewer students studying languages at A-level means fewer students studying languages at degree level, and fewer people going into professions who can speak other languages, whether for their own career advancement, the growth of the companies they work for or the benefit of the UK as a whole.
Updated: UK schools, find out how you can apply for a Language Assistant who is a native speaker of French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Italian, Russian or Irish. Applications are still open.
Read the full Language Trends survey. The research is based on an online survey completed by teachers in more than 500 state secondary schools, 600 state primary schools and 120 independent secondary schools across the country. A similar survey about schools in Wales will be out in June 2015.