By Teresa Tinsley, Kathryn Board

18 April 2016 - 11:24

'[T]eachers have complained for years that it is harder to get a good grade in languages than in other subjects...'
'[T]eachers have complained for years that it is harder to get a good grade in languages than in other subjects...' Photo ©

Mat Wright

The annual Language Trends survey investigates language teaching in primary and secondary schools in England. Its authors, Kathyrn Board OBE and Teresa Tinsley, explain this year's findings.

What's in the report

The latest Language Trends survey makes sobering reading. Teachers feel they have been served a ‘double whammy’ by being expected to deliver much higher standards at GCSE and at the same time fulfil the government’s ambition for up to 90 per cent of pupils to sit a GCSE in a language. But despite some hard-hitting messages from this year’s report, the longer-term outlook for improving English children’s linguistic skills seems better than it has been for some time.

Let’s look first at the findings of this year’s report. We’ve grouped them into four overarching conclusions.

Language teaching in primary schools is getting better

First, there are encouraging signs that primary schools are taking steps to improve the quality of their language teaching. The vast majority are now teaching a language to pupils from the age of seven. Nearly half (42 per cent) have increased resources for languages as a result of the subject becoming a compulsory part of the curriculum. More schools are appointing language specialists, and although there is still much to do to improve the quality and consistency of teaching across all primary schools in England, those that are lagging behind are aware that they need to improve. To catch up, they need to access support, to develop a more structured approach, and to improve links with the secondary schools where their pupils will continue their linguistic journeys.

The target: 90 per cent of 15- to 16-year-olds to study a language

On the face of it, the responses from secondary schools are much less encouraging. Currently, around half of 15- to 16-year-olds take a language GCSE, but the government wants to see that grow to more than 90 per cent, by proposing that almost all pupils work towards achieving the English Baccalaureate or 'EBacc'. This was introduced by the government in 2010 and is a core group of academic subjects, including a modern or ancient language. Its introduction allows the government to measure how well schools are performing, based on their students' exam grades in these subjects.

Schools do not appear to be changing their approach yet

We asked what schools would do if the EBacc became de rigueur for the vast majority of pupils, meaning that they would all have to study a language to GCSE level. Around a third of schools said they would make languages compulsory for all or some pupils. But our findings show that there is little sign yet that the proposed 'EBacc for all' will lead to a sudden mass increase of pupils in language classrooms. Schools would only be 'encouraged' to recommend the EBacc route to their pupils, so the proposal itself would not directly equate to compulsory languages.

A slow rise in language students will give schools time to adjust

However, a sedate start may not be a bad thing. A situation where numbers climb gradually towards the 90 per cent target would actually be more manageable for schools and teachers, so perhaps this rather lukewarm response hides some good news and reassurance for language teachers who feel under pressure.

Language teachers are unhappy with the new A-levels and the exam system itself

The strong feeling of beleaguerment in the language teaching profession that is evident in this year’s report, is behind our third and fourth findings. Teachers gave the content and structure of the new A-levels an overall thumbs down. And they also said that the exam system is creating negative attitudes towards language learning.

Teachers say the new language A-level will discourage students

The new A-level will be a two-year course, focusing on high-level language skills and the analysis of literature and cinema. Teachers say that, although this might be good preparation for talented linguists who want to take a degree in modern languages, it will not encourage a wider population of pupils to take a language beyond GCSE, nor stem the decline in numbers that is threatening the survival not only of A- and AS-level courses, but of whole university language departments. Only six per cent of respondents from state schools and four per cent of those from independent schools say that the new A-levels will be likely to encourage more pupils to take a language at A-level.

It's harder to get an A in a language than in other subjects

At the root of this judgement, which will disappoint their university colleagues, is the widely reported problem of not only harsh but inconsistent marking of language exams. In the words of one teacher, ‘how can we predict or guide our students with these changes beyond our control?’

While teachers have complained for years that it is harder to get a good grade in languages than in other subjects, the exams watchdog Ofqual has recently published research showing that this is indeed so: bright students who get A grades in maths or history are less likely to get an A in a language. This disparity is off-putting for the ‘maybe students’ who are discouraged from ‘having a go’ for fear of failing the exam. As respondents to this year’s survey point out, this not only affects student attitudes towards languages, but also those of senior management, who are concerned about the impact of low language grades on whole school results.

At least there's a plan to improve language uptake

So where is the positive news in all this? The answer is that we do finally have a national vision for languages. It begins in primary school and aims for higher standards for larger numbers of students, right through secondary education and into university, and that’s a vision worth holding on to. The high standards implied by the new exams are not unreachable. They can be met if four years of language teaching in primary schools helps students reach a worthwhile level, which secondary teachers can build on; and if secondary pupils see where their classes are leading, and why speaking another language is useful.

Secondary school language teachers can lead the changes, but they need support

High-level language learning at primary school has not yet been fully achieved – and how could it be, since the subject has not yet been compulsory for two years? Yet secondary school teachers feel that they are already being expected to deliver their part of the deal, on the assumption that pupils arriving in their classrooms have already progressed beyond beginner level. Understandably, many resent changes which they feel are being forced upon them, yet it is the secondary specialist language teachers who can create the transformation in language learning that we all want to see.

The long-term vision should be better articulated across the board, with an understanding that it will take time to achieve the ambitious targets that have been set. Teachers also need to be reassured that the new exams will be genuine measures of the linguistic progress made by pupils. If these things happen, turning England into a nation of linguists will not seem such an impossible dream.

Read the full Language Trends survey, published today by the British Council and the Education Development Trust.

The research is based on an online survey completed by teachers in 492 state secondary schools, 556 state primary schools and 132 independent secondary schools across England.

Find out more about our work with schools.

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