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Research report

Language trends 2015/16

Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board, OBE

Language Trends 2016 is the 14th in a series of annual reports charting the health of language learning in English schools.

Previous editions have focused on language take-up in secondary schools, particularly during Key Stage 4 (KS4), since languages became an optional subject within the National Curriculum in 2004. Since 2012, primary schools have also been surveyed, and the report offers some key information on how systematically languages are taught during Key Stage 2, with a further focus on the transition from language learning in primary to secondary schools.

At primary level, this year’s report highlights that 42% of schools have increased the resources available for languages, with all schools surveyed providing language teaching for their pupils. One third of schools surveyed indicated they also have access to specialist language teaching expertise within their school.

However, the report shows there is currently a lack of consistency across primary schools in curriculum time allocated to teaching languages.  This results in pupils entering secondary schools with different levels of language competency. The data also emphasises the need for more curriculum time to be made available for language learning in primary schools.  This needs to be more systematic across primary schools to ensure pupils in different schools are being provided with equal learning opportunities. The challenge of recruiting suitably qualified staff and accessing professional training on a regular basis remain challenges identified by teachers. There are signs however that primary schools are taking steps to improve the quality of teaching languages, with a strong belief in the value it brings to children’s learning and wider cultural understanding.

At secondary level, the survey findings highlight the reduced numbers of pupils opting for GCSE and A-level languages, with teachers citing the exam system as a particular barrier for language course take-up. Pupils' reluctance to study languages, in addition to the perceived difficulty of language exams relative to other subjects, are seen as significant barriers to implementing EBacc for greater numbers of pupils. Exams in languages are frequently perceived to be more difficult than in other subjects, with harsh and inconsistent marking. Teachers themselves have limited faith in the new A-levels, believing they are unlikely to resolve the issues language teaching is facing.

Teachers in the 2016 survey urge the government, media, senior academics and businesses to make a robust case for languages and to learn from other European countries who devote greater amounts of time to language learning. Addressing how the exam system is perceived is particularly important, as this is considered a key barrier to pupils opting to continue with language learning at GCSE and beyond.