News and opinion

Sophie Gaston

BLOG - Language Trends 2016

25 April 2016

'But Miss, what's the point of learning French?' Sophie Gaston, Adviser at Education Development Trust, comments on the recent Language Trends report (published 18 April 2016).

As a secondary languages teacher I was asked regularly 'But Miss what's the point of learning French?' With a passion for languages and experience of the personal, cultural and work opportunities they bring, I was able to respond with a series of convincing arguments. This used to be enough to encourage students to take on a language at GCSE or A-Level, but something has changed. The 2015/16 Language Trends Survey - a comprehensive survey from the British Council and Education Development Trust charting the state of language teaching and learning in schools in England - should make us all think very hard about what is happening to language education.

It seems, unfortunately, that the need to study languages to access an increasingly global world is not enough to encourage students to take up learning languages in English schools. There have been positive developments, with all primary schools surveyed now providing language teaching for their pupils and one third of primary schools now having in-house specialist language teaching expertise. It will be a while yet before these changes are felt higher up the system, but they are significant changes to celebrate nonetheless.

This years' survey does however reveal some uncomfortable truths about the state of language learning in England. Language exam entries are low across the board both at GCSE and A-level when compared to other subjects. Last year the number of pupils taking a language GCSE was around half the number of those taking a maths GCSE. This surely can't be right: technical knowledge can't be communicated by the mathematicians and scientists of the future without the linguistic skills currently required by the global economy. The previous rise in language GCSE entries following the introduction of the EBacc also appears to have levelled off - 27 per cent of state schools report in the survey that the EBacc in this form has had a lasting impact. However, the current situation with languages is a complex and long-term issue and the governments' ambitious target of at least 90 per cent of pupils taking the EBacc should be seen as a medium term goal rather than a quick fix.

Teachers need reassurance that the new A-Level qualifications will reverse the downward trend in the uptake of languages and that it won't make matters worse. Exam boards need to take these heartfelt concerns seriously, as this years’ report clearly highlights the exam system as one of the principal barriers preventing the successful development of languages in England. Although more pupils are taking A-levels in Spanish and other languages, these increases have not involved enough pupils to make up for the shortfalls in French and German. This means that A-Level languages qualified, UK born English native speakers are becoming increasingly rare. Does this really matter? It does if you believe that the core purpose of education is to prepare learners more broadly for life beyond school. While policy-makers and politicians in the UK might struggle to quantify the benefits of language learning in economic terms, linguists know that the advantages include, but go well beyond, immediate economic gains.

I know that teachers do their best to communicate to students why they should study languages. What we need in addition to this is a more concerted and coordinated effort from both policy makers and school leadership to promote and communicate the importance of languages. Teachers who have a passion for languages remain on the centre stage for this, and we should be supporting them fully as they are faced with increasing questions from their students as to why they should be learning French.