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Language trends 2015/16

18 April 2016

Teachers have expressed 'deep concerns' about the current state of language learning in schools in England, according to a new report from the British Council and Education Development Trust.

The Language Trends Survey 2016 - now in its fourteenth year - identifies numerous challenges currently facing language teaching in England and highlights that teachers and school leaders see the exam system as one of the principal barriers preventing its successful development.

With GCSE language exam entries having fallen overall - and in French and German at A-level - over the past year*, teachers’ reports of harsh and inconsistent marking of language exams, Ofqual’s finding that languages are more difficult in comparison to other subjects**, and the continued prioritisation of maths and science are all cited as creating a 'deeply demotivating' situation for pupils and teachers when it comes to studying languages. Post-16 uptake is noted as a particular concern with some state schools even suggesting that the small numbers of students opting to take languages at A-level means that the subject is becoming 'financially unviable'.

Teachers in both the state and independent sectors aren't confident that the new A-levels will reverse the downward trend in the uptake of language exams while schools don’t appear to be gearing up for big increases in the numbers of pupils taking languages at GCSE as a result of the recent proposal that at least 90 per cent of pupils take the English Baccalaureate (EBacc). The previous rise in GCSE entries following the introduction of the EBacc as a performance measure also appears to have levelled off – just over a quarter (27 per cent) of state schools report that the EBacc in this form has had a lasting impact.

The report highlights some positive developments, predominantly at primary level with almost half of primary schools (42 per cent) having increased the resources available for languages. In fact, all primary schools surveyed now provide language teaching for their pupils, and just over one third of primary schools indicate that they now have access to specialist language teaching expertise within their school. That said, the findings also suggest that while more secondary schools are starting to make small modifications to accommodate pupils who have learned a language at primary level, the quality and consistency of provision is not always seen as providing a worthwhile level of knowledge for pupils to apply to their studies in secondary school.

Co-author of the report Teresa Tinsley, said: "Languages are already one of the harder GCSEs and teachers fear that with the new exams it will be even tougher for pupils to get a good grade. Combine this with the expectation that a wider range of pupils will be sitting the exam and it is not surprising that teachers feel embattled. Improving their morale and confidence in the exam system is crucial if languages are to thrive in our schools."

Mark Herbert, Head of Schools Programmes at the British Council, commented: "If the UK is to remain competitive on the international stage, we need far more young people, not fewer, to be learning languages in schools.

"The country's current shortage of language skills is estimated to be costing the economy tens of billions in missed trade and business opportunities every year. More than that, the benefits of learning a language are huge - from boosting job prospects to acquiring the ability to understand and better connect with another culture. Parents, schools and businesses can all play their part in encouraging our young people to study languages at school and to ensure that language learning is given back the respect and prominence that it deserves."

Tony McAleavy, Director of Research and Development at Education Development Trust, added: "It is encouraging to see primary school teachers continuing to value teaching languages, though there is a clear need for more curriculum time to be made available for the subject. The reduction in pupils opting for GCSE and A-level languages is concerning, particularly coupled with teachers' lack of faith in the exam system. Solutions are required to give languages a firmer place in the curriculum, to make languages more compelling for pupils who find the examination process a barrier and to boost teacher morale."

The Language Trends Survey 2015/16 is the 14th in a series of annual research exercises, charting the state of language teaching and learning in schools in England. 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 the country. This year, case studies from both primary and secondary schools have been included to provide a more detailed picture of what is happening on the ground.

Other key findings highlighted in the 2015/16 report were:

  • There is a widely held belief from primary school respondents that teaching languages in Key Stage 2 broadens pupils’ cultural understanding and confidence, improves literacy and prepares them for the world of work.
  • The proportion of pupils sitting a GCSE in a language varies between 42 per cent in the North East of England and 64 per cent in Inner London.
  • The best opportunities to study languages are still associated with high-performing schools and those with low indices of socio-economic deprivation.
  • Since the first Language Trends Survey was published in 2002, entries for A-level French have declined by about one third, and those for German by nearly half. 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.  

For the first time, this year's report also includes a more detailed exploration of the situation facing lesser-taught languages such as Japanese or Russian, whether by new learners or by pupils whose first language may not be English. The report reveals that the availability of exams is vital both in terms of maintaining opportunities for pupils to learn these languages, and as a way in which schools can support and recognise the multilingual skills of pupils who have access to another language. It is foreseen that the withdrawal of accreditation opportunities for lesser-taught languages - a decision already taken by some exam boards for some lesser-taught languages - would lead to these languages no longer being taught in or supported by schools. Although Chinese appears to be the strongest of the lesser-taught languages, it is frequently offered in independent schools to native speaker pupils whose parents wish them to gain a qualification in their own language.