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Schools in Wales struggling to reverse decline in foreign language education – with disadvantaged areas worst hit

30 June 2016

This year's Language Trends Wales report says the majority of schools - more than two thirds - have less than 25% of pupils studying a modern foreign language (MFL) at GCSE level

Schools in more disadvantaged areas are more likely to report very low take-up of MFL

There is widespread support for the Welsh Government’s ambition to see MFL taught from a younger age, but primary schools want to see more resources and training

The second national survey of MFL teaching in Wales has found that schools are struggling to increase numbers for GCSEs in foreign languages, with more disadvantaged areas seeing the lowest take-up.

The introduction of the Welsh Baccalaureate has led to fewer timetable options for pupils to study MFL. Studying a language is viewed as difficult by pupils, who have usually had little time to build their confidence in MFL, with many only learning a foreign language in years 7 and 8 for less than the recommended minimum of two hours per week.

Language Trends Wales 2016 surveyed primary schools in addition to secondary schools for the first time, in response to Welsh Government’s ambition for MFL to be taught from year 5 in primary schools to develop Wales as a bilingual +1 country (Welsh and English plus a MFL).

The report, which was commissioned by the British Council and the Education Development Trust, finds that most primary schools support the idea of teaching modern foreign languages at primary level, but have concerns about how this could be achieved without extra funding and training.

Secondary schools are praised in the report for the work they are doing to interest their pupils in MFL and increase take-up at GCSE level. However schools working in more disadvantaged circumstances are less likely to have been involved in efforts to promote MFL to their pupils, who often do not appreciate the value of studying a foreign language.

Director of British Council Wales, Jenny Scott, said:

"The report found the Welsh Government’s Global Futures initiative is improving attitudes to modern foreign language learning. It's too early to judge whether there will eventually be a positive effect on MFL take-up at GCSE and A level, but we are concerned at the lack of interest in schools working in more disadvantaged circumstances. We know that international opportunities, whether work, volunteering or studying at further or higher education level, improve future job prospects. An international experience can be particularly life changing for young people who have not grown up with the advantages enjoyed by many of their contemporaries. Even basic foreign language skills can give a young person the confidence to work, study or volunteer abroad – we shouldn’t allow any of our young people to be left behind where these opportunities are concerned. With the UK leaving the EU we need language skills more than ever to help us succeed in the global marketplace."

Tony McAleavy, Education Development Trust, Research and Consultancy Director, commented:

"This report shows that despite positive attitudes towards learning modern foreign languages in Welsh schools, a number of factors are hindering take-up. We are optimistic however in teacher’s beliefs that change is possible through different interventions such as improving careers advice and increasing the number of free choices at GSCE. Primary schools require greater support and encouragement to enable a place for MFL on an already busy curriculum, which will provide a good foundation for children opting to take MFL later in their school lives."

The report's authors back the Donaldson report recommendation to position Welsh, English and MFL together in the curriculum, saying teaching should develop generic language skills that would provide a solid foundation for language learning and reduce the perception that various languages are in competition with each other.

Teachers say there are three actions that would be most likely to improve the take-up of MFL at GCSE level:

  • Better careers advice regarding the benefits of language skills in the workplace
  • Changes to the assessment and marking of the GCSE exam, which is seen as harsh and inconsistent
  • Increasing the number of free choices and ensuring that languages are available in each of the option blocks from which pupils make their GCSE subject choices

Other key findings from the report are:

  • Almost 80 per cent of secondary school respondents believe that starting to teach a foreign  language in primary school would improve take-up when pupils choose their GCSE options
  • French is the most frequently taught language in primary schools, followed by Spanish
  • There has been a high level of involvement in efforts to promote MFL – but although these have positively affected attitudes, they have not substantially improved take-up
  • Groups for MFL post-16 are very small, with numbers declining, as a result post-16 provision is becoming financially unviable
  • Around one quarter of Welsh primary schools provide some limited MFL teaching, usually as part of preparing year 6 pupils for secondary school