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Research report

Language learning in primary and secondary schools in England

Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board

Based upon the findings from the 2012 Language Trends survey, this report assesses the state of language teaching in English primary and secondary schools.

Language Trends 2012 is the 11th in a series of annual reports charting the health of language learning in English schools. Based on large-scale surveys, past reports have focused on secondary schools and especially on the take-up of languages in Key Stage 4 (KS4) since languages became an optional subject within the National Curriculum in 2004. In 2012, for the first time, state primary schools have also been surveyed, and the report offers some crucial information on the development of languages in Key Stage 2 in advance of government plans to make the subject compulsory from age 7 from 2014.

This survey provides the first nationwide evidence on the situation of languages in primary schools since 2008. It shows that, despite anecdotal reports of a reduction in provision during the period of this government's national curriculum review, language teaching is now a reality in a very high proportion of primary schools.

However, the report provides evidence of a very wide spectrum of practice and a lack of consistency between schools both in their approach to language teaching and in the outcomes they achieve. There is a strongly expressed need – as well as evidence of an implicit need – for further training and support, particularly for those schools without expertise or commitment to the notion of language teaching in primary schools.

Despite some creditable examples of successful practice, there is generally a low level of interchange between primary and secondary schools, and a disconnect between systems. This means that the vast majority of pupils do not experience continuity and progression in their language learning when they move from KS2 to KS3. Secondary schools cannot cope with the diversity of pupils' language learning experiences in KS2, and it is not on their agendas to do so.

Following the introduction of the EBacc as a performance measure, many schools have moved to make languages compulsory or highly recommended for some pupils. This suggests that most able pupils are now engaging in language learning. However there is a dearth of provision for less 'academic' pupils and no incentive for schools to provide this.

Teachers would welcome reforms to both GCSE and A Level examinations; they would like to see changes which encourage steady progression in the development of linguistic skills and their practical use in a range of contexts.