Modern foreign languages in secondary schools in Wales

Kathryn Board OBE

Teresa Tinsley

The first national survey of modern foreign language (MFL) teaching in Welsh secondary schools, carried out by Education Development Trust and the British Council, highlights the decline of modern foreign language learning in Welsh schools.

Language Trends Wales states that in today's globalised world only 22% of Welsh pupils take a GCSE in a language other than English or Welsh. Teachers say there is less time for languages in the Key Stage 3 curriculum, despite Estyn guidelines for the amount of time that should be devoted to MFL.  They also say pupils do not choose to study MFL as they regard language exams as 'difficult' and there is competition from other subjects they can choose to study at GCSE level.

The overall picture of foreign languages in Welsh secondary schools is one of mainly French provision. German is taught in around a quarter of schools and Spanish in fewer than half. No Welsh schools offer Arabic, Russian or Urdu and only a very small number offer lesser taught languages such as Chinese or Italian.

In the ten year period from 2005-2014, A-level entries for French, German and Spanish in Welsh schools have halved. The low numbers of students opting for languages at A-level mean that in many cases courses are becoming financially unviable. Teachers responding to the survey were particularly concerned about the situation at A-level, more so than with the falling numbers at GCSE level.

The biggest declines are in French and German, traditionally the two most widely taught languages in Wales, with entries dropping by 41 per cent and 54 per cent respectively in the ten year period 2005-14.

Spanish saw a slight upward trend from 2001 and overtook German as the second most widely studied language at A-level in 2009. However, in recent years Spanish has seen a decline in numbers with a heavy fall of 22 per cent between 2013 and 2014.

The majority of MFL teachers (89%) were positive about the teaching of Welsh in primary schools, but many believe the benefits of bilingualism can only be maximised if pupils have a high standard of Welsh teaching at primary level.

The report is available in English and Welsh, and the executive summary is downloadable as a separate document.