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Bringing Languages back to life

  • Curriculum
  • Languages
Mike Hodgkiss
Mike Hodgkiss 19 May, 2019

Foreign language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium – recent BBC analysis shows a drop of between 30% and 50% of students taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England.

But this is not a new claim. Researchers started to highlight a class divide emerging just after the Labour Party changed languages from being compulsory to optional at GCSE in 2007. Once languages no longer needed to feature on league tables, many schools dramatically reduced the number of students sitting language exams.

The Language Trends 2015 report found direct correlations between socioeconomic disadvantage and restricted access to languages. It was found that the schools in the most socially deprived areas excluded 17% of pupils from language study in key stage three (11-14 years-old) and 44% of pupils at key stage four (14-16 years-old).

Recent findings suggest things haven’t improved – 76% of students in selective schools sat a GCSE in a language compared with only 38% in sponsored academies. There is also a geographical divide appearing, with young people living in London and the south-east more likely to take a language at GCSE. All other areas in England have recorded a decline – and the north-east has been the worst affected.

A separate survey of secondaries suggests a third have dropped at least one language from their GCSE options.

In England, ministers say they are taking steps to reverse the decline.

The BBC attempted to contact every one of the almost 4,000 mainstream secondary schools in the  UK, and more than half – 2,048 – responded.

Of the schools which replied, most said the perception of languages as a difficult subject was the main reason behind a drop in the number of pupils studying for exams.

Schools in working-class areas face an array of challenges to provide language education: disengaged students, classroom management, timetabling issues and a massive shortage of qualified teachers. There is also a major issue with the language GCSE exams, which are perceived to be the hardest exams to take.

And they are, absolutely, the hardest exams to take, with unrealistic grade boundaries set in place. If a student is only likely to complete five or six GCSE’s, it is unrealistic that schools will suggest languages.

Kim Ridealgh

Lecturer in Sociolinguistics, University of East Anglia writing in The Conversation said:

Over the past four years, my own research has focused on understanding how young people in socially deprived areas in Norfolk view language education. There is a national assumption that Norfolk is a rich county, epitomised by residents such as Stephen Fry and Delia Smith. But in reality Norfolk is diverse and has large areas of urban, rural and coastal deprivation, isolated from many parts of the country with poor, expensive and not always reliable transport links.

Many of the Norfolk’s secondary schools fall into the bottom 10% of schools nationally. The county also has areas of social deprivation, which have existed for generations. Norwich, for example, ranked second to bottom in the 2016 Social Mobility Index.

Language uptake in the county is very low – less than 200 young people took a language at A-level in 2016 and only a handful of schools offer French, Spanish and German – many only timetable and prioritise one or two languages. Young people wanting to study languages have to shop around for the sixth form that offers the one they want – and must be willing to travel to attend that school.

The British Council recently reported on the effect Brexit has had on language learning in schools in England:

More than two thirds of schools in the state sector, and 78 per cent of fee-paying schools, currently employ teachers without UK citizenship who are citizens of other EU countries. Schools report negative impacts on staffing, and fears about future recruitment and retention of language teachers.

But the most significant impact of Brexit reported by schools was in relation to attitudes towards language learning. Just over a third of state schools reported that leaving the EU is having a negative impact on student motivation and/or parental attitudes towards language learning.

In contrast, some teachers reported that senior management in their school had become more supportive of language learning since the Brexit vote, since they realised that it would become more important for the UK to maintain good international relations. Schools which reported negative shifts in attitudes were more likely to have lower language attainment, and have medium to high levels of pupils eligible for free school meals.

The responses show the challenge of overcoming the social and cultural divide that the Brexit vote revealed. Unless we can achieve greater equity in language learning, so students from all backgrounds can benefit from the rich opportunities that learning a language offers, this divide may become even wider.

A recent article in The Observer reported on a a pilot project which may have found the answer. A report published this month finds that numbers of pupils choosing to take a foreign language can be dramatically increased by mentoring from undergraduates who have chosen to specialise in the subject at university.

“This shows it is possible to tackle the language crisis,” said Teresa Tinsley, director of research consultancy Alcantara Communications. “The success of this project is down to targeted intervention at a key moment before pupils are choosing their options, and the leadership shown by the university partners in developing and implementing an imaginative and effective scheme. The ability to draw on the enthusiasm of university students as mentors has been critical: they are closer in age to pupils than their parents or teachers, and offer real-life examples of the future opportunities that learning another language opens up.”

After five weeks of face-to-face and online mentoring by language undergraduates at Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam universities, 55% said they had chosen to take a language at GCSE.

“Languages are vital for young people’s futures – for their social mobility, their skills, their productivity, and their intercultural understanding in a globalised world. Now more than ever, the UK needs languages to boost trade, soft power, diplomacy, and social cohesion”.

Prof Neil Kenny, British Academy