Here at Halsbury, we’re great believers in the importance of language learning and teaching. In fact, we were actually founded by a former French teacher and, to this day, many of us are multilingual.
So, we take a keen interest in the state of language teaching and learning – which is why we’re always interested in the results of the annual Language Trends survey, carried out by the British Council.
The Language Trends survey looks at the current situation for language teaching and learning in both primary and secondary schools in England, to help determine the impact of policy measures.
They analyse both the opinions of teachers and quantitive evidence such as exam results and participation.
Continuing concern over participation in language learning
This year’s survey looked at a number of issues. Firstly, of course, is the ongoing concern over participation in language learning.
In 2004, languages were removed from the compulsory curriculum. This triggered an immediate drop in the number of students taking a language at GCSE - from 76% in 2002 to just 40% in 2011.
The introduction of the English Baccalaureate in 2011, which requires students to take a modern or ancient language at GCSE, did cause this number to rise slightly – to 49% in 2014. So, initially, the signs were relatively positive.
But, worryingly, this rate has stalled somewhat and currently hovers around 47%. This is despite the government’s target of 90% of pupils taking the English Baccalaureate by 2025.
New GCSEs too hard?
It has been suggested that perhaps one reason that this rate has stalled is the introduction of the new GCSEs. Designed to be more rigorous and set higher standards, there’s no doubt among teachers that they’ve done so.
But these are now regarded as some of the hardest subjects at GCSE, due to the amount of learning required in such a short time ahead of exams. As such, it seems to be the case that lower ability students are being put off.
Indeed, where schools select students according to ability, participation in language learning is much higher than in schools that don’t – 68% of state school teachers said that lower-ability pupils were now less likely to take a languages GCSE.
So, the changes may well lead to better linguists, but it could also mean we have far fewer of them. And, perhaps more importantly, it means that lower-ability pupils are not being given the opportunity to experience any of the benefits that language learning brings.
The geographical effect
This inequality in language learning does not simply affect lower-ability pupils.
For starters, there’s a huge schism geographically. In terms of participation in language learning, this is far higher in London and the South East than anywhere else in the country. In London, GCSE entries were above average at 62%. In the North East the participation rate was just 40%.
The economic effect
There’s also an economic factor too, with participation rates far lower in schools with a high percentage of students eligible for free school meals, which is a key measure of poverty.
In these schools, languages tend to be timetabled for fewer hours during the compulsory stage than in other schools - in fact, according to the survey, they could be missing out on two and a half hours of lesson time compared to other schools.
Pupils in schools with a higher percentage of students eligible for free school meals are also more likely to be allowed to drop languages completely for GCSE. And often there is also a narrow choice of languages offered.
These schools may also offer less opportunity for school trips abroad, quite possibly because school trips abroad just aren’t affordable for many families. However, this does add to the overall lack of exposure to languages in these schools compared to others in less deprived areas.
The gender effect
And gender too has an influence on participation rates, with more girls still opting to take languages than boys.
And the Brexit effect
Another key issue considered in the Language Trends survey is the effect of Brexit on language learning and teaching.
Of course, one concern when it comes to the effect of Brexit on language teaching is how it will impact on teaching staff. More than two-thirds of schools in the state sector, and 78 per cent of fee-paying schools, employ teachers and teaching assistants from the EU who do not currently hold British citizenship – and there is concern over how Brexit will affect them.
Another serious concern is the effect on the attitude towards language learning within the school community.
For many it’s clear that exiting the European Union will make it more vital than ever that we have plenty of homegrown linguists. And some teachers are reporting that senior management is becoming more supportive of language teaching because of Brexit.
However, just over a third of state schools have also reported that the attitude of students and their parents has shifted negatively towards languages since Brexit. Could Brexit discourage students from taking up languages, when we need them to most?
When languages are not actively promoted in some schools, and students are not offered international experiences, perhaps it is unsurprising that this negative attitude towards language learning has emerged in these school communities.
This survey reaffirms the need for greater equality when it comes to language learning and teaching. If more students were offered the opportunity to learn languages, regardless of where they come from, or their academic ability, perhaps we would find that attitudes towards language learning would soon change.
The students who are talented linguists and who enjoy learning languages will always gravitate towards the subject. Of course, we must absolutely ensure that they have access to teaching that will help them to achieve all they can, but must it be at the expense of others?
Providing young people with the experience of speaking another language and exploring another culture through that language will help them to broaden their horizons and become better global citizens and, potentially, more rounded adults. And the opportunity to travel abroad and experience this first hand is an educational experience you just can't replicate in the classroom.
As Brexit approaches, we need more linguists, not fewer. And so there must be greater focus on the value of languages, including making sure that students know where languages can take them.