A few years ago, I taught an "understanding industry" module of a personal and social education course to Year 9. The course started with a short film about a local company in County Durham. A young employee was shown answering the telephone to a customer and, after the initial "Good morning" in English, the telephonist changed to speaking German. It was an important message to classes of 13-year-olds that industry is often an international business in which a facility in modern languages is an important skill.
Yet, the number of young people studying languages after the age of 14 has declined since it ceased to be compulsory in 2004. The late, great, Ron Dearing was asked to produce a report on the state of languages in schools and, in 2007, he recommended that languages should be compulsory from age 7 to 14, but he did not come up with the radical recommendations that were needed in curriculum, pedagogy and examinations at secondary school.
Now we have the 14th annual Languages Trends survey from the British Council and the Education Development Trust, which points out that more rigorous GCSE examinations in languages, as planned by the government, will turn even more people off the study of a modern language at key stage 4.
There has been good evidence for at least 10 years that modern languages GCSEs are a hard option and Helen Myers and David Blow of Ashcombe School, Surrey, have produced good data to show this. This prevents too many 14-year-olds from choosing to study a language to GCSE. Many secondary schools, mindful of the effect on their league table place, encourage students to drop languages at 14 and take subjects in which they have a better chance of a good grade. This inevitably leads to low numbers studying A-level languages and the consequent closure of university languages departments. Increasing budget pressures on schools will mean that small A-level groups, such as often exist in languages, will be considered for the axe. According to the Languages Trends report, the English Baccalaureate "appears to be having very little impact on the numbers of students taking languages post-16".
From the introduction of the EBac in 2011, numbers taking at least one languages GCSE rose to a peak of 49 per cent in 2014, but fell a point in 2015. Worryingly, schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged students are most likely to have low numbers studying languages.
The Languages Trends report states: "The exam system is seen as one of the principal barriers to the successful development of language teaching. The comparative difficulty of exams in languages in relation to other subjects, and widely reported harsh and inconsistent marking, are deeply de-motivating for both pupils and teachers." The report’s authors fear that the new GCSEs will make this situation even worse.
Following Lord Dearing’s recommendations in 2007, primary languages have improved considerably, with a majority of primary schools now having access to a specialist languages teacher.
But the difficult GCSE exams and the sole focus on GCSE as the means of assessment, exacerbated by the way in which school performance in measured, will continue to act as a constraint on take-up.
GCSE in languages is not appropriate for many young people and Lord Dearing sensibly recommended greater use of the “languages ladder”, a steadily graded assessment system that gives credit to what students have achieved and helps to motivate them to the next stage. But schools only get credit for GCSE and A-level results.
Curriculum content and pedagogy can also act as a disincentive to students to study the subject beyond the interesting early stage of learning a new language. Lord Dearing rightly recommended that content should be more appropriate and varied. Equally, the use of the target language as the sole medium of teaching can be a turn-off for students who do not find languages easy.
Employers could help too. Too many employers rest on the laurels of English being an international language and give little or no extra credit for applicants who are good at foreign languages. This isn’t just about increasing the number of high-flyers with languages degrees or A levels; it should also be about increasing the numbers of receptionists and other mainstream workers who can answer the telephone in the language of the person calling their company.
It is time for another review of the state of languages in schools and this time, as well as tackling the age range studying languages and the content of the curriculum, the review must tackle head-on the difficulty of languages GCSE and A levels and the need to incorporate graded assessments in the way that school performance is measured.
John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets as @johndunford