EBac kickstarts languages revival, but there's still a long way to go

William Stewart

An alarming long term decline in foreign language GCSE entries began to be reversed today, as the government’s English Baccalaureate school performance measure made an instant impact.

French, German and Spanish all saw large increases in uptake, as figures for the first cohort to complete full two year GCSE courses since the EBac’s introduction were published.

But there were also warnings that the language revival still has “a long way to go”.

“There is no doubt that the EBac (English Baccalaureate) has had an impact,” Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said.

But he also cautioned: “We need to be careful of percentages because they are percentages of a small number. But they are significant increases.”

Two years ago the picture looked very different. The coalition had already announced the EBac – a measure of the proportion of pupils achieving GCSE grade Cs or better in English, two sciences, maths, history or geography and a language.

But it was too late for it to make any impact on nearly a decade of falling language entries. Indeed, the decline accelerated.

French, which had dropped out of the top ten most popular subjects for the first time in 2010 – saw the speed of its decline more than double. In German the decline nearly tripled and Spanish GCSE entries fell for the first time since 2006.

Last year things were slightly better as it seemed that some schools – desperate to do well on the EBac – had made early changes. Spanish saw a ten per cent rise in entries and French and German which both saw 13.2 per cent falls in 2011, saw their decline arrested with 0.5 and 5.5 per cent entry drops respectively.

This year those green shoots of recovery have bloomed as French entries climbed by 15.5 per cent, German by 9.4 per cent, and Spanish by 25.8 per cent.

“We think we can see the EBac effect coming through here,” said Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board. “This is the first time we have had anything like this for a while and it is encouraging.”

The decline in modern language GCSE entries dates back to 2002 when the then Labour government announced its intention to drop them from the compulsory key stage four national curriculum.

The effect was immediate  - even though the change did come in until 2004 - and the proportion of the cohort sitting a language GCSE fell from 78 per cent in 2001 to just 40 per cent in 2011.

Today’s improvements still leave a big gap. “Before we get too excited there is only about 44 per cent of 16-year-olds in theUKstudying languages,” Mr Hall said this morning. “We have still got a long way to go.”

He also noted that performance had dropped in all three of the main languages fell this year and said: “It remains to be seen whether this flows through to A level.”

Last week the exam boards said they were so concerned about a collective 17.8 per cent drop in A level French, German and Spanish entries since 2008 that they were beginning a joint investigation into the decline.

Katja Hall, policy director of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “It’s good to see the big rise in language entrants but the accelerating drop-off at A-level shows there is a huge amount of ground to claw back since compulsory GCSEs were scrapped.

“It’s better late than never to make languages mandatory at primary school but it will be years before we reap the rewards fully.” 

Geography and history also saw GCSE entry increases of 19.2 and 16.7 per cent respectively today as the full effect of the EBac was felt. But RE, not included in the performance measure, was also up for a second year running, with a 10.4 per cent increase in entries.

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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