This week’s dispiriting news about the decline in young people choosing to study French and German at GCSE is also a sad reflection of what is wrong with the government’s approach to education policy in general.
To recap: a BBC analysis shows that foreign language learning is at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium, with German and French falling most. And this analysis shows drops of between 30 and 50 per cent since 2013 in those taking GCSE language courses in the worst-affected areas in England.
My take on these stark findings is that when we examine why this is happening we encounter some familiar themes.
The first of these is teacher supply. The most recent initial teacher training census shows us that the government has failed to hit the target for recruiting trainee modern foreign languages teachers for the past five years in succession.
The second is lack of funding. In an education system which is struggling to make ends meet, the most vulnerable subjects are those with smaller classes – and inevitably this often means languages.
And the third is the idea that accountability measures are a magic wand. The government’s solution to the languages crisis is to make languages part of the EBacc and set a target for a 90 per cent uptake by 2025.
In reality, the percentage of pupils entering EBacc is stuck stubbornly at around 38 per cent. The latest DfE statistics tell us: “Of those pupils who entered four out of the five EBacc components, the majority (83.8 per cent) were missing the languages component in 2018.”
So, the crisis in modern foreign languages is a microcosm of the wider problems with education policy. Not enough money, not enough teachers, and an over-reliance on the blunt instrument of accountability.
Of course, a lot of people will say that the mistake with languages was made back in 2003 when the then Labour government decided they should no longer be compulsory after the age of 14. And there will be plenty of people out there who think the answer is to make them mandatory at key stage 4 once again.
But I don’t subscribe to that view. I think we need to move away from the mindset that making people do things is the answer to problems and instead take a more productive view about how we would really solve this crisis.
Here’s a few thoughts:
- We need to get the basics right. Schools must have enough teachers and they must have enough money. The government’s teacher recruitment and retention strategy is a great start in improving teacher supply in general. But we need to look creatively at how we give more teachers the language skills to teach these subjects, for example, through bespoke professional learning programmes. And we need to make sure that we don’t put barriers up to the recruitment of language teachers from EU countries post-Brexit.
- Let’s look at how we teach languages in primary schools and then how we progress that learning through into the secondary phase. What should we be doing in primary classrooms to give children a taste for languages and how do we build on that so that the learning of languages is a continuum through the phases?
- We need to enthuse children about languages. This cannot be done entirely in the classroom. We need to provide trips abroad and other extra-curricular opportunities, so that children have the chance to understand and enjoy the culture of the countries whose languages they are learning. Many schools do their best to provide these opportunities but they are fighting against severe funding pressures.
- Isn’t it time to grasp the nettle of severe grading in language exams? In November, Ofqual decided to take no significant action over severe grading in A-level languages despite finding that it’s harder to obtain top grades in these subjects than in many other subjects. We said this was a missed opportunity. How can we expect to increase the uptake of subjects which are perceived as being particularly difficult to do well in?
- What can we do as a society to emphasise the importance of learning languages? The fact that English is regarded as a lingua franca is both a blessing and a curse. It means that we are widely understood when we travel abroad, but it also means that we don’t see the learning of languages as a priority. The reality is that in an increasingly globalised world we need to be able to converse across national borders in a range of languages and not always be reliant upon everyone else speaking English. How can we integrate languages more effectively into our cultural life?
In short, we need to build a national mission to rejuvenate language learning in Britain; a mission that doesn’t rely on the big stick of accountability and our dispiriting inclination to make things mandatory, but which builds a genuine love of learning languages.
Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders