How do we encourage boys to learn languages?

Far more girls than boys are choosing to study languages. But some schools are defying this trend, says Bobbie Mills

Boy at blackboard, learning Mandarin

It’s now nearly a decade since the government brought the EBacc into being, signalling its belief that young people in England should study a core set of academic subjects at GCSE

Over the years, the government’s rationale has always been that such subjects are “essential to many degrees” and are able to “open up lots of doors”. 

It’s fair to say that the accountability measure has faced its challenges (as well as some criticism) since then.

Secondary-school performance tables published next week will show that the government still has some way to go to meet its ambitious target for three-quarters of pupils to be studying all five EBacc subjects by 2022.  

Missing a language

By far the largest barrier to meeting this target is the number of pupils studying language subjects. Despite a small increase when the EBacc was rolled out, entries in GCSE language subjects have dropped each year since 2014. 

Today the numbers are striking: fewer than half of pupils now study a language GCSE, compared with around three quarters 15 years ago, just before they ceased to be compulsory. 

For all those pupils who are just one subject shy of entering the full EBacc, the vast majority of them – 86 per cent – are missing a language.

Part of the problem are the huge imbalances in access to language learning. While the EBacc appears to have narrowed the disadvantage gaps in entries to science and the humanities, languages remain stubbornly dominated by more affluent pupils, high attainers and girls.

In fact, languages are the only EBacc subject with a clear gender gap in both entry and in attainment

Gender gulf

So what is it about being a boy that means you are less likely to hold a pass in a language GCSE when you leave school? 

Research published this week, by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), commissioned by the British Council, found that girls are more than twice as likely as boys to enter and secure a pass in a modern foreign language. 

Remarkably, the gulf is so great that gender is actually a stronger factor than a pupil’s level of disadvantage in predicting language GCSE outcomes: a girl from a poorer background is more likely to pass languages than a boy from a more affluent background.

Can anything be done to reverse these trends? Schools are up against an assortment of challenges to improve the take-up of languages, not least a chronic shortage of language teachers. 

But there are nonetheless a number of schools that are seeing success in getting more boys into languages. 

Most importantly, these aren’t the schools that are necessarily topping the performance tables. Our focus is on those with more challenging intakes, which you would expect to struggle with pupil attainment.

And they are beating the odds and seeing more boys perform well. 

Conscious decision

Many of these schools operate on an inclusive basis, encouraging pupils of all abilities to take up languages. Boys themselves don’t even have to be directly targeted: successful practices are usually wider initiatives, which aim to create a pro-language ethos across the whole school. 

These schools also give substantial teaching time for languages, as well as facilitating smaller classes, in order to teach to a wider ability range. 

What’s more, teachers in these schools appear to have a clear understanding of effective teaching methods for boys in language subjects. 

Pursuing these methods undoubtedly involves balancing resources against other priorities.

But it seems that these schools have all made a conscious decision to prioritise languages, with some stating that this policy was specifically guided by the EBacc.

These odds-beating schools provide solid examples of what teachers and leaders can do to get more boys into languages. But they are only a minority.

If the government’s ambition is for all schools to improve the rate of language study so that it can hit its 2022 target, it must urgently clarify how it intends to tackle the gaps across foreign languages, particularly between boys and girls. 

Failure to confront this problem will not only spell trouble for its EBacc ambitions, but will also mean that the huge inequalities in access to language learning won’t go away any time soon.

Bobbie Mills is a senior researcher at the Education Policy Institute

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