Languages decline deepens

GCSE league tables show most schools are affected by continued slump

William Stewart & Helen Ward

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A majority of England's state secondaries saw more than three- quarters of their GCSE pupils finish last summer without gaining a grade C or above in a language.

The depressing statistic comes in league tables published this week that reveal for the first time just how far the decline in languages has penetrated into the schools system.

Earlier this week, government statistics using a new measure showed that nationally only 30.7 per cent of pupils gained a GCSE grade C or above in a language.

Now the individual school breakdown has called the bluff of anyone hoping the problem was concentrated in a minority of schools.

Instead, it shows that in 1,671 of the country's 3,159 mainstream secondaries, fewer than a quarter of pupils achieved a GCSE grade A*-C in a modern foreign language.

In more than a fifth of schools only 10 per cent or fewer of pupils managed it, and in 35 secondaries - including three academies - none did.

Heads' leaders and language experts say the problem is the fault of ministers who have "ducked" the issue that language exams are comparatively tough.

The fact that language lessons ceased to be compulsory for key stage 4 pupils in 2004 has also played a part. Since the change, the already falling proportion of pupils entering language GCSEs fell further from 68 to 44 per cent.

The problem even extends to the 349 schools that have chosen to become specialist language colleges. Fewer than 30 per cent of pupils gained a GCSE grade C or above in 41 of the specialists, and in three there were fewer than 10 per cent.

Helen Myers, a past president of the Association for Language Learning, said: "Getting a C in a languages GCSE should be equivalent to getting a C in other subjects. We know that just isn't the case. It is severely graded.

"It is absolutely no surprise that pupils choose not to take something where they know historically it is going to be difficult to get a higher grade. School senior management teams are under pressure to get higher grades. I can't blame them for thinking they won't encourage people to do languages."

The Dearing review of languages, published in 2007, stopped short of calling for the return of compulsory languages, but set out a blueprint for making languages more attractive to teenagers. The review's recommendations, which were accepted by ministers, included making the subjects compulsory in primaries and introducing more engaging courses in secondaries.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The fact is that the Government has ducked the issue of language GCSEs being harder than other GCSEs, and this continues to act as disincentive to young people to take these subjects.

"Schools are placed in a very difficult position because their exam results are liable to be worse if a high proportion of their pupils take languages, and that is highly regrettable."

Full reports, pages 22-23.

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William Stewart & Helen Ward

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