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‘Modern foreign languages at A-level are going in same direction as Latin and Greek'

Tony McAleavy, research and development director, CfBT Education Trust, writes:

By a strange paradox, both massive expansion and dramatic decline are taking place at the same time in the field of language teaching in England. The good news for those who believe in the importance of languages is that the new national curriculum mandates the teaching of a language other than English at Key Stage 2. The bad news is a bit more complicated. Many primary teachers say that they lack the linguistic proficiency to meet the new requirements and are daunted by the task of teaching a subject without sufficient support.

Meanwhile at secondary level, their counterparts are worried about the possible extinction of the subject at A-level. So while some primary schools feel overwhelmed that millions of children in England must now study the subject before the age of 11, secondary schools complain that only a tiny percentage of 16- to 19 year-olds in England continue to study languages post-GCSE.

These findings emerge from the annual Languages Trends survey, published jointly this week by CfBT Education Trust and the British Council. The survey shows that primary schools are happy in principle with the idea of languages on the curriculum, but, for them, ‘the devil is in the detail’. The overwhelming majority of primary schools – 85 per cent – welcome the forthcoming statutory status for language teaching at Key Stage 2. However, in many cases the amount of time allocated each week for language learning and the linguistic competency levels of classroom teachers are unlikely to be sufficient to meet the expectations set out in the new programmes of study. No fewer than three-quarters of primary schools are concerned about their readiness to meet the proposed curriculum requirements for reading, writing and grammatical understanding.

Be in no doubt – there is a huge variability in the linguistic proficiency of primary teachers. A total of 30 per cent of primary schools have a member of staff with a degree in the language the school is teaching. However, 24 per cent of schools report that GCSE is the highest level of linguistic competence held by any member of their staff. Primary schools are also concerned at a lack of training and support. Much support that was previously available through local authorities or secondary school partnerships simply no longer exists. New support mechanisms, such as Teaching School Alliances, are so far largely unable to provide the help that is needed.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age range, A-level languages teaching is facing a crisis of numbers. At GCSE, there has been a slight upturn in languages provision since the introduction of the EBac. However, A-level languages appear to be in freefall. Since 1996 the number of students following A-level courses in French and German has more than halved. Last year, for the first time fewer than 10,000 students in the whole of England took A-level French.

It seems that modern foreign languages at A-level are going in the same direction as classical languages. The figures for the North East region illustrate how stark the situation has become. In the whole of the region, fewer than 600 students took a language A-level in 2013. There is no sign that that the trajectory of decline is levelling off. In fact, it is quite the reverse: secondary teachers in the survey stated that the disappearance of the AS level will reduce the numbers even more. Some 40 per cent of schools said that they feared that the forthcoming structural changes to A-level will have a negative impact on languages.

The CfBT/British Council survey gave teachers an opportunity to comment on these trends. They identified problems both of supply and demand. Teachers in some schools blamed financial pressures; heads felt increasingly unable to find the money needed to staff small A-level languages groups. In other schools, teachers talked about an increasing student perception that languages were ‘difficult’ and that, given the importance of A-level grades for university entry, they were better off choosing ‘easier’ subjects.

As one teacher summed it up: “Why study a language... when you can get the Ucas points/grades much more easily in other subjects? There is absolutely no incentive to do it.”

The cultural and economic case for languages has been made many times. A healthy, prosperous, outward-looking society needs skills in the great languages of the world, and not just English. Teaching all of our children languages in primary schools is a step in the right direction and one that teachers welcome. However, this reform will not lead to real improvement unless we ensure that primary teachers feel much more confident about teaching languages. Improving languages skills for 7- to 11-year-olds is necessary, but not sufficient. If we are serious about languages as a country, we also need to take action to stop the virtual extinction of languages provision beyond GCSE.    

The full report is available here

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