North-south divide in GCSE language entries

Wide regional variations in proportions of pupils taking languages revealed by British Council study

Eleanor Busby

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There is a north-south divide in the proportions of pupils taking languages at GCSE, according to a new report.

Almost two-thirds of pupils take modern foreign languages at GCSE in inner London, compared to just over two-fifths of pupils in the north-east, according to a new British Council study.

Despite an overall drop in the number of pupils taking languages at GCSE – as seen in Ofqual exam entry statistics for 2017 published yesterday – London is bucking a national trend.

The proportion of pupils taking languages at GCSE from 2014 to 2016 in the capital has increased, whereas every other region has experienced a fall. 

The new report, based on 2016 figures, shows that 65 per cent of pupils in inner London take a language at GCSE, compared to 43 per cent in the north-east. And in Middlesbrough, only 28 per cent take a language at GCSE. London and the south-east had significantly higher proportions entering than the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber regions.

The British Council's annual Language Trends survey of teachers also reveals that teachers are concerned about the impact of Brexit on language education, access to the EU's European Erasmus+ programme, which allows pupils to study abroad, and the threat to opportunities for funding to support training, school links and overseas visits.

Language barriers

The study shows that pupils in schools with the highest levels of economic disadvantage are less likely to sit a language GCSE or to be given the chance to study more than one language.

These pupils are also more likely to be allowed to drop languages after only two years or even to be withdrawn from language lessons altogether.

The survey of teachers, which was completed in more than 1,500 schools, revealed a number of concerns. It found that:

  1. There are significant disparities in provision across primary schools – as well as a lack of funding for the training of classroom teachers, resources and the recruitment of specialists
  2. Languages have a relatively low profile in primary schools compared to the "core" subjects assessed through Sats. This means language classes are often dropped or shortened
  3. At secondary, there has been a drop in the number of pupils studying more than one language at GCSE, particularly in the independent sector where 45 per cent of schools report a fall, compared to 37 per cent in state schools
  4. An increasing number of schools (now 28 per cent) are reducing key stage 3 to two years in order to be able to prepare pupils for GCSE over three years. This means that pupils who do not continue with a language once they have chosen their GCSE options, at the end of Year 8, miss out on a third of their statutory language time at KS3
  5. Financial pressures in the state sector have opened up a substantial difference between the state and independent sectors in terms of whether or not they are likely to employ language assistants
  6. There are fewer opportunities to talk with native speakers and experience other cultures first hand – such as through school exchanges - which is seen to be negatively impacting languages uptake in school
  7. The current exams system is deterring pupils from taking up languages at GCSE and A-level – and teachers are concerned that the new GCSE exam will deliver poor results

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, said: “Learning a language should not come down to geographical location or background – it should be for everyone. And as the UK comes to reposition itself on the world stage, it needs to be.

“Not only are the personal benefits of learning a language huge, but the country’s current shortage of language skills is already estimated to be costing the economy tens of billions in missed trade and business opportunities every year.

“If we are to ensure that the UK remains globally competitive in the current and ever-changing landscape, we need all of our young people to be given the chance to acquire these vital skills.

"And from businesses to parents to schools, we all have our part to play in making this happen.”

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Eleanor Busby

Eleanor Busby is a reporter at TES 

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