Pitch for a higher note in languages

Crucial changes are needed to secure improved uptake, writes Baroness Coussins

Baroness Coussins

The results of the 2011 Language Trends survey show that, while language learning in schools is still in overall decline, there are some welcome - even surprising - signs of positive change. In 2011, only 40 per cent of GCSE students sat language papers, compared with 78 per cent in 2001, but the good news is that there has been a notable increase in the take-up of languages in the current Year 10, which can be attributed to the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBac).

In the maintained sector, 40 per cent of schools reported changes to their language provision following the announcement of the EBac, with another 14 per cent planning to introduce changes over the next year or so. However, two questions remain unanswered. First, how can those schools (46 per cent of all maintained schools) with no plans to upgrade their language provision be encouraged to do so? And second, are the current language GCSEs fit for purpose? Do they encourage a genuine appreciation of language learning and its wider benefits?

The findings of the survey, published by the CfBT Education Trust, suggest that, if we are to address these questions, there needs to be higher expectations of language education in secondary schools and continued support. The 850 teachers who responded expressed "grave concerns" about GCSE and A-level assessment. Top of their list is the time available for language teaching. They believe that more contact time, arranged in shorter, more frequent lessons, would allow them to promote "deep learning", rather than simply priming pupils to pass exams. And they want more emphasis placed on speaking skills. They suggest that this should be done through spontaneous talk and having students use the language for real purpose.

It is not clear why languages are perceived to be among the most difficult subjects at school. Many of the survey responses referred to the difficulty of language GCSEs and A levels, with one teacher even saying that they have had native speakers fail to achieve the coveted A* grade. Ofqual should investigate and remedy the problem of severe and unpredictable grading, in order to place languages on a level footing with other subjects.

By introducing language learning at an earlier age, pupils may feel more confident in their ability to perform well and will be encouraged to opt for languages when given the chance. Learning a foreign language may be a challenge, but there is no reason why young people should be put off languages if we get the approach and the assessment process right.

There is also felt to be a big jump between GCSE and A-level standards, with teachers feeling that the GCSE is inadequate preparation for the A-level course and that many students are put off further language study by their GCSE experiences.

With university places now at a premium and teachers facing increasing pressure over league-table positions, it is unsurprising that pupils would reject a seemingly difficult course. Despite the sudden upturn in the number of GCSE students, if the quality of the course and assessment fails to inspire young people, we shall continue to see low numbers of students taking their languages further. It is worrying that some decline in take-up at A level is now evident in the independent sector, too.

It is very encouraging that we may be starting to see a rise in the numbers taking languages at GCSE. But unless there are fundamental changes in the nature of assessment and how languages are taught as a result, taking a language GCSE will not adequately prepare young people for higher-level language learning, nor give them the transferable skills that employers are looking for in a global marketplace.

Baroness Coussins is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Modern Languages.

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Baroness Coussins

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