Private schools suffer 'more severe' decline in languages than state sector

Kaye Wiggins

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Independent schools are suffering from a decline in language learning that is “more severe” than that in the state sector, a leading public school languages director has said. 

Nick Mair, director of languages at Dulwich College and chair of the Independent Schools’ Modern Languages Association (ISMLA), told a conference today that the rising importance of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) had marginalised foreign languages. 

“You all think it’s hunky dory in the ivory tower…[but] it isn’t,” he said, adding that the number of private school pupils taking A-level French fell 10 per cent last year, higher than the national average, and the number taking German fell 9 per cent. 

“[If] you think it’s all OK in independent schools, it simply is not,” he said. “It’s simply that the starting point is higher, but the decline is either more severe than, or as severe as, that in state schools.” 

Speaking at a Westminster Education Forum debate in London, Mr Mair said this was because “every senior management [team] is banging the STEM drum”. Pointing to a newspaper article that described a “war against humanities”, he said he believed this phrase to be accurate. 

Teresa Tinsley, author of the Language Trends survey which was published last month, said figures covering both independent and state schools showed there had been a decline in GCSE French and Spanish entries and a “steep decline” in entries for German and French A-levels. 

She said this was in part due to the “negative impact” of assessment systems and performance measures, especially in post-16 education. 

Mr Mair criticised “severe grading” and “unpredictable grades” in language exams, and said members of the ISMLA had told him they did not understand the grading of language exams. 

He said the government’s decision to de-couple AS and A-levels could hit language learning. “It means [students will] not [take] four AS levels and one of them might be a language – and if we teach it well they might stay with it. It means it’s going to be maths, science, something and enrichment. Many schools will not have that slot for a language.”

Mr Mair said part of the solution could lie in adopting the American approach of “STEAM” subjects, in which an art subject was added to science, technology, engineering and maths. Across the pond, he said, “they think scientists and engineers are losing out because they don’t have a language.” 

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Kaye Wiggins

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