English pupils are world-beaters - at not learning foreign languages

10th September 2010 at 01:00
OECD study ranks secondary students joint-last on lesson time, behind Indonesia and Mexico

Secondary pupils in England spend less time studying foreign languages than anywhere else in the developed world, according to international research published this week.

Only 7 per cent of 12 to 14-year-olds' lesson time in England's schools is allocated to languages - half the amount of time devoted to sciences - the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study shows.

This puts England joint bottom of a table of 39 mainly developed countries, alongside Ireland and Estonia, and behind the likes of Indonesia and Mexico.

Dr Lid King, the Government's national director for languages, warned that in some schools the figure could be even lower as new curriculum flexibilities were being used to pull even further back from language teaching.

The figures, which are from 2008, will cause particular concern because they cover key stage 3, the one period of schooling in England when languages remain compulsory.

This week Education Secretary Michael Gove said: "I am deeply concerned that fewer and fewer students are studying languages, it not only breeds insularity, it means an integral part of the brain's learning capacity rusts unused."

Last month, GCSE figures confirmed the slump in languages was continuing following their dropping from the compulsory key stage 4 curriculum.

Heads' leaders warned that the damage could be irreparable, as French fell out the top ten most popular GCSEs for the "first time in living memory" and the figures showed that numbers studying French and German had both halved in a decade.

Legislation which would have made teaching a foreign language statutory for seven to 11-year-olds in primaries from 2011 was lost in the run-up to the May general election.

The Education at a Glance report shows Luxembourg 12 to 14-year-olds spent the highest proportion of lessons - 26 per cent - on languages. The OECD average was 13 per cent.

England was predictably low on languages for nine to 11-year-olds, at just 3 per cent of lessons, which placed it below every country except the Netherlands, at 1 per cent.

Dr King said 12 to 14-year-olds ought to be spending at least 10 per cent of their lesson time on modern foreign languages.

But he said he thought that in reality schools were giving anywhere between 5 per cent 15 per cent of lesson time to the subjects.

John Bangs, a visiting professor at London University's Institute of Education, said: "This is part of the running disaster of modern foreign languages in this country."

Both he and Dr King said that they believed the end of compulsory languages at KS4 had contributed to the low figure at KS3, tempting come schools to further marginalise subjects many pupils would drop.

Mr Gove this week proposed creating an "English Bac" for which a language GCSE would be a requirement to encourage schools and pupils to reverse the decline.

7% - Percentage of 12 to 14-year-olds' lesson time allocated to languages. Sciences take up 14%.

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