Languages barrier may persist despite EBac boost

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
Survey finds that growth in GCSE uptake is unlikely to last

The focus on academic subjects included in the English Baccalaureate (EBac) performance measure will fail to produce sustained growth in the number of students studying foreign languages, a new survey suggests.

Take-up of language GCSEs grew significantly after the introduction of the EBac, but the annual Language Trends survey has found little evidence that this rise will continue.

Institutions responded quickly to the introduction of the EBac in January 2011, with 40 per cent of state-funded schools bringing in changes to language provision, including making languages compulsory for some students.

Examination data shows that 41 per cent of students took a language GCSE in 2012, and statistics from the Department for Education suggest that this will rise to 54 per cent by the summer of 2014.

But according to the survey, which questioned more than 500 secondary schools, there is little evidence that this upward trend will continue. "The survey confirms the impact on languages of the introduction of the English Baccalaureate as a performance measure," the report said. "Many schools are now making languages compulsory up to GCSE for some pupils. However, schools are not planning any further measures to increase take-up."

The proportion of students taking a language GCSE plummeted from about 79 per cent to 40 per cent after the decision to end compulsory study in 2004.

Over the years the Language Trends survey, carried out by CfBT Education Trust, the Association for Language Learning and the Independent Schools' Modern Languages Association, has found a widening gap between language provision in the state sector and the independent sector, where many schools insist that students study a language until 16.

The initial spike in interest following the introduction of the EBac has helped to close that gap, but has also encouraged schools to restrict language study to "academic pupils", the survey said.

Teresa Tinsley, an independent languages consultant and co-author of the report, said that wider provision, not just GCSEs, should be available for all students.

"I think it is very disappointing that the EBac has been interpreted by schools as pitched only at the brightest kids, so creating a defeatism around languages for the less able," she said. "Languages are not just a tick box for the EBac. They are a subject worth doing well because all children can benefit. Teachers are saying there are good courses, which are doing things but which are not accredited so they don't last."

The survey revealed that 25 schools have dropped alternative qualifications to GCSEs since the introduction of the EBac.

It also looked at provision in primaries for the first time, surveying 791 schools. In the new draft national curriculum, due to be implemented from 2014, the government will make languages compulsory at key stage 2.

The survey found that language teaching in primaries is already widespread, with 97 per cent of the schools saying they were offering language teaching within class time. But there were significant variations between schools, with some concentrating only on speaking and listening.

Lid King, chair of the Speak to the Future languages campaign, said: "There was a big training programme in primary, pulling in 1,000 people a year, but that has stopped. There is now a lack of general support for primary and somehow schools are expected to sort each other out."


Primary schools are increasingly turning to French lessons, with fewer schools now offering German or Italian than did so five years ago, the Language Trends survey has found. Spanish teaching is holding steady.

A quarter of schools surveyed are not confident about changes to the national curriculum, which will make languages compulsory in primaries. Fifteen per cent of respondents did not think provision was sustainable in their school.

The survey also revealed that, in many cases, the secondary school system is not flexible enough to cope with students' wide range of experiences of languages in primary school. While some schools have successful relationships with feeder primaries, ensuring continuity in language teaching is not a priority for others.

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