Languages 'in crisis'

7th September 2007 at 01:00

Figures show GCSE uptake has plummeted amid hopes for a `trilingual' nation

PUPILS IN Welsh-medium schools are even less likely to study a modern foreign language than their English-language counterparts, worrying new figures from the Assembly government reveal.

The findings will come as a blow to language experts in Wales, who have promoted the recent revival of the Welsh language as a positive move for the learning and teaching of other languages and a vision of a "trilingual Wales".

Latest figures for 2006 reveal less than a third of pupils are now taking a language at GCSE, compared with nearly a half 10 years ago (see box).

The dismal record, published last week, led promoters at Wales's national language centre, CiLT Cymru, to admit this week that MFLs in Wales are in crisis. Kristina Hedges, its secondary language teacher adviser, said she was baffled about why the proportion of 15-year-olds entered for MFLs in non Welsh-medium schools is 3 per cent higher.

"Being bilingual means you have the capacity to learn more languages," she said. With the overall decline in take-up, she said the status quo of all language teaching was no longer an option in Wales. "This is a major issue if we are going to compete with the rest of the world," she said.

Philip Dixon, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said language take-up in Welsh-medium schools must be monitored. "This 3 per cent figure may be a blip but Welsh-medium schools will need to provide a credible explanation if the decline continues," he said.

"We need a serious debate about foreign languages in education and the future. We also need to look at a broader-based baccalaureate which incorporates more language skills, as in other countries."

The poor figures for language take-up in Welsh-medium schools will come as a blow to both the Assembly government and CiLT Cymru, which has always claimed the revival of the Welsh language in both non and Welsh-medium settings is positive for the learning of other languages.

They also bring into question the aims of Iaith Pawb, the government's 2003 policy document on the Welsh language, which aims for a "truly bilingual Wales".

Wales-based education expert, Professor David Reynolds has already argued in TES Cymru that the introduction of compulsory second-language Welsh up to the age of 15 could be taking its toll on other MFLs (TES Cymru, August 24). The academic from Plymouth University said that having to take Welsh could be putting pupils off from taking other languages.

Elsewhere, business leaders called on the Assembly government to follow England's lead by making languages compulsory in primary schools by 2010 claiming the significant decline, triggered by them being optional at GCSE, was "impacting right now".

Leighton Jenkins, assistant director of policy at the Confederation of British Industry Wales, said: "Many businesses in Wales value young people with foreign languages, such as French and German, very highly, and also those of emerging economies such as Spanish and Chinese.

"Making it compulsory for seven to 14-year-olds to learn a foreign language at school will embed the skill when it matters most and emulate other European countries, where learning languages from an early stage is the norm."

The figures show that the number of GCSE French entries alone has decreased from nearly 13,000 in 1992 to fewer than 9,000 in 2006. German GCSE take-up has seen a steadier decline, though Spanish is becoming more popular with a rise from 416 in 1992 to 1,287 in 2006.

Entries for languages at A-level are also dropping, with numbers down from 1,700 in 1992 to 1,300 in 2006. But interest at AS-level has increased from 990 in 2001 to 1,200 in 2006, with French still the most popular.

Ms Hedges, from CiLT Cymru, says alternatives to "pure" language GCSEs must be introduced to give pupils informal language skills in tandem with other subjects, similar to skills in the Welsh Bac.

"We now have 30 per cent of pupils studying a language. I would sooner see 80 per cent doing a language in some form rather than not at all," she said.

Though the number of entries has decreased, performance over the past 10 years has improved. For girls, it has gone from 64 per cent achieving A* to C grades in 1996 to 81 per cent in 2006. For boys the figure has increased from 47 to 70 per cent in that period.

At A-level, the percentage with passes at A-C among girls has risen from 57 per cent to 82 per cent between 1992 and 2006. For boys the percentage has gone up from 58 per cent to 81 per cent.

Irene Funnell, head of modern languages at Amman Valley Comprehensive School in Carmarthenshire, says there is a perception among pupils that languages are only for high-fliers.

Many believe the government will now be under pressure to follow England and make MFLs compulsory at key stage 2.

An Assembly government spokesperson said it was committed to improving the study of MFLs in schools and is making provision in the Better Schools Fund for more primary schools to offer a foreign language from September 2008.

"That is why we are working with CiLT Cymru and investing more than Pounds 700,000 a year to support the development and piloting of new approaches to MFL in primary and secondary schools."


The number of GCSE entries in modern foreign languages has decreased each year - from 19,000 in 1996 to 12,500 in 2006

The percentage of boys entering an MFL GCSE has decreased each year from 39 per cent in 1996 to 23 per cent in 2006

The percentage of girls entering an MFL GCSE has decreased from 53 per cent in 1996 to 36 per cent in 2006

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