Want to go to a top university? Let's talk languages

8th May 2015 at 01:00
Certain subjects mean you can `turn up and get in', expert says

A shortage of students taking languages at A-level means that some have a 50 per cent chance of getting a place to study at Oxbridge, it has emerged.

Nick Mair, chair of the Independent Schools' Modern Languages Association and director of languages at Dulwich College, said that some Oxford colleges had told him they "took every person who applied" for some language degrees.

Speaking at a conference in London last week, Mr Mair said that many Russell Group universities received so few applications for language courses that they offered a "special discount" by lowering the grades required.

The number of students taking French and German A-levels has dropped by a third over the past decade. Analysis of admissions figures by TES reveals that this has affected students' chances of being accepted at Cambridge and Oxford universities. In 2014, modern and medieval languages courses at the University of Cambridge received just two applicants for each place; in economics, however, the university received seven applications for every place.

A spokesman for the university said that although the numbers were low, the applications for its language degrees were from "very high achievers" who had achieved at least three A grades at A-level.

The University of Oxford's modern languages and linguistics degree has the highest acceptance rate of any subject it offers, with 44 per cent of applicants receiving a place in 2014. Modern languages is in third place, with a 33 per cent acceptance rate. By contrast, economics and management received 1,149 applications for just 86 places in 2014 - a 7 per cent acceptance rate.

However, a spokeswoman insisted that students applying to study languages at the university would still have to do "exceptionally well" to be accepted on to a course.

`Shopping around'

Further evidence of the problems facing languages came today. Writing on the TES website (www.tesconnect.comnews), OCR exam board head Paul Steer says: "All languages, apart from English, are in danger of becoming `lesser taught'. The number of A-levels awarded in languages in 2011 was 40,685, and by the summer of 2014 it was 32,680. Many languages departments in universities are facing a real threat of extinction.

"Unless something is done soon to correct this, we will wake up one morning to learn that GCSE French and German are also for the chop."

Mr Mair told a conference held by the Westminster Education Forum in London last week that pupils from his school had been offered places to study languages at the University of Bristol with AAB grades, compared with the A*AA required for other courses at the institution.

"That is roughly two grades below what you might get for law and engineering," he said. "When that message gets through to pupil level, that is actually good news."

Mr Mair said that if students were "simply shopping for universities", they should be encouraged to look at languages. He joked that with so few applicants for degrees in those subjects, "frankly, you can just turn up and get in at Russell Group institutions".

However, Ian Bauckham, headteacher of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent and a former president of the Association of School and College Leaders, told TES that he did not think university entrance figures should be used to influence students' degree choices.

"It makes sense for someone running a languages department in an independent school to say, `If you're good at everything and you fancy going to a top university, think about languages because it might just be a shade easier than history'," he said.

"But as a principle of national policy, it would be a sorry day if we started saying to people, `choose the subject you're most likely to get in to university for.' "

The most recent Language Trends survey (bit.lyLanguageTrends2015), published in March, confirms that language A-levels are "seen as more difficult than other subjects, less reliable in terms of delivering the top grades and not important in the eyes of many influencers".

`It feels like the last cry of a dying man'

Encouraging pupils to apply for language degrees to boost their chances of getting into a top university might make "a little bit of difference at the margins" but will do little to significantly increase language study, according to Ian Bauckham, headteacher of Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Kent.

"A few more people might be attracted if that message is put out by heads of languages," he says. "But it's very different at a national level to say, `choose the easiest subjects regardless'. It feels a bit like the last cry of a dying man.

Mr Bauckham says students apply for the subjects they want to do: "If a student wants to study history and you say, `Do you want to do languages because it's a grade lower?', they will say, `Don't be silly, it's history I'm interested in'."

He adds: "To rescue languages, we need to do something more root and branch, go back to basics and ask some questions about the way we teach."


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