Language exam entries are falling, but pourquoi?

17th August 2018 at 00:00
‘Disappointment’ as the number of students taking French, German and Spanish falls by 5.2% in a year

One statistic stood out a mile on exam results day last week: National 5 entries in French had fallen by almost 1,000, or 10 per cent, in a single year.

So what is going on? As long ago as 2015, University of Dundee academic and former secondary head Jim Scott, who publishes an analysis of Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) data each year, carried out research showing that languages had been declining in schools for decades. Last week, he confirmed this ongoing trend when he compared data from this year with 2013, which suggested that S4 French exam passes, for example, had slumped since new qualifications were phased in from that year.

The Scottish government, however, insists that any comparisons between the qualifications systems before and after 2013 should be treated with caution, while a national languages body says that, overall, more pupils than ever before are learning languages in Scottish schools

Now, Tes Scotland has performed its own analysis of like-for-like data: comparing uptake in 2017 and 2018 for each of the most popular European languages studied in Scotland – French, German and Spanish – across each level from National 4 to Advanced Higher.

This shows that, in a single year, there was a 5.2 per cent drop in the number of entries for the three languages across those levels. This figure exceeds the overall drop in entries of 3.8 per cent for all subjects.

In recent years, the rise of Spanish has partly compensated for the decreasing numbers taking French and German. However, our analysis reveals a decrease in the number of Higher entries in this subject for the first time since 2010, albeit a marginal one.

And there have been steep drops in entries for French (17.5 per cent) and German (20 per cent) since 2016 – the first year that the new Higher was run on its own, after one year of overlap with the former version.

Although German has been on the slide for many years – Higher entries were overtaken by Spanish in 2009 – the decline in French, which is still easily the most popular language in Scottish schools, is striking.

Fhiona Mackay, director of Scilt, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages, is particularly “disappointed” by N5 entries. “It’s a concern to see such a drop in French, even if it is offset to a degree with a rise in Spanish,” she says. “German continues to be a concern, too, for all who are invested in the language. The numbers at Higher appear to be relatively stable. But lower uptake at N5 this year is likely to impact on next year’s Higher entries.”

But Mackay adds: “The good news is that candidates’ performance remains very strong, with consistently high numbers of passes in all languages compared with the national average.”

She also warns against focusing only on national qualifications as “we have more young people than ever learning languages in Scottish schools”. For example, she says, the primary sector is embracing the national 1+2 policy, which aims to have children learning two additional languages. A national requirement for a second additional language to be offered in the early part of secondary school by 2021 will improve things further.

Mackay says the Language for Life and Work Award available in various languages at level 4 (equivalent to N4) and level 3 has proven popular, with nearly 3,000 awards, while the rising numbers taking Mandarin, although still small, are “promising”.

But she adds: “As a language community, we need to galvanise our efforts to make sure the message is heard that English is not enough.”

Gillian Campbell-Thow, a former Scottish teacher of the year who now works as quality improvement officer for modern languages and Gaelic in Glasgow, says of the new figures: “The language teaching and learning community is tight and works hard, so it’s devastating to see this.”

School structures do not always help languages, she adds, which continue to suffer from “the idea that languages don’t matter” and a perception that they are “very difficult” compared with other subjects.

Campbell-Thow calls for “a massive mind shift” so that, for example, passing an exam is not seen to be a requirement for learning a language. She also wants more people to appreciate that “learning another language helps you with your mother-tongue literacy”.

Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, points out that the decline of languages was evident before Curriculum for Excellence, and before qualifications such as N4 and N5 were run for the first time in 2013-14. A major factor, he says, is that it is no longer compulsory to take a language up to the end of S4. And with senior pupils tending to take fewer subjects under the current system, “modern languages, like many other subjects, have come under pressure”.

Education secretary John Swinney says: “Since 2013, we have invested an additional £27.2 million to help local authorities implement the 1+2 language policy. There is now a broad diversity of languages offered to qualification level and a strong interest in the skills-based awards in modern languages. These complement the national qualifications and provide additional ways for young people’s language learning at school to be recognised.”

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