Mind your languages

11th January 2019 at 00:00
Some blame Brexit for the sharp decline in the uptake of modern foreign languages at GCSE. Others say it’s down to budget cuts and a lack of good-quality teachers. But, despite the obstacles, there are schools aiming high and making impressive gains. Dave Speck finds out how

When Year 7 pupils at Long Field Academy play badminton, they often keep score in German. That’s because their PE teacher is also their German teacher – and he is keen that the language taught in his lessons is “embedded outside the classroom”.

There’s no denying that German is a popular subject at the co-educational secondary in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. “You’d be surprised how many pupils greet me with a ‘Guten tag ’ and ‘Bonjour ’ as I’m walking around the school,” says PE and German teacher Saj Raithatha, who also teaches French.

The figures back him up. The proportion of pupils taking a language GCSE at the school rose from 32 per cent in 2013 to 86 per cent in 2017.

Unfortunately, Long Field is an exception to the general trend. Languages have been in decline in our secondaries for a long time. According to the British Council’s Language Trends 2018 report, more than three-quarters of pupils (76 per cent) sat a language GCSE in 2002. But by 2010, that figure had dropped to 40 per cent.

‘Huge struggle’

The introduction of the English Baccalaureate that year was meant to address the problem, as it requires at least one good GCSE language pass. But, as Department for Education official Josh Beattie admitted at the end of last year, the government is “struggling hugely” with the problem. “Languages have pretty much stagnated – the EBacc hasn’t had much effect,” he said.

A small increase, to the dizzying heights of 49 per cent of pupils taking a language in 2014, has since dropped back to 47 per cent in 2017, and then 46 per cent last year. In Beattie’s words, the anticipated languages renaissance has turned into a “shallow decline” in GCSE entries. “The situation is getting worse in that respect,” he added.

But there is hope. Tes analysis shows that, between 2013 and 2017, at least 37 schools bucked the trend, managing increases of more than 50 percentage points in the proportion of pupils entered for one or more language GCSEs. And some, like Long Field, are in areas that, according to received wisdom, should be stony ground for languages.

So, how are they managing it? “As a faculty, we’ve always made it a priority that our lessons need to be fun,” says Raithatha. “When I was at school, we used to sit in the classroom working through a textbook and conjugating verbs. But nowadays, there has to be a balance between that sort of academic learning and getting pupils physically involved through games, music and sport.”

Two trips to Cologne annually boost the popularity of German, and there’s also a well-liked teaching assistant attached to the languages department – Mrs Atterbury – who has, by all accounts, learned a good standard of French and German herself over recent years. Some might consider Long≈Field’s achievements all the more impressive because the academy serves a town where the majority of people voted to leave in the EU referendum.

Brexit has given rise to “a negative shift in attitudes” towards language learning, according to the British Council report, an annual essential guide to the state of the subjects in schools. There is “by and large”, a geographical mirroring across the country of areas that voted for Brexit and areas where schools have a lower take-up of modern foreign languages (MFL), says the report’s co-author, Teresa Tinsley.

“People with isolationist views are more likely to say to their kids, ‘There’s no point in doing French and you’re not very good at it anyway, so why bother?’ ” she adds.

But it might be difficult to prove that the views of Brexit-voting parents really are driving the decline in language learning. That correlation could also be explained by the fact that Brexit-voting areas tend to have poorer pupils and lower attainment, and that languages are viewed as tougher subjects for schools to gain the good GCSE grades they need.

At Long Field, where 25 per cent of pupils are on free school meals, (compared with 14 per cent nationally) Raithatha denies that Brexit is having an effect at all. “I’ve had very few conversations with parents or pupils mentioning Brexit,” he says. “As far as our pupils are concerned, by learning a language, they’re learning global skills to gain a wider understanding of the world and become global citizens.”

Some school leaders have become more positive about language learning in light of Brexit, according to the British Council’s research – however, that is true in just 10 per cent of schools (of almost 1,500 that took part). And the attitudes of school leaders do make a difference. The head of languages at a Birmingham secondary told Tes she had seen her department’s budget “cut for the third year in a row”, and cited the stance of her school leadership as a cause.

“I don’t believe all [members] of the senior leadership team value languages and, in a recent timetabling meeting, a senior leader questioned the amount of hours given to MFL in key stage 3,” the head of department, who wishes to remain anonymous, says.

A shortage of quality teachers is another barrier to improving entry rates, she explains: “We advertised a position last year and had loads of applicants – mostly unqualified teachers but native speakers of the language – but they were all really poor quality.

“For another position – teaching KS4 Spanish – only one candidate turned up for interview, but luckily they were great and we hired them. We’ve also struggled with getting decent long-term cover teachers in MFL for maternity leave and to cover long-term sick [leave], and we’ve had to use non-specialists a lot of the time, which has been really detrimental to the classes.”

Questioning quality

Jenny Smith, headteacher of Frederick Bremer School, understands the problem. “The last thing you want is a supply teacher doing MFL, because the quality is awful,” she says. “Any supply teachers that are any good will be snapped up by schools quite quickly. It’s been a very long time since we’ve had a supply teacher we’ve wanted to keep.”

But her school, a community comprehensive in Walthamstow, East London – and the subject of Channel 4’s Educating the East End – is another that is managing to buck the declining languages trend. Smith took over as headteacher about five years ago, when just 19 per cent of Year 11 pupils took a language GCSE. Last summer, 80 per cent chose to do so. The increase is down to a “dynamic” team of five teachers, whom Smith says she’s “very lucky” to have.

“The quality of language teaching wasn’t so good around five years ago, so a number of people in the department had to be challenged, and there are only two teachers left from the old team, who were quite new when I arrived,” the headteacher explains. “It was about getting the right people teaching the right subjects in the right way.”

Smith is also keen to point out that “performance tables are not my driver when it comes to curriculum choices”, although she admits that language GCSE results have “taken a massive hit” in 2018 because of the new, “harder” GCSE, which requires more spontaneous speaking, more vocabulary and more translation.

The Birmingham head of languages has similar concerns. “The new exam is a huge step up from the last and the exam boards were really unclear before the first set of exams about what would be required by students,” she says.“There were no real grade descriptors and very little guidance from the exam board. Because of the new demands, we’ve had to alter our KS3 schemes of work, making it more challenging earlier on, which means the students are less enthusiastic.”

Of course, the apparent extra difficulty involved in getting good grades in language exams was an issue long before the new GCSE came along. In November, exams regulator Ofqual acknowledged a “perceived grading severity” in language A levels that “undermines confidence”, and said it would work with exam boards to make sure the exams “do not become statistically more severely graded in the future”.

But it has also decided against riding to the rescue by adjusting language grading standards in French, German and Spanish to make them more lenient, after it judged there was not a “compelling case” to do so. At the DfE, Beattie says he “selfishly” wished that Ofqual had lowered grade standards for French, German and Spanish at A level to boost entries.

Nicht so gut

It is easy to understand Beattie’s regret. In some schools, it has been a case of auf Wiedersehen to language teaching altogether for whole groups of pupils.

The Language Trends 2018 report found that, last year, a third of state secondaries in England said entire groups of students were not taught languages in Year 9 (compared with 29 per cent in 2017), while 7.5 per cent said entire groups of pupils were not studying languages in Year 7 and/or Year 8.

These schools were more likely to be in the North of England, to be judged as “requiring improvement” by Ofsted and to have higher rates of pupils on free school meals, according to the research.

But South London headteacher Rebecca Iles-Smith says that being in a deprived area should be no barrier to teaching languages, and that it is “a serious imposition to pupils’ future opportunities” to deny them the opportunity. At her all-girl secondary, Harris Academy Bermondsey, 60 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals. Yet, last year, 100 per cent of pupils in Year 11 chose to sit at least one language at GCSE.

That is a huge leap from the 2013 figure of 23 per cent, and Iles-Smith does not pretend it was easy. “Our pupils who are eligible for pupil premium are part of a group of children who are more likely to be excluded than to achieve the EBacc,” she says. “So, selling languages to them was a task in itself because, unlike science or history, there are less obvious links with a future career pathway, such as medicine or law. Initially, we were often met with students’ frustration and a sense that they didn’t need it for their futures.”

Measures to boost enthusiasm for languages include cinema evenings, where pupils watch a film in a foreign language while enjoying food from that country (for example, while viewing the animation Ratatouille, set in Paris, they ate Brie, baguettes and croissants).

The school’s language teachers are among those across the Harris Federation’s 44 academies (secondary and primary) who have been trained in using cinema as a teaching resource. Many use short films as a stimulus or springboard to language learning, says David Shanks, Harris’ lead MFL consultant.

“You can pause a film and ask pupils what happens next, for example, as a way of teaching the future tense,” says Shanks, who is in charge of training all 150 languages teachers across the Harris Federation. The 26 Harris secondary academies have, on average, doubled the number of pupils taking a languages GCSE over the past seven years.

Part of that success has been down to teachers focusing on core vocabulary and grammar, which ensures that pupils can at least say some things, meaning they are more likely to stay motivated, according to Shanks.

“We look at high-value language and transferable structures,” he says. “The key to motivation is being able to communicate and, at Bermondsey in particular, there is a big focus on speaking.”

Communication ‘solves problems’

Shanks admits that the fact the Harris academies are in multicultural London makes learning a second language “part and parcel of everyday life and not something to be feared”. And many pupils are entered for GCSEs in their heritage languages – such as Arabic, Polish and Portuguese – which has boosted the figures.

Mandarin Chinese is another success story at the Harris Federation: there are now 3,500 pupils studying it across all 44 primary and secondary academies, compared with 480 in 2015.

Tinsley is still pessimistic about the overall national picture, and says more needs to done to engage lower-ability pupils in language learning – for example, by incorporating a language into travel and tourism courses as an alternative to GCSEs, which then “funnels up” to A level and degree.

“I would like to see as much attention for languages as there is for Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects,” she says. “It’s been shown how you can attract girls into Stem subjects, but now what’s happening is that girls who might, in the past, have taken a language A level are taking a Stem subject instead.

“But there is a danger in thinking that all the world’s problems can be solved by scientists and technology because, to solve problems, you need to work collaboratively with people from different cultures, and you need to be able to communicate with people in different countries.”

“It’s about understanding that other people don’t see the world the same way as you see it,” says Shanks. “And I think there’s a danger we can have a real narrowing of attitudes and ability to solve problems.”

Dave Speck is a reporter for Tes. He tweets @Specktator100


The fall of French and German

The number of GCSE German candidates fell by 5.5 per cent in 2017 (to 45,471) and French GCSE candidates fell by 4.4 per cent (to 130,790), according to the latest available figures, in the British Council’s Language Trends 2018 report.

The report also states that the “more rigorous and demanding” nature of the GCSE is having a negative impact on take-up among lower-ability pupils.

Recent terror attacks, combined with financial pressures, have had an effect on pupil exchanges abroad, says the report, because “exchanges are expensive for both families and schools, and safeguarding and risk assessment present a disproportionate administrative burden, particularly in light of recent terror attacks and pressures on teacher time”.


The rise of Mandarin

The study of Mandarin Chinese is growing nationally – at 3,654 GCSE entries last year compared with 2,480 in 2011, according to the British Council’s Language Trends 2018 report. Part of this rise is likely to be explained by the uptake by native Chinese speakers, often in independent schools.

However, the language is seen as a way of preparing for Brexit by the Co-op Academies Trust, which has around a dozen schools in Greater Manchester, Leeds and Stoke-on-Trent (and is looking to expand).

“We currently offer the traditional languages, such as French and German, but at a time of Brexit – and now with direct flights from Manchester to Beijing – we need to make sure we look to China and equip our students with the skills they may well need to be successful,” says trust director Frank Norris.

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