The number of students taking language qualifications in the UK is falling year on year, with the result that languages are becoming increasingly ‘elite’ subjects, open only to those from a higher socio-economic background. Attempts to increase the take-up of languages have only made this gap wider, starting at primary school and having a ripple effect all the way up to university.
It has recently become compulsory for foreign languages to be taught at primary school from the age of 7. This has been met with widespread approval, and nearly half of primary schools have chosen to begin teaching a language from an even earlier age. However, concerns have been raised over insufficient teaching standards. Only 6% of schools have recruited new staff to teach languages and nearly a third have no staff members with more than a GCSE qualification in a language. There is growing division between schools with the funding to provide specialist teachers, and those being pushed to introduce a foreign language with teachers not confident of their own ability to do so.
The inequality of language teaching at primary school causes different levels of starting ability when pupils progress to secondary school, where the situation only worsens. There is an increasing trend of preventing lower-ability pupils studying languages, correlating strongly with socio-economic disadvantage. A major reason for this is school performance measures such as the English Baccalaureate, which was introduced in 2010 and takes into account language results. While the EBacc temporarily caused an increase in the number of students taking a language GCSE, it has strengthened the bias towards higher-ability students. Performance measures only consider achievement and not levels of participation or inclusion, so schools that encourage students across a wide ability spectrum to take a language are labelled as ‘underperforming’. Pupils are therefore often discouraged from taking a language if the school does not think they will achieve a C grade or above.
Encouraging pupils to continue with languages after GCSE is a big challenge. A-level entries for languages make up just 3.6% of all entries in England. One reason for this is students’ perception of the difficulty in achieving high grades. Ofqual admits that “relatively few A* grades are awarded in modern foreign languages when compared with other subjects with a high proportion of A grades”, resulting in languages being seen as ‘risky’ subjects to choose. This is amplified by the fact that university language departments are in rapid decline and courses are offered predominantly by top-end universities that require higher entry grades.
The current school system and its pressurised exam culture does not allow for the slow, cumulative effect that is necessary in language learning. The idea behind starting earlier, in primary school, is valid, but its attempted implementation so far has only widened the opportunity gap between different socio-economic groups. Performance measures, which on the surface encourage the take-up of languages, in reality have a detrimental effect on the availability of languages for everyone.
The narrowing of opportunities to study a language may be accelerated by government policies, but it stems from wider societal attitudes. Living in an English-speaking country has produced the complacent viewpoint that foreign languages may be useful but are in no way essential. There is a general lack of awareness of their value – learning a language is not only an important skill but encourages cultural understanding and open-mindedness. Nothing is gained from restricting the opportunity to study languages to just a lucky few, but a great deal is lost.
All statistics were taken from the ‘Language Trends 2014/15′ report by the CfBT Education Trust / British Council.
By Jenny Nicholls
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham