2,600 students started a French degree in 2012/13. Two years later it was half thatby Alex Dean / October 27, 2016 / Leave a comment
In our September issue, Richard Dawkins proposed his own remedy for our “monoglottish disgrace.” Read it here
In October last year, to outcry from the global academic community, the University of Northumbria announced it would no longer be offering French and Spanish at undergraduate level. The reason, the university explained, was the “fall in demand across the sector over the past 10 years.” The university’s students’ union criticised the decision in stark terms, shocked that it had decided to “abolish our only standalone foreign language programme.” The closure came despite the department’s impressive standing: it ranked 13th out of 61 university departments (and first among post-92 institutions) for modern languages and linguistics in the UK last year.
Northumbria is not the only British university that has struggled to recruit students onto language degrees recently. Ulster announced the closure of its entire modern languages school last year, citing lack of demand. This means that soon, no university in Northern Ireland will offer German at undergraduate level. In 2013 Salford closed nearly all of its modern foreign language (MFL) courses. And the examples go on.
The explanation for these closures is simple (though preventing more will be anything but.) The number of students studying an MFL at a British university is plummeting. In 2012/13, 2,600 students started a French degree. In 2014/15 it was 1,400. The figure for Italian is even worse: it has fallen from 780 to 240 over the same length of time. The increased popularity of some individual languages has not nearly compensated.
Language learning, never our national strongpoint, is in an unprecedented crisis. Is this a symptom of Britain retreating into its shell, as evidenced by its vote to “Leave” the European Union on 23rd June? Is anything being done to get students studying German, Russian, Middle Eastern Studies again? Will it work?
Certainly, the statistics are stark when it comes to higher education and, given language graduates are tomorrow’s teachers and translators, these figures present the biggest immediate problem. But the problem does not begin here; it begins far earlier in the education system.
In September 2004, the Labour government and then-Education Minister Estelle Morris announced it would no longer be compulsory for pupils to study a language up to 16. The decision was made, Morris told me, “in response to requests from teachers for greater flexibility in the Key Stage Four curriculum—in order to meet the needs of all their students.” A move towards more vocational education, then. Morris continued: “Essentially, decision making was devolved to heads on this issue. They still had the power to make modern foreign languages compulsory in their school if they wished.”
They didn’t. In 2003, 73 per cent of GCSE students in the UK sat at least one language exam. In 2015 it was 48 per cent. Morris concedes: “I was surprised that so many schools did choose to drop languages.” The language skills of our youngsters are, unsurprisingly, dire. A European survey of language competence in 2012 placed England last out of the 14 countries measured. With language learning so vital to cultural understanding, there is a real risk our youngsters will wind up knowing less about Britain’s neighbours than the generation before them, despite improvements in transport across the continent.
The number of students studying a language at A-Level has fallen, too. Though the decline was initially slower than at GCSE, over recent years the statistics are startling: between 2012 and 2015 the number of pupils studying A-Level French fell by 19 per cent. For German, the figure is 15 per cent. As is the case at university level, while some individual languages have increased in popularity, this has not off-set the decline in others.
It was initially thought, various interviewees told me, that making GCSE languages non-compulsory would have little effect on the rest of the education system. After all, students who do not choose to study a language at GCSE are unlikely to be the kinds of pupils likely to take the subject to A-Level—or university.
This was naive. As schools shed language teachers in the wake of the GCSE decision, many found themselves with a smaller range of languages among their staff—and so unable to offer as many languages as they once did. Jocelyn Wyburd, Chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, says that the knock-on effects of this “have included fewer ‘double linguists’ at GCSE—who were traditionally more likely to take two language A-Levels and to consider languages at degree level.”
That Morris’ decision is a cause of our languages problem is undeniable. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether a return to old methods—as is partially underway—will mean a return to old outcomes. At least in the short-term.
In 2012 Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, introduced a new performance measure for schools. Based on the English Baccalaureate (known as the EBacc and, unlike the International Baccalaureate, not a qualification in itself), it would be introduced into secondary school league tables. If a school had lots of students gaining “C” grades (or higher) in the five “core” GCSE subjects that make up the EBacc, it would shoot up the rankings. As part of this “core,” GCSE languages were in for a boost.
Schools scurried to deliver, and while the MFL numbers at GCSE have plummeted in the long-term, a few years ago the number stabilised—even improved. The dismal 48 per cent figure, while way down on the 2003 number, is a marked improvement on the 2011 figure: 40 per cent.
In 2015 Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, went further. It was announced that the studying of these EBacc subjects would no longer just be recognised; it would be expected. A target was set: 90 per cent of Key Stage Three students should take them on. A language at GCSE, while not exactly compulsory, is therefore expected to become the norm once more. The first cohort of students the 90 per cent target applies to will take their GCSEs in 2020.
But Wyburd has reservations: “In spite of this in many ways very welcome bit of government policy, there is little evidence that schools are already gearing up for universal language learning.” The reason is clear. After ten years plus of low GCSE numbers, schools are simply unequipped for a return to mass take-up. According to one Department for Education estimate, 4,000 more language teachers are needed to deliver the 90 per cent target.
Worryingly, Wyburd says that “there are shortages in the sector already.” Recruiting problems within it are “acute,” according to the Association of School and College leaders. And the problem becomes a feedback loop: as fewer students learn languages, fewer become language teachers, which in turn means that there are not enough staff to encourage language learning.
All this is borne out in the statistics: the initial boost to GCSE language learning, termed the “EBacc bounce,” was short-lived. After an 8 per cent jump between 2011 and 2013, the number of GCSE students taking a language has plateaued.
Worse still, despite the size of the GCSE cohort stabilising in recent years, the number of university entrants has continued to drop. The unavoidable conclusion is that there are too many variables at play here for one single policy intervention—however big—to have a substantial impact, fast.
Especially given that languages are viewed as particularly hard subjects, meaning many pupils run a mile to avoid them—and a blot on their results sheet. David Laws, former Schools Minister in the coalition government and now Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute, told me that one key contributor to declining language uptake among pupils is “the judgement that foreign languages are more difficult to get good grades in than many other subjects.” Furthermore, the grading of them is perceived as less predictable. Teresa Tinsley, co-author of the annual “Language Trends Survey,” says “The results at A-Level have surprised teachers, who can’t understand why pupils they describe as ‘practically native speakers’ only got a C. There have been some real problems with marking, with grading, setting the grade boundaries—at GCSE and at A-Level. This has had a really discouraging effect.” One statistic says it all: just 16 per cent of language teachers think the GCSE in their subject is a good measure of language competence. This combines with the worry among pupils that languages are less likely to give them a job than STEM subjects, meaning they are put off completely.
Fortunately Ofqual, our exams watchdog, is thoroughly investigating the grading issue. This is good news. But one bit of investigating will not alone save language learning. What else is being done?
During her time as Education Secretary, Morris introduced a modern foreign languages initiative “with a view to introducing the subjects into the primary curriculum.” She continues: “we should have moved more quickly on introducing the subject in primary schools.” A decade later, decisive action is being taken.
In September 2014 it was announced that language teaching in primary schools is to become compulsory. This, one might think, is a huge step in the right direction—and a potential solution to our monoglottish woes. For if languages are compulsory earlier in the education system, then pupils will discover them when, as Tinsley puts it, they are “confident and curious.” This is surely better than pupils encountering languages for the first time when they are coping with the anxieties associated with starting secondary school. It might even strike early enough to change deeply held negative attitudes towards languages (more on that later.) Early intervention in general was popular among many experts I spoke to. Charles Clarke, former Education and Home Secretary, stressed to me the importance of “language teaching at primary school, including at after school, weekend and holiday clubs, and supported by the use of foreign language teaching assistants.” Laws says it is vital to ensure “high quality foreign language teaching pre-14 so that students are better prepared and more confident about exam success.”
But while primary school policy is necessary, it, too, is insufficient. This is because while languages were previously not compulsory at primary school, they were in practice taught at almost all of them. Between 2002 and 2010, the number of primary schools teaching languages to their pupils rose from one in four to nine in ten. It is too early to judge the effects of nine in ten primary school students studying languages—the 2010 cohort has not progressed far enough up the education system yet for us to know whether they stuck with MFLs. But pupils who went through primary school in the early 2000s will by now have sat their GCSEs, where language take-up remains dire. Results from the emphasis on early language learning have not come through as early as one might have hoped.
Furthermore, only 27 per cent of secondary schools can assure students they will be able to learn the same language from year 7 onwards as they did in primary school. This is clearly a disaster: many young people who do fall in love with a language thanks to primary school teaching will be unable to take it anywhere. We will not see serious benefits from early language learning until the scheme is better developed.
Britain’s language problem is endemic, then: stretching from the early years right the way through to university. And for undergraduates, there is now a very real fear that Brexit could spell the end for the Erasmus+ Programme, through which British students (among others) can study for up to a year abroad. The scheme’s UK Director, Ruth Sinclair-Jones, has said it faces “a sad moment of uncertainty.” The supply-chain is corrupted from start to finish.
On top of all the schemes listed above, universities themselves have spent many years promoting language learning lower down the system through a programme called “Routes into Languages.” This hasn’t worked, either, and in July the scheme ran out of funding. Jo Johnson, Universities Minister, tells me he can “personally attest to the value that learning another language brings,” and that it can “open the door to new cultures.” Until the decline halts, that won’t offer much reassurance to anyone.
In fact, the all-encompassing (and impossibly stubborn) nature of the decline suggests its roots lie in British culture itself.
In late June, just before the EU referendum, a Muslim woman was travelling on a bus in Newport, chatting to her son. A man, unknown to the woman, intervened: “When you’re in the UK you really should be speaking English.” A second woman on the bus shot back: “She’s in Wales, and she’s speaking Welsh.” The incident was widely reported.
“Stories like this are just little nuggets,” Wyburd told me, “But I think they’re indicative of something about English identity… and the English language.” With many Britons fiercely proud of their heritage, and wary of mass immigration, experimentation with a second language is often viewed with suspicion. It is hardly surprising that few Britons (just one quarter) speak a second language when doing so in public can result in harassment.
It may be that this hostility is now a fact of life: something that will persist so long as lots of Britons feel unnerved by globalisation. With the make-up of their country changing before their eyes, a hostility to second languages (and their speakers) is, while not excusable, understandable.
But while Brexit may have been caused, in part, by immigration fears, it has made language learning more important than ever.
In the run-up to the referendum many prominent politicians in the “Leave” campaign argued that, far from representing an inward turn, Brexit would free Britain to trade more with the rest of the world. In early June David Davis, then a backbencher, told me that “The EU is a really crap negotiator on the free trade front.” Claims of this nature, unlike the claim concerning £350m a week for the NHS, have stuck. As Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Davis has continued to argue Brexit will liberate British trade.
Few Remainers would dispute that Britain must get out there and hunt for new trade deals, given that it has voted “Leave.” Language learning will be vital to this. Wyburd says: “Making connections requires cross-cultural skills, and languages are a part of that.” Tinsley concurs: “Language learning gives you a sense of confidence in engaging internationally.” It may be that we now need confident MFL speakers more than ever.
Whether we will produce them remains unclear. But there are some reasons for (cautious) optimism. The decision that GCSE pupils should once again all study an MFL should make some difference. More students learning languages at GCSE is itself a win for MFLs, and presumably once schools have adjusted to the new plan, and are therefore able to offer their students all the right help, there will be some up-tick in A-Level and university entrances. Similarly, whatever the meagre impact of compulsory languages at primary schools so far, it is difficult to see how this could lower the number of pupils going on to study languages further along in the system. This scheme may also help gradually address that suspicion around foreign languages. These policies may together start to reverse the decline—and prepare us for March 2019, when we leave the EU and are on our own.