Post-Brexit we must forge new alliances. Language learning will be vital to this—but pupil numbers are decliningby Teresa Tinsley / August 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
Ever since 2004, when the Labour government gave schools the freedom to make languages optional, education ministers have awaited GCSE and A level entry figures with the trepidation of candidates who know they have messed up their French oral. Numbers for foreign languages GCSEs have dropped by a whopping 44 per cent and numbers for French and German A levels have declined by more than a third over the past 13 years.
This year’s crop of A level exam figures have been greeted with relief by government and exam boards alike. “Steady” and “stable” have been the preferred adjectives. But GCSE numbers published on Thursday show another huge decline which appears to wipe out earlier increases linked to some of Michael Gove’s reforms.
The headline statistics here are troubling indeed. Numbers for French are down 10 per cent on last year, and for German 13 per cent, making this year’s figures the lowest yet. But even this does not do justice to the true extent of the crisis in language learning, which runs through all parts of the education system. To appreciate the full scale of the problem, you have to dig deeper into the numbers. As we approach Brexit and the readjustment of the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world, we would do well to take this seriously.
Languages taught vs languages examined
Over the last 20 years or so, the balance of different languages which make up the exam figures has changed radically. This might seem like a good thing, but it disguises a worrying trend—one which proves that the problem runs far deeper than today’s figures suggest.
In 2000, French and German accounted for 71 per cent of language entries across GCSE and A-Level, but since then the number of candidates for French has halved, and the figure for German had, at last count, nosedived to just 42 per cent of what it was. This is in spite of the fact that job advertisements in the UK cite French and German vastly more frequently than any other language—even Spanish.
There are 16 languages in addition to French, German and Spanish which can be taken at A level. In 2000, 10 per cent of pupils sat their exams in these. This year, it was 30 per cent.
But these are not languages which are generally offered to new learners…