education

Millions of pupils in England had no language teaching in lockdowns – survey


Millions of children did not receive any language tuition during lockdowns in England, the British Council has said.

The council’s annual survey of English primary and secondary schools found that more than half of primary school pupils and 40% of those at secondaries did not do any language learning during the first national lockdown. And in January and February’s lockdown, 20% of all pupils had no language education.

This will inevitably affect take-up at GCSE and A-level. The report shows that the government will fail to meet its target of three-quarters of pupils taking a modern language GCSE by 2022, if current trends continue.

The government wants 75% of pupils to take a modern language GCSE by 2022 and 90% by 2025, as part of its English baccalaureate. The introduction in 2010 of the Ebacc, a group of more traditional subjects at GCSE which includes a compulsory language, was meant to help stem the decline in language learning. But according to the report, published on Thursday, only 53% of year 10 pupils were studying for a language GCSE in 2020.

Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This report shows that an already poor level of engagement from students in foreign languages has been further eroded by the pandemic and issues around Brexit.

“The poor take-up of languages is undermining the Ebacc system and the government targets are wholly unrealistic,” she added. “While 100% of students take the English, maths and science components, only half of them take the modern languages component.”

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Entries for modern languages continue to fall. Analysis of official figures by the Guardian shows that in schools in England, entries for language GCSEs have dropped by 41% since 2003, the last year that taking a modern foreign language in year 10 was compulsory..

The position of German is particularly precarious, with only 36% of English secondary schools teaching it. Provisional German GCSE entries for 2021 are down 66% on 2003 levels, while for French they are down 59%. Overall, just 5.8% of GCSE entries in England in summer 2020 were for a modern foreign language, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications.

A-level numbers also continue to dwindle: Ofqual figures show that provisional entries for modern foreign languages this year are down 17% from 2020 figures.

The report also found that by the time pupils reached year 9, in up to 20% of schools, entire groups of pupils were not learning a language. “Fewer and fewer pupils are taught any language beyond the age of 13,” said Lady Coussins, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on modern languages. “Having a foreign language skill, even at a basic level, improves social mobility and employability. Without it, our young people are at a disadvantage in a global labour market.”

Although French and German GCSEs have been marked less severely since 2020, after Ofqual ruled that there should be an adjustment to grading standards, there are still concerns that students are being put off studying modern foreign languages because it is harder to get top grades.

“On average, the grades obtained by students in modern languages are lower by up to one grade than other Ebacc subjects,” said McCulloch.

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The picture is not entirely bleak: nearly 110,000 pupils are due to sit Spanish this year, almost double the number who took it in 2003 and up 20% since 2018.

Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council, said: “As education begins to recover from the pandemic, it’s essential that language learning is prioritised and available for all pupils. The benefits of having language skills and some understanding of other cultures cannot be overstated, particularly as the UK renegotiates its place on the world stage.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The revised subject content for French, German and Spanish GCSEs aims to encourage more students to take up these important subjects, broadening their horizons and improving their employment opportunities. Ofqual has also adjusted grading standards in GCSE French and German following a review.

“The Ebacc remains vital in giving all children the same chance to succeed in the core academic subjects, and we have already exceeded our 75% uptake ambition across four of the five subject groups.”



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