What is the take-up of languages in English schools today?

Languages have not been compulsory in England beyond the age of 14 since 2004. Ofsted has noted the number of entries for GCSEs in modern foreign languages (MFL) has “declined significantly” since that time. In 2019, Ofqual reported entries for MFL exams had almost halved since 2002, when there were around 500,000 entries.

In June 2021, Ofqual reported that MFL GCSE provisional entries had remained stable over the last year, at around 272,500 entries. For individual languages, French entries remained stable at 124,655, while Spanish entries increased by 4% to 109,655. However, entries for German decreased by 10% to 37,035 and entries for other modern languages decreased by 23% to 25,225.

The national curriculum for maintained schools in England stipulates that the teaching of foreign languages is required at key stage 2 (ages 7–11) and key stage 3 (ages 11–14). This can be in any modern foreign language (MFL). Academies and free schools, which make up the majority of secondary schools in England, are not required to follow the national curriculum. However, Ofsted still expects them to teach “a broad, rich curriculum […] that includes languages”.

In 2010, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) was introduced to measure the achievement of pupils studying GCSE-level qualifications in the core subjects of English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language.

In 2017, the Government set out an ambition that:

  • 75% of year 10 pupils in state-funded mainstream schools would start to study GCSEs in the EBacc combination of subjects by September 2022; and
  • 90% of year 10 pupils would study GCSEs in the EBacc subjects by September 2025.

However, in its annual report for the year ending 31 March 2019, the Department for Education (DfE) indicated these targets were unlikely to be met. It said the main barrier to achieving the ambition was the low take-up of languages, with “over 80% of pupils who take four out of the five subjects missing out on a language”. In its annual report the following year, the DfE said EBacc uptake had risen in state-funded schools from 38% in 2019 to 40% in 2020. In 2021, entries increased in most EBacc subjects compared to 2020, but languages generally remained an exception to this trend.

What challenges do languages face in schools?

The causes behind the low take-up of languages in schools in England are complex. The DfE’s 2019 annual report noted a perception that MFL GCSEs were harder than other GCSEs. It also identified issues with the quality of MFL teaching.

The perception of disproportionate difficulty was a theme shared in Ofsted’s 2021 curriculum review. This also drew attention to the fact that:

The proportion of boys, disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND [special educational needs and/or disabilities] engaging with languages after key stage 3 is low. Staff expertise, curriculum planning, time allocation and transition are barriers at key stage 2. Transition and staffing continue to be a challenge throughout the system.

Further to this, Ofsted highlighted common challenges cited in research. These included:

  • ensuring more pupils continue to study languages after they become optional;
  • implementing languages in primary schools;
  • ensuring pupils of all abilities can develop their language knowledge; and
  • encouraging the study of other languages in the face of the dominance of English as a second language.

The reasons why relatively few pupils opt to pursue languages when they are no longer compulsory are often related to theories around motivation and ‘self-efficacy’. This term, Ofsted notes, refers to the “belief we have in our own ability, specifically to meet challenges and complete a task successfully”. Self-efficacy has been shown to improve academic achievement more than other motivational factors. Ofsted has therefore noted the importance of pupils feeling successful in their learning and clear about how to make progress.

Ofsted also noted pupils may feel demotivated comparing their linguistic abilities to peers abroad. This is likely to be related in part to pupils abroad often starting to learn English at a younger age, for more hours a week and then continuing until the end of compulsory education.

Other factors related to subject perception, motivation and self-efficacy noted by Ofsted included:

  • poorly designed curriculums;
  • low expectations among teachers and school leaders; and
  • a lack of curriculum continuity, where secondary pupils often “start from scratch”.

Between October 2019 and March 2020, Ofsted carried out 24 inspections in “outstanding” primary schools, focusing on language provision. Although it noted “some excellent examples” and a range of languages on offer, it also said “many schools were barely out of the starting block with their curriculum”. It also noted issues with staff expertise, leaders’ understanding of curriculum progression and underdeveloped transition between primary and secondary.

Similar issues in primary schools were also reported in the British Council’s language trends survey in 2020. In secondary schools, the British Council noted barriers to take-up included:

  • a trend of pupils being “disapplied” from languages for extra English and/or maths support;
  • the perception that “English is enough”, related to global English and leaving the EU; and
  • the nature, content and grading of external exams.

What has been proposed to improve language learning?

A number of organisations have proposed strategies to address challenges in language education. In 2016, the Teaching Schools Council conducted a review of MFL teaching practice in key stage 3 and 4. It found that, as is still the case, less than half of pupils were entered for languages GCSEs. The review made 15 recommendations aimed at: schools and teachers; initial teacher training; and Ofqual and examination boards. The Teaching Schools Council’s summary of the review reported that:

Taken together, most of the fifteen recommendations advocated teachers adopting a clear planned and sequenced direct teaching of vocabulary, grammar and phonics right from the start of key stage 3.

In addition, Ofsted’s 2021 curriculum review drew attention to the contribution of cognitive science to understanding language learning and put forward conclusions broadly aligned with those of the Teaching Council’s review in 2016. Ofsted reiterated that “an effective languages curriculum focuses on the building blocks of language: phonics, vocabulary and grammar”. Phonics refers to sound and spelling systems of a language.

Other bodies, including the British Academy, have made proposals to address the challenges facing languages in schools, as well as the national context more broadly. See the ‘read more’ section below for a selection of reports.

How has the Government responded to the reviews?

The Government has responded to calls to evaluate GCSE MFL subject content and assessment. In November 2019, Ofqual evaluated grading standards for GCSE French, German and Spanish, to ascertain whether MFL GCSEs were graded more severely than other subjects. Its findings led to adjustments being made to French and German, but not to Spanish.

In the same month, the DfE announced an expert panel would test and develop potential changes to the subject content for French, German and Spanish GCSEs. The panel would be chaired by Ian Bauckham CBE, chair of the earlier Teaching Schools Council MFL review in 2016 and an Ofqual board member.

On 10 March 2021, the DfE launched a consultation on GCSE MFL subject content based on the panel’s final recommendations. The DfE stated its aims as:

  • aligning subject content with Teaching Schools Council’s 2016 MFL review;
  • reflecting research in language curriculum and teaching;
  • making language GCSEs more accessible and motivating for students;
  • in line with the panel’s recommendations, focus on specificity of vocabulary and grammar;
  • reduce volume and make the course less burdensome for teachers and students;
  • vocabulary will be informed by frequency of occurrence in the language;
  • requiring students to understand written and spoken language relevant to their tier; and
  • they are also expected to accurately write, speak and translate in the assessed language.

In parallel, Ofqual launched a consultation on proposed changes to assessment arrangements for the revised MFL GCSEs. This proposed a move away from assessing reading, writing, speaking and listening as four separate skills. Instead of four equally weighted skills assessments, three new assessment objectives were outlined:

  • understand and respond to spoken language in speaking and writing (35%);
  • understand and respond to written language in speaking and writing (45%); and
  • demonstrate knowledge and accurate application of the grammar and vocabulary prescribed in the specification (20%).

Both consultations closed on 19 May 2021 and the Government is yet to respond.

Other measures

The Government has also responded to calls to improve the quality of language provision, including teacher training, recruitment and retention. In January 2019, the Government announced £4.8 million in funding for a national centre for excellence for language pedagogy (NCELP) at the University of York. It would be charged with coordinating the work of nine MFL hub schools to encourage the take-up of languages across England.

In March 2021, Baroness Berridge, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, responded to a written question about the effectiveness of the MFL hubs. She highlighted improvements to both GCSE take-up and teacher confidence in delivering the MFL approach set out in the 2016 Teaching Schools review in participating schools. In April 2021, the centre received further funding in support of its work improving the teaching of French, German, and Spanish in schools.

In February 2020, Lord Agnew of Oulton, then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, listed other support in answer to a written question on foreign language teaching in England. This included tax-free bursaries for language teacher trainees starting their teacher training in 2020/21; early-career payments for language teachers; and a rise in starting salaries to £30,000 by 2022/23 for all teachers of all subjects.

What has the reaction been to recent government action?

The MFL GCSE subject content consultation has been subject to criticism. On 10 March 2021, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on MFL, for which the British Council provides secretariat support, responded to the consultation. It called “on the DfE to (a) work with stakeholders to build a consensus on a way forward and (b) delay any changes until this has taken place”. Its main concerns included:

  • untested, conflicting evidence, and lack of national and international comparisons;
  • risks to standards and take-up;
  • implications for the international dimension, real life application, and the place of MFL in the curriculum; and
  • it being a risky time for a fundamental, untested change in a subject already under pressure.

The statement was supported by almost 100 stakeholder organisations, including: the British Academy; the Association for Language Learning; the Association of School and College Leaders; and the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

On 18 May 2021, the British Academy went on to call “for further reflection and a renewed focus on cultural learning to widen the appeal of the discipline”. In particular, it highlighted controversy around the revised focus on vocabulary lists drawn from the 2,000 most frequently used words in each language. This was also the focus of press coverage, which drew attention to the proposal that students “will be expected to know 1,200 lexical items for foundation tier, and a further 500 lexical items for higher tier”.

With the support of several educational organisations, the British Academy submitted a parallel proposal to the consultation. This focused on:

  • Convening a working group to extend the review panel’s approach from vocabulary and grammar to cultural learning.
  • Greater specification of cultural content for both tiers, which will be sourced and developed in a more coordinated way than previously and currently proposed.
  • Tight integration of cultural materials with prescribed vocabulary and grammar.
  • Incorporating cultural learning into the assessment objectives, appropriate to the GCSE.

Read more

Cover image from Pixabay.