Practical help in times of crisis for languages at A level

March 21st, 2014 by

Languages in sixth forms are in dire straits, but the British Academy Schools Language Awards offer funding for schools who want to buck the trend.

In researching the background for the Language Trends survey, out next week, I had a closer look at last year’s A level figures for languages, about which I have written before. It is scary stuff. Since the mid 1990s, English entries for French and German have seen very serious declines in numbers – 57% and 59% respectively. Last summer alone French dropped by 9% and German by 10%. At the same time, entries for Spanish and for other languages have increased, but not by enough to compensate for the falls in French and German, meaning that overall, entries for A level languages have declined by 31% since 1996. The growth in ‘other languages’, a category which includes Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Turkish and Urdu, is a welcome sign that our language base is diversifying. But many – perhaps the majority – of these entries do not reflect languages actually taught in schools but rather the efforts of minority communities in supporting the languages of their heritages outside the mainstream and, in the case of independent schools, incoming pupils from abroad taking exams in languages they already speak. The case of Chinese is particularly striking in this respect, with a whopping 71% of A level entries coming from independent schools – and more entries in the subject for A level than for GCSE.

All this means that monolingual UK born and educated English native speakers who acquire A level competence in another language are becoming a real rarity. This is a terrible indictment of our education system and a betrayal of our national obligation to prepare the next generation for the challenges they will face in an increasingly interconnected and competitive world.

There is work that needs to be done at policy level and in reforming the exam system to improve the situation. But schools can also play a part in enthusing and motivating young people and providing them with richer opportunities to get the languages bug. I know from my own experience that it was not the classroom teaching but the real contacts with Spanish and French culture that made me see languages as part of my future.

The British Academy is offering a total of 14 Awards worth £4,000 each throughout the UK for projects that encourage larger numbers of students to take languages to advanced and degree level.

The Awards are open to all UK secondary schools, supplementary schools and FE colleges – and organisations supporting them.

Projects must:

  • Show imagination and creativity in improving take up and enthusiasm for language learning
  • Have clear objectives and a strong chance of success
  • Show how the benefits will carry on even after the funding has run out

An additional £2,000 will be given to two national winners.

Here is practical help for confronting the crisis of language learning at A level. Further details on how to apply are at:


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Which languages?

November 20th, 2013 by

When the British Council announced they wanted to commission a piece of research on which languages the UK needs most and why, I was delighted. But I could also see the pitfalls. One the one hand, I could see that a balanced and considered analysis would help to stimulate and inform a debate which is all too often dominated by personal opinion and value judgements. On the other hand, producing a list of just 10 languages seemed destined to upset someone. I had no wish to be the cause of a diplomatic incident. And asking which languages the UK needs is not the same as saying which languages schools should teach or which languages people should learn. These questions require consideration of a wider range of factors and I respect that. So when I joined forces with my colleague Kate Board to carry out the work we were clear that the report needed to be based on a systematic and dispassionate review of the evidence. It needed to take into account a balanced range of factors, both economic and cultural. Not only which languages might be needed for future business success, or the languages of countries where cultural links are already strong but, given the power of language learning to build trust, where there was the greatest need to strengthen relationships and mend fences.We were also seeking balance in terms of the sources of evidence we used. We wanted not only to take into account the views of government and business, but also the wants and needs of the British public. We achieved this by looking at the most popular tourist destinations for Britons, and the availability of beginners language courses for adults, which are so responsive to popular demand.

The list of languages we’ve come up with is not definitive, but we hope it will stimulate debate and above all, positive action. We hope that it will encourage creative thinking not only on how to develop the teaching of a more diverse range of languages, but also to strengthen and enrich those which are already widely taught.  I am delighted that the main message emerging from media coverage is that it is language learning in general which is important, and the entrée into other cultures which it provides is a great prize which can enhance the future in so many different ways.

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Why I’m calling for 1000 words for all

September 24th, 2013 by

I’ve been working with Speak to the Future to develop their new 1000 words campaign. The message is that everyone can and should acquire at least 1000 words in another language. The idea is that the concept of 1000 words provides a way of unifying messages and getting through to a wider public. Where ‘learning to speak another language’ sounds daunting, 1000 words is something everyone can aspire to. Whilst ‘A2 on the Common European Framework’ means something specific to the specialists, it’s hardly a hook for a marketing campaign. But the idea of 1000 words is also flexible – it can be interpreted in different ways to suit different circumstances, and it lends itself to creativity.

The key message is that languages are for everyone. There is a huge need to democratise language learning, to change attitudes and practices which all too often see it as something for the privileged and academic, but not so relevant for the average person. Yet when I interviewed businesses for the British Academy’s State of the Nation report, it was clear that language skills were required and valued at all levels in the workforce. In fact, in the case of B&Q, which works closely with their French sister company Castorama to pool buying power, Services and Training Manager Mark Giles told me that ‘while senior managers [in Castrorama] might speak good English, deeper in the organisation this is not the case’. They are therefore training staff in French to bridge the communication gap.

We need to draw in all the support we can get – from headteachers, businesses, cultural organisations and influential individuals – to put awareness of the value of languages on the same level that STEM subjects enjoy. A number of actions are now coming together to make this start to seem like a real possibility. It’s fantastic that the Guardian has now teamed up with the British Academy to promote the case for language learning. And I’m very encouraged that organisations such as the CBI and the British Chambers of Commerce are engaging with the new Born Global research project to provide evidence for rethinking policies on language learning in the light of how languages are actually used in the workplace. The British Council too is putting its weight behind language learning in the UK with a range of activities coming up during its forthcoming International Education Week.

So, as Speak to the Future Campaign Director Bernardette Holmes memorably said at the launch of the Born Global project, it is not only a question of Obama’s ‘Yes, we can’ . We must go further and be clear also that ‘we must’ and ‘we will’.

So please join the 1000 words campaign – there is a sign up form on the Speak to the Future website at


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Why I’m not jumping for joy at the increase in GCSE entries for languages

August 22nd, 2013 by

Figures released today show that after a decade of decline, the number of students taking GCSEs in French, German and Spanish has risen spectacularly by 17%.

The rise for Spanish is particularly dramatic – an amazing 26% increase in entries in just one year. 

This is surely good news for languages – and of course for the students concerned – so why am I not jumping for joy?

We’re clearly seeing the impact of the EBacc – the policy announced at the end of 2010 to get more students into ‘traditional’ subjects such as languages – history and geography, also EBacc subjects, have also seen rises of 17% and 19% respectively. The 2011 Language Trends survey already showed how around 40% of schools reacted by making languages compulsory for some pupils or modifying option blocks to guide more pupils into continuing with a language. We’re seeing the results of those option choices now. But the impact has been on a very small number of pupils – the proportion of the cohort sitting a GCSE in a language has gone up just 3 percentage points, from 41% to 44%.

Now, 3 percentage points is maybe not too bad, if that level of increase can be maintained year on year. But will the EBacc keep delivering in future years? I don’t think so. Teachers responding to the latest Trends survey said that where their schools had made changes to enable more students to achieve the EBacc, they weren’t intending to make more changes to get ever greater numbers doing so. And, let’s remember, the EBacc has changed since it was first announced. It’s now just one performance measure among many, it won’t have the status intended when it was first launched and there is a real possibility that some schools will reverse the measures they so eagerly put into place two years ago.

So while the EBacc may have delivered some good news today for the Education Secretary, it’s not going to take us much further.

Another reason why I’m not jumping for joy is that last week’s A level entry figures for languages are still fresh in my mind. Some commentators today seem to be as consistent in their assessment of what’s going on in languages as Glenda Slagg – bemoaning things one minute and rejoicing the next. The A level figures were horrendous, yet it’s at that level – when learners start to become independent users of the language – that the benefits of language learning really start to be felt.  The A level entry figures reflect very badly on the way languages GCSEs prepare students for higher level study.  I would be very surprised if manipulating more students into taking GCSEs will spill over into increased take up for A level.

But the main reason I’m not ecstatic today is the other 56%. I’m sad and frustrated that there is no sign of any policy to enable the majority of teenagers to have an enjoyable and productive experience of language learning at school. This is something that the campaign for languages  Speak to the Future will be taking up in the autumn, so watch this space!

Speak to the Future statement on GCSEs by Bernardette Holmes

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At this rate of attrition, no-one will be learning French and German in 10 years

August 15th, 2013 by

Today’s A level results should make the government think very hard about what is happening to languages in schools. French and German have fallen by 10% and 11% respectively, following on from 5% and 7% declines last year. This is a massive rate of attrition and the impact in schools – on the viability of groups, on teacher recruitment, on expertise in teaching languages to a high level – must be immense. I don’t even want to think about the impact on university departments.

The government has hailed the increase in ‘facilitating subjects’ as a policy triumph, but the truth is that STEM subject are growing in popularity at the expense of languages. This can’t be right: linguists are needed in the global economy alongside scientists, and technical knowledge falls flat if you can’t communicate it.

There are some winners in this year’s figures. Spanish is still increasing in numbers, and some of the smaller entry languages – Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Farsi (Persian) and Portuguese – are looking healthy. But these increases are not enough to compensate for the declines in French and German (the languages employers most need) and even Chinese has declined this year. Overall, modern language subjects have declined by 5% relative to 2012 and now represent only 3.8% of all A level entries. That means that only one pupil out of every class of 26 is now learning a language beyond a basic level. No wonder 64% of employers say they are dissatisfied with school leavers’ language skills – more than for any other skill area.

Next week, there will be better news for languages. GCSE results will show the impact of the EBacc for the first time and we may see as much as a 10% increase in entries for language subjects. But I am very sceptical about whether this increase will be carried over to A level. Pupils funnelled into languages GCSEs to tick performance measure boxes don’t suddenly become enthusiastic linguists, and there is too big a gulf between GCSE and A level for the transition to be made easily.

The new national curriculum and reformed subject content for GCSE offer real hope for bridging that gap in future, but only if schools take on board the need to make provision for improved standards in languages from the bottom up. That means secondary schools putting in place better arrangements for languages from Year 7 – improving timetabling, enriching the languages curriculum, providing opportunities for pupils to use the language outside the classroom, and proper CPD for teachers.   Primary schools will need to do their bit too, but that’s another story.

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