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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