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This year’s A level figures for languages – a cause for celebration?

August 19th, 2021 by

There were nearly 31,000 entries for A levels in so-called modern languages this year (2021), more than any year since 2017, and a 24% increase on 2020. A cause for celebration, surely?

Not necessarily, if we look more closely at the figures.

‘Other Modern Languages’

Last year I reported the ‘tragedy’ of the impact of the cancellation of exams on entries for community languages – i.e., those not generally studied in mainstream schools but in after-school or Saturday classes. The ‘centre-assessed’ grading system introduced instead of the normal exam regime meant that many of these students were effectively excluded, resulting in a shocking 41% drop in entries for these languages. This situation was examined further in the report Silenced Voices by the Global Futures think tank which called for the Government to put in place measures to ensure that these learners could receive grades this summer.

When the Government announced in January that exams would once again be cancelled in 2021, the National Resource Centre for Supplementary Education took action to create a Community Languages Examination Centre with a range of partners to enable assessments to take place. This was supported by the Government’s private candidate support grants of £200 per entry, and the deadlines for candidate entries were extended.

This year entries for the ‘Other Modern Languages’ (i.e., all those except French, Spanish, and German) have risen by 7%, with some languages, (Russian, Arabic, Urdu, Persian, and Modern Greek) seeing some substantial rises. However, compared to pre-pandemic entry levels, these figures are still low. Turkish, Portuguese, Japanese, and Modern Hebrew have each fielded less than half as many candidates as they did in 2019 and, taken together, the Other Languages have seen a drop of 37% in entries compared to 2019, pre-pandemic. Only Russian is approaching the number of candidates it saw in 2019.

(Numbers for Bengali and Gujarati have been supressed because they are so low)

Spanish, French, and German

In contrast, the centre-assessment regime has had little impact on trends for the main languages taught in the school system.

Spanish continues its upward rise with a 5% increase in numbers compared to last year, taking these to the highest level yet. It is now well established as the first foreign language at A level.

Numbers for French were slightly up on last year, when it declined by 1%, taking it back to its pre-lockdown level. The big story for French is the longer term decline it has seen – in the last 10 years it has lost over a third of candidates.

The situation for German is even more dire. It has lost almost half its candidates over the period 2011-2021 and numbers went down by a further 5% this year.

So no, not much to celebrate this year.

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