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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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