A Level entry figures ignore employers’ call for language skills

15 Aug 2013

Statement from Bernardette Holmes, Speak to the Future Campaign Director: 

Congratulations to all those celebrating A Level results published today, but why are so few choosing languages?  

Yet again, there are dramatic falls in the number of students of French (-10%) and German (-11%), making a drop of 26% and 28% respectively over the last 10 years.  This is despite employer surveys which call for these languages as a top priority for strengthening UK trade. Some comfort can be taken from the steady increase in Spanish figures, up a further 4% on 2012 and the relatively stable figures for Chinese which have grown rapidly over the decade but these are tempered by the tiny number of entries for Japanese, which continue to decrease.

A Level Results

A Level Results at Newquay Tretherras

There are some signs for cautious optimism in the accreditation of some lesser taught and home languages with rising figures in Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and Persian, although Polish having increased significantly year on year has reported a 2% drop. There are also worrying drops in Urdu which may reflect weaker provision of support for supplementary schools.

On balance the increases which we welcome cannot outweigh the losses in the major curriculum languages which we mourn.  Unquestionably, there is need to boost the declining health of language capability UK.

It is difficult to speculate why sixth form students are shying away from language subjects at A Level, which have enjoyed relatively stable entry figures until the last two years.  There is strong evidence of severe grading in languages with far fewer students achieving the coveted A* than in other subjects.  This is significant, as it is widely known that the choice of languages at A Level tends to be the preserve of the more able students aspiring for the top Russell Group Universities. If the subject you choose is perceived to be more difficult and unlikely to yield the results that you need to secure your place, doesn’t it stand to reason that you may have doubts about pursuing that option?  In the latest Ofqual Corporate Plan, this issue, so long contested by ISMLA, ALL and Speak to the Future, will at last be addressed.

The figures in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects are increasing and this is all to the good but specialising in STEM subjects shouldn’t mean closing the door to modern languages.  We need STEM+ language skills and this shouldn’t be optional.  Young people should continue language study at least to sixteen and if we heed the recommendation of the British Chambers of Commerce, students of all subjects should continue language learning into the Sixth Form.  For those who simply cannot find the space for language study in the Sixth Form, picking up a new language through University Wide Language Provision must be flagged as a life skill in addition to your degree subject. Every learner should be a language learner.

As a society we need to recognise that young people must be born global, developing intercultural fluency and the ability to learn and use more than one language in their studies and in their professional lives.  This matters to the life chances of our young people, improving employability and social mobility.  Language skills are essential to our economy, our world standing and to our rich and diverse cultural identity. Let’s get the message clear!  English is simply not enough!


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