EBacc to the future? Languages results rise at GCSE but is the crisis really over?

22 Aug 2013

Better news for languages in this morning’s GCSE results  is very encouraging. But is it enough and will it last?

GCSE results day at Fulham Cross School

GCSE results day at Fulham Cross School

Today’s figures show 44% of the cohort has taken a modern language in 2013, a rise of 3% on 2012.  This is a clear indication that the introduction of the EBacc Performance Measure is beginning to record a positive effect on the numbers of pupils continuing with languages to GCSE.   For 2013, results for French are up by 15.5%, German up by 9.4% and Spanish continues to boom with a resounding 25.8% increase.  This is very healthy and students and teachers should feel justly proud of their achievements.

But good news today cannot paper over the cracks of serious weaknesses in language skills in the UK.  Last week’s news of A level results showed a depressing downturn on the availability of school leavers with language skills.  French figures down by 10% on 2012, German down 11%, a drop of a drop of 26% and 28% respectively over the last ten years with Spanish, the only good news story, rising by 33% over the decade.

What does this mean for the future of language capability and our capacity to meet the needs of employers, education and diplomacy?  Where will our future linguists come from – our entrepreneurs, our teachers, our interpreters and translators?  How employable will our young people be in a multi-lingual competitive global jobs market? The mixed fortunes of our major taught languages reveal a crisis in our understanding of what our country needs.  It is excellent to celebrate the success of Spanish.  Diversifying our language profile is natural and positive and we should see more of it, including recognising the value of home languages.   But should increases in one of our major taught languages mean drastic fallout from other strategically important languages?  Is there a restricted number of young learners willing to continue with language study?  Are language teachers fishing from the same pool?  We need to expand the number of young people learning languages; every learner should be a language learner; every graduate a language graduate.

And what of the EBacc?  This performance measure introduced by the Coalition Government (2010) is having a positive impact!  This was a good policy, although controversial at the time, which is having good results.  So why is its status being weakened in the proposed new policy for accountability measures now proposed?  The EBacc is currently described as only a ‘soft’ accountability measure and is consequently already losing its leverage in the decisions made by school leaders about the shape of the curriculum and the priority given to certain subjects.  The status of the EBacc must be unambiguous and strengthened.  We can EBacc to the future and make a difference to our national capability in languages, if the policy is behind us.  It is now urgent in the context of policy reform to restate unambiguously that the EBacc is a firm national accountability measure and that as many pupils as possible should study a language to GCSE and beyond.

This may be a sobering message on a day of celebration for languages but we should see it more as a rallying call for action.  These positive figures will only matter if they translate into more young people continuing with languages to A level and if this upward trend for languages at GCSE continues year on year.  Let us hope that this is a positive first step toward the national recovery of language skills.

Bernardette Holmes

Campaign Director Speak to the Future

Past President Association for Language Learning



British Council

John Worne, Director of Strategy at the British Council, which helps people in the UK to develop international skills, is happy about the boost in numbers of students taking languages at GCSE:

“At last some good news on languages in this year’s GCSE results, which show a 16.9% increase in French, German and Spanish – with Spanish at an all-time high. And, while a few thousand exam entries won’t transform the UK’s future prospects in Brazil and China on their own, it’s encouraging to see a record number of students taking a Portuguese GCSE, and Mandarin almost back to where it was in the late 2000s.

Language skills are wanted by employers and needed by the UK economy. After a record low in 2011, it’s good to see the number of students taking foreign language GCSEs up for the second year in a row. But we shouldn’t be complacent – less than half of GCSE students are taking a foreign language, and more need to carry their languages forward into their careers and lives for the UK to really profit on the world stage – both culturally and economically.”

British Council research shows that UK employers see international skills like foreign languages as vital – but feel that not enough UK young people have these skills.

separate piece of British Council research carried out this month shows that 78% of people in Britain are unable to speak a foreign language to a high standard.

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