Bernardette Holmes, Speak to the Future’s Campaign Director, comments on research published today
September 2014 will bring about a sea-change for the learning and teaching of languages in our primary and secondary schools. The new National Curriculum and the introduction of statutory language learning in primary schools, taken together with the future reform of our examination system (long criticised by the languages community) are setting out to reverse the ill winds of the past decade which have seen the steady decline of national language capability in schools and universities. These measures are intended to revive and strengthen language learning. There is unquestionably a long voyage ahead, as the impact of policy changes taking place in September will only truly be seen in 2025. This illustrates the need for successive governments to maintain consensus on the importance of languages and build progressively on achievements made. This is where a deeper understanding of current provision within the context of longitudinal evidence can help the languages community to review its strengths and weaknesses and in turn inform all those with influence at national and local levels of the immediate priorities for action.
The publication of the 12th in the series of annual research exercises, Language Trends 2013-2014 carried out under the joint direction of CfBT and the British Council provides us with an up-to-date appraisal of language provision in English schools. The benefit of this report is in its longevity. It is the only survey which has collated annual data drawn from a sample of state maintained and independent secondary schools over this critical period in the development of language policy. With the recent inclusion of primary schools, the survey is able to offer all stakeholders in languages education an invaluable insight into the impact of policy and identify positive as well as negative trends.
The interpretation of the data is key and is of equal significance to policy makers as well as those who implement policy reform in the classroom. Of course, the most important constituency of all is the learners. How many children have access to learning a language? Does it depend on where children live or if their families can afford to pay for them to attend a fee-paying school? Is language learning stratified by gender, ability or social class? Are some children’s life chances less rich due to inequalities in the system? And here is the crux, by knowing more about access to provision and potential problems, what can we collectively do to improve the situation and move further towards achieving our aspiration of languages for all?
This year’s survey brings some positive news. 95% of primary schools are already teaching a language and 42% feel that they are already meeting the requirements of the new National Curriculum. A resounding 85% of primary schools in the sample welcome the statutory status for primary languages. In secondary schools, the EBacc continues to exert an influence on take-up. The number of schools with more than 50% of pupils studying a language to GCSE continues to rise. National numbers are at the highest they have been for seven years with close to a half of 14 to 15-year olds continuing with language study post-14. There is still some way to travel and we cannot afford to be complacent, particularly in view of the changes to accountability measures in schools, which may affect the status of the EBacc. However, neither should we ignore the positive impact of policy change. We must reinforce the importance and value of the EBacc and ensure that message is heard by head teachers, school governors, parents and employers.
Now for the reality check and a hard look at the major fault lines highlighted by the latest survey. For primary schools there are three serious issues which could jeopardise success: lack of access to professional support and training; too little curriculum time dedicated to language learning; weaknesses in communication and continuity between primary, middle and secondary schools at points of transition.
For secondary schools, there appears to be growing evidence of disapplication for a significant proportion of children at Key Stage 3. Despite the statutory status of languages, schools are withdrawing lower-ability pupils from language classes. This is the slippery slope which led to the shift to optional status for languages at Key Stage 4 which took effect in 2004. We must stem this flow as a matter of urgency. Language capability should not be the preserve of the intellectual or affluent elite. All children should be given equal opportunity to experience life through a different language and culture.
And what of the future of languages in higher education and language skills for employment? Here is the most sobering news of all. Numbers of students continuing with languages at Advanced Level are dropping at an alarming rate. This is particularly marked in the Independent Sector which has traditionally provided a large percentage of students continuing with languages at undergraduate level. The reasons are three-fold: if too few students opt to continue, smaller groups are simply not viable; sixth formers perceive languages to be tough; Russell Group universities are calling for triple A grades for admission. If a student feels the subject is hard and they are likely to achieve an A* in another subject more easily, would they risk studying a language? Plainly, we cannot wait for the impact of the new policy in 2025 to resolve this issue. We need to attract and retain students of languages at Advanced Level now and encourage continued and ab initio language learning for specialists and non-specialists in further and higher education. This will not happen unless we campaign to change public attitudes towards the value of language skills.
The significance of Language Trends is in the clarity of statistics, which enable language professionals to interpret patterns of provision over time. Better information means the potential for better strategic planning. To a certain extent, the languages community is master of its own destiny. We can determine how we implement policy reform and the direction of travel which best suits our learners. Undoubtedly the outcome will be considerably improved through communication, collaboration and concerted effort across sectors. Opportunities for the languages community to build language capability for 2025 are there for the taking. We need a Strategic Implementation Plan and that will only happen through cooperation within professional networks.
Contrary to the negative reporting in the media, primary languages in England are not in crisis. We are not in uncharted waters. There is considerable good practice and expertise in primary languages in our schools which has stood the test of time and now needs to be disseminated more widely. News that the DfE is making £350,000 available to support primary languages is warmly welcomed.
For secondary schools, government policy alone may not be enough. In truth, it never has been and arguably never should be the sole determining factor of what and how we teach. Those decisions remain with school leaders, governors, teachers, parents and pupils. The future success of languages will rely on a shared vision about the value of multilingualism to individuals, to communities, to our society and to our economy. The sea change in policy must be accompanied by a sea change in public attitudes. As the authors of Language Trends conclude, ‘speaking only English in today’s world is as big a disadvantage as speaking no English.’
Bernardette Holmes, Campaign Director, Speak to the Future