Figures for GCSE entries published today show a 6% fall in the number of pupils taking languages GCSEs, providing further evidence that the positive effect of the EBacc performance measure is at risk. Numbers taking French, German and Spanish rose in 2013 in response to the EBacc measure announced in 2011, but have since started to fall. Numbers taking German have dropped by 10% this year and even Spanish, a language which has been performing relatively well, has seen a 2% decline in entries this year.
Mixed fortunes for the ‘big three’ at AS and A Levels
At AS and Advanced Levels, while Spanish shows a significant and welcome increase in entries, there is evidence of serious and chronic decline in the number of entries at in French and German. A level figures in these strategically important languages are now slightly over half what they were in 2000.
While it is encouraging to see an increase in students studying Spanish to a higher level, taken together with the lack of current and future capacity in French and German, the two European languages that consistently feature as the most requested languages by employers in the annual CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Surveys, the health of languages are once again a matter of concern.
We welcome the increases in entries for lesser-taught languages such as Greek, Arabic, Polish and Urdu, and reject recent suggestions that such increases reflect a cynical attempt on the part of schools to improve their standing in performance tables by entering pupils who have competence in languages not taught in school time. Pupils work hard to prepare for such exams, often in their own time and supported by volunteer teachers. We should celebrate their efforts and welcome their contribution to the pool of language and cultural skills available to UK employers, whether it be for export, diplomacy, defence or security purposes.
However, we should not see what is a positive and forward-thinking response to the growing number of pupils who have exposure to another language in our schools, as a substitute for improving language teaching.
The declines now seen in GCSE figures indicate a direct cause and effect following the perceived weakening of the EBacc due to the introduction of the new performance measure Progress 8. The intention of this performance measure to encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum at Key Stage 4 is welcome, in principle, but the new measure did not, until the recent Ministerial statement about the future of the EBacc, stipulate which subjects should constitute the three compulsory EBacc slots, leaving the choice of subjects open to pupils and their schools. Experience has shown that an open choice of subjects in the curriculum post-14 does not favour uptake in modern foreign languages. The figures released today indicate that had an open choice continued, it is highly likely that the positive impact of the EBacc in rebuilding capacity in language learning at Key Stage 4 would have been undone.
Strengthening of the EBacc
The announcement first by Nick Gibb, Minister for School Reform and then formally endorsed by Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State that the EBacc measure has been strengthened, and that it is the government’s intention to restore the study of a core of academic to the national curriculum for all pupils at Key Stage 4 from September 2015, including the study of a foreign language is the right decision at the right time. It should secure a stronger foundation for language learning up to sixteen which should, in turn, extend the number of students capable of continuing with language study up to AS/A Level and beyond.
The priority now is to ensure concerted action to implement policy and rebuild language capacity in England’s schools. There is an urgent need to quantify how many specialist teachers are required. Currently there is every likelihood that there will be too few specialist teachers available to reintroduce languages in all state maintained schools from September 2015. Successful implementation of policy will require a multilateral approach, which will involve an immediate boost in recruitment to modern languages teaching with national targets linked to PGCE allocations and to Teach First. Further possibilities to teacher supply could include setting up a task force of peripatetic teachers who can work locally to support language departments in reintroducing languages. The task force could include native speakers resident in the UK, recently retired specialist teachers and higher level teaching assistants. Urgent consideration should be given to increasing the number of Language Assistants made available through the long-established and greatly valued programme managed by the British Council. Traditionally, a significant percentage of these well qualified young people has fed into the talent pipeline of graduate teachers from Europe willing to qualify to teach in England either through PGCE or through school-based training, such as the Graduate Teacher Programme, which has recently closed.
There will need to be short-term and longer-term solutions to teacher supply and appropriate metrics set in place to ensure that nationally agreed targets can be met to improve specialist teacher capacity. The full support of head teachers will be crucial if the vision of an outward-facing Britain with an outward-facing curriculum is to be implemented. Languages are a vital part of a broad and balanced curriculum that equips young people for the challenges and opportunities of a globalised society. Young job seekers today and in the foreseeable future will be entering an internationally mobile labour market, characterised by high qualifications in a full range of academic subjects in addition to the ability to speak English and at least one and often several other languages. The successful implementation of the EBacc is one step towards a better future for all of our young people, a step that every school must take.
Bernardette Holmes MBE, Campaign Director
 The new measure will be based on students’ progress measured across eight subjects: English; mathematics; three other English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects (sciences, computer science, geography, history and languages); and three further subjects, which can be from the range of EBacc subjects, or can be any other approved, high-value arts, academic, or vocational qualification. From 2016, the floor standard will be based on schools’ results on the Progress 8 measure.